Mohammad Assaf (Arabic: محمد عساف‎‎; born 1 September 1989) is a Palestinian pop singer well known for being the winner of the second season of Arab Idol, broadcast by the MBC network. He was given the nickname Asaroukh ("The Rocket") by Lebanese singer and Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alama. In 2013, Assaf was named a goodwill ambassador for peace by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). He was also named ambassador of culture and arts by the Palestinian government and was offered a position with "diplomatic standing" by the Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas.

Assaf was acclaimed by the jury and the public. His voice and appearance have drawn comparisons to Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, which has garnered Assaf both fame and controversy. Fans merged part of Hafez's name with Assaf's, as in Assaf Hilm Falastine ("Assaf Palestine’s Dream"). His victory received world-wide coverage from the media and was welcomed with joy by Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

Assaf's story is the basis of the 2015 film The Idol, directed by Hany Abu-Assad.


He was born in Misrata, Libya to Palestinian parents. He lived there until he was 4 years old, when his parents moved back to Gaza, he grew up in Khan Younis refugee camp to a middle class couple where he attended UNRWA elementary school. His mother's family hails from the village of Bayt Daras, which was captured and depopulated by the nascent IDF in 1948 and his father's family is from Beersheba. Assaf's parents moved to Khan Yunis Refugee Camp when he was four years old. He is one of six siblings, three of whom, including Assaf, have been involved in performing live music. Assaf's mother Intisar, a mathematics teacher, has stated that Assaf began singing at the age of five and "had a voice of someone who was much, much older." Before his role on the television show he was attending Gaza City's Palestine University majoring in media and public relations. Assaf did not have professional training as a singer; he started his career singing at weddings and other private events. He entered the public view in 2000 during a popular local television program where he called in and sung a nationalist song to the host's praise. Afterward, he was frequently offered contracts with local record companies. Sometime after his first performance, he sang in a local event in Gaza attended by late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

Arab Idol

Mohammad Assaf traveled from Gaza Strip to Egypt to audition for Arab Idol. It took him two days to reach Egypt by car due to complications on the border. At the beginning, he had to convince the Egyptian security at the border crossing, where he was stuck for two days, to leave Gaza. Once he reached the hotel where the auditions were taking place, the doors were closed in which they did not accept anymore auditions so he jumped over the wall. After he jumped over the wall, he couldn't get a number to audition; he sat hopelessly in the hall where other contestants were waiting for their turn. He started singing to the contestants, and a Palestinian contestant, Ramadan Abu Nahel, who was waiting to audition heard him and gave him his number saying, "I know I won't reach the finals but you will."

Assaf's final performance was his rendition of "Ali al-keffiyeh" ("Raise The Keffiyeh"), a Palestinian nationalist anthem and called on Palestinians to raise their keffiyehs (a traditional Arab headdress that has become a Palestinian nationalist symbol) and to unite, in light of the split between the two major Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had tuned in to watch his performance. On 22 June Assaf was declared the winner of Arab Idol, winning the most votes and coming ahead of two other competitors, Ahmed Gamal and Farah Youssef, from Egypt and Syria, respectively. Massive celebrations by Palestinians ensued after the announcement of his victory, including festivities held on the streets of Gaza City, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Khan Yunis, Nazareth, Lebanon and Jordan.

Performances in Arab Idol

Performances during the auditions
  • Casting (Cairo) : "Safini Mara" by Abdel Halim Hafez
  • Casting Beirut (Group audition) : Ana Elli Alayki Mishta'" by Joseph Sakr
  • Casting Beirut : Ala Babi Waef Amarin by Melhem Barakat
Performances during the primes
  • Top 27 : Ya Sghiri – Melhem Zein
  • 1st Prime : Aala Hisb Oudad – Abdel Halim Hafez
  • 2nd Prime : Ya Reit – Ragheb Alama
  • 3rd Prime : Gatalouni Oyoun Essoud – Wadih El Safi
  • 4th Prime : El Zina Labsat Khalkhalaha – Samir Yazbek
  • 5th Prime : Aanabi – Karem Mahmoud
  • 6th Prime : Wa Baad Kentom – Mohammed Abdo
  • 7th Prime : Sawt El Heda – Assi El Helani
  • 8th Prime : Kol Da Kan Leih – Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Nemshi wa Nemshi – Saber Rebai
  • Final: Ya Ain Ala Saber – Wadih El Safi and Lena Allah – Mohammed Abdo and "Aali El Kuffiyeh" – Mohammed Assaf*
  • Aali El Kuffiyeh is considered as one of his most famous and well known numbers inside the State of Palestine and the Arab World. While most people believe that the song is from the Palestinian Folklore, it is actually produced in 2007 using a redistributed melody from Iraqi Folklore and lyrics written by the Palestinian poet Mohammad El-Najjar and performed by Assaf himself. Assaf stated that the song will be included in his upcoming debut album as well.

