Kfar al-Khadar, West Bank — It’s 20 minutes before show time and the young hopefuls sit together in clusters around cloth-covered tables. Some of the contestants are silent, internalizing their mood before the cameras start to roll, while others laugh and joke aloud to get their tensions out. With their hair and makeup already perfected and their carefully chosen outfits clean and pressed, there is little else to do except focus on the oversized television screen broadcasting the scene from the stage three floors below.
This backstage waiting room could be part of any reality TV show — a group of strangers sitting together waiting for their 15 minutes of fame — but what sets the Palestinian singing show “New Star” apart from other televised talent contests around the world is that, while clearly aimed at discovering new stars and entertaining, it also offers a rare glimpse into the intricacies and identities that continue to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most complicated in the world.
Since its first round of auditions, which saw thousands of young hopefuls from across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel trying their luck, “New Star” judges Ghawi Ghawi, Habib Shehadeh and Nisreen Faour have whittled the race down to 24 semifinalists, who will perform over the next two weeks in front of a live studio audience at the newly built Palestinian convention center in Kfar al-Khadar, on the outskirts of Bethlehem and not far from Jerusalem.
While the location — which means passing through an Israeli checkpoint and then a Palestinian one — could quite easily highlight the regions’ complications, it is the eclectic mix of people both on stage and off that gives insight into what’s at stake.
Of the 12 contestants waiting to take the stage, more than half hold Israeli identification cards or passports (according to Israel’s definition they are Israeli Arabs); the rest are from towns and villages over the “Green Line,” places that in the near future could make up a Palestinian state. There is also one singer from the Gaza Strip who, due to the Israeli blockade, is forced to perform via satellite link. Producers are still unsure, even if he wins the competition, whether he will be able to obtain the necessary permits to claim his prize.
“I’m a singer, I want to progress in my profession, and I see this show as my big chance to make it,” says 30-year-old Wajde al Shaer, the oldest contestant in the competition and a resident of Beit Jann, a small Druze village in the upper Galilee, well within Israeli territory. “Being on ‘A Star is Born’ [the Israeli version of the show] was never an option for me because I like to sing songs from the Arab world.”
Indeed, Arabs — who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population — almost never appear on “A Star is Born” because the show focuses exclusively on music sung in Hebrew.
Al Shaer, who works as a wedding singer, explains: “It’s just easier for me as an Arab to try and be famous in the Arab world.”
Indeed, for al Shaer and the other semifinalists fame now seems to be more of a reality than a dream. Already, “New Star,” which last year ran a much smaller version of the show aimed only at Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, commands some 30 percent of the ratings among Arabs with Israeli citizenship and around the same amount for those living in the West Bank.
According to Samer Hamam, owner of the Haifa-based satellite television station Mix TV, which partners with the Palestinian News Agency, Maan, to produce the show, “New Star” reaches most countries across the Arab world and is quickly becoming as popular as similar entertainment shows broadcast from Lebanon and elsewhere.
Although based in Haifa, Mix TV is not run on either of Israel’s two satellite/cable channels — and most Israeli Jews are completely unaware of the existence of “New Star.” However, most Israeli Arabs purchase an extra satellite dish that picks up Arab channels from across Middle East, and they watch Mix TV this way.
Hamam says that he formed the idea for “New Star” together with his brother, Amir, who is a singer but felt shut out of the contests in other Arab countries.
“He wanted to sing but could not find a stage,” says Hamam. “The whole world thinks that all Palestinians do is throw stones, but we are not all Hamas. There are Palestinians out there who like to sing and dance; we want to show the world that side of us.”
The show, however, has not gone unnoticed by Islamic extremists who, Hamam says, have accused it of not being conservative enough. It has also drawn criticism from political groups that say the show does not show the reality of life under “Israeli occupation.”
“There is nothing else like this for the Palestinian people,” maintains Hamam. “I believe that giving people a little piece of happiness in their lives it will help them survive the hardships, and it is about time that the Palestinian people have some hope.”
One of the few West Bank contestants, Hadil Rishmawi, 21, agrees.
Dressed in a blue taffeta gown, she says: “This show is so important because we can now get the picture out that Palestinians are not just sitting around and doing nothing while they are under occupation. We are not depressed; we are doing what we want and we have to show the world that we have more to offer and that we are living as human beings just like other people around the world do.”