Duki Dror brings musical venue back to life

Israeli film-maker Duki Dror’s stock-in-trade is the struggle of the displaced to find their identity. His latest film, Cafe Noa, is a portrait of the now-derelict venue in south Tel Aviv where Jews from Arab countries used to get their cultural fix of Arabic music from Jewish refugee musicians from Egypt and Iraq. It is Egyptian-born violinist Felix Mizrahi’s dream (Mizrahi was himself the object of an earlier Dror film) to stage a last concert there (with thanks: Bh) :

From Al-Jazeera‘s interview with Duki Dror:

In 1948, a group of Jewish Arab musicians from Baghdad and Cairo were amongst the streams of Jewish immigrants coming to the new state of Israel from all over the world.

They were masters of Arabic music – but found that their music was not valued in their new homeland, and the ongoing Arab-Israeli war left no room for their identity as Arab Jews.

Cafe Noah in Tel Aviv became the one place where their music and culture could survive.

Award-winning filmmaker Duki Dror spoke to Al Jazeera’s Donata von Hardenberg about the making of Cafe Noah and the issues behind it.

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to make a film about Cafe Noah and cultural exile in Israel?

Filmmaker Duki Dror remembers his parents spending their happy Saturday nights out in Tel Aviv’s Cafe Noah.

Duki Dror: When I was a child, Cafe Noah was the place where my parents spent their happy Saturday nights with friends, listening to their favorite Arabic music, drinking whiskey and forgetting for a moment the agony of being in cultural exile in Israel.

They both were born in Iraq. For centuries, Jews in Iraq were part of the Mesopotamian heritage – in language, in music, participating and contributing to the cultural thrive.

But all this unfortunately came to a complete halt due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the physical disappearance of a whole community from Baghdad and other cities.

For many musicians, artists, and writers this displacement was intolerable. In the 1950’s and 60’s, this cafe in Tel Aviv was one of the few places where they could continue their music.

When I was young, I didn’t see anything “cultural” in Arabic music. In fact, when my parents hired the Cafe Noah band to play in my Bar Mitzva party, I felt a great shame in front of my friends, who laughed at me as being “Arab.”

Later on, I understood a broad cultural repression was experienced in Israel by Jews from Arab countries – their history, language, culture and identity.

So I started to go back to all those “repressed spots” hidden in my soul and began to explore them, one by one.

When I filmed Cafe Noah, I felt a great responsibility to tell the story of the musicians – the story of great talents who survived and helped others, through their music, the type of cultural exile they experienced. This is part of the Israeli experience.

Did you encounter any challenges making the film?

I had a fantastic proposal based on two years of research on the subject, yet, it was very difficult to raise production money. The film foundation turned it down on the basis of it being “too folklorist”. I was furious, because it was a sign that social marginalisation is not a thing of the past. I decided to go ahead anyway and make the film with great love and the little money I had.

What does Cafe Noah stand for?

Cafe Noah stands for the spirit of people who continued to do their art against all the bad circumstances that normally would make them stop. It is about the human spirit and what the music meant for them – the extension of their spirit and soul.

What does it mean to live in cultural exile in Israel?
It means social marginalisation, exclusion based on cultural background.

Today, the Israeli society is much more polyphonic and you find more and more “other” cultural voices included.

Yet, it is still a predominantly Euro-centric, or I should say an “Americanised”, society that is suspicious towards the Arab culture.

How has the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict affected cultural life and identity for Arabs living in Israel?

Arab-Israelis always had to show their loyalty to both parties of the conflict, loyal as citizens to Israel, and loyal to Palestine as a nation. But this didn’t affect their cultural life because no one expected them to integrate and dissolve into the Israeli society.

Jews of Arab descent, on the other hand, were expected to change their “backward” mentality and to adopt Western values and culture. And this was exile for them.

How is Tel Aviv’s music scene today compared to the 1950’s and 1960’s?

“Oriental music” is today the most popular music in Israel – it is a popular and heavily commercialised off-shoot from the classical Arabic music, not much different from the popular music you would hear in Beirut or Amman or Cairo.

Some of the musicians of Cafe Noah became the teachers of this new generation of musicians. So, it may be said, at least in music, that cultural marginalisation didn’t succeed.

Read article in full

My comment: It is a shame that Dror panders to Al-Jazeera’s need to score political points against Israel, using such buzzwords as ‘marginalisation’, ‘exclusion’ and ‘repression’ – and the ultimate cliche ‘Arab Jews’. (As usual, the exact circumstances of the Jews’ exodus are glossed over. We get the impression Zionist pressure caused them to leave).

