Dream Factories in the Time of War

On Sunday, February 26, 2017, the Arab world held elections—anyone who had access to a cell phone and wanted to pay the extra fee to send an SMS could vote.  Arab Idol is one of the most watched programs for Arabic speakers around the world and anyone can vote. Over 100 million viewers watched the final episode of Arab Idol that elected Yacoub Shaheen from Bethlehem, Palestine as the fourth winner of the competition. The finalists included another Palestinian Amir Dandan from Majd al-Krum in Israel, and Ammar Mohammad from Yemen. While the evening was a celebration of how hard work eventually pays off and dreams must come true, the reality for many in the Arab world intruded in the songs the contestants sang about war and conflict in their respective homelands.  As the image of the contestants is heavily controlled by handlers to gain fans and votes, the politics of the region are sanitized and made palatable for mass consumption. In the process war, conflict, and siege are normalized. On the Arab Idol stage in Beirut, Arabs sing about co-existence without a hint of irony about the political turmoil in their countries or the region.

Shaheen was the second Palestinian crowned Arab Idol after the phenomenal win in 2013 of Mohammad Assaf from Gaza. Assaf captured the most votes not only for his incredible voice and affable personality, but for his relentless pursuit of stardom. Given the very low probability of a twenty-something man to leave Gaza overcoming the Israeli blockade for Egypt where he climbed over a wall to enter auditions after arriving late and eventually wining, Assaf defied the odds. His was a Hollywood ending and it was only a matter of time before the film came out telling the story of how nothing can stop a young man destined to become an idol, even an Israeli siege.

Arab Idol airs on the Saudi satellite channel MBC, but it is filmed in Beirut. The show holds auditions throughout the Arab world and for this season held them in Turkey in recognition of the over 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently living there. The four judges represent the Arab cultural and political order: two from Lebanon, one from the Gulf, and one from Egypt. The presenter is also from Egypt. However, the Palestinian cause dominated the evening. This year’s winner, Shaheen a native from Bethlehem—incidentally a city surrounded by the Israeli built barrier—wanted to be a singer since a young age and, not unlike other aspiring singers, sang at weddings, celebrations, and other events as often as he could. Dandan, from an Arab village in Israel, has been living in the United States for several years. Assaf was born in Libya and grew up in Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza. While Arab Idol celebrates young optimistic talent, it prefers contestants who battle closures, sieges, and wars just to make the auditions.

When Shaheen was announced the winner, Assaf joined the contestants on stage.  The three Palestinians stood side by side draped in Palestinian flags. The joke was that these three young men united Palestine, represented in the three territories from where each came, on a stage in Beirut. They took turns singing a patriotic Palestinian song. When Assaf won in 2013, his message was about ending the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. Shaheen dedicated his win to his fans and to Palestine.  Before he left Lebanon, he headed to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and visited the graves of Palestinians martyrs buried there.  It should be noted the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was in Lebanon and met with the finalists and judges of Arab Idol, but did not visit the camps.

However, let us not forget the Yemeni finalist Ammar Mohammad and the war in his country. During the finale there was a satellite link to the home audience for each of the contestants. Before Mohammad came to the stage, the presenter explained that because of the “conditions” in Yemen the program was headed to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where a group of Yemenis had gathered to watch their compatriot sing. While singing Mohammad got very emotional, so much so that one of the judges went on stage to support him. It was perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening. At the end of song the presenter hugged and reminded him why he was there: to raise the name of Yemen high and that his family was not only in Yemen, but in Lebanon, in Egypt, in the Gulf, and all over the Arab world. There was no mention of war or what the conditions really were to prevented a satellite link to a city in Yemen. The presenter went on to proclaim that Mohammad had all the Arabs behind him, which in a way they might be. The Saudi-led coalition, which included most of the Gulf countries and others, is fighting alongside government supporting forces and against the opposition in Yemen. Through tears, Mohammad managed to say enough fighting and made a heartfelt plea to politicians to end the war, but his voice was drowned in the applause of Arab support for him. Unlike the politicians, he supported neither side but Yemen.

The politicians were well-represented at Arab Idol where they sat in the audience and cheered their fellow citizens. This is politics 2.0 for the internet age where winning a song competition makes up for the disarray in national politics. Arab Idol is also an escape for the hundred of million viewers and their leaders from the reality of the Arab world. When the real world does intrude, it is deftly muffled by the charismatic presenter. There seems to be the most sympathy for contestants from war torn countries. Last year a Syrian won the contest, and with two Palestinians sharing the title of Arab Idol it is easy to see how winning a song contest gets more votes than ending war.

Faedah M. Totah is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University

Cite as: Totah, Faedah M. 2017. “Dream Factories in the Time of War.” Anthropology News website, April 10, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.403

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