Last week, I couldn’t restrain myself. Last week, I actually voted for a contestant on a reality TV program. I voted for the underdog, as did millions of others, for #3, Muhammad Assaf, for Arab Idol.
Quite aside from his extraordinary voice and adorable good looks, 23-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Assaf, a wedding singer, had a compelling story.
Raised in Gaza’s Khan Yunis refugee camp, Assaf almost didn’t make it: He needed permission from Hamas to leave Gaza and then he had to bribe Egyptian border guards for permission to enter Egypt.
He despaired of getting there in time. Late getting to Cairo, he climbed over a wall to enter the hotel where auditions were being held. Then, when he realized he needed a number in order to compete — and that all the numbers had been distributed — he broke out in song in the crowded hotel lobby. Hearing him, a fellow Palestinian gave him his number because he believed Assaf had a better chance to win.
Breathless and late, Assaf was the last contestant interviewed:
The rest is history. Arab Idol, which just completed its second season, is broadcast by MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) and has an audience of over 100 million. Assaf’s talent, and story, at a time when the Arab world is struggling with so many conflicts and disappointments, found resonance and hope in a region where recently there have not been many happy endings.
“Raise your Keffiyeh, Raise it:”
Even Hamas had to ease up on its strict Islamist interpretations and allow Gazans to revel in Assaf’s brilliance and success. As Israeli Journalist Amira Hass wrote, Assaf became “… a contemporary Palestinian hero. Young and old, graduates of jails and Western universities, residents of refugee camps and yuppie apartments in Ramallah or Haifa, men and women, PLO veterans and those who prefer to ignore politics — everyone sat and watched the glittering contest …;”
Upon his return to Gaza, Assaf was greeted by tens of thousands of fans. Buildings were festooned with Assaf portraits, women ululated from balconies and rooftops, and the streets were jammed with celebrants singing his songs. Wherever Palestinians lived Assaf’s triumph was celebrated.
This week, as I listen to Assaf while I write, Nelson Mandela is struggling for his life in a South African hospital room, President Obama and Michelle have just finished touring Gorée, a Senegalese island from where Africans, sold into servitude, often by Muslim traders, were shipped as cargo to serve white masters in America …
…; while Alicia Keys is planning to sing in Israel on the Fourth of July.
Alicia was a child when musicians stood together in the 1980s to successfully boycott South Africa’s apartheid system. Their anthem was, “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City,” which demanded:
“It’s time to accept our responsibility / Freedom is a privilege, nobody rides for free / Look around the world baby, it cannot be denied / Can’t somebody tell me why are we always on the wrong side.”
Who knows today if Nelson Mandela would have survived apartheid prisons long enough to become president of South Africa if there had been no boycott.
Who knows if Barack Obama would have become our president if it had not been for those who marched from Selma to Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday,” who bused, boycotted and sat-in, who were imprisoned, beaten, gassed and killed in the battle for freedom and justice for all.
Dear Alicia Keys, don’t stand on the wrong side of freedom.
Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, said, —» (Muhammad Assaf) transcended being a victim. Yes he is a victim …; but he transcended that, reminding the world that we are not mere victims, we are actors, we resist colonization, apartheid, ethnic cleansing …; Muhammed Assaf is a new face of Palestinian cultural resistance.”
Today, Alicia, we ask the same of you — join in cultural resistance. Join Bishop Desmond Tutu, physicist Stephen Hawking and fellow artists Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, the Pixies and Elvis Costello in the cultural boycott of Israel.
The Boston Globe wrote that Hawking’s decision was “a reasonable way to express one’s political views. Observers need not agree with Hawking’s position in order to understand and even respect his choice. The movement that Hawking has signed on to aims to place pressure on Israel through peaceful means.”
Alicia, when you sang at President Obama’s inauguration in 2013 you transformed your signature song, “Girl on Fire” to “Obama on Fire,” and we sang with you:
“He’s president and he’s on fire …; he’s living in a world and it’s on fire”
Alicia, when Muhammad Assaf won he sang:
“Oh, world witness me … I never bowed to the aggressor …; Palestine … my mother … you who live in my blood / If I miss my people … your bosom enfolds me / It’s written by the Free … fire needs fire.”
It’s written by the Free. Fire needs fire.
Alicia, reread Alice Walker’s letter to you:
“It would grieve me to know you are putting yourself in danger (soul danger) by performing in an apartheid country that is being boycotted by many global conscious artists …;”
Listen now, Alicia Keys, to Muhammad Assaf:
“The revolution is not just the one carrying a rifle, the revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the ax of a farmer. This is something I consider to be logical. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and today I’m fighting for a cause also through the art I am performing and the message that I am sending out.”
Alicia, there are many in Israel who oppose, boycott and challenge their government. They need to know that they are not alone in their desire to live in freedom and justice alongside Palestinians. As Bishop Tutu said, “Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to be liberated, but at this stage the greater onus is on the Israelis since they are the ones who are in power, economically, politically and militarily. We have to think about ways that will allow them to reflect deeply on what it is that they are doing and bring them back from the brink.”
Listen to these truths, Alicia Keys.
On the Fourth of July, when we will be celebrating America’s independence, you are scheduled to sing in Tel Aviv, Israel, while just a few miles away, across the Green Line, Muhammad Assaf will be singing in Ramallah, Palestine.
As I see it, only one of you will be on the right side of history.
So, this is my suggestion to you:
On the Fourth of July go listen to Muhammad Assaf in Ramallah — and sing alongside him.
Bear witness for freedom and justice for all.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.