RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Hundreds of Palestinian youths lined up outside a luxury hotel at the crack of dawn on Monday for a chance to compete in the Arab world's premier talent show, hoping to follow the unlikely example of last year's winner and sing their way out of a life of conflict and poverty.
It was the first time that the top rated "Arab Idol" show has come to the Palestinian territories, marking an important milestone for an area that is not accustomed to celebrating.
"We have to put Palestine on the map. This is the first Arab contest to come here and recruit people, and the other programs will follow," Mohammed Assaf, the feel-good winner of last year's competition, told The Associated Press.
Assaf, a young wedding singer for a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, became an overnight sensation across the Arab world thanks to his bright smile, warm tenor and personal story of overcoming adversity.
Assaf said he had to plead with Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers to let him leave the territory, then bribe Egyptian border guards to enter the country en route to Lebanon to compete. A fellow Palestinian gave up his slot during the audition phase because he believed Assaf had a better chance at winning. Many of Assaf's songs touched upon the Palestinian struggle for independence.
Assaf said his success helped persuade the producers of Arab Idol to hold Monday's tryout.
"I told them, "Look at me. I won, and there are hundreds of other gifted singers in Palestine and they need to get the chance like their other Arab fellows,'" he said.
Some 500 hopefuls showed up for Monday's tryout, huddling in a large tent outside the Grand Park Hotel waiting for their turn to perform. Each contestant was given one minute to sing in front of the cameras, and the tryout ran from 7 a.m. until well into the evening.
Most of the singers, aged from 15-30, said they were inspired by Assaf. All expressed the hope of leaving behind their lives of dead-end jobs and conflict with Israel. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for an independent state.
Musafa Ayyash, 22, who makes his living as a construction worker in a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem, said he left his house at 4 a.m. to make sure he would get a chance to compete.
"I have a good voice, I sing in the house, I sing for my friends, and they all told me I should come, and I will try my luck," he said. "This could change my whole life. I do a very difficult job. I work in construction to earn $600 a month. If I get a chance and win, then my whole life will change."
Nidal Basma, 23, a physiotherapist from a village near Ramallah said he struggles to get by on a salary of $500 to $600 a month.
"I can't live a good life with such a small salary. If this show gives me the chance to enter the world of singing, I might become like Assaf, who was nobody and now has become a star in the Arab World."
MBC, the pan-Arab TV station that airs the program, sent a five-member production crew from the show's Lebanon headquarters for the tryout. The team entered the West Bank, whose border with Jordan is controlled by Israel, on French passports. The producers were not permitted to speak to the media.
Mohammed Zumlot, the chief executive of the hotel, said the station told him it had never considered entering the Palestinian territories because it considered the West Bank too unstable. But after taking into account the current strife across the Arab world — including an Egyptian military coup, a civil war in Syria and unrest in Lebanon — the station changed its mind, Zumlot said.
"They asked if we have private security companies, space, halls, media companies, and to their surprise everything was available," Zumlot said. "I told them we have the Israeli occupation, but we have life, we have nightlife, hotels, companies everything."
"When I signed the contract, they told me you are the most stable and peaceful country in the region, referring to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt," he added.
While the contest brought some rare excitement to the streets of Ramallah, not everyone got to celebrate. Assaf said a request to allow singers from Gaza to travel through Israel to the West Bank for the competition was denied. Maj. Guy Inbar, a defense official, said the request was not even considered because the Gaza-Israel border crossing is closed due to heavy rocket fire out of Gaza last week.
During last year's competition, the head of the jury, Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama, nicknamed Assaf "the Rocket from Gaza," in reference to the frequent rocket fire from Gaza at Israel.
For Assaf, though, the competition was simply about bringing a small piece of normalcy to a strife-torn region.
"Being under occupation doesn't prevent you from singing and playing soccer and creating a good life. I'm singing in the Arab world and tell our story wherever I go," he said.