Israel's sidelined Mizrahi musicians and artists reclaim centre stage
Newfound political confidence sparks resurgence of culture of Jews from Middle East and north Africa, once marginalised by dominant Ashkenazim
She explains that it describes a lyricist’s unrequited love for one of Egypt’s most famous singers, Umm Kulthum, revered in the Arab world.
When the music starts, the song is haunting and unfamiliar, but while Djamchid’s voice echoes the melodies of Algerian, Moroccan and Egyptian music, the lyrics are sung in Hebrew.
Djamchid and her husband Gilad Vaknin, who plays electric guitar in the group, are third-generation Mizrahi Jews, whose families came to Israel not from Europe but from the Middle East and north Africa.
The music they seek to reinterpret is what their parents and grandparents once listened to in cities across the Middle East, from Cairo to Baghdad; a style that slipped out of mainstream Israeli Jewish cultural life amid the long years of discrimination – economic, cultural and political – against the Mizrahi by institutions long dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European origin.
A few days after Ecoute’s performance, the couple are in a coffee shop in central Jerusalem to discuss another project – a school Vaknin has opened this month to teach children eastern styles of music.
“We both trained at the Academy [of Music and Dance] in Jerusalem,” explains Djamchid. “We were trained in the western musical tradition. Eastern music was not available. Later Gilad studied under a master of Moroccan music and slowly it became what we were interested in.
“For us it was a process of wanting to connect with a Jewish culture that had come from Arab countries. To say a sense of that connection is present, alive and exists.” In this way, the musicians seek a connection with places where, in many cases, Jews have been rejected and expelled; where a sense of belonging is no longer possible but where a desire for some relationship still exists.
If there is a distinction between musicians like Ecoute and an earlier generation of Mizrahi musicians – who were barely accepted by the dominant Ashkenazi culture – it is foregrounding of the link to an Arabic culture and language often airbrushed out by their predecessors.
Ironically, perhaps, the grassroots emergence of Mizrahi Jewish artists comes at a time when encouraging Mizrahi culture has become an issue in Israel’s rightwing politics – not least because of the identification of often working-class Mizrahi voters with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
In particular, the issue has been pushed by the culture minister, Miri Regev, as a counter to the perceived left-leaning tendencies of an Ashkenazi cultural elite.
One man collaborating with Ecoute is the novelist and poet Almog Behar, who has blamed a “cultural amnesia” on both the part of Israel and the Arab world for severing a connection to a group the novelist Shimon Ballas has called the “Arab-Jews”.
Behar has been in the vanguard of artists attempting to forge a new connection with both the Arabic his grandparents spoke and the culture from which they came – in his case from Iraq.
“[There is] an understanding on both sides – the Israeli and the Arab – that the Mizrahim were not Arabs and never were part of the Arabic world,” he explained in an interview several years ago. “And in this sense, instead of being a bridge between the two sides, the Mizrahim have actually succeeded in being disconnected from both sides.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Behar, whose grandmother came to Israel from Baghdad, explains that it was his grandparents’ death that prompted his realisation that a personal cultural connection was in danger of being severed.
“When my grandmother died I became aware of an absence. For the last six months of her life my grandmother suffered from dementia and she went back to speaking in Arabic. I was 17 at the time and Arabic was spoken in the house but from childhood it was clear that we were supposed to speak Hebrew. Arabic was not good.”
In his poem, My Arabic is Mute, Behar addresses the taboo, and writes:
My Arabic is mute/ Strangled in the throat/ Cursing itself/ Without uttering a word/ Sleeping in the suffocating air/ Of the shelters of my soul/ Hiding/ From family members/ Behind the shutters of the Hebrew.
Behar says after her death he focused on language as a way to “deal with a sense of something absent from our culture”. Now, he says, a new generation of artists like him “want to take this culture back to the centre from the periphery”.
In a suburb of Tel Aviv, the Firqat Alnoor orchestra is rehearsing. Founded two years ago by Hana Fataya after years of effort, the aim of the ensemble is to recreate the kind of eastern orchestras famous for accompanying the likes of Umm Kulthum, Faredi al-Atrash, and the National Broadcast Arab Orchestra of Israel – once hugely popular but which dissolved decades ago.
Unlike Ecoute, Firqat Alnoor perform the songs of Umm Kulthum in Arabic, as well as Jewish liturgical songs of eastern origin – known as piyut – also sung in Arabic.
One challenge of the revival becomes apparent in the rehearsal space. For an upcoming performance several western-trained musicians have been asked to play too. Used to reading from scores and notation, they struggle to mesh with their eastern-trained colleagues versed in the improvisational style of the Arabic maqam melodic system.
Fataya says she sees a change in attitudes towards Mizrahi musical culture but one which is long overdue. “It is part of how people in Israel thought of Mizrahi culture – that it was lesser.
“It wasn’t taught and had no place. It was part of these feelings you got that Mizrahis were not good enough. In the last few years there has been a growing awareness of a Mizrahi culture.”
Fataya, too, sees the embrace of the Mizrahi culture’s links with wider Middle Eastern culture as a potential for building bridges amid conflict. “I hope we can show how people can live together by bringing Jews and Arabs together to recognise that there are things we share.”
מאד מרגש כל הכבוד!
משהו אחד שקצת מפריע בעין – העימוד בבלוג עצמו מיישר את הטקסט לימין כאילו הוא בעברית וזה קצת מכביד על הקריאה.. אם יש לך מה לעשות בעניין זה יהיה נחמד 🙂
תודה! אני לא מצליח ליישר לצד האנגלית..