Syrian singer Hazem Sherf, from the civil-war-torn city of Aleppo, was crowned winner of “Arab Idol” during an emotional finale that drew millions of viewers across the Middle East and took on political overtones with the 21-year-old budding pop star refusing to wear or wave his country’s flag to avoid taking sides.
Aired from the Beirut studios of satcaster Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the third season of the Arab version of FreemantleMedia’s Pop Idol format prompted celebrations Saturday night (December 13) in the streets of Syria’s government-held capital Damascus, with people cheering and waving the Syrian national flag in the streets.
But Sherf shunned the show’s standard ritual, in which the winner is draped in national colors, refusing to have the Syrian flag be part of the onstage celebratory choreography. He also steered clear of any political references in interviews and Facebook messages after his victory. “I am 21 years old, and I don’t want my art to be connected to politics,” he told reporters.
Videos posted on social media showed people cheering in Sherf’s native Aleppo, currently at the center of fierce warfare between pro-government forces and insurgents.
In a message posted on his Facebook page on Sunday Sherf asked God to “bring all harm to light” and to end “calamities,” a clear reference to the civil conflict that has killed roughly 200,000 people to date according to a United Nations estimate.
Sherf edged out fellow finalists Haitham Khalaileh from Palestine and Saudi singer Majed Al Madani for the “Arab Idol” trophy. The judging panel comprised Emirati pop star Ahlam, the Egyptian musician and media personality Hassan El Shafei, and Lebanese hit makers Nancy Ajram and Wael Kfoury.
He won a recording contract with Dubai-based label Platinum Records, 250,000 Saudi Riyals ($66,000) and a holiday for three in the Seychelles.
Sherf, with a silky voice and a solid pan-Arab playlist including Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian ballads, had been a favorite throughout the four-month competition.
After winning, he pledged to soon hit the road for a live tour, saying his biggest wish is to have his first performance in Syria, for all the Syrian people.
Since the Middle East does not have an exact TV ratings metric system, MBC did not provide ratings figures for the “Arab Idol” final, which had a potential audience of more than 120 million viewers.
Not surprisingly, politics are a recurring aspect of “Arab Idol.” The winner in 2013 was Mohammed Assaf, a young onetime wedding singer from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Assaf’s watershed “Arab Idol” victory last year was discussed by heads of state in peace negotiations and earned him U.N. diplomatic ambassador status. In June Assaf performed a World-Cup anthem during FIFA’s 64th Congress in Sao Paulo, broadcast live to millions, becoming the first Arab artist to ever perform at a FIFA World Cup Soccer event.