KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — "Arab Idol" is an over-the-top TV ratings smash in the Middle East, and a young crooner from a Palestinian refugee family, whom admirers have nicknamed "the Rocket," is stealing the show.
The surprise breakout of the second season is a 23-year-old Gaza Strip resident named Mohammed Assaf, whose patriotic folk songs and romantic ballads — with their themes of grit, longing and love — have propelled him into the final rounds.
"I think this shows the world there are many normal people in Gaza, that Gaza is not just this place of terrorists and criminals but nice people," said Ala'a Nabrees, 22, a longtime friend. "He is the Palestinian dream."
This sounds corny, Nabrees acknowledged. "But it is true," he said. "Young people in Gaza? They really want to see somebody make it."
Assaf's fans at home and in the Palestinian diaspora praise the college student and moonlighting wedding singer as the complete package. He is the dutiful son who called out to his parents in the audience Friday night, telling them that they were "the crown on top of my head."
He performed in an earlier show in a kaffiyeh, a scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian pride and resistance. Plus, he looks as if he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, the fans say.
His mother, a math teacher, told CNN, "The girls don't come here, to our house. But they are all over the Internet and Facebook."
"He is doing more than all the politicians to unify the Palestinian people," said Ahmad Awwad, 23, a close friend and schoolmate at the University of Palestine.
On the show, Assaf has avoided politics. But he has spoken to the news media against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the harsh conditions in Gaza. The Palestinian Maan News Agency quoted him as saying that he was inspired by the prominent Palestinian prisoner and long-term hunger-striker Samer Issawi. "I can't differentiate between my art and my patriotic attitude," Assaf said.