BEIRUT (Reuters) - An American singer with no Arab heritage nearly took the top prize in the "Arabs Got Talent" television show this weekend, breaking into the top three alongside a Palestinian artist and a Syrian dance troupe.
Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts, fell just short in the end, but her renditions of classical Arabic songs had stunned some audiences - especially given that she only speaks a little Arabic.
Late on Saturday night, Grout vied with an eclectic set of contestants for the show's third season finale, including a Moroccan juggler, Kuwaiti comedians, an Egyptian "popper," a Lebanese drummer, and an acrobatics squad dressed as Pharaohs.
Dressed in a flowing white gown, Grout sang "Wahashtini" (I've Missed You), a classic by Lebanese-Egyptian singer Souad Mohamed.
The judges praised her voice and her enthusiasm for classic Arabic music - much of it relatively unknown outside the Middle East - at a time when many commentators lament that Western cultural hegemony has eroded the region's distinct identity.
Grout lives in Morocco and organizers said it was not necessary to be an Arab to compete.
"I believe Jennifer is a phenomenon we should celebrate," Saudi Arabian comedian Nasser al-Qasaibi said.
Egyptian actor Ahmed Helmy played on the idiosyncrasies of his country's dialect - the Arabic alphabet's "J" is pronounced as a "G" in Egyptian - to commend Grout's talents.
"From today, you're no longer 'Jennifer,' you're 'Gennifer'," he said.
Umm Kalthoum, Grout's favorite Arabic singer, was also Egyptian, and has a near-mythic status in the Arab world.
Grout was joined in the top three by Mohamed al-Deiri, a Palestinian artist who drew enthusiastic applause by swiftly burning a portrait of Yasser Arafat onto a large white canvas with two gas torches, and Syrian dance team Sima.
In the end it was Sima's performance - an interpretative dance that incorporated themes of power and conflict - that took the top prize.
The number opened with a group of dancers dressed in black and white fighting over a throne, an image that could be seen as symbolic of Syria's conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people.
"In the finals, we wanted to do something related to the reality we're living, to present it as it is, how brutal it is and how violent," said Lana Fehmi, one of Sima's dancers.
"I think it reflects reality but, at the same time, I think sometimes it can give hope."
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Angus MacSwan)