“The Idol”

                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 childhood.

            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.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                   Have you ever watched “American Idol”?  Why has it been so popular?

2)                  Have you ever watched any other country’s “Idol” competition?  How is it similar, and how is it different from America’s version?

3)                  What can be done to improve relations between Israel and Palestine?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association