DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the Arab world, TV watchers were buzzing this weekend about the finals of a popular contest show, "Arab's Got Talent." Runner up was the competition's dark horse contender, Jennifer Grout, a young American. She's not an Arab. She just loves Arabic music. And the presence of a Westerner in the running for this prize caused a bit of a stir. NPR's Deborah Amos was at the finale Saturday in Beirut and she sent this postcard.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Jennifer Grout was already a household name when she stepped onstage for the final round of "Arab's Got Talent." The 23-year-old blond from Boston is not an Arab, can't speak the language, but she can sing it. No one in the audience doubted her talent as she belted out a classic Arabic love song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
AMOS: Backstage before the performance, she was remarkably poised after a difficult journey. What is an American doing in an Arab talent show? That question showed up over and over again on social media. Some critics even picked apart her accent.
JENNIFER GROUT: It's kind of funny to see everybody's crazy reactions.
AMOS: Have you been bothered by some of the Twitter comments about you that maybe you are an Arab, maybe you aren't an Arab, maybe you shouldn't be here?
GROUT: Not really, because I get so much love and so many wonderful comments, so I try not to let anything negative get to me.
AMOS: She says she fell in love with Arabic music while studying opera in college. She downloaded the classic from YouTube and learned from the divas of the Arab world.
GROUT: The feeling of Arabic music, the feeling that I get when I listen, it's just magical. And that's the biggest part about it. It's the feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "ARAB'S GOT TALENT")
AMOS: She sang those feelings in her first try-out - an awkward audition because the judges didn't know what to make of her. They asked her name in Arabic but she didn't understand them. Even when she first began to sing you can hear people laughing in the audience, at first.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROUT: (singing in Arabic)
They were just shocked because they had never seen it before. So I don't think it was necessarily laughing at me, I think it was more just - what the hell was happening?
AMOS: No one questions Westernized acts in "Arab's Got Talent." Some dance like Michael Jackson, sing like Elvis or perform rap in English, as the judges pointed out. Jennifer Grout showed that culture is a two-way street. The judges praised her for being the first traveler on that road, choosing an art form difficult even for native speakers. Her final performance: a love song, which she sang and translated for us back stage.
GROUT: (singing in Arabic) (speaking) OK. Wahashtani, it means I miss you. Adagoom shamal, it means as much as there are stars in the sky. I miss you as much as there are word for love.
AMOS: For all the love, Grout didn't get the top prize, she was a runner up. The judges were dazzled, but the winner is decided by the audience - they vote by text message from across the Arab world. A dance troupe from Syria won the contest with a jarringly different style and message.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMOS: The 20 member troupe performed a frenetic piece that told the story of the Syrian war dramatically through dance. For the audience, recognizing the pain of Syria outweighed the young American singer and her performance, a tribute to Arab culture. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.