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The Singing Rocket

The young people of Palestine have found quite a number of ways to champion their struggle but as Lisanne Oldekamp investigates, none have been quite so effective as the peaceful story of one man and a talent contest.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, shortly after midday prayers. On the central square of Nabi Saleh, a group of people awaits the arrival of the villagers that attended the service in the village mosque. It’s a warm day in May, yet most wear scarves. As the inhabitants of the small, hillside village enter the square, journalists jump into action mode, foreigners look on with nervous faces and several men pick up their megaphones. After some loud speeches have warmed up the crowd, the people start walking. Most protesters wear proper footwear that allows for a quick escape. Passing posters of fellow villagers that have died in similar protests, it is the sturdy young children that lead the way. Down the road, around the corner at the gas station – where a sense of nervousness shivers through the less experienced part of the group as scarves are tightened across the face to protect the lungs. After a few hundred meters, the anticipated clash with the military takes place. Stones are thrown, tear gas grenades shot back. The young children that walked in front of the demonstration run back – but never far. The adrenaline makes them giggle as they appear to turn things into a game: who is the bravest, who stands their ground the longest, who throws the biggest stones?

The Palestinian population is young. In 2012, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), children aged 0 to 15 made up over 40% of the population. Despite the relatively stable status quo the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in since the Second Intifada (with exception of the frequent outbursts of violence in Gaza), these children continue to grow up surrounded by violence. The weekly demonstrations against the occupation in villages all across the West Bank have become an almost normal part of their life. Tear gas thickens not only the air of the fields surrounding the village, but of the streets and in the houses of the village as well. Often, the protesters are chased down the streets of their village and arrested in their own homes. Fathers, brothers, uncles, even mothers are being arrested in front of the children’s eyes and nightly house searches further diminish the children’s feeling of home as a safe haven. Between the posters of the martyrs, praised for their bravery and sacrifice, and the weekly demonstrations, attended by so many villagers and supported by international activists, it seems likely that Palestinian children create a disturbed perception of violence.

If this perception of cause-and-effect becomes the only discourse in the children’s mindset, they might become the generation to start the Third Intifada. But as the conflict continues to remain in a dead-lock, activists need to turn to more creative methods to reach the headlines. Palestinian children got the chance to see that demonstrating, hunger striking, and stone throwing are not the only ways to get their message across last year. Next to the many posters of martyrs in the village, the poster of a new hero, alive and kicking, has become a common feature in the streets of Palestine.

A story worth retelling
It was the American Dream times a thousand. It took an aspiring singer — the son of a refugee family — two days to join a singing competition and a lot of pleading with reluctant border patrol to allow him to enter Egypt, where auditions were held in a hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, he stumbled across a line of thousands of people with the same goal he had: to be part of this competition, and thus have a shot at becoming a professional singer. By jumping over a wall, he at least made it into the hotel – where he was told he was too late to enter the competition. Desperate not to go back after all his effort, he asked a friend what he should do. The friend kindly offered him his place in the auditions: “You came all the way from Palestine. Besides, I know I won’t reach the finals, but you will. Take my place.” A few months later, Mohammed Assaf from Gaza was the first Palestinian to win Arab Idol.

Mohamad Assaf (nicknamed ‘The Rocket’) is, without a doubt, Palestinian of the year 2013. His songs and shy, polite appearance stole the hearts of the Arab world and beyond. With Assaf, Gaza has its own Justin Bieber – without the bad behavior and sex/drugs/drinking scandals. His pretty brown eyes and friendly smile and of course his warm singing voice have accomplished what Palestinian politicians thus far could not manage: to unify the Palestinian people. Internationally, he managed to create a headline regarding Palestine that did not involve violence, rockets or the occupation. Although that’s not to say the headlines themselves didn’t still refer to a troubled past: ‘Finally, Palestinians  have reason to celebrate’ or ‘First good news for Palestinians in years’. Assaf quickly became a welcome advocate of the Palestinian people and their cause: a singer whose music touched many, a youngster with bright, thought-through quotes. Its hard not to feel glad that he was such a polite, civilized man: it would be hard to believe that this singer could be a terrorist. And perhaps that is what served the Palestinian people most: he became someone people could relate to, his appearance and actions did not match the common stereotypes of Palestinians.

As Mohammad Assaf would later say on a Dutch TV show: “The media always link Palestine with problems and violence. They forget those other, beautiful stories that can be told of us [Palestinians]. If only the media would make an effort, they would discover creative people that love life.”

A new role model

Through winning Arab Idol, Mohammad Assaf has done just that — he reached the international headlines because of his singing, a talent unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the ‘Nightingale of Palestine’ does have a clear message on the matter: Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank must overcome their differences and form a unified front against the occupation of their land. During the competition, he became much more than a singing refugee. He became the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism,  and used the stage to “represent Palestine in its beautiful image”. Not only has Assaf given the world a new, fresh image of Palestine – he has also shown the young people of Palestine that there are different, more creative ways of having the media pay attention to their problems. It does not take rockets, stones or even a Third Intifada to spread the message they want the world to know: they can use their personal talents to step into the spotlights, where they have a stage to inform the world and to reason with their opponents.

Mohammad Assaf has become the young people of Palestine’s new national symbol of hope. He has provided them a choice. They can continue throwing stones, at the risk of becoming one of the old-fashioned posters: a martyr, praised by family and friends, but with a message that fades over time. Or they can choose to represent the ‘Palestinian Cause’ in a different, more creative way: hoping to reach as many people as possible.

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