This summer 23 year-old Mohammed Assaf won the “Arab Idol” singing competition and with his silky smooth vocals has united Arabs across the world.
Now he’s on a nationwide tour in the U.S. and is set to pack theaters across the country. Before his Chicago concert last week he reflected on his incredible journey from Gaza to America.
“My story is about a person who came from a very humble place — a place referred to as ‘the camp’ in Gaza,” said Assaf.
Assaf is a Palestinian, born in Libya. When he was five years old his family returned to Gaza to live in the Khan Younis refugee camp, where he and his six brothers and sisters call home.
“The camp is like a densely populated residential area. There’s only a meter or two between each house. With people this close together, conditions are difficult,” he said. “Whether politically, because of the occupation, or economically, conditions are difficult. I can’t even describe how difficult the conditions are — and the poverty and unemployment of my society,” he said.
Israel’s blockade on Gaza since 2007 has eased in recent years, but the border with Egypt remains the main route for Palestinians to travel in and out of the territory.
“Getting out of Gaza was difficult in terms of the border crossings, mainly because of the occupation,” he said. “It took nearly a month to get to travel, I tried every method.”
After finally making it across the border and the 250 miles to the Cairo hotel where the “Arab Idol” auditions were taking place, Mohammed arrived to find the hotel doors had already been closed, and all contestants had been assigned numbers.
He jumped a gate at the hotel, snuck in, and was given a number by fellow Palestinian contestant Ramadan Abu Nahli.
“I didn’t have a choice. I said I will do anything to make sure I get to compete,” he said.
He made it through the auditions and all the way to the finals.
“Until I got to the final ten, I really didn’t think I would make it,” he said.
In May, when he made it to the finals, his parents spoke to CNN by phone from Gaza.
“We are only refugees,” his father, Jabar Assaf, said. “We only dreamed he would get to this point and show the world his beautiful voice. Now we want him to win.”
“I am very proud of him — the fact that he’s Palestinian, he is popular, and he makes people happy,” his mother, UmShadi said.
Backstage in Chicago
At the Chicago performance, Assaf was the main and final act, following performances by fellow “Arab Idol” finalists Ziad Khoury from Lebanon, and Farah Youssef from Syria.
Before the show, fans flocked to have their photograph taken Assaf. While clearly the center of attention he remained soft-spoken and gracious with them all, whether they simply wanted to congratulate him or tell him how wonderful his smile is.
“The most beautiful thing is the love of the people. When you see that a lot of people see you as something, and encourage you, and they love you, you feel that they want to finish this journey with you that you’ve been dreaming of,” Mohammed said.
Assaf was aware that he would be one of the few Gazans the world would see who was not involved in politics, and not interested in taking sides.
“My life now is wonderful,” he said, “but what I miss most is my family and friends. Where I am from people love each other, we are very close… fame is nice, but when they get to be with me, it will be even more wonderful,” he said.
Before it was time to go on stage he stood quietly out of the view of the crowd, smiling and looking at the floor as he waited for his introduction. When he heard his name, his eyes lit up, a megawatt smile spread across his face, and he took over the stage.
An elderly woman in traditional Palestinian clothes was at the very front of the crowd, pressed up against the stage. She waved her arms feebly as he sang. “Do you see this woman?” one of the organizers of the event asked, pointing at her. “She has never been to a concert in her life until now.”