Last month, Yacoub Shaheen, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, won “Arab Idol,” a popular singing show whose contestants represent the entire Arab world.
Following in the footsteps of Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian resident of the Gaza Strip who won the singing competition in 2013, Shaheen is the second Palestinian to win “Arab Idol” since the show’s inception in 2011.
Shaheen is a Christian, a part of his identity widely highlighted by international media covering his victory even though it’s a seemingly insignificant component of the greater story of his win. Headlines such as al-Jazeera’s “Palestinian Christian Yacoub Shaheen wins Arab Idol” sparked wide debate among Palestinians as to whether his religion should be so heavily emphasized in the media, rather than just the fact that he is a Palestinian.
Shaheen’s story, however, is not the first time that non-Palestinian Arab media defined Palestinian identity as part of this reality television show. Media, specifically Arab media, have shown that they pick and choose how to present Palestinians and their identity to both the Arab world and the greater global community.
In 2014, Manal Mousa and Haitham Khalaily, both twentysomething Arab citizens of northern Israel, decided to participate in “Arab Idol” in Beirut, Lebanon. These two aspiring singers traveled to Beirut via Jordan, a trip that is illegal for Israeli citizens, and both ended up making it through preliminary rounds, emerging as contestants on the televised portion of the program.
The legality and controversial details of their travels are, however, not our focus here.
On the show, the fact that the two singers are Israeli citizens was omitted from their bios, and they were introduced as “Palestinians representing Palestine.” The blog Hot Arab Music wrote, “Haitham Khalaily, the charismatic singer from historic Palestine, came in second to that young Syrian vocalist who seems like a nice guy but lacks the marketability.”
For Khalaily and Mousa to be marketable in the Arab media and the ranks of Arab pop music, their Israeli citizenship had to be erased.
The liminal identities of Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up roughly one-fifth of the nation’s population, are quite complicated. They are often excluded from the culture of the Arab world because they are widely considered to have become part of the “other” — in this case, Jewish Israelis, or the enemy.
It is thus the case that Arab citizens of Israel must deny their Israeliness to be accepted as part of the Arab world.
This story, along with that of Yacoub Shaheen, highlights the greater trend of Arab media defining Palestinians instead of allowing the Palestinians to define themselves.