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.
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.