The conflict in the
Middle East has been going on for, oh, about 3,800 years or so now.
Ever since Abraham and Sarah threw her maid Hagar out of the house,
along with Hagar's son Ishmael from Abraham, whom Sarah at first
encouraged, when she was childless, but then, when she had Isaac,
everything changed. Hagar and
Ishmael became persona non grata. And
so the family feud began, which sowed the seeds for the
centuries-simmering Arab-Israeli conflict.
Mohammed Assaf grew up in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip, the place
where the Israelis have constructed a big barbed wire fence along the
border, with access being very tightly controlled (no word on whether they
made the Palestinians pay for the fence).
Mohammed grows up as many boys in Palestine today do:
they go to school, they play “football” (soccer) in the dirty
playgrounds, they ride their bikes through the teeming markets and the
fallow fields. But their lives
are pretty much circumscribed to a narrow radius, as are the lives of
their parents, and all the rest of the families, and pretty much everybody
they know. They aren’t
exactly prisoners, but they can’t get out, either.
Mohammed (Qais Atallah) is a young lad with an obvious singing
talent. His sister Nour (Hiba
Atallah) and a couple of his school buddies are ambitious for him, and try
to form a little band, at first using kettles and sticks, but then working
hard buying and selling whatever they can in order to save up enough money
to buy some “real” instruments, including a guitar, and a microphone
and amplifier, with a real set of drums.
But their pawn broker cheats them out of their money, and they are
again bereft, despite a couple of successful gigs as wedding singers.
The other guys get discouraged, and then when his sister gets very
ill, the whole dream just seems to go up in smoke, like many dreams of
Now Mohammed (Tawfeek Barhom) is a young man, driving a taxi.
Though he still sings while he’s driving, he doesn’t think much
about his old dreams anymore, until he happens to meet a young woman who
was in the same hospital with his sister when they were both little girls.
Mohammed’s sister didn’t make it, but the other young woman
did, and she encourages Mohammed to enter the Arab Idol contest, except in
order to do that, Mohammed is going to have to figure out how to get
across the border, into Cairo.
It’s not easy. It
takes several attempts, and some shenanigans, and maybe an illegality or
two. But Mohammed succeeds
past the first round, and manages to get to the big competition in Beirut,
where he has become the hero of all Palestinians, who have had precious
little to cheer about lately.
It’s a heart-warming true tale, but there is some difficulty for
the American viewer: the
subtitles, of course, which some folks just don’t like.
And the music Mohammed is singing--- native to the Arabian world
and sounding similar to calls to prayer from the muezzin over the
loudspeakers above the mosques--- lilting, passionate, but not really
melodic to Western ears (and not even subtitled).
Nonetheless, we root for Mohammed, both as the naïve, idealistic,
young boy, and the determined, resourceful young man.
And we wish that Middle Eastern détente were as easy as a song.