Muziqa Mizrahit in the Arab World

20th December 2018

Sometimes at the restaurant which I work at, we play our own music on the speakers, and I’m usually the DJ. The mix tends to go through a plethora of rap, raï, R’n’B and whatever else is on my phone. I also have a significant collection of Israeli music on my phone but I have Arab colleagues so I usually just skip those songs. Once, I forgot. As I quickly changed it, my Algerian colleague exclaimed: “Why did you do that? It was a great song!”

This is not an isolated incident, but symptomatic of a wider trend in the Middle East – people are listening to Israeli music. But no, it is not “the language of the enemy”, Hebrew, that they are listening to, but Arabic. Few Israeli artists have managed to do so – the most famous, Ofra Haza (d.2000), captured the heart of the Middle East and almost went to perform in her native Yemen.

Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, Mizrahim, are undergoing a process of rediscovering their ethnic roots, and asserting themselves culturally, particularly on the music scene. An effect of this self-discovery, is that they are reaching the people whose culture they share, and whose countries they have been isolated from.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, Middle Eastern Jews were either expelled or pressured to leave their home countries. Most ended up in the new state of Israel. However, the trade off for living in the Promised Land, was giving up their Middle Eastern identity, in return for a European Zionist Israeli identity. This meant that Arabic, Farsi, Ladino, and other languages that new Israelis came with were encouraged to be discarded for Hebrew. Arabic music and culture was not for the public space, though inevitably lived on at home.

In the past two decades, “muziqa Mizrahit” has become mainstream in Israel. Many, if not most Mizrahit stars taken music from the Arab world – the most obvious recent example is Maor Edri’s cover, “Ktana”, of the Tunisian band, Babylone’s hit song, “Zina”.

But what interests Middle Eastern audiences is the fresh take that some Israeli artists are giving on traditional Arabic music and style. Dudu Tassa, grandson of the famous Iraqi musician, Daoud al-Kuwaiti, who with his brother Saleh al-Kuwaiti penned some of the most famous songs in the Arab world today, has remastered his grandfather’s music and released it over two albums. He performed their songs as a band “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis” as the warm-up act on Radiohead’s 2017 U.S. tour.

A-WA, a trio of sisters of Yemeni origin took Israel and the Middle East by storm with their electro-Arab rendition of the Yemeni poem “Habib Galbi” in 2015. They perform in modernised Yemeni dress, and their harmonies channel the voices of Yemeni women’s ancient oral tradition of reciting poetry to each other.

Riff Cohen, a Algerian-Tunisian has also been making the rounds in the Middle East. Her quirky lyrics and variations on North African Rai music, and eccentric take on Middle Eastern dress catches the eye. Moreover she sings in French, making her accessible to a much wider audience.

Interest flows the other way as well. The Youtube comments on these artists’ pages are exploding with messages of support and hope for a more peaceful future between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

Letters to artists from the Middle East flood their inboxes. A-WA said in an interview with Haaretz that though they cannot dream of going to Yemen, they still receive a lot of support from their Yemeni listeners: students, liberals, and those in exile.

Interest in the lost Jewish communities has taken root across the Middle East. In Iraq, previously home to some 150,000 Jews, a dramatised TV series about the famous Iraqi Jewish singer, Salima Mourad, was aired a few years ago.

In Morocco, where around 5,000 Jews still reside, film makers routinely explore their lost Jewish community. Films such as “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah” by Kamal Hachkar and “Where Are You Going, Moshe?” by Hassan Benjelloun both depict the spectral absence of the Jewish community in the country.  

Of course the expansion and greater cross-cultural interest is aided by social media. Dana International, the transgender Israeli singer’s, tapes had to be smuggled across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders in the 1990s. Today, one has but to look on Youtube. But this rekindled connection should be lauded and encouraged.

Ofra Haza once commented: “I get fan letters from Cairo, Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Syria. It’s wonderful to see that music has nothing to do with politics. We don’t have the power of politicians, but we have our power to unite people.”

It is true that politics rules – Israelis are still banned from most of the Middle East. Israeli chess players were banned from competing in Saudi Arabia this year. It is unlikely that Arabs will start loving the Israeli state any time soon. However, what Israeli musicians can do which the government can’t, is bridge the gap through a mutual love of music.

Here’s a Spotify Playlist of the music you should be listening to!