Music beyond the front lines

Thousands of fans in Middle Eastern Arab countries love Israeli music and will even brave intimidation and taboos to listen to their favorite songs.

Music - metal band 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Music - metal band 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thousands of mouths whisper the words in Hebrew along with the band on stage. The lead singer takes a dramatic pause, and the crowd of fans begins chanting, “Nora El Nora, ne’ezar begvura, shuvi elai malki, Dodi refa, nafshi nichsefa, lebeitach malchi” (translated on websites as: “Oh, the Lord of courage, return to me, my lord, end my wounds, my soul is yearning, and in valor we wait”).
It’s a bit surreal; the concert takes place in Ankara, the fans come from Turkey, Bahrain, Iran and Dubai, and the band is the Israeli Orphaned Land. The sounds of ethnic metal – the unlikely mix of heavy metal and Middle Eastern rhythms, Jewish piyutim (hymns) and Arabic mawwals (a traditional genre of vocal music) – seem to be the “it” thing in the Middle East today. Many loyal fans came to Ankara from all across the region, from Tehran to Egypt, and the tickets quickly sold out.
While some international bands and performers, such as Elvis Costello and Pisces, have chosen to boycott Israel by canceling shows, and while hundreds of young Egyptians have called to boycott Shakira for visiting the Jewish state, thousands of others – Turks, Bahrainis, Tunisians, Iranians and Egyptians – are daring to defy suspicion, fear and hatred.
As it turns out, Israeli-made music often attracts unexpected fans. Not many can actually show up for a concert in Turkey or in Europe, but watching a YouTube video of Idan Raichel, Sarit Haddad or Bezalel Raviv is easy even if you live in Kuwait or Tunisia. The recent wave of Facebook- and Twitter- inspired revolutions in the Arab world has proven that it’s impossible to control the flow of information. Apparently it’s impossible to control the music stream, too.
IT’S NOT a secret that Israel and everything that has to do with it is considered taboo in Arab countries, even those that signed peace treaties with it decades ago. In Egypt, major trade unions and many civil society organizations maintain a severe boycott of Israel, its goods and its performers.
In 2007, The Band’s Visit, a movie about an Egyptian band visiting the Jewish state, was banned by the Cairo and Abu Dhabi film festivals. Earlier this year, Abu Dhabi also canceled 40 performances by Israeli actor Uri Weil – a man famous around the globe for his Dr. Water Molecule children’s act.
Naturally, Israeli singers are not invited to most prestigious musical festivals in the region – the Baalbek summer extravaganza, the Carthago festival in Tunisia, and even Jerashfestival in Jordan. Haddad, who performed in 1997 in Jordan under the banner “Sarit Haddad – mutribah min al-Karmil” (the performer from the Carmel), and Zahava Ben, one of the most popular singers among the Palestinians, have expressed their wish to sing in Beirut, Gaza or Cairo on many occasions, yet the shaky political situation has not yet allowed for such occurrences. Ben told reporters in 2008 that security services had banned her from performing in the Palestinian territories, fearing for her life.
“I wish that Orphaned Land could come and perform in Iran,” says Meni, a long-bearded Iranian fan of the heavy metal band. Yes, he knows that Kobi Farhi and his pals are Israeli, and he doesn’t have a problem with that. “Iranian people don’t hate Israel; it’s only the official line. Anyway, music is always music, we don’t have to mix it with politics,” he says.
Maybe so, but being a fan of an Israeli metal band in Iran or Egypt still demands an outstanding measure of courage, and audacity.
“Our fans are amazing. They were taught to hate Jews and Israelis all their lives. They are very brave people, obviously. They are my hope for a better tomorrow, my hope that my children and their children will not have to serve in the army when their time comes,” says Farhi, the force behind Orphaned Land.
Indeed, young Egyptians, Jordanians and Iranians who enjoy their favorite music in the privacy of their rooms defy many social taboos and could face severe punishment. Besides the issue of Orphaned Land’s Israeli origins, heavy metal is viewed with great suspicion in many Middle Eastern countries. In Egypt, some clerics accuse fans of the genre of worshiping Satan and violating the laws of Islam. Others suggest that the high popularity of heavy metal in Egypt (compared to other countries) is the result of a diabolic Zionist plot to corrupt the Egyptian youth.
“One of our fans was jailed for six months when they found our CD in his house. The charge was Satanism,” says Farhi.
During the first weekend of the Cairo revolution, I met Ahmad, a fan of the band, at Tahrir Square while covering the mass demonstrations there. This student of Cairo University had every possible heavy metal accessory on him, and I just had to ask. The young man told me he was very fond of Orphaned Land, which he’d first encountered on a popular Egyptian heavy metal discussion forum. He was fully aware that the group was from Israel and didn’t mind at all; however, he was reluctant to be interviewed by Israeli media.
“Who knows what will happen next in Egypt? I fear for my family, not for myself,” he explained.
Thousands of young men and women in the Middle East continue to follow their idols to concerts in Ankara and Germany. Why are they drawn so much to this particular group? The fans from Bahrain, Egypt and Dubai have the answer ready.
