Tonight around 8:30pm, thousands of Palestinians will pour into the Muqataa in Ramallah. They will be there to listen to Mohammed Assaf – the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol and maybe the most talked about resident of Gaza in the world today.
Assaf’s journey, from the Khan Yunis refugee camp to Cairo and from there to his audition for Arab Idol, is already a legend in its own right. He didn’t meet Egypt’s criteria to leave Gaza via Rafah and so, the story goes, had to bribe the border guards. The normally 8-hour trip from Rafah to Cairo allegedly took two days because of checkpoints he had to cross in Sinai. He arrived late to the hotel where auditions were being held, so climbed the hotel walls (in other versions it’s a gate). When the hotel security guards caught him, he apparently burst into song which softened them up and led them to let him in. All this and Assaf still missed the distribution of audition numbers, said to number in the thousands. At this point, accounts differ: some say he met another contestant from Gaza who decided to give up his place in line for Assaf, others tell that the contestant, who had heard Assaf sing to the guards outside, felt compelled to give Assaf his own number.
It’s hard to know what the real story is, but only someone from the Gaza Strip, where movement restrictions are such an inextricable part of life, could amass this much mythology.
Tonight Assaf will perform in Ramallah. Suddenly and once he’s an international superstar, the checkpoints and crossings barring his travel open up to him. He’s not just a 23-year-old kid from Gaza anymore. Suddenly he can enter the West Bank and even his parents can get permits to travel. Suddenly he doesn’t have to meet the Israeli army’s “humanitarian-only” criteria, or be a football player on the Palestinian national team, or a senior trader. Other Palestinians from Gaza, the ones who didn’t take the prize on Arab Idol, won’t be able to travel to his concert in the West Bank. They’ll be in Gaza, waiting for their own lucky break.