Skip to main content

Contestants in harmony on the unifying power of 'Arab Idol'

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Middle Eastern version of "American Idol" is the feel-good story of the year
  • Performers say they're lucky to be part of show, talk about its power to bring people together
  • "I'm trying to make people love one another again," Syrian singer says
  • Executive producer's proud to be part of "something that all of the Arab world" can unite on

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- The opening theme's the same and the concept's no different, but "Arab Idol" is much more than just a popular singing competition.

Now in its second season, the Middle Eastern version of "American Idol" is the feel-good story of the year. At a time when the Arab world is so concerned about conflicts growing and sectarianism increasing, the show has done the near impossible: It's given the troubled region something to smile about.

"You should vote for, only for music," a grinning and relaxed Ahmad Jamal says during rehearsal.

"Not for nationality, not for religion, not for political issues," adds the 25-year-old Egyptian contestant. "You just vote for music and the one you love, the one you want to be a star."

Palestinian 'Arab Idol' finalist sings

It's a sentiment echoed by other contestants when explaining the popularity of the show and how lucky they feel to be a part of it.

Take Farah Youssef, for example. The 25-year-old almost didn't make it out of Syria. Her car was caught in the middle of a shootout as she left Damascus to audition in Beirut.

Watching her practice before the show, you'd never guess the amount of stress she's under. Frankly, she seems quite happy while hitting the high notes.

As it turns out, the pressure of performing is nothing compared with how overcome she becomes when she thinks and talks about the civil war back home.

"I see all that stuff happening in my country," she says. "It's kind of devastating."

Her words trail off as she is overcome with emotion.

"I'm sorry," she says as she starts to cry. "The people, they have no future. I thank my God that I'm here, I'm building myself up, I'm trying to be good. I'm trying to make people love one another again."

Suddenly, as if remembering the healing power of music, she declares, "And actually I feel like I'm doing a good job."

Clearly the show's millions of loyal viewers believe so too, as Youssef has advanced to "Arab Idol's" finale, which airs this weekend.

But she has stiff competition from fan favorite Mohamad Assaf, also a finalist -- one who's become a heartthrob and a hero. Making the difficult journey out of Gaza, the 23-year-old Palestinian barely made it to the tryouts in Cairo.

READ: 'Arab Idol's' first contestant from Gaza grabs spotlight

When he arrived at a hotel for the tryouts, he was late and had to jump over a wall and evade security to enter the venue.

"There was a man who gave me his number -- who sacrificed his place for my sake when he heard my voice," Assaf recalls.

"I still ask myself how all this happened."

Nicknamed "The Rocket," Assaf's on a fast track to stardom, but the patriotic Palestinian also wants to inspire his people.

"Anybody who has hope for a better future, and who has dreams and ambitions to make his dreams a reality, will make it," he says confidently.

"Arab Idol" Executive Producer Alex Meouchy couldn't be happier about the effect the show's having.

"I'm very proud of the success of the show," he says. "I'm very proud that we were able to achieve something that all of the Arab world was able to unite around."

Broadcast on the MBC1 network, the show's stellar ratings have increased all season long. "Arab Idol" is now considered a sensation.

On the show, contestants, regardless of their religious or cultural background, sing songs from all over the region. Meouchy explains how the diversity on display has made the show even more popular:

"An Egyptian (contestant) would come and say I want to sing in Lebanese (dialect)," he says, "and I want to sing in Gulf dialect and it's really quite beautiful how ... the unity of the Arab world was shown in the show through the power of songs and entertainment."

This season even featured the show's first Kurdish contestant, Parwas Hussein.

Even the show's panel of judges, made up of music superstars of the Arab world, prefers to be positive.

"We are the real leader now," explains head judge Ragheb Alama, known as the "Elvis of Lebanon." "People are talking to us and watching us. You know, today, two (regional) presidents called me and talked to me about this program, about the contestants."

"You cannot imagine how this makes me feel that we are the real medicine," says Alama, "the real smile between the sad environments."

Perhaps it's all summed up best by former Lebanese contestant Ziad Khoury.

"We're sending a message and unifying the Arab people," the beaming 25-year-old says. "A message of happiness and peace."

Here, they've decided to focus on excellence rather than extremism, to highlight music instead of misery.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:13 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot while standing guard at Ottawa's National War Memorial, was known for his easygoing manner and smile.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Non-stop chatter about actress' appearance is nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
updated 4:58 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Air New Zealand's new 'Hobbit' safety video stars Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, elves and orcs.
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
updated 11:33 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
After sushi and ramen, beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
updated 1:48 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Scientists use CT scans to recreate a life-size image of the ancient king.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Despite billions spent on eradicating poppy production, Afghan farmers are growing bumper crops, a U.S. government report says.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
updated 5:15 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT