“On this earth what deserves living for,” Mahmoud Darwish wrote. I just watched a video on You-tube of the Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf, nicknamed by the judges of the pan-Arab competition, Arab Idol 2013, ‘the Rocket’ – a rocket of peace, they were careful to stress-- performing his signal song “Alli el-kuffyeh” from the night before he won the title. I cried all through it. Here is the link
But you have to speak the Palestinian dialect of Arabic to really appreciate the full impact of what this Palestinian refugee sings. An audience of some 150 million watched of whom 65 million voted for the 23 year old idol. Here is my translation of the opening stanza:
By God, the letters of the homeland are like a necklace over a beautiful chest:
The F (fa’a) is for beloved Palestine. Oh how dear is the homeland; how dear it is!
The L (lam) is for the time when they united and how powerful was the stone.
The S (seen) is the question of the prisoner: when will I gain liberty?
The T (Ta) is the rise of the full moon over the martyr in his grave.
The I (ya’a) is how sweet is the ingathering of the diaspora.
The N (noon) is the light of the prophet as he treads in Jerusalem.
And that is only the opening! He follows that with the refrain, a joyous call to twirl the kuffyeh high in dance and jubilation. Two birds with one stone: the kuffyeh is the emblem of Palestinian pride and, especially since the first Intifada, it has come to signify resistance and revolution to youth the world over. In Assaf’s voice and with his charisma, the mix of nationalist sentiment and invitation to dance is pure magic. It is surely what Mahmoud Darwish spoke of. The most appropriate scream that struggled to escape my throat on hearing it was a loud “Allahu Akbar!” in praise of Assaf’s creator. But one has to be careful. Just the day before, a poor Sephardic man was riddled with bullets by a guard at the Western Wall for shouting that.
“I waited 30 years to see the Palestinian flag waved in Nazareth in something that is not a demonstration,” Sally Azzam, our Nazarene friend, noted on Facebook. She wished her baby had seen it. The split TV screen showed the celebrating Palestinian crowds in three different cities: Ramallah, Gaza and Nazareth in addition to the pan-Arab crowd on location in Beirut for the announcement of the winner of the Arab Idol competition. Another friend noted that one almost forgets that they could not exchange visits; the occupation keeps them apart. A fourth Palestinian locale, Jerusalem, was not even present on screen. The police there threatened violence early in the evening and carried out the threat to quell the enthusiasm of the celebrating crowd as the announcement of Mohammad Assaf as the winner was broadcast. In fact Fox News eliminated both Jerusalem and Nazareth from its report of the event altogether. What do Israeli citizens have to do with a Palestinian celebration anyway?
I had spent the evening with the family of a nephew. Their satellite dish catches MBC-1, the Saudi-owned station in Beirut that doesn’t seem to mind Western-style exposure of shoulders and other bodily attractions short of “that which God has forbidden.” Going by the stations standards, He apparently forbids little in the way of body parts. At any rate, I had spent most of the day tending my garden. I am spoiled, I know. My wife and I enjoy a plot of land that had come down to me through a long string of ancestors. It would have accommodated thirty people had it been located in Gaza. My back ached and I claimed the choice seat in the crowded living room of my nephew, stretched out in it and proceeded to perform relaxing exercises for my back muscles. Soon, I found myself dozing off between the ruckus highlights of the evening. The two pre-teen boys of the hosting family jumped and screamed their excited approval and encouragement every time Assaf came on screen or his name was mentioned. I am no music critic. My vote went to the Syrian woman competitor, Farah: for one thing, I am partial to young women and the charm of their lilting voices. For another, Syria needs a pleasant surprise no less than Palestine. The third finalist was Ahmad Jamal, an Egyptian with talent. But he risks being outlawed if he wins. At least Mohammad Assaf, when he was warned against continuing his sacrilegious practice of singing at penalty of loosing his prison ID in Gaza, was offered alternative accommodations in the wider facility in the West Bank contracted out by Israel to the PLO and its president Abbas. The long and short of his crime is that his singing preoccupies good Moslems from the worship of God. Now that he had become the Arab “idol,” he is in direct and open competition. Apropos the strict rules of the religion, a nephew whispered to me the essence of a new fatwa he heard: observant women should sit cross-legged on the floor and not on chairs. Sitting on a chair or a couch is conducive to relaxing and letting ones legs split apart, which is an open invitation to the devil. Could they have read my secret thoughts, I wondered?
Muhammad Assaf is already a legend. To hear young Palestinians speak of him you would think he were the young JFK winning the USA presidency. A mature nephew of mine quoted a distant relative of his who had taken part together with Assaf two years ago in a national level singing competition:
“He was the best, absolutely the best. But they had to disqualify him early because it was too much trouble to provide him with all the needed documents every time he came to Bethlehem to compete.”
A second young man related the via dolorosa of Assaf in the current competition. The Israeli authorities had held him back so long that it was already too late. When he arrived in Cairo the gate to the enclosure housing the studio was already closed. He begged the guard and explained his plight to no avail. So he climbed over the wall, a usual feat for Gazan refugees. And Beirut is calm enough these days: guards don’t shoot Palestinian ‘infiltrators’ at will there. But the studio had run out of numbers for additional contestants. A fellow Palestinian who knew how good Assaf was, gave him his number. And that is how he entered the competition.
A cynical colleague expressed the fear that Israel may choose to assassinate a few Palestinian leaders while no one is looking. Now that Assaf has won I worry more about him. For one thing, JFK was assassinated. For another, Palestinian history is rich with rubbed-off prominent artists. Ghassan Kanafani and Naji Elali come to mind. And like in their cases, a Palestinian hand will be implicated in the murder regardless how obvious the Mossad’s behind the scenes role is. Mind you, I am careful: I am not making any claim, direct, implied or allegorical, about the case of JFK. Never mind Robert’s case.
Muhammad Assaf is truly a phenomenon. Except that he is your usual Palestinian phenomenon: a refugee born to refugee parents temporarily exiled to Misrata, Libya, from their camp in Gaza, where they had successfully competed for enough air to breath in the most densely populated spot on earth. He attained normal physical growth, albeit of the thin build type, on the typical daily ration of 2279 calories of the Israeli enforced Gazan style diet and learned to turn his life’s challenges to opportunities.
As best as I can figure it out the boy sang from as early as any one in his family can remember. It apparently started with his childhood cries of pain and hunger to which few paid attention, and those who did had no recourse to corrective steps to alleviate the distress. So the kid turned his cries to songs of longing, perhaps at first for food and later for romance and company. As his Adam’s apple burst to full bloom, he flavored his longstanding yearning and dreams of return to his family’s much glorified paradise in pre-Nakba rural Palestine with a touch of testosterone. With that he converted his trans-generationally transmitted memories of Palestine absent Zionism and Wahhabi religiosity into a more suitable teenage dream of frolicking with age mates of both sexes in the lap of spring season in Palestinian. And, lo and behold, it worked! ‘Alli el-kuffyeh’ was born and there was hardly an Arab teenage girl, let alone Palestinian ones, who had a bed of her own to sleep on who didn’t dream of Assaf in it. Nancy Ajram is a superstar and one of the four judges of the competition. But she is the kind of judge I wouldn’t mind condemning me to the gallows just so I could claim a relationship with her. I swear I caught Nancy on screen offering Assaf a free swim in the emerald green sea of her eyes and beyond.
I dozed off doing laps in the shallows. I woke up to my two young grand nephews dancing wildly with their chairs raised over their heads for lack of dance partners. Chairs! What perverts!