TV singing contests around the world tend to serve up light, glitzy entertainment with a dash of emotional drama. But in the Middle East’s version of American Idol, it’s the region’s troubles that often take centre stage.
Two contestants are from civil war-ravaged Syria, including a singer-composer whose bus was ambushed by gunmen en route to her audition and a music student who brought judges to tears with a song lamenting the devastation of his hometown of Aleppo. A performer from the Gaza Strip has become an audience favorite for singing about the plights of Palestinians under Israeli rule.
“The show has become a platform for Arab Spring youth to express themselves artistically and show the region that there’s hope for the future,” said Mazen Hayek, the spokesman for the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned MBC Group that broadcasts Arab Idol from a studio in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The show’s producers say political expression is allowed. But in a region where tribal, religious and political affiliations often define identity, performers walk a fine line – especially in a contest where winning is based on popularity.
“It’s live and people around the region, and Arabs around the world, follow it in real time, posting praise or criticism on Twitter and Facebook, before they even vote for their favorites,” Hayek said.
Now in its second season, the show has jumped in the ratings in part because of an eclectic mix of contestants, including several from nations wracked by conflict, such as Syria, as well as those still reeling from the fallout of the Arab Spring.
The current season began in March with 27 contestants from across the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and the Palestinian territories. The group has been whittled down to 10, and two will compete in the June 21 final.
Several contestants bring political baggage to the Beirut stage from which young singers in evening gowns and smart suits dazzle a TV audience of millions with a repertoire running from Arab classics to modern pop songs.
But the Syria crisis, now in its third year, has loomed largest. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions displaced since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime erupted in March 2011. Now a civil war, the conflict has taken an enormous toll on the country.
Farrah Youssef, 23, a singer and composer from the Syrian port city of Tartous, was nearly killed on her way to Beirut in October. Syrian gunmen fired on the bus she was traveling in and robbed the passengers.
She said several of her friends have been killed in bombings in Damascus, the capital, where she’s been studying English. A younger brother was gravely wounded in a shooting attack and four of her girlfriends were kidnapped, raped and killed, their bodies dumped on the side of a deserted road outside the capital, she said.
“I’ve been so sad that I can’t grieve any longer,” Youssef said in a recent interview. “I ask myself all the time, ‘what on earth happened’ Everything was so calm and then suddenly my country was on fire.”
While Damascus has been largely spared the destruction that has hit other cities, Aleppo has not been so fortunate.
Ten months of street fighting have devastated Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban and commercial center, leveling entire neighbourhoods and leaving landmark mosques, the ancient souk and other historic treasures in ruins. Once one of Syria’s most beautiful cities, Aleppo is now scarred, carved up into rebel- and government-held areas.
Abdelkarim Hamdan, who grew up poor in a traditional Muslim family in Aleppo’s walled Old City before becoming a contestant on the show, refuses to choose sides in the conflict.
“I sing for Syrians regardless of their opinions and their political affiliations,” Hamdan said in an interview in Beirut.
The 25-year-old did not join anti-government protests when the uprising broke out. He has expressed his opposition to violence in his own lyrics about his hometown, set to a popular folk tune. His performance on a recent episode brought the four-judge panel to tears and prompted patriotic cheers in the audience.
“Aleppo, you are a spring of pain in my country,” he sang. “So much blood has been shed in my country. I cry and my heart is burning for my country and my sons who have become strangers in it.”
His ode to Aleppo instantly went viral on the Internet, but with praise came criticism from Muslim hardliners, who consider the talent show un-Islamic.
Some people urged Hamdan to go fight or not sing. Others posted comments online saying Hamdan and Youssef should not be engaging in frivolous entertainment when so many people back home are suffering.
The two contestants shrug off the criticism. They say they don’t regret being on the show and will stay unless voted off.
“I believe that if God gave you a nice voice that you should use it,” Hamdan said.
One of 14 children from his father’s two marriages, Hamdan put himself through school by working at gas stations and construction sites since he was 15. His goal is to win and use any earnings from the show to get his degree in music and help support his elderly parents.
Youssef, who spent most of her childhood in Europe, was already a known composer and singer in Syria before the conflict erupted. With a voice that one of the judges described as reminiscent of the Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum, Youssef has gained a huge following.
As a Muslim woman, she has been criticized for wearing revealing gowns and heavy makeup on the show. She takes such comments to heart, but refuses to indulge those who have labeled her an Assad supporter because she comes from Syria’s coastal region, the heartland of the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“People are very emotional because the situation in our country is just horrible,” Youssef said. “I don’t sing for myself, but for all people in Syria, to make them happy just a bit and to make people forget the reality for just one moment.”
The two Syrians are not the only contestants who bring regional politics to the show.
In an early episode, an Iraqi contestant from the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country stirred emotions after listing her country of origin as “Kurdistan.”
One of the judges admonished her, noting that the panel and the audience consider Kurdish provinces of Iraq as an integral part of the country. After that, Barwas Hussein listed her country as Kurdistan, Iraq, and performed in Arabic, instead of Kurdish, the language of her first song.
And a Palestinian singer from the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, was a favorite from the start because of the obstacles he had to overcome to reach Beirut.
Mohammed Assaf, 23, first had to plead with Hamas to let him leave. He then had to bribe Egyptian border guards to let him cross into Egypt, and from there applied for his Lebanon visa, he said. A fellow Palestinian eventually gave up his slot for Assaf during the audition phase because he believed Assaf – already a minor celebrity in Gaza as a wedding singer – had a better chance of winning.
Assaf often sings about the plight of Palestinian refugees and those imprisoned by Israel.
“I wanted so badly for the Arab world to hear my voice,” said Assaf.
In Gaza itself, Assaf’s image is posted on some seaside restaurants, where people gather on Friday nights to watch the show on big screens, and the Palestinian cell provide Jawal is allowing customers to send free text messages in order to vote for Assaf.
Not everyone has welcomed the excitement, though, including Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum noted on his Facebook page that the singer has experienced the hardship of life in Gaza and comes from a “decent and respected” family. But at the same time, he said, “we don’t share the same ideas.”
“My complaint is with the name of the show,” Barhoum wrote. “No one is an idol. God is the idol for us.”