Arab Idol: Hamas silent as Gaza cheers Mohammed Assaf's victory

When Mohammed Assaf was named the victor of Arab Idol, Gaza erupted into celebrations. Except for Hamas, which has previously banned him from singing Fatah songs. Hugh Naylor reports from Khan Younis

Shadi Assaf (centre), the brother of Mohammed Assaf, celebrates with family and friends at the Assaf home in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza.  Heidi Levine / Sipa Press
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KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA // Dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit, Shadi Assaf sat with his face fixed on the television, occasionally running a nervous hand through his hair.
Friends and family crowded around the screen that flickered on and off with the rolling black outs.
They all wanted to know whether his younger brother, a 22-year-old singer from Khan Younis, a town in southern Gaza, would be crowned the winner of a singing completion that has gripped audiences across the region.
And then the moment came when Mohammed Assaf was declared the winner of Arab Idol. Shadi shot out of his chair and pumped his fists in the air.
Within seconds, hundreds of well wishers streamed into his modest, cinderblock home to express their congratulations. Surrounded by dozens of people kissing his cheeks and dancing, the 28-year-old's eyes began to well up.
"I'm so proud of my brother and what he was able to accomplish," Shadi said about the man who had just brought so much joy to Palestinians. After his win in the early hours yesterday, Gaza forgot about the daily hardships of living under an Israeli siege to celebrate. They were too busy singing and dancing to worry about electricity and fuel shortages or a divided and directionless leadership.
In Mohammed's home town of Khan Younis, tens of thousands burst into frenzied celebration just before midnight. Youths danced in the streets. Mothers and children hoisted placards bearing his face. Grown men wept.
Many in Gaza have found inspiration in Mohammed's improbable success amid Gaza's wars, political upheaval and interminable tragedies.
"He is the only one who has been able to make us smile despite the siege we live under," said Laila Abu Namous, 48, who watched every one of Mohammed's Arab Idol performances.
"He showed us that anything is possible!"
Mohammed has become a national celebrity, and his lyrical tributes to love, freedom and patriotism have earned him accolades not only from Arab Idol's celebrity judges but also from scores of Palestinian officials and notables.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the West Bank's Palestinian Authority, made him an honourary ambassador.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which has an extensive presence in Gaza, named him a goodwill ambassador.
To many, the range of Mohammed's voice - the ability to shift from low to impossibly high notes - made him stand out above his competitors. Those skills helped him beat the other finalists from Syria and Egypt, winning him a recording contract and a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro.
Not everyone in Gaza was impressed. Conservative Palestinians have criticised his participation in Arab Idol, which showcased, among other things, liberally dressed women.
The Islamists of Hamas, who rule Gaza, have distanced themselves from Mohammed. The group never officially endorsed him, although individual members posted their opinions online.
Yahya Mousa, a Hamas member, praised Mohammed in a Facebook post on Friday as an "ambassador" and a defender "of the [Palestinian] cause who is furthering Palestinian culture and the steadfastness of its people".
But he also criticised Arab Idol for hosting "nude women" and damaging "Islamic character".
"Hamas has no official position on this competition," Mr Mousa said, adding that "Assaf is not a central issue for Hamas, so he does not require a statement or official position from Hamas."
Political observers say Mohammed put Hamas in an awkward position by becoming wildly popular with the public despite the group's reservations with his singing, which a number of the group's members consider indecent.
"They faced a situation where if they publicly opposed him, they would have looked very bad in the public eye and they would have suffered in terms of credibility as a result," said Ali Abu Yassine, a theatre director and actor who lives in Gaza.
"This has exposed an internal conflict within Hamas over what constitutes the boundary between politics and religion. The group is divided over Mohammed because religion does not have clear-cut positions when it comes to singing and whether it is permitted."
On another level, Mohammed has touched on the rift between Hamas and its Fatah rival, which controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and which the Islamist group routed from Gaza in 2007.
Mohammed's family is close to the secular-leaning Fatah organisation. Several of them confirmed that Hamas had arrested Mohammed on at least three occasions in 2008 for publicly singing songs sympathetic to Fatah.
"They made him sign a statement agreeing never to sing these songs in public," said a relative who watched Mohammed perform from the family home in Khan Younis.
Mohammed defied that order during his performance on Friday, in which he sang a song popular among Fatah - Raise The Kaffiyeh, or headscarf, which is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. That performance electrified the crowd.
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