Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf: 'I simply can't rest on my laurels'

The young Palestinian, who's coming to Dubai for the Arab Idol concert tour, contemplates his success.

Mohammed Assaf performs in the West Bank city of Ramallah last month. Abbas Momani / AFP
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Mohammed Assaf’s achievement has finally sunk in.

Fresh from his emotional victory in the second season of Arab Idol back in June, the 23-year-old former wedding singer confronted the scale of his triumph upon returning to Palestinian soil.

“It was bedlam,” he recalls. “I don’t think I have seen that many people in my life. They were everywhere.”

Even on top of his car, apparently. Entering his home city of Gaza, Assaf’s vehicle was immediately surrounded by thousands of adoring fans – some of whom showed their affection by hoisting themselves up on the roof.

“I was very scared,” he says. “I thought they were going to break the window and drag me out. The love they had for me was overwhelming.”

Assaf’s triumph was the culmination of an amazing journey that began with an epic trip from Gaza to Lebanon to attend the programme’s audition in November 2012.

Border delays caused him to arrive late to the Beirut venue, with security denying him entry.

Undeterred, Assaf jumped over a wall. With all the audition spaces allocated, a fellow Palestinian surrendered his spot after judging Assaf to have a better chance of progressing in the competition.

Assaf credits those early struggles – and that act of unimaginable kindness – as a motivator for his new career as a bona fide pop-star.

Thursday will mark his first appearance on stage alongside his fellow Arab Idol finalists, the Syrian Farah Youssef and Egypt's Ahmad Jamal, in addition to a special appearance by the Moroccan contestant Salma Rashid and the Lebanese crooner and programme judge Ragheb Alama.

The Dubai World Trade Center performance may be the opening show of the two-date Arab Idol tour – the other stop is in Casablanca next Sunday – but Assaf is already a well-oiled machine; notching up nearly a dozen solo gigs in Palestine, Kuwait, Oman and a special Eid performance in Jordan.

“I simply can’t rest on my laurels. It is not an option,” he says.

“The people who know my story and what I went through to get to the show understand what I am talking about. It has taken a lot of effort and now it is all about maintaining and developing.”

As well as winning a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro, Assaf’s prize included a deal with the Dubai-based Platinum Records.

Not on the script was Assaf’s swift appointment as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador by the Palestinian government.

The position, complete with diplomatic passport, facilitated many trips abroad for shows for Assaf, in addition to his frequent Dubai visits to work on the album.

Assaf says his debut recording plays to his strengths and will showcase his silky voice across a broad range of genres including Gulf music and traditional Palestinian tunes.

He hopes the album, to be released later in the year, will echo his television success by crossing cultures and generations.

“I do want to sing different styles,” he says. “I just think that music is really a message that goes to people’s hearts, no matter where they are from. I love the art of songwriting and I want the album to showcase that. I don’t want to be a singer but an artist.”

Born in Libya, Assaf and his parents returned to their native Palestine to live in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza. Assaf describes his teenage years as full of simple pleasures; studying communications at the University of Palestine and hanging out with friends in the neighbouring city of Rafah.

Assaf’s venturing into music was a way to understand the plight of the Palestinian people.

Under the tutelage of local instructors, Assaf grew to become a sought-after performer at local weddings and patriotic events.

A fan of Gulf music and the classic Egyptian crooner Abdel Haleem Hafez, Assaf is most drawn to the traditional Palestinian music known as dabkas. He cites his memorable performance in the Arab Idol finale of the classic Palestinian dabke Ala Keffieh Ala (Raise Your Keffieh, Raise It) as an example of the stirring genre.

“Palestinian music has been neglected in the Arab world and I do want to contribute in restoring it back to its rightful place,” he says.

“It has such a rich tradition and this art is used to shed light and give justice to the Palestinian cause. It comes from a people who have been under occupation for decades so there is a lot of passion to it.”

While Assad is happy to revel in the moment and hit the road, he acknowledges there will come a time where he will have to fully come to terms with his new life.

“As you can see, it has been non-stop for me and there is a still a lot to look forward to in terms of shows and the new album,” he says.

“But I know there will be a time where I must sit down and really think about my future plans and what do I want to do with my life and career. I feel blessed to have great people around me to give me advice.”

On idolising his peers

Joining Assaf on Thursday night are his fellow finalists, Syria’s Farah Youssef and Egypt’s Ahmad Gamal. While acknowledging the fierce competitiveness throughout the final, Assaf says he has nothing but love for the pair.

“They are both stars in their own right as far as I am concerned,” he says. “Farah has such an amazing voice and I really feel that this is only the beginning of her journey. As for Ahmad, you can see that he is a brilliant performer and he has such an emotional and sensitive voice.”

Asked who he would vote for if he were a viewer, Assaf says it’s definitely Farah. “I just love her style,” he says. “When I first heard her voice I just fell in love with it.”

On representing his homeland

Assaf says success and fame has not obscured his goal of highlighting the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

“I will never forget the suffering of my people,” he says. “I live the Palestinian cause everyday. I lived in a refugee camp in Khan Younis, trust me, I know how that feels. I am determined to use my music and fame to give justice to the Palestinian cause.”

Meet and greet

Fans have a chance to take pre-show photos with Mohammed Assaf, Farah Youssef, Salma Rashid and Ragheb Alama (right) on Wednesday when the performers make a special appearance at Mercato Shopping Mall in Jumeirah. Only the first 50 fans will be able to meet the stars. The meet and greet is scheduled to run from 5pm to 8pm. For details, call Mercato Shopping Mall on 04 344 4161.

Arab Idol Tour tickets begin from Dh150 and are available from www.ticketingco.com and from Mercato Shopping Mall in Jumeirah 1, Dubai. For details, call 04 344 4161

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