Orphaned Land: Heavy metal envoys to Muslim world

Heading to Istanbul for a show in the wake of downgrade in Israel-Turkey ties, band says they have become Israel’s only ambassador to Turkey.

Orphaned Land 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Orphaned Land 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Israel’s sole remaining “ambassadors” to the Turkish Republic have long hair, tattoos and legions of fans across the Muslim world.
While heavy metal music probably can’t repair shattered Turkish-Israeli ties, Israeli metal band Orphaned Land is confident leaders in Ankara and Jerusalem can learn a lot from their fan base, which includes Israelis, Iranians, Syrians and other metal fans from across the Arab and Muslim world.


The former Egyptian comes to Israel

Ahead of their concert in Istanbul on Saturday night, Orphaned Land held a press conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, the first in their nearly two years as pioneers of Middle Eastern metal. During the press conference, they expressed hope that their success and the adoration of their fans from countries classified by Israel as enemy states could be used as a model for repairing ties with Turkey.

“A situation has been created where we are Israel’s only ambassadors to Turkey,” lead vocalist Kobi Farhi said on Thursday. “We have become an example that can be used as model for our leaders. It’s about how through music you can create something as simple as friendship between the two peoples. It happens at our shows when I turn the microphone to the crowd and they sing back to me in Hebrew, or when I sing to them in Turkish or Arabic.”
Farhi made his comments while sitting at a desk that displayed a painting of the Turkish and Israeli flags made by a Turkish fan, as well as a trophy for peace-making the band was given by a school at the Istanbul Commerce University only six months after the IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara that left nine Turkish citizens dead.
Farhi added that promoters of the Istanbul show told them that they know of 22 Iranians who are traveling to Turkey for the concert, as well as groups of fans from Lebanon and Egypt.
When asked what it is that makes their music so popular across the Arab and the greater Islamic world, the band from Petah Tikva cites their use of Arab and Mediterranean rhythms, as well as instruments native to the region, such as the oud, the santur and assorted Middle Eastern percussions.
They also draw on Jewish, Islamic and Christian motifs, creating what Farhi says is a situation wherein “they hear the sounds and rhythms they’re familiar with and they become fans before they know we’re Israeli.”
A quick look at the group’s Facebook page gives a clear indication of their unusual popularity in the Muslim world.
Fans from Syria, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and dozens of other countries appear on the same wall, pleading for the band to visit their country and discussing their favorite songs, in English, Hebrew, Turkish and other languages.
Earlier this month, a post by the band on their Facebook “wall,” in which they wished their Muslim fans “a happy Eid al Fitr” in honor of the festival marking the end of Ramadan, was greeted by dozens of warm thank-you’s and “kumbaya” expressions of brotherhood across the Abrahamic faiths.
The group’s Facebook page appears to lack any cynicism, and includes a description of the band that reads “day after day, in every news program on this planet, the Middle East conflict is a major topic and it is one of the reasons the world we all live in is a world apart.”
“For decades every attempt to make peace between Israel and the Arabian world has remained futile and the death toll keeps rising. Where politicians have failed, a mere metal band daringly labeling its style ‘Jewish- Muslim Metal’ or ‘Middle Eastern Progressive Metal’ has actually achieved the unimaginable and united Israeli and Arabian people in spite of all their cultural, religious and political differences and conflicts!” The Middle East is always quick to issue reality checks to those who try to unite on a person-to-person basis, and Orphaned Land is no exception to this rule. During a performance at a festival in the French town of Clisson in June, French-Lebanese belly dancer Johanna Fakhri posed holding a Lebanese flag on stage with Farhi, who held an Israeli flag. The image made its way back to Lebanon and Hezbollah quickly issued a death warrant against Fakhri, who has been in hiding in France ever since.
In addition, the band was forced to pull out of a June 2010 performance at the Istanbul metal music festival Sonisphere, after the festival’s security guard told the band he couldn’t ensure their safety following the erosion of relations between Turkey and Israel in the wake of the raid on the Mavi Marmara.
Farhi and the band has never faced anything close to this from Israelis, but he said some Israelis have assumed that he and the rest of the band are associated with the Israeli leftwing, or that they reach out to their Arab and Muslim fans because of some political worldview.
He also said that some have called for the band to boycott Turkey, especially following the recent downgrade in ties.
“Artists don’t boycott and I don’t appreciate those artists who decide to boycott one person or another,” Farhi said.
While almost all Israeli tourists have nixed their trips to Turkey, Farhi said the band hasn’t considered canceling, because “in Turkey we feel at home. At times we felt some fear about going right now, but we can’t let this feeling stop us at a time like this because these days, we’re Israel’s only ambassador in Turkey and in the Arab world.
“We are flying as musicians, but we also feel that we’re going as representatives of our country and our people. We’re hearing so many voices of anger and conflict between the two sides these days, and we want people to hear a different voice, a voice that says, look, here’s a crowd of thousands that is getting along perfectly, let this be an example.”
Another member of the band who feels at home in Turkey is Yossi Sassi, who plays guitar and a gaggle of Middle Eastern string instruments for Orphaned Land.
“I feel very much at home in Turkey and I even speak a little bit of Turkish,” Sassi said, adding that in the streets of Istanbul he gets recognized much more often than in Tel Aviv.
Sassi said of Turks: “They’re an amazing people, they have a dialogue with Israelis much greater than with people from any other country in the region – if you meet someone in Istanbul on the streets, it’s much more natural for him to find shared interests and experiences with you than with someone on the streets of Jordan, who would seem to him to be very different from him in many ways.”
When asked why the band decided to create heavy metal with a Middle Eastern influence, he said, “It all came from my father’s house. It’s something in my roots. I came from a house with roots in Iraq, Greece, Libya, Italy. All of this mixed together in the house where we listened to [Egyptian singers] Umm Kulthum and Fareed al- Atrash, opera, Iraqi and Italian music.”
The cornucopia of musical influences in the Sassi household is just one of the factors that brought him to a situation where, in his words, he and his bandmates can reach people of all backgrounds.
“The dialogues we have with fans from all over the Arab and Muslim world show us the power of music – that it’s above all politics and religion, everything. It really manages to bridge between people from all types of backgrounds,” he said.