KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip —
(Issawi was arrested in 2002 and convicted of possession of explosives and attempted murder. He was freed in a prisoner exchange and rearrested last year for violating the terms of his parole.)
But friends say that before the show and his sudden fame, Assaf was harassed and detained by Hamas, the Islamist militant and political organization that runs Gaza. Hamas police recently have been rounding up young men for mandatory haircuts and warning them to stop wearing their jeans so low on their hips.
"Arab Idol," with its glitzy dresses, exposed skin and Western-style commercialism, is probably not a Hamas favorite, but there has been no official word on the show from the group.
Still, the streets of Gaza empty out during the two hours when families and friends huddle to watch the song contest on Friday nights, when the singers perform, and on Saturdays, when votes from viewers are tallied.
"Arab Idol" mimics its British and American forerunners, with high production values and plucky young contestants — from Morocco to Iraq — singing their hearts out in front of a panel of celebrity pop stars, who alternately heap praise on the starlets or yawn during their performances.
It's as melodramatic and addictive as the American version, but a bit more politically loaded — a Syrian contestant from the ravaged city of Aleppo sang of his country's "spring of pain," and young Parwas Hussein was lectured by one judge not to say she was from Kurdistan, but simply Iraq. (Members of the Kurdish minority in Iraq have long considered themselves a separate enclave, distinct from the country's Arab majority.)
Serving as judge, the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama (who made the first music video in Arabic, back in the day) dubbed Assaf "the Rocket," and the name has stuck, as a kind of honorific for his soaring voice, but with a double meaning for a kid from Khan Younis, which has been the source and recipient of deadly fire during Gaza's many years of hostilities with Israel.