- 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
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."
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.
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.