RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hundreds of Palestinian youths lined up outside a luxury hotel at the crack of dawn on Monday for a chance to compete in the Arab world’s premier talent show, hoping to follow the unlikely example of last year’s winner and sing their way out of a life of conflict and poverty.
It was the first time that the top-rated “Arab Idol” show has come to the Palestinian territories, marking an important milestone for an area that is not accustomed to celebrating.
“We have to put Palestine on the map. This is the first Arab contest to come here and recruit people, and the other programs will follow,” Mohammed Assaf, the feel-good winner of last year’s competition, told the Associated Press.
Assaf, a young wedding singer for a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, became an overnight sensation across the Arab world thanks to his bright smile, warm tenor and personal story of overcoming adversity.
Assaf said he had to plead with Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers to let him leave the territory, then bribe Egyptian border guards to enter the country en route to Lebanon to compete. Many of Assaf’s songs touched upon the Palestinian struggle for independence.
Assaf said his success helped persuade the producers of “Arab Idol” to hold Monday’s tryout.
“I told them, ‘Look at me. I won, and there are hundreds of other gifted singers in Palestine and they need to get the chance like their other Arab fellows,’ ” he said.
Some 500 hopefuls showed up for Monday’s tryout, huddling in a large tent outside the Grand Park Hotel waiting for their turn to perform. Each contestant was given one minute to sing in front of the cameras.
Most of the singers, ages 15-30, said they were inspired by Assaf. All expressed the hope of leaving behind their lives of dead-end jobs and conflict with Israel. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for an independent state.
Musafa Ayyash, 22, who makes his living as a construction worker in a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem, said he left his house at 4 a.m. to make sure he would get a chance to compete.
“I have a good voice, I sing in the house, I sing for my friends, and they all told me I should come, and I will try my luck,” he said. “This could change my whole life. I do a very difficult job. I work in construction to earn $600 a month. If I get a chance and win, then my whole life will change.”