‘Arab Idol’ winner hailed at his debut in Europe


Mohammed Assaf, the winner of the “Arab Idol” talent competition held in Beirut in June, brought his thumping Palestinian beats out of the Middle East for the first time Sunday in his electrifying European debut.

Assaf, 24, from the Gaza Strip, became a national hero and a rare symbol of Palestinian unity when he won the pan-Arab contest in June after transfixing millions of television viewers with his soaring renditions of Arab love ballads and patriotic Palestinian songs.

The packed audience at The Hague town hall rose as one as Assaf took to the stage, with refugees and diplomats alike dancing in the aisles and waving the flag of Palestine and many other Arab nations.

“He is an example for Arab youth. He managed to make his dream a reality despite the difficulties,” said Ahmed, a 17-year-old Palestinian living in the Netherlands. “What’s amazing is that a Palestinian can be talked about in a positive way. That doesn’t happen often,” he said.

Palestinians from the Netherlands, and also Germany and Belgium, traveled to the concert, which was also attended by most Arab ambassadors posted to The Hague.

“I’m really happy for him. It’s true that people are sometimes afraid to talk about Palestine in a positive way,” said Nour, 20, a Dutch-Moroccan who came to the concert with his sister.

“Thank you, the Netherlands, for welcoming the Arab idol,” said Palestinian Ambassador Nabil Abuznaid as he introduced Assaf, hailing his “message of peace.”

Israel in August took the exceptional step of allowing Assaf to move from the Gaza Strip to the Israeli-occupied West Bank as a “humanitarian gesture.”

Israel has maintained a land, sea and air blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2006. It was tightened further when the Islamist movement Hamas seized control there the following year.

“I am happy. This is an opportunity to be in front of a non-Arab audience, and that’s a good thing,” Assaf said in an interview before the concert. “I’d like to reach out to the world.”

“Maybe there are different audiences, or the techniques are different in the Middle East and in Europe and America, but what I know is music is something that when people first hear, they love, he added.

Assaf arrived in the Netherlands from his new home in Dubai and had dinner with Arab ambassadors on Saturday evening, Roel Raterink, a spokesman for the Palestinian delegation in the Netherlands, said.

Assaf said he is now living in Dubai “because of the conditions in my country.”

“Because of the siege, it is easier for me to go to Dubai. It makes travel easier.”

No Israeli diplomats attended, though Israeli President Shimon Peres was on a visit to Amsterdam.

“Well, whether they come or not, that’s their problem,” said a smiling Ahmed.

One-time wedding crooner Assaf was also to meet members of the Netherlands’ Palestinian community before heading to Italy for another concert.

Born to Palestinian parents in Misrata, Libya, Assaf grew up in the teeming Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.

On his return to the Gaza Strip in June, Assaf called for an end to the “division” with the West Bank, and urged unity between Palestinians.