Heroes of pop, parkour and footie in Palestine

August 11, 2013
Sarah Benton

The article about Mohammed Assaf is followed by a bog from Football Palestine. Notes and links includes an account of the Gaza Parkour Team.

Pop idol Mohammed Assaf , right, with Barcelona FC’s star player, Lionel Messi. The football club visited Palestine-Israel last week on a two-day ‘Tour of Peace’. See 2nd item.

Arab pop star adds his voice to the calls for a peace deal for Palestine

Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf is revered by fans in the Middle East but his main aim now is to help establish the rights of fellow Palestinians

By Nabila Ramdani, Observer
August 11, 2013

Assaf’s pitch-perfect renditions of regional classics from across the Arab world attracted an audience of up to 100 million for the show’s final. Exuberant idealism may have been the hallmark of his performances but, like those who achieved so much in the early months of the Arab spring revolutions of 2011, Assaf knows romanticism alone will not sustain his ambitions. In the buildup to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks which resume in Jerusalem this week, there is no doubting his growing political influence. “I have a great responsibility to my people,” said Assaf, after performing at a new stadium near Hebron in the West Bank to thousands of ecstatic fans. Nationalist songs such as Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight) provided solace to those yearning for full Palestinian independence, but Assaf is convinced that real change is possible.

“I am confident that I will see a free Palestine in my lifetime,” he said. “I sing about popular themes but they centre on the hopes of my own people – dreams of independence for the West Bank, for Jerusalem and for Gaza. We’ve been under Israeli occupation for decades.”

Born in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and growing up in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Assaf embodies the struggles of a generation who, two years ago during the pro-democracy revolutions, used every modern tool available to put their problems on the worldwide agenda. The internet and live satellite TV broadcasts were crucial to the Arab spring in an increasingly interdependent, media-driven world, but Assaf is also a passionate believer in the power of both popular music and celebrity to galvanise people.

“There are many ways to make a difference in life, but my way is as an artist,” said Assaf, a graduate of Palestine University who has just become a UN youth ambassador. “I’ve always wanted to make my voice heard around the world, to sing about the occupation, about the security walls between communities, and about refugees. My first ambition is a cultural revolution through art. Palestinians don’t want war – they are tired of fighting.”

Assaf is, more specifically, calling for a return to Palestine’s 1967 borders, as well as articulating peace demands which include guaranteed security from attack, freedom of movement, an end to illegal Israeli settlements and the return of prisoners and refugees. “The subject of peace is massively complicated,” said Assaf. “The Palestinians want independence and freedom, just like everyone in the world. Thousands of us are professionals – teachers, doctors and lawyers. We all want our dignity and rights.”

Assaf’s principal message is that the Palestine question is being lost in the realpolitik speak of international negotiators such as Tony Blair. The former British prime minister, who is now the Middle East peace envoy for the Quartet of the UN, US, EU and Russia, has, like many others, lost touch with the human catastrophe on the ground, Assaf believes.

A mass expression of what people want is Assaf’s preferred route to effective political change. He cites the ousting of dictators such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who were ultimately deposed by popular movements after decades in power – exits that would have appeared inconceivable a few years ago.

Last weekend Assaf strolled through Bethlehem with Barcelona footballers, who were also on a “peace tour”. Among them was Lionel Messi, perhaps the most popular player in the world, who posed happily for photographs with the singer, as did Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority.

And as did the Netanyahus on the second of Barça’s two-day peace tour. Photo via Kamal Hawwash

It was Abbas who, a few days later, successfully applied to the Israelis to allow Assaf unrestricted movement in and out of Gaza, along with members of his family. Assaf was allowed to move to the less volatile West Bank. The very fact that a potential global singing star needs permission from Israel to relocate to the West Bank is something that few of Assaf’s growing number of international fans would have known about.

“These are the kind of issues I want to highlight,” he said, pointing to the harsh restrictions which govern ordinary life for some 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza. Assaf is also concerned at the division between Abbas’s Fatah, which runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that administers Gaza.

“Unity is the key – Hamas and Fatah should come to an agreement,” said Assaf. “It’s insane that we effectively have two governments at the same time as being colonised by Israel. It’s hugely frustrating for me, and for all Palestinians.”

Expressing scepticism about the short term, Assaf added: “To be honest I have no trust in Israel at the moment. If they give us our land and our rights back, I will sing in Israel, but they have to do something positive. It’s up to them. They have made no effort to dismantle their illegal settlements, for example – quite the opposite.”

One of Assaf’s greatest talents is the ability to sing different genres of music from across the Arab world. During one of his Arab Idolperformances he also sang I Want It That Way by his favourite US band, the Backstreet Boys. There are plans for him to be at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, too, perhaps duetting with Colombian superstar Shakira.

