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illesha magdalena : “Gaza’s own Mohammad Assaf continues to inspire all over the world.

illesha magdalena on Instagram: “Gaza’s own Mohammad Assaf continues to inspire all over the world. Who else is raising awareness about the Palestinian struggle for recognition and human rights? #humanrights #music #popculture”

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Biopics about musicians have proved big business ever since Ray (about R&B pioneer Ray Charles) won Academy Awards in 2005. Since then several feature films, ranging from 2007’s La Vie en Rose (Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf) to last year’s Straight Outta Compton (gangsta rappers NWA), have packed cinemas by focusing on their subjects’ hardscrabble beginnings. The Idol, a biopic about Mohammed Assaf that recently screened at the London Human Rights Film Festival, is a worthy addition to the genre. Unlike the aforementioned films, though, The Idol does not celebrate yesterday’s stars. Instead, it focuses on the remarkable rise of a singer who is still only 26. Mohammed Assaf came to fame across the Arab world in 2013 after he won the reality-TV competition Arab Idol — part of the Pop Idol franchise, where good-looking youths with decent voices compete for a shot at stardom. Yet unlike the UK’s Pop Idol and X Factor winners, Assaf’s rise to TV fame is, well, the stuff of biopics. Born to Palestinian parents in Libya, Assaf moved with them to the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp in Gaza when he was four years old. He began singing aged five and, by his teens, regularly worked at weddings and local festivities. Assaf’s parents recognised his talent, and played him their cassettes of the great Arab singers. But Gaza is an extremely difficult place in which to achieve any kind of career — the Israeli blockade and Hamas’s authoritarian rule ensuring that life is often a struggle — so Assaf determined to reach Cairo and enter Arab Idol. This meant having to purchase a forged visa, avoiding Hamas’s religious police (who disapprove of music) and spending days at the border pleading with Egyptian soldiers to let him cross. By the time he made it to Cairo, the hotel where auditions were under way had locked its doors. No more contestants welcome. Refusing to quit, Assaf climbed the hotel’s wall and found his way to the auditions. He was too late to get an entrant’s pass for the competition, so he sat in the corridor and sang. Another contestant heard him and said, “I know I won’t reach the final, but you will”, and gave Assaf his contest number. He indeed sang his way to the finals, and the story of the golden-voiced refugee who risked all to sing on TV won hearts across the Arab world. Since then Assaf has achieved huge popularity. His debut album sold more than 100,000 copies, and touring has taken him across the Middle East, North and South America and much of Europe. On April 10 he performs at London’s Barbican Centre. It promises to be an eclectic evening’s entertainment. “I perform a mix of Arabic classical music and traditional folk music from the Levant — especially Palestine — and a few pop tracks,” he tells me via a translator. “My songs talk about love: both love of one’s homeland and romantic love.” His influences, he says, include the superstar singers Abdel Halim and Abdel Wahab. “I was moved and inspired by their talent and storytelling through music . . . I also loved their films. They performed musically complex songs yet the lyrics were always moving and rich. I knew that if I wanted to become a good singer I’d better learn the craft from them. “I would listen to recordings of Abdel Halim’s concerts and I would imagine myself standing on stage, singing to people, and they would cheer and clap and be happy. It was such dreams that gave me the motivation to work harder on my training, to keep the hope alive.” Dreams indeed: home is now a Dubai penthouse and his career shows no signs of faltering. His aspiration now, he says, “is to establish my artistic identity and to make music that brings hope and joy to the people”. Assaf’s family remain in Gaza and he regularly returns to visit them. I suggest that he is now a Palestinian icon but he firmly rejects this. “I don’t consider myself an icon. There are more deserving people among the Palestinians who merit that. Hanan Al Hroub, the Palestinian teacher who recently won the Global Teacher Prize, is an icon. “I do feel, however, that I have a responsibility towards my people to carry their voices, their dreams, their hopes to the world so they can be heard.”

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