Yacoub Shaheen, the Assyrian singer from Palestine taking Arab Idol by storm

Written by Ajam editor Alex Shams.

In just a few short months, Yacoub Shaheen has gone from a local singer in the West Bank town of Bethlehem to a household name across the Arab World. Shaheen is Palestine’s contestant on Arab Idol, the glamorous yearly entertainment contest that is must-see TV for millions across the Middle East. He has wowed audiences and judges with his smooth voice, good looks, and soulful rendition of classic Arabic songs.

The following clip shows him singing a Palestinian nationalist song, entitled “Her earth is my soul,” wrapped in a kuffiyeh:

Shaheen’s rise to fame has triggered excitement not just in Palestine, where he was born and raised, but in an unexpected corner of the region as well: northern Iraq. Assyrians around the world have quickly taken note of a part of Shaheen’s biography less-mentioned on the show: he is Syriac, a small community that is part of the Assyrian nation (and which is sometimes referred to as Aramean).

Syriacs, like most Assyrians, are Christian. Church services are conducted in Syriac, a liturgical language related to Aramaic. Aramaic is an early Semitic language related to modern Arabic, Hebrew, as well as Assyrian, which is the closest modern relative of the language and is also called neo-Aramaic. In Palestine, very few Syriacs speak Assyrian, but liturgical Syriac is in church use. The following video shows Shaheen singing a Syriac song beside a Syriac priest:

Palestine’s 5,000-strong Syriac Christian community is based primarily in the two neighboring cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In both cities there are prominent Syriac Quarters; in the former, nestled beside the Armenian Quarter and in the latter the Church of the Nativity. The following video shows Bethlehem’s Old City, passing by the Syriac Quarter en route to the church.

The community traces their roots in Palestine to the final days of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s and 20s. They originally lived in what is today southeastern Turkey, and were part of the broader Assyrian nation spread between modern Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. But the community was targeted for genocide by Ottoman authorities alongside Armenians and Pontic Greeks. Survivors of the massacres were welcomed as refugees in neighboring Arab countries, and hundreds of Syriacs – as well as Armenians – made their homes in Palestine.

But the story of Palestine’s Syriacs does not end there. The creation of Israel in 1948 involved targeted attacks on Palestinians and the mass expulsion of 750,000, among them many Syriacs. In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, they demolished the majority of Jerusalem’s Syriac Quarter to expand the Jewish Quarter, expelling hundreds if not thousands of Syriacs. Those that remained live under Israeli occupation, their rights tightly restricted and their lives threatened just like all other Palestinians.

Many Palestinian Syriacs today identity strongly with both of their identities, keeping alive their families’ histories as refugees and survivors of genocide alongside their own contemporary role in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Indeed, many older Palestinian Syriacs are refugees two times over, having fled Ottoman forces only to be attacked by the Israeli army a few decades later.

Music has a historic role bringing people from around the world together, and nowhere has Arab Idol’s role unifying fans from across the Middle East been more clear than with Yacoub Shaheen. He has united Palestinians and Assyrians – two communities both hit by war and displacement – in joy at his success on the international stage.

Whether Shaheen triumphs at Arab Idol in the days to come, the ability of this refugee son’s voice to bring these two disparate nations is a powerful reminder of music’s power to build solidarity.

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10 comments

  1. Hi Alex.

    I like your article, however I have to point out an error you have made.

    Syriac’s as an ethnic group do not all identify as ‘Assyrian’ or being part of the ‘Assyrian nation’. The former nation was Mesopotamia and this was ruled by many different civilizations. Today, there are three nationalistic groups that Syriac’s will identify with: Assyrian, Chaldean or Aramean.

    My research reveals that Yacoub identifies with being Syriac Aramean (not Assyrian). I myself identify with being of Syriac Aramean heritage.

    The reason why I am informing you, is because this subject is highly contentious and to make this error can be deeply offensive.

    Sarah

    1. This is BS. He is Assyrian and identifies himself as Assyrian, I have met him a few years ago when I was in Bethlehem. Our church is Syriac, our language is Aramaic but our identity is Assyrian. You should stick to the truth and question yourself of why you even wrote this post. Why did you feel the need to do so?

      Anyway, great article about Yacoub and about his Assyrian heritage. Thank you!

      1. So sorry but I think you are mistaken. His family is Suryoyo, Aramean, Syriani…what ever you want to call it. He is the Scout and wears a Syriani uniform with honor. You meet him but his family memeber go to my church and they all identify themselves as Syriani!

  2. I really hope he wins for the sake of Palestine and Assyria. I also hope he wins because most of his voters and supporters are Muslims. I want the news that Muslims are supporting a Christian to Poke ISIS in the eyes and to let them know that most Muslims reject their insanity. Viva Yaqube Shaheen.

  3. He is undoubtly Syriac Aramean!
    He stated it live in an interview some days ago, underlyning that he used to sing also according to the aramaic music culture and not turkish (as stated live in the audition).
    He always and only wear the aramaic flag even because he belongs to the aramean scouts of Bethlehm.
    Some years ago he won a competition and took his aramean flag on stage!
    Keeep going with your silly lies somewhere else.
    Thank you Yacoub, and “tihe suryoye oromoye”!

  4. Hey everybody 🙂
    Im muslim palestinian and very proud of Yacoub, he is syrianic/assyrian palestinian. He has relatives in Sweden who identifies themselfes as syrianic/assyrian palestinian, like he does and he is proud. He is proud of his origin, he is a strong christian and do alot for his people and religion. Why does we argue about his origin when he stand up for syrianic/assyrian and the palestinian people? And even for this religion? Let us be proud of him, he is a fighter!!!

  5. Maria

    If you had meet him you would know that he calls him self ARAMEAN, nothing else. Btw just read history peeps, you are not assyrian you are arameans gone astray. History is a fact not a matter of preference 😉

  6. https://mobile.twitter.com/SAF_NL/status/819230981454495745/photo/1

    https://goo.gl/images/8lvI7F

    The above links show photos of Yacoub with the Syriac Aramean (Oromoyo) flag (the symbol of the eagle on his chest). Clearly not the Assyrian flag.

    My cousins in Sweden & Germany also claim they are Syriac Assyrian. I don’t agree with their beliefs.

    Yes we should not fight about it, because we are all related & have more commonalities then differences. However I don’t believe people should be making unfounded statements about Yacoub for their own agenda- in this case “Assyrian” nationalism.

  7. Bravo for the fighter and the people of Bethlehem and Palestine
    Bravo for this young performer we enjoyed his performance.
    Good on Soryoyo Soraya ALL the same meaning Assoraya , Assoryoyo

    Great win for the people who love their country and people

    Amir Dandan great performance and great spirits by Yacoub and Amir to show unity of the Palestinians

    Many lessons and great examples when you work hard, fight and dont give up like Yacoub who was very sick , yet he continued fighting till the end. Congratulations bravo bravo

  8. My brothers and sisters, the purpose of Yaqub is to unite all our people and not to divide it! Both his mother and father are Bethlehemite Palestinians. His father’s roots are Aramaic/Assyrian (both peoples have intermingled throughout the years) and his mother’s roots are frm the original Canaanite people. Syriac is a Hellenized form of Assyrian and it is difficult to distinguish Arameans and Assyrians because they intermingled. Kanaan, Aram and Ashur are all part of “One Nation” which at some time was part of the Assyrian empire and at other times part of other empires, but our people’s roots are basically the same in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Later on we are arabized although some of us are frm Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes. We are now one undivided people and Yaqub is our symbol.

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