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Arab Idol is about much more than just music

January 23, 2014 at 4:36 am

For the past three months pop-star hopefuls from across the Middle East have assembled in MBC’s Beirut studios to compete for the title of Arab Idol. Every Friday they sing to a studio of fans, a panel of adjudicators and an audience at home who vote via text message for who they would like to see return the following week.

After the judges have offered advice and the SMS ballots are totted up, the singer with the least votes is sent home. The last one standing at the end of the season (21 June) will walk away with a Chevrolet Corvette, a record deal with Platinum Records and an endless stream of fans if the huge popularity of the show across the region so far is anything to go by.

Though regular viewers of Britain’s Pop Idol will recognise the set-up of the show, the political backdrop against which this competition is unfolding has made the Arab adaptation unique. Take, for example, Syrian contender Abdul Karim Hamdan. His track detailing the destruction of his hometown Aleppo has attracted more than three million hits on YouTube.

“Aleppo, a flood of suffering, how much blood is shed in my country” he belted out. “With a broken heart I cry for my land and the children who have become strangers in their own country.” Previously a student of opera singing at the Institute of Music in Syria, Hamdan’s performance was received in the studio with floods of tears and a standing ovation.

Another competitor generating interest is Parwas Hussein. Her presence in the competition sparked debate and controversy over national identity when she listed her country of origin as Kurdistan, though later changed it to Iraqi Kurdistan; she is the first contestant ever to be accepted from the region, but was voted out in the quarter finals.

This week the spotlight is firmly on Mohammed Assaf from Gaza. Difficulties with movement out of the Strip meant he had to beg Hamas to let him attend auditions in Egypt and then bribed border guards to let him pass into the country. Originally from the Khan Younis refugee camp, his songs detail the lives of displaced Palestinians and political prisoners.

Interestingly, Arab Idol is screening at the same time as The President, a Palestinian series in which viewers elect who they would like to see as their next leader. Part of the reason these shows are so popular is down to wide spread exasperation with existing TV programmes, many of which are written off as mouthpieces for corrupt regimes.

Outside of reality TV there is no room for viewer participation and many feel detached from what they see happening and what they would like to happen. According to Al-Monitor, more Egyptians voted in this year’s Arab Idol than voted for Mohammed Morsi in last year’s elections.

Arab Idol also offers the spectator – both from inside and outside the Middle East – an alternative interpretation of the region. Amidst the sectarian strife in Syria, the division between the West Bank and Gaza and the on-going dispute between Iraq and Kurdistan over land and oil that dominates the headlines, Arab Idol presents an island of unity and essentially suggests that harmony is not impossible.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.