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.