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DEC
13
2 YEARS

Syrian 21-Year-Old Wins 'Arab Idol'

Hazem Shareef of Aleppo beat contestants of Saudi Arabian and Palestinian descent

Arab Idol Hazem Sharif H
Courtesy of MBC

Weeks before American Idol returns to its 14th season on Fox, the pan-Middle Eastern edition of the show has just crowned its latest winner.

Hazem Shareef, 21, of Aleppo, Syria's most populated city, was announced the season-three winner of Arab Idol, the highly popular local version of the FremantleMedia format Pop Idol, which airs on pan-Arab television network MBC. While contestants originate from various countries in the region, the competition itself takes place in Beirut, Lebanon.

Following Friday night's showdown, the Saturday night finale saw the Syrian odds-on favorite win over Majid Al Madani of Saudi Arabia and Palestinian Haitham Khalailah, whose participation — as well as of that of fellow Palestinian Manal Mousa, who was eliminated in the top eight stage — was closely followed in multiple local news outlets, including Israeli ones.

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Both were referred to in Israeli media as "the first Arab-Israeli contestants on an Arab show," relating to the governmental term for Arab citizens living within Israeli territory. Upon her surprise elimination on Nov. 22, Mousa, a native of Deir al-Asad in the Galilee, addressed the matter onstage, saying, "I want to pass a message for the yellow journalism that fought me: I am Palestinian and Palestinian blood flows through me."

Two weeks before her elimination, the 27-year-old Mousa was vocal on social media, weighing in on a recent altercation in northern Israel where a knife-wielding Palestinian attacked Israeli policemen, who shot him dead. Mousa called the man a "martyr" and encouraged her followers to demonstrate for pro-Palestinian rights, writing, "Palestine is revolting, Israeli Arabs are revolting." She was later praised by several local political figures.

Khalailah, a 24-year-old Palestinian, remained fairly moderate in terms of politics and national identity throughout the competition, stating that he is proud of his heritage and hopes to grant the victory to his people.

Last season's winner was also of Palestinian descent. Mohammed Assaf, of Khan Younis refugee camp, won viewers' hearts after sneaking out of the Gaza Strip to audition and ultimately winning the show. His victory garnered media attention throughout the world, and soon after, Assaf was announced the first ever Regional Youth Ambassador for Palestine Refugees on behalf of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). During the past 18 months, he has been campaigning as well as recording original material. In June, he performed his World Cup-themed song "Assaf 360" in front of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in Sao Paulo.

As the newest Arab Idol, Shareef's prize includes 250,000 Saudi riyals ($66,000), a contract with Platinum Records (a label affiliated with MBC) and production of three singles and a music video, as well as a trip to the Seychelles courtesy of show sponsor Emirates airline.

Watch his winning performance below: