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Sima dance group wins Arabs Got Talent

Beirut: An air of anticipation permeated the Arabs Got Talent set late into Saturday night just minutes before the biggest announcement of the season was made. After months of gruelling practice sessions, weekly elimination rounds, and many fierce competitors, Syrian dance group Sima emerged victorious and were announced the winners of the third season.

Twelve contestants — out of an original 48 — survived six weeks of eliminations to compete during the finale. They dwindled down to the three top-voted finalists at the end of the night, including unconventional Palestinian artist Mohammad Al Deeri and American operatic singer Jennifer Grout. The acts all stood side-by-side on the stage and anxiously awaited their fate, to hear it was Sima who walks away with the grand prize: 500,000 Saudi Riyals (Dh489,661), a Chrysler 300 car, and a contract with MBC.

“Thank you to every member of Sima currently present, and all the effort they’ve put into this,” said a spokesperson for the group at a press conference immediately following the win.

“This is a step that we’ve achieved, and of course, we’re not going to stop one bit. We’re going to continue, and we’re going to work to be up to the responsibility that the world has put in our hands.

“We are first and foremost the youth of Syria, and our performances are a dedication to our country.”

Shock was evident on each of their faces when their win was first announced, with jaws dropping across the board. The 16-person group broke out into clusters of celebratory hugs amongst an explosion of red-and-white confetti and bursting pyrotechnics. Once the cameras stopped rolling, they began to hop around and alternate chants of “Sima! Sima! Sima!” and “Syria! Syria! Syria!”.

Despite the group’s bewildered reactions, it came as no surprise to the audience that Sima took the crown. Earlier in the night, Sima made it clear that they were one of the top contenders for the prize money with their show-stealing performance. Clad in matching blouse-and-tie formalwear, they split up into four rows of chairs — using them as props — and put forth an adrenaline-fuelled and impressively in-sync routine. The edgy dance was backed by an electro-rock track, and was ultimately meant to represent the push-and-shove involved in fighting for power, authority, and the “throne”.

After their performance, they were given positive feedback from all four judges. Lebanese singer and jury member Najwa Karam, in particular, showered the group with high praise, emphasising their Syrian nationality.

“Tell the whole world that this is the way citizens represent their countries,” she said, followed by spirited applause from the crowd.

Despite there being only one winner, the second and third highest-voted contestants of the night also wowed with their performances.

Al Deeri, who previously received a standing ovation from Karam when he carved a portrait of late legendary composer Wadih Al Safi from rock using only a hammer, employed fire this time to draw a large-format portrait of late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. Throughout, an image of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was displayed on the screen behind. As soon as it became clear who the subject of Al Deeri’s drawing was, the crowd erupted into continuous applause and whistles — the loudest response of the night.

The last of the three top-voted finalists was all-American singer, Grout. She performed a memorable rendition of “Wahashtini” (“I’ve Missed You”) by Nour Mhanna, displaying a stunning control of her vocal range. The 23-year-old from Massachusetts has already garnered media attention from all over the world, including major news outlets CNN and the New York Times. What makes her different? Grout can’t carry out a basic conversation in Arabic, but she can deliver astounding performances of classical Arab songs that even seasoned Arab artists are reluctant to tackle.

Back during Grout’s first audition, she couldn’t communicate well with the judges who questioned her in Arabic, making for an awkward first impression. Things quickly changed in Grout’s favour when she took her place at the microphone and belted out “Baeed Annak” (“Far Away From You”) by none other than supreme Egyptian songstress Umm Kalthoum. Many continued to vote her through round after round, but she and her supporters — including judge Karam — faced criticism over the fact that Grout was potentially taking the spot away from an Arab.

At the press conference, Karam retaliated against this line of thought when questioned whether or not she will continue to support Grout.

“Music is the one thing that unites all different citizens, because it’s made up of seven notes that the whole world can understand — you don’t need a single word to express it,” she said. “So to me, Jennifer acts as a crossing bridge between the East and West.”

The jury for this season was comprised of four distinct celebrity personalities. Karam was known as the sweet and loveable judge; Dean of Communications at American University of Dubai, Ali Jaber, was Lebanon’s response to Simon Cowell; and both Egyptian actor Ahmed Helmy and Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi added a lighthearted comedic flair to the show’s atmosphere.

The panel expressed having an inkling that Sima might be the winner this year — except for Helmy.

“I wasn’t expecting them to win the title until they came in tonight and did what they did,” he said. “I felt that there truly was practice, effort, and a beautiful, sensitive thought process behind their performance.”

Having just wrapped up its third season, Arabs Got Talent has been exposing hidden gems within the Arab world and beyond since 2011. The interactive talent show was fashioned after the American version, America’s Got Talent, which was created by none other than the talent show mogul himself, Cowell, in 2006. It falls under the global Got Talent franchise, which reaches countries from Afghanistan and India to Greece and Brasil.

Mazen Hayek, Arabs Got Talent’s producer, spoke about the importance of having the programme in the Middle East.

“Our defining quality is that we were able to bring the Arab world together,” he said. “MBC has been described as an outlet that was able to bring together all corners of the Arab world without distinction; we are the last people who could be thought of as dividing Arabs. Quite the opposite.”

As this year’s titleholder, Sima joins the ranks of previous season’s winners: season one’s title went to Amr Qattamesh, an Egyptian poet whose distinctive style set him apart from his opponents; in 2012, Saudi black light performance art troupe Khawater Al Zalam (Dangers of Darkness) impressed with their futuristic presence on stage.

Neither of the past winners have attracted noteworthy levels of fame after the show, but both Hayek and Jabber said that this can be attributed in part to the fact that, in the Arab world, singing is still the most commercial of talents, and that niche acts such as dance groups require an entirely different and more complex kind of support — one that they hope to provide Sima with.

Despite potential obstacles down the line, the winning group are celebrating their victory in high spirits and will be putting it to good use. When asked if they will be splitting the prize money between them, they revealed that they already have other plans — they’ll be investing the hefty amount into a mysterious project, the details of which will be revealed at a later date. Stay tuned.