International attention

Assaf has gained widespread popularity throughout the Arab world and among fellow Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the diaspora through his performance of well-known Arabic love songs and patriotic hymns for the Palestinian cause. Family members, neighbors and Palestinians in general have been waiting for his performance in Beirut every Friday night. Board member of Gaza Association for Culture and Arts Jamal Abu Qumsan stated Assaf "has struck a chord with Palestinians by singing classic Arabic songs that deal with issues other than war and struggle ... To many here, that kind of music offers them a sense of stability" amid constantly unstable circumstances due to the conflict with Israel and intra-Palestinian strife. Mohammed Assaf sang in English during one of the live shows of Arab Idol, performing the song "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys.

The buzz Assaf created has reached the United States, Europe, and recently other parts of Asia, due to articles posted by American-based news websites such as Wet Paint, Voice of America, 12 News, The Japan Times, the CNN news website CNN International, as well as European-based news sites such as Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau, and many more sites such as Wall Street. News articles have been written about him in such media as the French news website "De Guysen" under the title "Mohammed Assaf Nouvelle star de Gaza", the British news site for The Guardian under the title "Arab Idol favourite Mohammed Assaf carries hopes of Palestinians into final", and the South African news site News Wall under the title "Gaza Refugee tipped to win Arab Idol."

Over a hundred articles have been written about him in different languages and from multiple countries across the world, and they increase every week after his performance on the Friday night show. The articles talk about him, his voice and his rough journey to reach where he is now. The articles have been written and posted online and published in news papers. Comments posted on these articles from fans who admire him, a large number of those fans do not even understand what he's singing yet relate to his voice and his rough past and journey which are seen through the comments they post.

According to statistics done by Synthesio Corporation they've stated that: "This massive support from Palestinians all over the world is a likely indication Assaf has a significant chance of winning this series of Arab Idol – but what impact has he had globally on social media? Assaf dominates almost half of all online conversations about contestants – Many fans describe him as the ‘Tom Cruise of Arab Idol’. Assaf has even won support from the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s daughter, Zahwa, who encouraged viewers to vote for him. As expected, the majority of online debate is coming from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia. However Synthesio’s analysis of conversations taking place on social media platforms, blogs, forums and the comment sections of online publications around the world reveals fans are chatting about the show as far afield as South America and the UK, where half of all positive comments relate to Assaf. And 12 percent of all comments are coming from the US."

Post his win, Al Jazeera English interviewed him in Doha, Qatar, during his tour, and dedicated an entire episode of the programme Inside Story detailing Assaf's journey through Arab Idol. He was described as "the wedding singer from Gaza who was brought up in a refugee camp, to become an international star and a Palestinian hero."

Political impact

Assaf has been crowned a contemporary Palestinian hero. Young and old, graduates of jails and Western universities, residents of refugee camps and yuppie apartments in Ramallah or Haifa, men and women, PLO veterans and those who prefer to ignore politics – everyone sat and watched the glittering contest, listening to the judges' praises and silly comments and proudly following Assaf from stage to stage, until the final.

Amira Hass talking about Assaf's popularity among Palestinians.

While Assaf has normally avoided politics on the show, he has stated "I can't differentiate between my art and my patriotic attitude." Assaf condemned the ongoing Israeli occupation of West Bank and the poor living conditions in the Gaza Strip. He also stated that Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi's long-term hunger strike protest had inspired him. He frequently performed donning the checkered keffiyeh popularly associated with Palestinian nationalism.

He is highly popular in the Palestinian territories, where the Washington Post notes that the "streets of Gaza empty out" when the show goes on air on Fridays and Saturdays. Throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, large posters promoting Assaf have been hung on residences and shops. A source of pride, Assaf has been able to unite Palestinians' sympathies in a way that Palestinian political factions have not been able.

Some Palestinian politicians have showed their support for the singer who has been creating a sense of unity among Palestinians, regardless of differing political beliefs. Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, called on all Palestinians to support Assaf. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had also called for Palestinians everywhere, including the diaspora, to vote for Assaf.

Although prior to his participation in Arab Idol, Assaf stated he had been briefly detained by the security forces of the conservative Hamas party and paramilitary group—which maintains de facto control over Gaza—on over 20 different occasions in an effort to dissuade him from singing, the group has not suppressed Palestinian support for Assaf or viewership of the show. Signalling a shift in attitude, a Gaza-based Hamas MP, Yahya Mousa, lauded Assaf and referred to him the "ambassador for Palestinian art."