Arab Idol-star Haitham Khalaily feels an obligation to raise his voice about the Palestinian cause. PNN met him for an exclusive interview after his performance at a Nakba-event in Ramallah.
The vibrations from Haitham Khalailys voice sound through the streets of Ramallah and can be heard from kilometers away. The epicenter is a stage in Arafat Square, where a few thousand people have gathered Wednesday to commemorate the anniversary of Nakba.
The official Nakba day is not until Friday, but the whole week is packed with demonstrations, marches and events all over the West Bank. The PA is behind this particular event at which Khalaily seems to be the big draw for the youngsters.
The 25-year-old singer, who grew up in a village near Nazareth, gained status as pop star all over the Middle East, as he came in second at the Arab Idol last year.
Almost every Palestinian family watches the show. For the past two years, their compatriots have made it to the finals and beat singers from countries like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and even Kurdistan. In 2013, Muhammad Assaf from Gaza famously won the whole show.
A beautiful experience
The young audience is dancing on the plastic chairs and in the square in front of Khalaily, waving their Palestinian flags high. The singer uses one hand to hold the microphone and the other to accompany the narratives of his songs. A male choir dressed in matching uniforms delivers back-up vocals.
As the last phrase has been sung, Khalaily steps down from the stage where a group of fans crowds round him. He returns their smiles and shakes hands but soon disappears into the minibus he first arrived in.
PNNEnglish meets him half an hour later at the Grand Park Hotel in the outskirts of Ramallah. He seems happy about the concert.
“It was so beautiful at the square today. It is the first time in five months for me to gave concert in Ramallah so it was really something special” he says and explains that he just got back from a tour in the US and Canada.
No free movement
Even though he lives in an Israeli-occupied village that enforces the Israeli ID and passport on the Palestinians, Haytham has strong attachment to the Palestinian right of return.
He grew up in Majd El-Kroum village near Nazareth, which was occupied by the Israelis in the wake of Nakba 1948. Unlike the 700,000 Palestinians who were deported from their homes, most citizens in the Nazareth region were able to stay. Today, they represent a significant Arab minority.
In order to participate in Arab Idol in Lebanon last year, Khalaily had to acquire a special travel document, which gained him access via Jordan, a country on better terms with the Israelis.
Even so, his passport was confiscated when he returned home and the Israelis told him he was at risk of four years prison for participating in the show in Lebanon, considered an enemy state of Israel.
The tension between the two countries means Khalaily’s Lebanese manager was not able to attend Wednesday’s concert in Ramallah. The crew surrounding the singer in the hotel lounge during the interview consists of friends and supporters, he explains.
The fact that Haitham Khalaily is from an area taken over by Israel several decades ago does not seem to affect his Palestinian identity.
“I think no matter what area we come from, we try to stand together. It makes us stronger. That is why it was also really important for me to sing here today and use my voice to commemorate Nakba,” he says.
More than two million Youtube views of his perfomance in Arab Idol bears witness to the fact, that people do listen to Khaleily. And he is aware of that.
“People know who I am now. I have a lot of fans and people who listen to what I have to say. That makes it really important for me to use my voice to speak up about this” he says.
Songs of the homeland
Khalaily is particularly known for his melancholic Mawwal, the traditional introduction in Arabic singing before the instrumental part begins. In Arab Idol he sang various patriotic songs, among others the old Palestinian folklore, ‘Ala dal’ona, in which the Mawwal sounds (translated):
The soil of your homeland cannot be exchanged for money
This land is not for sale
This land is for the people, who worked hard for it
And for the people who will pick its fruits with their hands
You have to plow your own land
“There is always a place for Palestine in my music. It is so important for me to show the world, that this is not only a land of war. There is also happiness here. There is a lot of amazing music, art, culture and talent.”
Soon Haitham Khalaily will get the opportunity to show Palestinian talent to the world, as he is heading for another tour to the US and Canada. The following month, the star is destined for Germany.