Dror found it impossible to attract funding for his project. He has a point: the predominantly Askhenazi cultural establishment still considers projects such as Dror’s as ‘folklore’ – yet rush to fund ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ or ‘Israeli-Arab’ co-productions such as Ajami. It would be the height of irony if the only audience Dror can find for his film is the Arabic Al-Jazeera audience, who relish viewing Jews as forcibly torn away by Zionism from their natural Arab habitat.

However, I don’t see much of the ‘agony of cultural exile’ in Dror’s film. The characters exude creative energy, with their hilarious anecdotes. And as he himself admits, oriental music is anything but marginal in Israel today – it has moved to the mainstream.


  • @Juniper:

    I can't understand why it seems so objectionable (offensive?) about "Jew" and "Arab" being put together. Funny thing is, the people in the documentary when they met they greeted each other and chatted in Arabic (one of them even said he could not speak much Hebrew when he arrived in Israel).

    How about asking them if they mind being called Arab Jews or Jewish Arabs, or Iraqi or Egyptian or Tunisian…? One fact that you cannot change is that they all were united by their love of ARABIC music and song and took great pride pride in performing what they loved!

    Another point: even if one accepts that Jews are a distinct race ( a debatable point), the Middle east was never a land populated by just one race who could claim sole ownership of it ("our traditional lands"). The beauty of the whole region was in the very mosaic of the different peoples that populated it. The Israelites may have conquered the lands from the Nile to the Tigris AT SOME STAGE IN ANCIENT HISTORY but that did not give them ownership of those areas forever (kingdoms come and go, remember).

  • I too take issue with the expression 'Arab' Jews. While you are right that with few exceptions these Jews are not Sephardi, they are not Arabs. The word Arab is a relatively modern concept and was used to described rural Beduin tribes. The different communities were all Ottoman subjects defined on religious lines.
    The term Mizrahi is often used to describe Jews from the Middle East, but is inadequate for those from North Africa (the Mashreq), which is West of much of Europe.

  • The Sumerians and Babylonians were living together in Mesopotamia since the earliest recorded history.

    Juniper: it’s funny that you take issue with calling these Jews ‘Arab’, but call them ‘Sephardic’. Most of these Arab Jews did not originate from Spain (especially the Iraqi ones), and are no more Sephardi than the Arabs are. They are Jewish Arabs.

  • Jewishness or Judaism is a religion never been a human race at all in the human creation from the start. Religions not creating race, all religion came for all pupils for all race

    the Babylonians they are Babylonian like Assyrians, Sumerians, Akadians and who lived and ruled Iraq north and south, but Babylonians have dominate the south land been first big empire during Hammurabi with his famous ever the first ever Code of Law (check British Musum).

    The Babylonians they are Babylonian like Assyrians, Sumerians, Akadians and who lived and ruled Iraq north and south, but Babylonians have dominate the south land been first big empire during Hammurabi with his famous ever the first ever Code of Law (check British Musum).

    Nebuchadnezzar I one of the strong kings of Babylonian empire,

    Nebuchadnezzar II the second strong kings of Babylonian empire during his time the empire widen to control all the fertilized land from Babylon to Haifa.

  • The earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia were the Sumerians and Abraham was an Amorite. The ancient Babylonians were defeated by the Hittites and then the Assyrians, and only established their empire under Nebuchadnezzar.

  • The Babylonians were not around at the time of Abraham.

    You kidding bataween isn't?

    Is it your history difrrent of all docmnet hiostric facts either by holly books or historian writers?

    Ok whats you prove for that can you give it to us?

  • Jews were there BEFORE any arab tribes and I like the way you call it Mesopotamian culture; that is more accurate.

    This phoney statement as looks we got some one writing the history on his naive views.

    Its Babylonian before been Jews man, its was empire before Abraham (ع) start calling for the believe in GOD when Babylonian king set big fire for him then he saved and immigrated from Ur to Palestine with his two wives.

    Go do your homework first and read your and other Holly books and old testimony

  • My complaint is that these Sephardic Jews are called "Arab" Jews.

    Jews were there BEFORE any arab tribes and I like the way you call it Mesopotamian culture; that is more accurate.

    The music was Jewish BEFORE it was arabic, it is OUR native music!

    I may be what's called Ashkenazi, but I know who has lived in our traditional lands while we were in Europe!


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