The young attendant at the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort was visibly excited when I asked him the way to the conference room where the 2013 Arab Idol winner, superstar singer, budding film star, and brand ambassador of clothing giant Max, Mohammad Assaf, was giving media interviews.
‘I’ll show you, suh!’ he said, grinning excitedly. Then he insisted on taking me personally to where media persons from across the region were waiting for their turn to interview the Arab world’s latest singing sensation. When we got there, he hung around, hoping to catch a glimpse of his hero. But Mohammad was busy with an interview. ‘Maybe next time,’ he consoled himself.
That is the kind of magnetic charm Palestinian superstar Mohammad still wields, though it has been more than two years since he won the Arab Idol title – a fairy-tale ending to a story that began in Gaza.
I walk into the room for my chance to get to know the man behind the fame. I’m met with the sight of suited and coiffed executives fawning all over the handsome 26-year-old who’s affectionately known as the Arabic Tom Cruise.
While the attention has boosted his confidence, Mohammad has not allowed it to boost his ego too much. He’s attentive during introductions, repeats the name thrice to himself, and, a thorough gentleman, stands up to shake your hand.
He easily shakes off the trappings of stardom when talking about the miraculous turn his life has taken. ‘Although it has been two years since Arab Idol, I still can’t get over it,’ he says in his mellifluous baritone. ‘It has opened up a new world for me. But I don’t want to rest on that. I want to go further.’
He pauses as his translator relays it to me in English, listening attentively.
‘I like what I’ve achieved so far. But I want to do things better.’ He pauses, his dark eyes scanning the ceiling as he searches for the right words. ‘My journey started with Arab Idol, but it certainly won’t end there.’ With that in mind, Mohammad is searching for a wider audience. ‘I only have an Arab audience now,’ he says, a tad wistfully, ‘but I want to reach out to an international audience.’
His quest to conquer the world began in 2014 when he performed in Brazil after wrapping up Arab Idol. ‘It was a huge audience,’ he says, smiling. ‘It was just a song, but the reception! That’s when I felt I had to reach out to everybody in the world with my singing.’
Mohammad’s eyes shine with zeal as he speaks about his ambition. He’s quick to add that it’s not just a personal desire. ‘I want to sing for my nation, for my people!’ he says. The smile is quiet, but there’s an underlying urgency to the words.
He pauses to calm himself down. ‘I have a reason to sing,’ he says. ‘I want to for my [Palestinian] people… to be unique. And gain worldwide acceptance.’
Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol charted Mohammad’s meteoric rise to fame, and got him interested in an acting career.
What he means is that while winning the Arab Idol and having a biopic – The Idol, directed by Oscar-nominated Hany Abu-Assad and released last year – is all fine, such fame is fleeting.
Mohammad feels he needs to do something of real merit to propagate the cause of his homeland, Palestine.
He learnt this early. Hailing from Gaza, his road to his life-changing Arab Idol audition was scattered with obstacles.
‘I come from a very humble place referred to as “the camp” in Gaza,’ he says. Born in Libya, he was about five years old when his family returned to Gaza to live in the Khan Younis refugee camp, which he and his five brothers and sisters call home.
‘The camp is like a densely populated residential area,’ he says. ‘Houses and people are so closely packed together. I can’t even begin to describe the poverty and unemployment there.’
Gaza’s border with Egypt remains the main route for Palestinians to travel in and out of the territory, but it is very difficult to get out. For Mohammad, it took almost a month, trying various methods. He doesn’t like to speak about it.
It was more than 400km across the border to the Cairo hotel where the Arab Idol auditions were being held. When Mohammad finally arrived after an arduous journey, the hotel doors had already been closed, and all contestants had been assigned numbers.
But Mohammed hadn’t come all the way to be shut out; he scaled a gate and sneaked in. He still didn’t have a registration number to participate, so he just went about singing to lift the flagging spirits of the participants who were waiting for their chance. That was to prove lucky. A fellow Palestinian contestant, Ramadan Abu Nahli, felt Mohammad sang much better than him and deserved to participate. He gave Mohammad his number. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mohammad made it through the auditions and all the way to the finals. ‘Until I got to the final 10, I really didn’t think I would make it,’ he confesses.
The jury were sold on him right from the beginning. A jury member, UAE singer Ahlam, was so impressed by Mohammad that she stood up and shouted out that he has a beautiful voice. ‘You are a star, Mohammad… a real star,’ she said. ‘Your voice and performance are unbelievable. I can tell you this – I have not heard a better voice than yours in more than 10 years.’ And just like that, he was crowned the winner. Then Mohammad went on a world tour, won an MTV European Music Awards in 2014 and played to more than 20,000 fans at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concert. In fact, there was rarely a lull in between his gigs.
Mohammad says he was just taking the advice of established singers. ‘They all told me to work harder than I ever had the first year,’ he says. ‘So I just went ahead.’
Three years later he’s still going strong. Now he wants his debut on the international circuit to be with a singer who cares about music, not just any commercially successful singer. ‘I had some offers from international singers [to sing with them], but I am looking for those who are singing for the people, you know what I mean?
‘That’s why I am still waiting for the right person to duet with,’ he grins disarmingly.
The reason could also be that he’s the ambassador of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). ‘It is a responsibility,’ he says. ‘And I have this interest to sing to the people, especially to my Palestinians. That’s the reason I am still waiting for the right opportunity [to duet with an international star].
‘If I can’t find an Arabic singer to debut with, it will have to be an English artiste, because that’s the language that is most popular,’ he says wisely.
He’s already preparing for an international career. ‘I am taking courses in English to improve my language,’ says Mohammad, who rues the fact that he started learning English only from Grade 6 in Palestine.
‘Obviously I am not very good at it, but I am learning,’ he says. ‘I understand the language, but still can’t speak it fluently. But it’s not just for singing – I also need it for my work with the United Nations. That’s why I started taking tuitions in the first place.’
So which international star would he like to debut with? ‘I haven’t received any offers from anybody yet,’ he admits. ‘But I would like to sing with that African-American singer who’s slightly older.’ It takes a while to arrive at who he means. It’s Stevie Wonder.
‘Yes, I would love to duet with Stevie Wonder!’ he exclaims. With his Tom Cruise looks, it’s surprising he hasn’t received any film offers. ‘There have been feelers,’ Mohammad admits.
So isn’t he interested? ‘I am, I’d love to act in a film, but I’ll wait for a story that will truly inspire the audience. I am not interested in acting in just any film.’
It was after The Idol was released that Mohammad felt it could be another medium for him. ‘I became interested after the movie that was made on my life became a huge success,’ he says. ‘I have no regrets [for not acting in it] as it’s not truly my story, it has been dramatised for effect.’
Doesn’t he like drama? ‘I am just a regular guy,’ he grins. ‘That’s why I chose to represent Max – because I am an ordinary guy at heart. Also, Max is all about affordable fashion. That is important for me.’
He loves the UAE, so much so that Dubai is now his home. ‘It’s a place where all people live equally. In fact, I’d love it if an Emirati won the Arab Idol title,’ he says.
Mohammad says he sings for his people and his home, Palestine, and hopes they find peace.
Though many of his dreams have come true, Mohammad still has one that he wishes fervently would happen. ‘I want my community to live in peace, there’s nothing more to ask for,’ he says. ‘I also hope that through my influence I am not only able to provide my family with a good life, but also my countrymen and the whole world.’
And as a singer? ‘I don’t want people to forget my name after I am done,’ he says sombrely. ‘That’s why I have to do so much more, and there is rarely time for rest.’