On a starry Saturday night, thousands of Palestinians crowded into Bethlehem’s central Manger Square, where a large digital screen was set up to watch the final round of Arab Idol, a pan-Arab singing competition show based near Beirut, where hometown hero Yacoub Shahin made his way into the final round.
The crowd, mainly composed of young men and a handful of Palestinian officials, including Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub, waved flags and sang along to songs as they watched the show’s three final contestants, Shahin, a Palestinian native of Bethlehem; Ameer Dandan, an Arab-Israeli living in the United States; and Ammar Muhammad, from Yemen, make their final appeals to the public to vote for them via text message.
“This is an Arab wedding, where we all are coming together to celebrate our love of Arabic music and its great artists,” said Hashim Kinaan, 28, who works at a hotel in east Jerusalem. “We are showing the world that Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, have great talents, much different than the violent images portrayed in the media.”
Arab Idol, similar in format to American Idol and Israel’s Kokhav Nolad (“A Star is Born”), brings 25 of the Arab world’s most talented up-and-coming artists to Lebanon to face off against one another. Each week, tens of thousands of the show’s followers pay $0.50 per vote to support their favorite artists.
This year’s show took a surprising turn when Shahin and Dandan, both of Palestinian descent, qualified for the final round, putting their local supporters in the uncomfortable position of choosing between them.
In Bethlehem, however, Palestinians were not timid in expressing their support for their native son. “I am wholeheartedly with Yacoub. I love Palestine and all of its people, but Yacoub is the son of our town,” said 18-year-old Essa Khalid, a high school student from the city.
“I have known him since he was a little boy, when he participated in the scouts. He is a great person, who has overcome the suffering and pains of the occupation, living in an area surrounded by walls, to achieve what we are witnessing tonight,” remarked 54-year-old Ali Mahmoud, a neighbor and family friend of Shahin. “I like Dandan and his soft and crisp voice, but he has not been living in Palestine for a long time – it’s important that I mention that.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received both Shahin and Dandan at his hotel in Beirut on Friday, but steered clear of declaring his outright support for one of the two. Local companies, including the Jawal mobile network operator and the Bank of Palestine, encouraged Palestinians to vote for both Shahin and Dandan.
Shahin, an Assyrian Christian, started his journey into the music world at the age of seven, when he commenced his studies of the fundamentals of music at the Edward Said Conservatory in Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah. Shortly thereafter, he began participating in singing competitions and won New Star Palestine, a national competition, at 17.
Before entering university, Shahin told his parents that he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, but they warned him of the difficulty of achieving success in the field.
Shahin therefore decided to study interior design at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, but returned to his dream of pursuing a career in music after receiving his diploma.
Shahin’s former classmate and current social media manager, 28-year-old Marwan Saca, has observed Shahin’s journey from the beginning of the Arab Idol contest.
“He started with 3,000 followers on Facebook and now he has more than 700,000 followers,” Saca said, speaking minutes before the announcement of the final results. “He is more famous than the show’s judges.”
Saca said that while Shahin’s support on social media positions him well to win Arab Idol, he has built on that support by buying himself thousands of additional votes in bulk.
“We have fund-raised more than $35,000 through Paypal to buy votes in bulk for Yacoub,” Saca remarked. “People from all over the world have contributed, including many Assyrian Christians living in Sweden.
The practice of buying additional votes in bulk is allowed in Arab Idol’s rules, and according to Saca, the other contestants did the same.
Back in the center of Manger Square, locals stood anxiously awaiting the final results, as Arab Idol host Ahmad Fahmy said he would imminently announce the winner.
“I wonder who is the ‘Arab Idol’ for the fourth season, Amir, Ammar or Yacoub?” Fahmy asked rhetorically.
“Calm, calm, calm... the winner of the fourth season of ‘Arab Idol’... is... one second, one second, one second... is Yacoub Shahin from Palestine!” Manger Square broke out into pandemonium, with thousands of Shahin’s supporters jumping up and down and dancing for joy.
“It is an amazing feeling. I am so proud of Yacoub – he has raised all of our heads,” said 21-year-old Ibrahim Sarhan, a local nurse, wearing a big smile on his face. “This win shows that in Palestine it does not matter which religion you are, Christian or Muslim. You can achieve anything if you set your heart to it.”
In the hours following Shahin’s victory, many Palestinians drove their cars around Bethlehem honking their horns and waving the Palestinian and Assyrian national flags. Others gathered at the intersection between Bethlehem and Beit Jala to celebrate.
The scene in Bethlehem was reminiscent of Muhammad Assaf’s Arab Idol victory in 2013, when thousands took to the streets to celebrate the modest Palestinian from a Gazan refugee camp.
“I am so happy for Yacoub.His victory means a lot to me,” said 24-year-old student Muhammad Abu Riyan, clapping his hands in celebration.
“It has made me feel more optimistic about the future.”