A Palestinian star is born

The current season of ‘New Star,’ the Palestinian version of ‘American Idol,’ is proving to be a ratings hit. Behind the scenes is a rare mix of Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.

RAMALLAH-BORN HADIL RISHMAWI (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
KFAR AL-KHADAR, West Bank – It’s Thursday night, and the crowd files rapidly through the metal detectors at the entrance to the impressive auditorium. Dressed in glittery frocks and suits, the men and women chatter excitedly while holding on tightly to oversized banners with glossy portraits of the performers they are about to see.
While the scene is reminiscent of the pre-show buzz at just about any theater in the world, what makes this night special is that it’s the first live show in the countdown to the final round of New Star. The show, which will reach its climax on May 26, is the only televised Palestinian singing contest – think American Idol or Britain’s X-factor – and the twice-weekly episodes are being held at the brand new Palestinian Convention Center in Kfar al-Khadar, just south of Bethlehem.
“The whole world thinks that Palestinians just throw stones, but we want to prove to everyone that we are not all members of Hamas. There are Palestinians who like to sing and dance and perform,” states Samer Hamam, owner of the Haifa satellite television company Mix TV, which produces and promotes the program together with Palestinian news agency Maan.
Speaking in flawless Hebrew, Hamam adds, “We are so used to hearing bad news in this part of the world, and people complain or talk all the time about the occupation. We just wanted to give them the opportunity to talk about something else. We wanted to give them a form of escapism.”
And escapism is exactly what New Star, which kicked off earlier this year with auditions across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, has become to a rapidly growing number of Palestinians locally and beyond.
“We are getting responses from the whole world. There’s even a Saudi Arabian channel that has been broadcasting it live!” exclaims Hamam, describing how this year’s show is actually a follow-up to a much smaller first season that focused almost exclusively on Arab-Israelis or Palestinians living in Israel.
The first series, he says, was such a huge hit that the company decided to expand it to contestants from the West Bank and Gaza for the second season. With the success of New Star 2, Hamam says he is already planning to open it up to Palestinians living all over the world.
“We expected it to get a lot of attention, but not to the level it has achieved,” he states, estimating that today its ratings among both Palestinians living in Israel and those across the Green Line have reached roughly 28 percent. While most Israeli Arabs receive Mix TV via a special satellite dish that picks up channels from across the Arab world, Israelis using only the local satellite or cable companies here cannot see the show at all.
Hamam says the idea to launch a Palestinian version of American Idol – even the hi-tech opening credits and the panel of three critical judges is reminiscent of the US show – came about when his brother and business partner, Amir, considered trying out for a Lebanese television singing show.
“As an Israeli he was not able to go to Lebanon, and I thought, ‘If this guy doesn’t get into some kind of competition, then he’ll fall into a deep depression,’” Hamam says of his brother, pointing out that auditioning for the Israeli show A Star is Born, which is in Hebrew and features local tunes, is less ideal for an Arab singer here.
“When we first launched, we did receive some death threats from people who said it wasn’t conservative enough, but we explained to them that religious singers were welcome, too, and that we wanted it to be reflective of all the Palestinian people, both secular and traditional,” continues Hamam, adding that there were also those who believed such a program would not show the reality of the Palestinian struggle.
“We told them that allowing people to feel happiness in life will also help the people to survive,” notes Hamam, adding, “The Palestinian nation is no less happy or talented than other Arab nations, and we just needed someone to pull them out of the cupboard and show the world that.”
BESIDES AIMING to unite Palestinians dispersed throughout the world, New Star also pulls together a wide variety of people from both sides of the ongoing local conflict. While a vast majority of the contestants are Arabs from villages and towns from within Israel’s borders, behind the scenes the production team is a wonderful mix of Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.
“At first they were scared to come in and help us,” says Hamam of the two Jewish production companies that have been working with New Star since its inception. “But I think now they realize that not everyone is an extremist.”
“We come here every week, and we all work well together; the atmosphere is very professional,” comments Ilan Hamsh, a production manager with Yagur Studios based near Haifa, as he takes a break from the show’s final broadcasting preparations.
“We also worked on A Star is Born, and the feeling was very different. Here, the people are a lot warmer and there is less competition between everyone,” he observes.
Hamsh’s boss, Nir Peer, surmises, “It’s a different mentality here, of course, but professionally there is no difference. We are all partners and we all speak the language of television.”
As the technicians – both Israeli and Arab – sit down to enjoy a last cigarette before the show goes live, one of New Star’s big stars, Prof. Ghawi Ghawi, who judges the contestants together Habib Shehadeh and Nisreen Faour, explains why it’s so important for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to have their own singing show.
“In Israel’s show, A Star is Born, it is simply not acceptable to be an Arab; all the songs are in Hebrew, and they don’t accept someone singing in Arabic,” says the Nazareth-based professor, who teaches in both Israeli and Palestinian universities. “This show is a chance for Arab Israelis and Palestinians to be involved in a contest on an international level and for them to become really famous.”
Asked if the show was just another escape from the regional conflict, Ghawi, whose kind but cutting remarks could make him comparable to the dreaded Simon Cowell in the US and UK versions of the show, says: “It is impossible to switch off sections of our lives; we have problems here that simply cannot be ignored. But I am happy to see that this show is, in a way, bringing people together.”
UPSTAIRS IN the room where 12 of the 24 finalists wait to go on stage, the atmosphere is tense but jovial.
“I don’t see this as a competition; I see it as friendship,” says the huskyvoiced Hadil Rishmawi, who is sitting quietly and is already decked out in an exuberant turquoise taffeta gown with silver sparkles sprinkled over her olive skin. “I really believe I have made a family here, and for me they are beautiful friends and beautiful souls.”
The 21-year-old, who grew up in Ramallah and is a student at Bir Zeit University, says that before being on the show, she had very little contact with “pre-’48 Palestinians.”
“They’re not Israelis, we’re all Palestinians, so I call them pre-’48 Palestinians,” she explains. “It’s my first time meeting people from Israel, but they’re really cool, modest and funny.”
Rishmawi affirms her excitement at having made it to the final round.
“For me, this is a gift from God, and I am using it to sing the very best classic Arabic songs,” she says proudly.
“Some people say Palestinians are primitive, but we are just as progressive as anyone else, and we love culture and music, too.”
She adds, “This competition is so important because it allows us to show the world that Palestinians are not just sitting doing nothing while we live under occupation. We are doing what we want and are not depressed all the time; we are living human beings like other people, and we do all the same things as other people.”