RAMALLAH, West Bank -- As of late, a new name has come to define Palestine throughout much of the Arab world. Posters of the young singer Mohammed Assaf, who shot to stardom in the singing competition Arab Idol (the Middle East's version of American Idol), are plastered across the dilapidated walls of West Bank refugee camps and the newly minted billboards lining the route to the Qalandiya checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Street vendors have devised new schemes to increase their sales by offering T-shirts with the crooner's face and the number three -- the digit assigned to him for SMS voting. In a place where despair has soared alongside a deepening economic crisis, a political quagmire and declining international aid, the native Gazan has quickly risen to symbolize hope.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, every Friday and Saturday night, hundreds of Palestinians head to a part of the city normally reserved for fruit and vegetable sellers to watch the 23-year-old on a large screen mounted atop an old building. Plastic chairs are lined up horizontally, barely an inch separating one from the other, to ensure space is maximized for the expected crowds. As soon as the clock hits 9 and the show begins, throngs of young men and groups of families show up, some racing to buy from the abundant food options available in what's become an impromptu open-air theatre. Bucket-loads of turmos (cooked lupine beans), foul (fava beans), and roasted corn on the cob are available for a few Israeli shekels; their main competition being the charcoal-cooked lamb kabobs stuffed in vegetable-filled pitas.