“This band is like no other. They speak about our problems here in the region, wars and death and bombings. That’s something that is common to all of us,” says Nabeel from Bahrain. Just a quick glance at the Orphaned Land page shows that in times of the worst crisis between Israel and Turkey, the fans from the two countries exchanged impressions about songs and sounds.
The Jaffa-born Farhi says that’s just the magic of the music. “Music is much more powerful than politics. You and your worst enemy might like the same song without even knowing it, and when you find out that you do – there is a place for dialogue and understanding. We are just musicians, but it seems to me that our political achievements on the ground are more significant than those of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he smiles.
WHILE PIERCED and tattooed fans enjoy Orphaned Land in Turkey, not far away, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, hundreds of Iranians move to the fast beat of Ishtar Alabina – the “Queen of the Middle East.”
During the Iranian new year, Nowruz, many families prefer to celebrate abroad, far away from strict domestic religious rules. Some go to Turkey and Dubai, while others prefer the low-cost Yerevan. The food is superb, the scenery is spectacular, and among other Nowruz attractions, there is the concert by Alabina – born and raised in Israel as Eti Zach.
Of Egyptian and Moroccan descent, Alabina sings in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and English. She became popular in Europe and the Arab world during late ’90s; the recognition in Israel came much later. It was reported in the Arab press that she performed in Morocco for the royal family. Although she has never tried to hide her Jewish and Israeli origins, many of her Iranian fans claim they weren’t aware of this fact of her biography.
Some Iranian and Arab fans might be confused about Alabina – who adopted the name of a Mesopotamian goddess and has lived in France for the last 20 years – but one can hardly be mistaken about Ben’s or Haddad’s identity. Both singers, who recorded the famous “Inta Omri” – a classic Egyptian song once performed by Um Kulthoum – became quite popular in the land of the Nile. The pirated copies of Haddad’s album can be found to this day on the streets of Cairo, while hundreds of Egyptian fans follow her Facebook page and talk openly about their affection for the singer.
“Why Sarit Haddad? I just love her, she has a great voice. I don’t care whether she is Israeli or Colombian,” says Muhammad Fawzi, a young fan from Cairo who first learned about Haddad from a video he saw on YouTube. She had performed in Jordan in 1997, and also issued an album titled Sarit Haddad Sings Arabic, which quickly became a major hit both there and in Israel. Haddad has also expressed interest in singing a duet with a popular Lebanese singer, Diana Haddad.
Soon, however, the intifada broke out, and the doors of the Arab world were shut to Israeli performers. And yet the music exchange goes on, facilitated by modern file-sharing technology. Besides Ben, Haddad and Eyal Golan, who represent the Mizrahi music trend, the Idan Raichel Project and American hassidic reggae musician Matisyahu draw the attention of music lovers in the Arab world. Their videos are often posted by bloggers, and their songs translated to English and Arabic.
The latest Israeli hit to rock the Arab world belongs to the aforementioned Raviv, who is of Tunisian origin.
His song “Tunisia,” which was released two years ago, became an instant hit in post-revolutionary Tunisia despite its “Zionist background,” as was reported on Palestinian TV.
“Great song @braviv, I’m a Tunisian and wonder what is the symbolic meaning behind the koufia and blood??? it would be beautiful to sing about the Tunisian revolution,” one of the admirers posted about the official version of the song.
BUT DESPITE the fan clubs, the file sharing and the discussions, officially both music industries – the Israeli and the Arabic – seem to ignore each other, at least until there’s a scandal. There is no cooperation, no duets and no solidarity; there is plenty of theft, plagiarism and emotion involved, as both sides constantly blame each other for rights violations.
Numerous hits performed by both Arab and Israeli singers sound suspiciously alike, which might indicate that someone was “inspired” by somebody else. It also suggests that the audiences on both sides have similar taste in music despite the political differences.
“The Lebanese singer Miriam Fares recently sued a famous Israeli singer for stealing her song. Also Alissa, another Lebanese pop-diva, claimed that her song was stolen by an Israeli musician,” says Karam Khuri, music and art editor for the Arab Israeli newspaper Panorama.
“These artists are very popular here in Israel, among Israeli Arabs, and there are companies who represent them. So when a rights violation happens, it doesn’t go unnoticed,” he says.
Still, Khuri believes there is a long way to go before Israeli music can achieve major popularity in the Arab world and vice versa.
“Sarit Haddad and Zahava Ben are really popular among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, mostly among young people who also speak the Hebrew language. As for other Arab countries, I believe that not many are familiar with Israeli music, and not many wish to get to know it,” he explains.
Might Haddad, Ben, Golan or Farhi be able to travel one day to Cairo, Amman or Ramallah to meet the fans and perform on Arab stages as they wish to? What are the chances that Israeli performers will participate in Lebanese, Tunisian and Egyptian music festivals? Today, when the word “Israel” is mostly associated with war, rather than with arts, this scenario seems as likely as finding a well in the Sahara sands.
For now, a computer and a pair of headphones will have to do the trick for loyal fans of Israeli music on the other side of the front lines.