Queen Ishtar in Persia

The Israeli-born pop star has won accolades the world over for her distinctive style, and even has a fan-base in Iran.

ishtar alabina 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ishtar alabina 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There aren’t many Israeli pop stars who can lay claim to having fans in Iran. But Ishtar Alabina’s distinctive singing style, in a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew and French among other languages, has won her plaudits the world over – even in the Arab and Muslim world.
Just three months ago, the 41-year-old, born Eti Zach, was honored with the Diamond Award at the Big Apple Music Awards in New York, an event showcasing Middle Eastern music which also saw Egyptian singer and composer Amr Diab win a lifetime achievement award and Afghanistan’s Jawid Shariff take home a Best Male Singer award.
On that night in November, Ishtar also won Duet of the Year for her wildly successful song “Yahad,” performed with Mizrahi sensation Kobi Peretz.
It was the popularity of that song which catapulted Ishtar back into the Israeli public’s consciousness, some 20 years after she left her homeland for France. Earlier this month she sang with Peretz at two sell-out concerts in Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena, and on Tuesday she will play in the city’s Mann Auditorium.
“It’s a great feeling to be here in Israel, there’s no place like home,” Ishtar told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview this week. “I travel all over the world and when I am overseas I always say I am flying just above, but when I come to Israel I feel my shows here connect to the earth. It’s a connection I don’t have anywhere else in the world... especially since people here have known me even from before my international career started.”
ISHTAR FIRST found fame in the mid-1990s while fronting the French pop group Alabina. She had grown up in northern Israel but moved to France when she was 20. There she linked up with producer Charles Ibgui, who introduced her to a group of Gypsy performers called Los Niños de Sara. Ishtar became the lead singer of the band, which with her onstage came to be known as Alabina and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of albums.
Ishtar never planned to sing in Arabic, but once it was suggested to her she loved the idea of performing in a language she grew up speaking with her Egyptian mother.
That decision had a significant impact on Ishtar’s career, with the amalgamation of Arabic and Hebrew lyrics surprising many music fans who hadn’t realized that so many Israeli Jews originate from Arab lands.
“I wanted to sing in Arabic because it brought me back to my roots,” she explained. “Ever since I was a baby I sang songs in Arabic, though before Alabina I hadn’t sung professionally in the language.”
Although Ishtar has won legions of fans over the years, her prominence as an internationally renowned Israeli Jewish singer has sometimes forced her to become a somewhat unlikely spokesman for her country.
“Above all the passion, there is a message,” she said. “The fact that I am Israeli and Jewish and singing Arabic music has brought me all over the world. Sometimes when there are difficult moments in Israel I have found myself defending the country and talking about politics.
“Even in the 1990s many people didn’t even know where Israel was and thought there are only tanks on the street,” Ishtar said. “So when they saw me talking on stage about Israel in a very democratic way and saying it’s a great country, people were surprised. I told them how Arabs and Jews live here and that the Israelis are sick of wars and just want peace.
“I hate to talk about politics but when I have to I don’t mind. Sometimes people have tried to advise me not to talk about how I was in the army, but I say why? I have nothing to hide.”
ALTHOUGH SHE lives in France with her husband and twin three-year-old children, Ishtar said it was difficult for her to feel totally at home in any country.
“It is a very sensitive question for me,” she said. “Like many other Israelis who have lived overseas there is a point in your life when you feel your life is cut in two. Over there they see me as a stranger and also here. It is difficult to find my identity so I like to think that, like Marvin Gaye sang, wherever I lay my hat that’s my home. My home is inside of me and I carry it with me wherever I go.”
However, there is no doubt that Ishtar is delighted to be back performing in Israel. Her collaboration with Peretz was the brainchild of Sarit Biran, the public relations manager they share. On “Yahad” Peretz sings in Hebrew and Ishtar in Arabic.
Initially Ishtar was unsure about the idea, having rejected a number of previous offers to sing with Israeli performers.
“I had never received a song which made me say ‘wow,’” she said. “Butwhen I got the melody I loved it. I felt the potential of the song andimmediately wrote two versions of my part.
“Those two languages sound so great together. Singing in Hebrew andArabic is a big deal overseas and you can even hear the song in Iran. Ihave a lot of fans following me in Iran. I can’t go there but theyreally follow me. The fact I sing with an Israeli doesn’t seem tomatter to them.”
Ishtar performs at Mann Auditorium on Tuesday, March 2.