Creating a common ground

The musical Culture of Peace Festival aims to strike a harmonious chord in the region.

moustaki 88 298 (photo credit: )
moustaki 88 298
(photo credit: )
The fourth annual Culture of Peace Festival is creating new realities. This year for the first time, for example, an international star heads the line-up: veteran singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki, a doyen of the French chanson genre known for his velvety vocals. Moustaki, 72, was born Yussef Mustacchi in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek Jewish parents and speaks Hebrew and Arabic. "His participation signifies a meeting of Mediterranean cultures," says Eli Grunfeld, the driving force behind the festival. The festival broke new ground in 2005 with performances in David's Tower Museum in Jerusalem and the Diwan El Lajun theater in the Old City of Nazareth. Two more venues have been added this year - the Tamuz caf -theater in Haifa and the Hechal Hatarbut auditorium in Petah Tikva. A longer and more varied program includes meetings between artists and performers from an abundance of musical styles alongside theater, special events and an art exhibition. Israeli Jews and Arabs exist alongside each other rather than with each other, says actress and drama teacher Khawlah Haj-Debsy. She lives in Neveh Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), an almost unique Israeli community near Latrun where Jews and Arabs coexist as equals. Last year, she performed three times (in Hebrew) at the Culture of Peace Festival to a packed Tzavta theater in Tel Aviv. The play, Oozoo V'moozoo Mikfar Kakamoozoo, by leading Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol, is about two neighboring families who argue and build a wall between their houses. Their children break down the psychological barrier by becoming friends, and eventually marry. "It's a childish little story, but so enlightening," says Haj-Debsy. "It shows how we are conditioned to a certain way of thinking." The fourth Culture of Peace Festival, which began earlier this week, is about changing such mind sets. "We want to create a common ground for Jewish and Arab Israeli artists to perform and interact because ignorance of the other is the main reason for mutual mistrust," says festival producer and artistic director Grunfeld. "Artists can affect the situation by creating a culture of peace that links us with the foreign and unknown. This festival relates primarily to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but touches on a possible solution for every conflict, through culture. It presents a sane alternative to reevaluate our personal, family and religious histories," he says. Five years ago, the German-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Havatzelet, the cultural and educational institution of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, approached Grunfeld - a leading Israeli producer of musical shows - with the idea of organizing a festival dedicated to cultural interchange between Jews and Arabs. The inaugural Culture of Peace Festival was held at Tel Aviv's Tzavta theater in 2003 in the midst of the intifada. More than 100 Jewish and Arab musicians, actors and other artists stepped forward despite the prevailing atmosphere of gloom in the country. The choice of Tzavta - which celebrates its jubilee this year - as the festival's home base was natural, says Grunfeld. "Tzavta, as a national cultural institution, has always had a cultural-political raison d'etre. Tel Aviv is Israel's cultural capital." The event received minimal media attention and appealed mainly to the already convinced, but it started the ball rolling. Grunfeld recalls the highlight of the second festival, a tribute to the songs of the Paris-based Egyptian songstress of the 1960s and '70s, Dalidah. "It was a memorable evening. She brought her Arabic culture into what is now known as World Music." By last year's third festival, the lineup had expanded and included for the first time a well-known mainstream performer, Israel's Singer of the Year in 2003 David D'Or. With his distinctive countertenor voice and a repertoire combining ethnic music with European classics, D'Or is a rising star on the World Music scene. "The concept behind this festival intrigued me," says D'Or, a classically trained singer who previously performed in Italy with an oud player and wanted to further pursue the idea of East-West musical crossovers. D'Or is a descendant of the once-proud Libyan Jewish community. His father was from Tripoli, and his mother was born en route to Israel from Benghazi. As a child, he spoke Arabic with his grandmother. For the festival, he teamed up with the Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth that plays classical Arabic music. They spent months in rehearsals. "What surprised me was that they wanted to play my songs but initially weren't capable of adjusting to Western harmonies, beats and scales. My [Jewish] musicians could play Arabic music with no problems. This taught me something at a deeper level, that when communicating it's sometimes difficult to emerge from your tradition into something unknown. We talk about getting to know the other in order to live together, but it isn't always easy to speak on each other's terms," he notes. A week before the first of their two shows D'Or's mother passed away, yet he insisted on performing to a packed Tzavta theater. "The audience that night was so warm and appreciative," recounts D'Or. "They lapped up the music with a great thirst." "The musical encounter with David was delightful," says the orchestra's artistic director Suheil Radwan. "He sang one song in Arabic. The audience was highly appreciative and intrigued by the combination. Such events prove that coexistence is not just a word. Music can serve as a bridge between peoples." D'Or has appeared with the Nazareth orchestra several times since, and formed "much love and deep connections. Music is an international language, beyond the words - a heart-to-heart connection rather than head to head," he says. The Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth has appeared at all three Culture of Peace festivals to date. For 15 years, Radwan and his musicians have been spreading