For the longest time, Arab reality shows only materialized onscreen if you happened to live in a region where the show aired, or if you owned a massive chunk of metal planted in your backyard that could transmit 500 channels from all over the world. If your parents (like mine) couldn’t afford a satellite TV, you had to watch those shows at someone else’s place—maybe your khaalto who really wasn’t your khaalto but a friend close enough to your mother to insist you call her that.
Of course, YouTube changed all this. I couldn’t get the whole show, but I could get clips of live segments. More often than not, these were sent from family and friends on beloved cost-free, encrypted voice and messaging apps like WhatsApp. Used by countless families for cross-diaspora chatting, it’s installed on phones in 109 countries, making it the most popular app of its kind.
If it wasn’t for WhatsApp, I might never have become enthralled with Arab Idol’s first Palestinian winner, Mohammed Assaf. Along with daily updates and exchanges of prayers, my mother and I sent various links, clips, and pictures of everything Palestinian to one another. One of those links sent to me was a video posted on the Facebook page of a village in the Upper-Western Galilee where some of her cousins live. In it, one of her cousins joined a group dabke to this song while on a tea break from harvesting olives.
I liked the song. It was invigorating, cheerful, and the dabke added to that vibe as well. My online search for the tune led me to the most-watched clip of Assaf—his performance of “Ali el Kofia” on Arab Idol in 2013. Like most Arab songs, the introduction is long and drawn out, morose, and slightly elegiac. Then he gets to the part about raising the keffiyeh and the crowd erupts to wave their Palestinian flags while he does a one-man dabke on stage. Mega popstar of the Arab world and judge, Nancy Ajram, beams throughout.
I knew of Mohammed Assaf before listening to him—his feel-good underdog story has drawn many a tear from viewers’ eyes, and it’s archetypal in the way that lends itself to being known by heart. A young Palestinian man who finds his way out of the unforgiving borders of Gaza and into Egypt for the 2013 Arab Idol casting call, but is too late to get an audition ticket once he arrives. When a fellow Palestinian hears Assaf singing his sorrows in a bathroom stall, he decides to surrender his ticket because Assaf’s voice moves him. Assaf takes up the offer, blows away the judges, becomes a beloved contestant, and wins the season. It’s a plotline that has a cinematic ring to it, one that is so ingrained in the Palestinian pop culture resistance narrative that in 2015, filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (of Paradise Now fame) directed a biopic in honour of Assaf’s story, called The Idol.
It’s got all the signposts of epic narrative—the quest, the divine intervention, the prevailing message of hope.
Whenever my mother reminds me of his journey to Idol, it’s under the assumption that I’m dubious about the hope I have in myself and others—a very hallmark 2016, 2017, and possibly 2018 mood of mine. “This is the goodwill of strangers,” my mother says of the Good Samaritan who catalyzed Assaf’s journey. On the occasion of any given panic attack about something insignificant, she tells me, “It’s God’s intervention. What’s meant to happen, happens.”
If one of the motivators of watching any reality TV show is so that we can find ways to communicate to each other through narrative—the GIFs, clips, and images we use are, after all, stories in miniature—then the way Arabs mythologize Assaf’s Idol journey is about the epic. It’s got all the signposts of epic narrative—the quest, the divine intervention, the prevailing message of hope. Since so much of Palestinian history has been either dissolved, buried, or scattered into collective memory—a choice that was never ours—a lot of our cultural attributes disappeared with them, too. WhatsApp has been a way for me to rebuild the narrative (or at least construct its frameworks), connect with my Palestinian identity, and remember the land and sea of its legacies. The shareability of Assaf’s origin story may indicate that reality TV shows lend themselves to clipped fragments and nuance-dissolving summary, but it also functions the way myths and legends that survive the passing of centuries do: as an unforgettable narrative.
The relationship between Palestinian and Arab identity is deeply complicated because Arab identity itself is complicated. There’s no cutting around this: Arab reality television is a proxy for Arab politics. Arab Idol buys into the idea of Pan-Arabism, the problematic ideology that groups multiple populations from Orientalized countries into one monolithic identity. Various histories of colonial strife are subsumed here, giving several regional, cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious groups no choice but to be associated with this ambiguous moniker that stands to corrode their individual struggles. Despite the overwhelming appearance of unity on the show, no one Arab can represent all others. It’s why Arab Idol, marked though it might be by political resistance, is embroiled in escapism. Here, one good story stands in for countless devastating ones.
We could have easily mistaken the end of 2017 for the end of the world, with too many heartbreaks and disasters and attacks to name, a rapid news cycle that wasn’t easy on our heart rates or sleep schedules or overall mental health.
Mohammed Assaf isn’t the only Palestinian winner of Arab Idol anymore. Most recently, Palestinian-Christian Yacoub Shaheen won the 2017 competition. But when Assaf was the only one, he did voice reservations about the mounting pressure to be the face of a nation under occupation. In an interview conducted with Al Jazeera, he says, “No one will ever politicize me, and no party will ever take me to its side … But for me, and with the title and position that I have, I will try to serve the Palestinian cause. I came from this suffering.”
Assaf’s music has been serving the Palestinian cause as a reprieve, a tangible thing to cling onto in the midst of utter erasure. We could have easily mistaken the end of 2017 for the end of the world, with too many heartbreaks and disasters and attacks to name, a rapid news cycle that wasn’t easy on our heart rates or sleep schedules or overall mental health. It shows no sign of abating: as we head into 2018, Palestinian children like Ahed Tamimi are being arrested and charged by Israeli authorities. My WhatsApp activity through this has consisted of phone-camera clips of Palestinians singing their praises to their ancestors while harvesting olives, or staging guerilla dabke performances during demonstrations. It’s the kind of stuff that’s more vulnerable and intimate than an episode of anything. But even here, Mohammed Assaf’s music has found its way into the background of these protests in many clips. (All Palestinian art eventually finds its way to the protest.)
I’ll leave you with one of my favourites: this clip of a group of Palestinians doing a flash crowd dabke in Beit Jalah, a town near Bethlehem in the West Bank. It was filmed last year, but has been making the rounds recently. If you listen to the music in the background, you can recognize Mohammed Assaf’s voice singing “Dammi Falastini” (My Blood is Palestinian). The timing’s off, but I still dance to it. Wallah, ana dammi Falastini, Falastini, Falastini.
Amanda Ghazale Aziz is a Palestinian and Iraqi writer based in Toronto. Her work has been published at Maclean’s, FLARE, Chatelaine, and elsewhere. Say hi to her on Twitter at @a_ghazale.