The Arab world has crowned a winner.
Yacoub Shaheen, a 22-year-old Palestinian heartthrob from Bethlehem, has been named the champion of this year’s Arab Idol singing competition. He beat out two other dashing crooners: Ammar Mohammad Alazaki from Yemen, and Ameer Dandan from an Arab town in Israel.
American Idol’s ratings have fallen in recent years, but its Arabic-language spinoff is one of the Middle East’s most popular television events.
The glamorous reality TV show offers a window onto the reality of the region – and an escape from that reality, too.
NPR correspondents in the Middle East break it down.
1. The winner is Assyrian.
Yacoub (Jacob) Shaheen belongs to the Assyrian Christian community. Depending on who you ask, they go by many names: Assyrians, Arameans, and Syriacs.
They are said to descend from one of the earliest Christian communities in the world, tracing their lineage to ancient Assyria, which today spans parts of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The 2003 Iraq War and the ongoing Syrian war have driven Assyrians out of their homes, often to flee anti-Christian attacks by Islamist extremists. In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Assyrian Christians coexist with their Muslim neighbors. When Shaheen’s victory was announced Saturday night, cars drove through the streets waving the community’s red and yellow flag.
2. Shaheen’s fans bought him votes in bulk.
Middle Eastern viewers vote for their favorite contestant by sending text messages to their local cell phone provider, which passes along the votes to the Lebanese cable channel that broadcasts the contest.
But Shaheen has many fans outside the Middle East. So Shaheen’s fans set up a PayPal account to raise money for his win, and raised about $35,000 from places like Sweden, home to a large Assyrian community, said Marwan Saca, who handled his social media campaign.
With the money, Shaheen’s fan campaign bought text messages in bulk from a Palestinian mobile phone company.
3. One of the finalists was from Yemen. His fans back home had limited electricity to watch him on TV.
In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, nearly two years of war have left people with limited food and fuel — and electricity to watch television.
Still, some cafes have solar power or generators, and people gathered at cafes to watch the Yemeni contestant every week, said Anoud al Anasi in Sanaa.
Speaking via Facebook Messenger, she said, “There was a Yemeni contestant, that’s why we had to watch.”
She said despite the huge difficulties of life in Yemen, everyone wanted to vote in support of Ammar Mohammad Alazaki.
“The usual Yemeni heart,” she said.
4. The show held its first auditions in Turkey this year.
Each year, the show holds auditions across the Middle East.
This year, it held its first-ever auditions in Turkey — in light of the millions of Arab refugees there.
A Syrian singer won Arab Idol last year.
5. Kurd Idol
In northern Iraq, Akar Jihangeer, working in a perfume store, said he watched Arab Idol every week — his whole family does, every year. They are a musical family and at weddings, his father plays the violin while he plays drums and sings.
“Of course it’s very popular in the Middle East,” he said, standing underneath a glittering gold-and-crystal chandelier and surrounded by ornate blue glass bottles of fragrances. “It’s for people who have belief in themselves, but they never had the opportunity to show it.
“In this region, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to show ourselves,” he said. The city he lives in, Erbil, has been relatively insulated from Iraq’s chronic security problems but has severe economic issues, and Jihangeer doesn’t make a lot of money.
In fact, he auditioned himself both for Arab Idol and for its newer cousin, Kurd Idol, which draws its participants from the ethnic Kurdish minorities in several countries. He made it through the first round of Kurd Idol — the judge said Jihangeer’s singing gave him goosebumps — and a film crew even came to follow him round his gilded perfumery for a day.
But, alas, he didn’t make it to the television. It was a disappointment.
“Why do I want to go on these programs?” he said. “Because if you do it, you become popular.”
6. One contestant with Israeli citizenship got an honorary Palestinian passport.
Israel and its neighbor Lebanon are classified as enemy countries, and Lebanon does not allow Israeli passport holders to enter.
So what is a person like Ameer Dandan to do? The Arab Idol finalist is from the village of Majd Al-Krum in Israel’s north, and holds Israeli citizenship.
The Palestinian Authority granted Dandan an honorary Palestinian passport, the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds reported.
7. The show gave Palestinians a chance to feel like winners.
“We are losing in all ways,” said Tamara Abu Laban, a documentary filmmaker.
She was sitting with her husband and 4-year-old daughter at a café in Manger Square to watch the final episode of Arab Idol. It was being projected on a large screen, set up in front of the Church of the Nativity, which tradition says marks the spot where Jesus was born.
While young Palestinians, mostly young men, cheered while watching the show, she ticked off all the reasons Palestinians have to feel like losers.
There’s the Palestinians’ floundering struggle to establish an independent state. There’s the Palestinians’ own internal politics: Palestinian national elections haven’t been held in more than a decade; voting for their Palestinian compatriot in Arab Idol was a rare chance to vote at all.
“It’s entertainment, but it gives you hope,” she said of the show. “We are winning in a different thing.”
Meanwhile, in Gaza, tables were fully booked at the Level Up restaurant. Young men and women watched the show, taking a moment to forget the hardships of life in the Palestinian territory. Nearly everybody was smoking hookah.
“We can’t forget the misery, but this is more like taking a break — a short one,” said one young man at the restaurant, 29-year-old Yousef al Ramlawi.
When Shaheen was announced the winner, the crowd in the Bethlehem erupted in cheers, quickly dispersed from the square and danced in the streets through the wee hours of the night.
Daniel Estrin in Bethlehem, Abu Bakr Bashir in Gaza City, Alice Fordham in Erbil, Alison Meuse in Beirut, and Peter Kenyon in Istanbul contributed to this report.
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