appreciation for classical Arabic music across the globe by performing throughout Europe and the US, and at world music festivals from Morocco to Uzbekistan. They have collaborated musically with artists as diverse as Moroccan-born diva Sapho and the cutting-edge contemporary London Sinfonietta. Featuring some of the finest musicians and singers from Nazareth, Haifa, Acre and the Galilee, the ensemble specializes in classical Arabic music played with traditional acoustic instruments: oud, kanun, nay, accordion, darbuka, percussion, violin and cello. The orchestra performs with five Arabic singers, each with a unique style. A recent US tour highlighted Lubna Salameh's tribute to Egyptian diva Oum Koulthoum and Alla Shurush's renditions of Lebanese composer El Safi's songs. "Our principal aim is that people appreciate authentic music. Western audiences really want to hear traditional music. Our Jewish audiences are more interested than Arabs - especially those originally from Iraq, Egypt or Lebanon. Israeli Arab youths are more attracted to pop video clips nowadays," laments Nazareth-born Radwan, 74, who was the first Arab music teacher in the country. Haj-Debsy agrees that Israeli Arabs are in a cultural maelstrom. She appears regularly on Arabic television, is an in-demand actress with a stand-up comedy act now in its ninth year, and stars in a play entitledFlowers Are Not Enough about violence in the family. The shows are designed to be performed in a room rather than a theater, she notes. "There's no culture of theater among Arabs, and tiny budgets," says the 36-year-old mother of two, who was raised in the Galilee village of Kfar Yasif. Having successfully made the cultural-linguistic crossover, Haj-Debsy found the experience of performing at the festival insightful. "Such events can help heal society, as long as they cause people to think. Unlike politicians, artists can use the stage to pass on a message without being ashamed. If we can reach our audiences' hearts, we can break the stigmas," she says. "The festival has a tangible effect on participating artists. It's about what happens in rehearsals, in the media, and after. David D'Or revealed his Arabic roots and love of the culture through this festival. For some of the Jewish artists, this is their first meeting with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. I can see a ripple effect - cultural institutions are becoming more agreeable to such bipartisan cooperation, and the local media has been supportive. Well-known artists increasingly approach me asking to contribute. It's still difficult to get them involved, but they're coming out of their shells." The exuberant dancers from the Sahara City School of Belly Dance have no such inhibitions. The evening when they take over Tzavta's stage has already developed into a traditional annual highlight of the festival (this year's show took place on May 10). This unique dance school Rehov Allenby in the heart of bustling Tel Aviv is an oasis of Oriental tranquility specializing in a classical dance form that is increasing in popularity worldwide. "We have religious Jewish women from Bnei Brak, Muslim and Christian Arabs mainly from Jaffa, Beduin women from the Negev, and secular Tel Avivians. The women feel very comfortable together. The dance is a prayer - it has no cheap connotations. Oriental dance is about accepting the body. It's a feeling of freedom, of dancers loving their bodies," says Tina, one of Israel's leading practitioners of Oriental dance whose stage name has become synonymous with the school she founded 15 years ago. "We use this festival to give our students a chance to express the dancers in them. For many, it is the first opportunity to appear in front of an audience. At the last festival we performed together with the Salama high school dance company from the Galilee, which performs traditional Arabian debka dances. It was an enchanted evening," recalls Tina. Tzavta was overflowing as dozens of Sahara City alumni swayed in the aisles. "We have a regular audience of Jews and Arabs mainly from Jaffa. The Egyptian and Georgian embassy staff also come to our shows. It's like a family. Many friendships have formed between students. When they dance, there are no religious Jewish women from Bnei Brak or Arabs from Jaffa - just pure souls dancing together," says Tina. The festival has developed other traditions, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat Shalom program on the Friday night with a dovish philosophy: an examination of biblical sayings on peace. The festival's audiences come from all over the country, says Grunfeld. "We know this because we ask them to register and have established a Friends of Culture of Peace network. They are young and old, male and female, those who miss their former homes, and many religious Jews and Muslims. We have Jews in kippot sitting next to Muslims in galabiot." In 1995 Grunfeld produced Salam Aleicum: A Musical Compilation to a Casbah Beat, the first Israeli compilation composed entirely of Arabic music, featuring top Arab artists from around the world. Now he plans to produce a CD of songs from the Culture of Peace festivals. "This is an important niche of dialogue and coexistence. It's the only festival of its kind in Israel and the Middle East," he says. Performances around the country The Culture of Peace Festival continues until May 20. * Fri. May 12 at 12:30 Tel Avivian Kabbalat Shabbat Tzavta Tel Aviv * Fri. May 12 at 20:30 My Mother's Soup, a play by Nissim Zohar Diwan El Lajun theater, Nazareth. * Sat. May 13 at 21:00 Georges Moustaki Tzavta, Tel Aviv * Sun. May 14 at 20:30 Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth with Galit Giat David's Tower museum, Jerusalem * Sun. May 14 at 20:30 Genesis, Anna in the Sky by the Arkobelno theater of the Galilee Tzavta, Tel Aviv * Tues. May 16 at 21:00 Rababah-Tur, Beduin-Jewish music Tzavta, Tel Aviv * Tues. May 16 at 21:00 Taha Muhammad Ali poetry reading Tzavta, Tel Aviv * Thurs. May 18 at 21:00 Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth with Galit Giat Tzavta, Tel Aviv * Sat. May 20 at 21:00 Yair Dallal solo performance Tamuz cafe'-theater, Haifa For more info, contact the Tzavta Theater, 30 Ibn Gvirol, Tel Aviv. (03) 695-0156.