For all the tears shed by American Idol contestants over their emotional "journeys" and "struggles," America's wannabes have nothing on the winner of this year's Arab Idol: 22-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He had to beg Hamas just to let him leave Gaza to compete, then bribe border guards to let him through Egypt to the auditions in Lebanon, Al Jazeera reports. As Assaf's popularity grew, Mahmoud Abbas instructed all foreign Palestinian embassies to start texting in votes, while the Bank of Palestine paid for promotional billboards in Gaza and the West Bank.
Now, in its second season, politics is a major part of the show, reports Reuters. One semi-finalist from Iraq's Kurdistan region caused anger for listing her country as "Kurdistan." At the end of the finale, she danced on stage with a Kurdish flag, which security guards quickly confiscated. The runner-up was a pro-government Syrian woman, who also had to travel through gunfire and checkpoints to compete. "Spreading the words of young people and watching them achieve their dreams—this is much better than the sounds of gunfire that we are getting used to hearing in Palestine, Syria, and around the Arab world," said Assaf after his win.