Such versatility has made Assaf “very keen indeed” to perform in Britain, to the Arab diaspora but also to a more cosmopolitan audience in cities like London. Referring to the original British pledge of a Jewish homeland, Assaf said: “Britain has a great role to play in the peace process. It was there at the inception – it created problems, and it has a responsibility to try to sort them out.”

Assaf’s spoken words are as direct and passionate as his singing. The popular entertainment that is Arab Idol may have put him on the world stage, but he now intends to use his vaunted position in the limelight to promote justice and a mass movement for change in the world’s most intractable conflict.

FC Barcelona visits Palestine

Football Palestine blog
August 06, 2013

What to make of FC Barcelona’s brief stop in the Holy Land? No doubt many a football fan was overjoyed to see their sporting heroes in the flesh. 24,000 people did not hesitate in forking over $14 to watch Barcelona jog around and go through the lightest of training sessions and were later treated to a concert by Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf.

Earlier in the day, it was the governmental officials who were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi. It seemed all a clever ploy to boost their credentials as a legitimate governing power. [V]isits to the Wall and refugee camps were eschewed in favor of a press conference in Ramallah and a brief trip to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

24 hours later the Catalan side did many of the same activities for an Israeli audience. They met Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, visited the Wailing Wall, and then conducted another training session at the Ramat Gan Stadium.

Shortly afterwards they got on a plane and flew to the Far East to continue preparations for the upcoming La Liga season. Not soon after they left Fahed Attal and Mohammed Shbair were assaulted by IDF troops and a TV van from Palestine Live had to deal with tear gas canisters being fired upon them.

In summation, this trip was much like a trip by a US President; pleasantries are exchanged on both sides of the Green Line, thing stay quiet for about 48 hours, the word ‘peace’ is bandied about 143,435,897 times, and then normal service is resumed after the visit is over.

Notes and links
FC Barcelona shoots for peace
World-famous soccer team, in Israel by invitation of President Peres, holds clinics with both Israeli and Palestinian children
From Times of Israel, August 4th 2013
The President of FC Barcelona, Sandro Rosell, said in his remarks that, “We have come to this land to strengthen our bonds of friendship and help you, both Israelis and Palestinians, to find meeting points to help you along the road to peace. We are doing this with all the humility in the world, but in the knowledge that Barça is one of things that both communities have in common, for as they have told us, we are the most popular foreign team in both Israel and Palestine. This makes us feel very proud, but at the same time legitimizes our cause and encourages us to help you towards this goal.

Parkour in Palestine

Abdullah Anshasi training on the rubble near the Khan Younis refugee camp (where Mohammed Assaf grew up). Photo by Antonio Ottomanelli.

By Domus 966
February 2013

EXTRACT from interviews with the Gaza Parkour Team.
In his book Hollow Land, the preeminent analysis of the visible and invisible ways through which Israel implements its control over Palestinians in and beyond the occupied territories, Eyal Weizman describes how “the mundane elements of planning and architecture have become tactical tools and the means of dispossession.” Gaza is the birthplace, in Weizman’s analysis, of a brutal and astute new military-urbanistic doctrine in which the battleground is shifted to embrace the most commonplace, mundane elements of the urban fabric—those dwellings, stores and workshops in which everyday life unfolds. Just as the Israeli Defense Forces learned to move seamlessly through walls, blasting a path deep into the city, room by room and building by building, in 2005 a group of youths from Gaza had a similar epiphany. Inspired by the nascent sport of parkour, born in the Parisian banlieues, they began to observe the urban fabric of Gaza as a playground through which they could move fluidly, using their bodies—instead of weapons and explosives—to overcome boundaries and barriers.

Domus Parkour is the art of overcoming obstacles and boundaries—without equipment, just using one’s body. Gaza is a city defined by obstacles and boundaries. Is there a connection there? Is this why you chose to practice parkour?

Muhammed Aljkhbeir: Certainly there is a big relationship between parkour and barriers that we’re surrounded by in the Gaza Strip, There’s the blockade, walls are everywhere, and the sea, which is normally a sign of freedom, is for us a symbol of incarceration. As parkour players, Gaza City is a source of pain, worry and psychological distress. There is so much violence here—continuous wars, bombing, pillaging of the agricultural land, killing of civilians and children, and the suffocating siege that makes us feel as though we’re in a cage made by the Israeli army. Parkour gives us a sense of freedom and allows us to endure these conditions without getting deeply depressed.

Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation
By Eyal Weizman
Verso £19.99, 318 pages

[Click headline above for FT review of Hollow Land, 2007]

© Copyright JFJFP 2017