KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip —
On Friday night, the judges gushed all over Assaf again. "I feel when you are singing, I am the guest in a big concert and you are the star," said Ahlam, the judge and diva from the United Arab Emirates who goes by one name and is famous for her lavish lifestyle, fabulous gowns, Qatari race car driver husband and struggles with weight.
Judge Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese songstress (and goodwill ambassador for UNICEF), teared up and said she had no word to describe the beauty of Assaf's voice. "You are a true singer," she sighed.
Here in Khan Younis, posters of Assaf that line the streets urge citizens to dial into the "Arab Idol" hotline and punch "3" on their cellphones to vote for the native son, the first singer from Gaza to make the show's top 10 contestants.
The winner will get a recording contract from the music company that is part of MBC, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based satellite broadcaster of the show, as well as a Chevrolet Corvette, which would be an unusual sight in the streets of Gaza.
The United States might not be the most popular country in the Middle East these days, but in addition to Chevrolet, the show's sponsors include Pepsi, Twix and Kentucky Fried Chicken; until last week, KFC food was being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through underground tunnels.
At his home, Assaf's older brother was welcoming well-wishers into a large living room, where verses from the Koran shared wall space with more posters of a smiling Assaf. The parents had left the day before for Beirut, from where the show is broadcast.
"Mohammed was just 5 years old when he sang for the first time before a large audience, at the stadium here, in honor of Yasser Arafat," former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Shadi Assaf said. "The crowd was very impressed that a boy so young could sing so well in such a place."