Exclusive: getting to know the inner Mohammed Assaf

In the second of a two-part, exclusive interview with The National, the star tells Saeed Saeed about the highs and lows of showbiz and what he is looking for in a wife.

Mohammed Assaf performing on the Arab Idol show. Courtesy of MBC
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Beyond the easy-going charm and evergreen persona lies a different Mohammed Assaf. It is someone, the singer says, who is weary of the responsibilities heaped on on his shoulders as a role model for Arab youth and a representative of the Palestinian struggle.

“You are asking me questions, that we Palestinians call ‘fil sameem’”, he says as I ask about the 25-year-old star’s life in the limelight and the pitfalls of fame. “You want me to address issues that are at the core of who I am.”

A lot of successful artists say the biggest drawback to their success is the loneliness that comes from constantly being on the road. How do you deal with it?

I feel it and I think artists are not totally honest if they don’t admit to feeling that loneliness. Ironically, this is why the shows are important because when I step on stage and see all the fans, their smiling faces and feel the love, it dulls the ache a bit. But not totally, because I do miss my family and friends. I came from a Palestinian society where these interactions are a vital part of our daily life and I think that applies to most Arab countries. There are times where I really long for these hangouts.

Is that why you return to Palestine regularly for a break?

Exactly. I always return to Palestine – the last time was in April and next time will probably be in the middle of August. Basically, whenever I have some free time, I go back.

But surely things have changed now when you return. You are a national hero and a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Can you still have a normal existence when you go back?

You do have a point. Whenever I am back I do feel there is a new sense of pressure and I think that comes from the new responsibilities I have. It is lovely to walk the streets and see people happy and proud to see you and to be associated with you, but at the same time there are people who look to me for support in helping make their lives – which is mostly a struggle – that little bit better. I do feel that responsibility and that’s why I work very hard and travel everywhere to perform, because I know that when I am on that stage I am representing not only me but the Palestinian struggle. That always keeps me focused, not only when I am performing, but in the way I deal with people generally, and my charity work with the United Nations.

Because of your inspiring story, you have managed to reach an international audience that many of your peers could not. How do you feel about your non-Arab fans?

Do you believe me when I tell you I have a lot of fans in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and even Belgium? You know, I truly get surprised when people write to me on Facebook from these countries and tell me how much the songs mean to them and how they are following my journey. It just makes me grateful and proud.

You must have felt the same way when you won the award for the Best Middle East Act at the 2014 MTV Europe Music Awards.

That is one of the proudest moments of my career. To win the award representing not only the Arab world, but also representing North Africa as well due to fan voting, is simply amazing.

Let’s go back to where you started – Arab Idol. What do you think about the plethora of talent shows today? Do you see yourself appearing as a judge or mentor in any of them?

You know, I get asked by [broadcaster] MBC a lot to appear in these programmes in the future, and that is a huge compliment. Now, in terms of these shows, I think they are important in giving a platform to young and talented people. It is always good to see what the next generation of stars has to offer. At the same time, though, what these programmes need to do is produce singers that are not only talented but diverse as well – that’s equally important. We are living in an era where there are plenty of artists out there, so the challenge is in standing out. So if record labels and production companies spot someone who has their own style, they should support them in developing that further.

With all your mounting commitments, do you see yourself one day walking away from your career when things get too much?

A day will come when that will happen. I am not talking about retirement but a big break where I can take a step back. To be honest with you, the music world at its core is oppressive to the artist. There is no artist that is always happy. That’s because you are not living a normal life. There are no set work hours, after which you can go home to your family. The artist is always on the move and if you want to build your career it is very hard to turn down opportunities, which often happen quickly. The need to be active all the time affects the artist, particularly if he is married or has a family.

Do you think that when you have your own family, it will be a challenge to keep your professional and private lives separate?

That’s something I will have to enforce. Once I am, Inshallah, married and have children, I don’t want them to be in the media or anything like that. My home is mine and it’s not for the fans or the media – there will definitely be boundaries. I want to live a normal life. I want to be like you, where I can go home and just relax after work with my loved ones. There is no way they will be paraded in front of the cameras.

You are single. What are the qualities you are looking for in a future Mrs Assaf?

I would prefer her not to be from the entertainment industry, I can honestly tell you that. Not that there is anything wrong with people from there, but it’s just my preference. I want my home life to be totally separated from my career. I want to be relaxed and secure in my home.