Month: September 2020

Arabic music goes from ghetto to Israeli mainstream

Israel has overcome its ‘complex’ regarding Arabic music, and today this genre is mainstream in Israeli culture, argues Linda Menuhin in this article for the Tel Aviv Review of Books. (Menuhin surveys the current Arabic music scene, but it is a shame that she does not elaborate on  Yemenite music,which had an influence in Israel since the early 20th century).

The Israeli all-girl A-wa band has popularised music in Yemenite Arabic

One Saturday in the summer of 1971, my aunt took me to her gym in Tel Aviv. The scene was familiar, like a Baghdad swimming pool in the sixties. Some people were exercising, some were swimming, while others sat together, chatting and relaxing. I sat in a comfy chair and turned my little transistor radio to Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel). It was just after the news, and they were playing an Um Kalthoum song. My aunt swiftly asked me to turn the volume down. This was a surprise and a shock for me. I had been in Israel for a few months, after fleeing the hell that was Iraq at the end of 1970. This is what Eli Eliahu, the talented Israeli poet of Iraqi origin, describes as the “stage of surprise,” one of the “stages of shyness” he details in a poem describing his father’s behavior—quickly switching his car radio from an Arabic station to a Hebrew one as he drives out of a private garage on to the main road, out of fear that someone might hear the Arabic songs he so loved.

Arabic music in Israel has achieved great success over the last two decades. Israel, in the year 2020, is a meeting point of the contemporary, with cultures from around the world existing in harmony. It is also a place where Arabic music, thanks to the impact of immigration, has succeeded in breaking through the barrier placed before it by Ashkenazi hegemony. This has been a successful struggle of public taste winning out over the radio producer’s instinct to view Arabic songs as an extension of the language of the enemy. Arabic, though, was the spoken language of 850,000 Jews. They hailed from different parts of the Arab world and spoke in different accents, but their broad contours of taste were somewhat similar: shaped by a music scene dominated by Arab legends such as Um Kalthoum, Abdel Wahhab, and Farid Al Atrash in Egypt, Salima Murad in Iraq, Sabah in Lebanon, and many more.

The Arab-Israeli conflict placed a political burden on these romantic songs. It introduced friction into the relationship between Jews from Arab countries and Jews from Eastern and Western Europe. This is how Jews from the East found their Arabic culture and music held hostage in their new homeland. So they had no choice but to embrace the melancholy melodies of traditional Greek music, turning it into the “legitimate” substitute for their benighted Arabic music— which, according to the music scholar Shimon Parnas, was viewed as primitive compared to Western classical music.

Eli Greenfield, active in the arts in Israel, says that “the real launch of Arabic music began with the arrival of Sapho, a French Moroccan singer, to Israel in 1988, where she performed in the ‘Heichal Hatarbut’, one of Tel Aviv’s grandest halls, singing Um Kalthoum songs.” This is how Arabic music first migrated from the cafes and bars to the beating heart of Tel Aviv. In the last 30 years, countless groups playing Arabic music or taking inspiration from it have been formed in Israel, and have succeeded in building a fan base both in the Arab world and further afield.

I believe that Israel has gradually rid itself of its Arab complex over the years, especially in the wake of the signing of the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978. The conflict had placed a psychological obstacle in the path of accepting the music of the “enemy.” Nearly 20 years later, Sarit Hadad, one of the most famous singers in Israel, recorded most of her 1997 album Singing in Arabic (which, as the name suggests, had Arabic songs) in Jordan—just two years after the signing of a peace accord between the two countries. There she performed different songs by Arab legends despite not having Arab roots.

In the early 2000s, when I established a new Iraqi music collective “Sidara,” we put on a performance called “Meeting in a Baghdad Cafe.” This revisited the contributions of the brothers Saleh and Dawood Kuwaiti to the development of of Iraqi music during the first half of the twentieth century. Dawood was the grandfather of the talented contemporary musician Dudu Tassa. I invited Tassa to be a guest on my show on Reshet Bet, to talk about the reputation of the brothers, his grandfather and his great-uncle in Iraq before they came to Israel. I mentioned that Iraqi music was first broadcast from Qasr Al Zuhur—home to King Faisal the First, and where King Ghazi, Faisal’s son, held Saleh Al Kuwaiti in such high esteem that he gifted the musician a gold watch. The implication is that Jews could be accorded respect on their own merits, even as a minority. Tassa couldn’t help but comment that he had heard about the high positions Jews enjoyed in Arab countries before, but had assumed it to be an exaggerated tale built in the imagination of Jewish immigrants from there.

More than a decade after our conversation, Tassa released the abum Al Akhwan Kuwaiti (“Al Kuwaiti Brothers”), placing the songs and tunes of his grandfather and his great-uncle in a modern framework. It was a bestseller, accompanied by sold-out concerts. Tassa’s new arrangements struck a chord with thousands of Iraqis both inside and outside Iraq, even though Tassa’s singing accent—unsurprisingly—is not a pure Iraqi one. On the back of these new arrangements of his forebears’ music, Tassa was invited to perform, with the talented Nasrin Qadri, as opening act for the British rock group Radiohead on a sold-out arena tour of the United States.
The group Firqat Al Noor first showed up on the Israeli scene five years ago. The 25-member orchestra, directed by Ariel Cohen, who has Moroccan origins, are standard-bearers for the traditional Arabic music once played on Voice of Israel radio. This ambitious project, which received enthusiastic media coverage, was the culmination of efforts by smaller ensembles such as Yoused Fe Ehad, Bustan Abraham, and a group led by Yair Dalal, who is of Iraqi origins. These groups have received the support of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have been endorsed as emissaries of Israel abroad.

How did contemporary Israeli youth acquire this taste for Arabic music? No doubt, a significant cohort had been exposed to the Tarab (traditional Arab music that emphasizes long melodic notes) giants in the synagogue, after Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef allowed religious hymns to be set to these melodies. Festivals championing the cause of peace and coexistence in the Middle East have similarly helped the spread of Arabic music, especially Jerusalem’s annual Oud Festival—a huge pull for a large and diverse audience, including Israelis who do not have Eastern roots. This festival quickly expanded into a series of performances in scores of halls across several cities, supported with big budgets by municipal authorities and the Ministry of Culture. The popularity opened up the genre to mainstream platforms, including the grand elegant halls that typically play host to plays and musicals rooted firmly in the West. The Jerusalem Theater, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and even Tel Aviv University have all hosted Arabic music concerts in recent years.

Read article in full

‘Tehran’ is latest Mossad drama to wow the Middle East

Tehran, launched on Apple TV in the US this week, is the latest of Israel’s popular spy dramas to hit TV screens  across the world. It has already been bootlegged and illegally streamed across the Middle East – including Iran. The show features a Mossad hacker smuggled in to Iran to help blow up a nuclear site. Report in the Financial Times: 

Niv Sultan stars as a Mossad hacker smuggled into Iran in Tehran

Embarrassing failures are far outweighed by the successes, including, most recently, the spiriting out of an abandoned Tehran warehouse of the entire nuclear archives of the Islamic Republic, proudly displayed on TV by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April 2018.

The realism helps too, said Sima Shine, who kept an eye on Iran for most of her career at Mossad and the National Security Council, and watched Tehran closely when it aired in Israel. 

 “It’s good that they give a lot of credit to the security apparatus [in Iran], and they don’t show them as stupid — instead they show them as operating quite well,” she said. “We see the demonstrations by students, and the counter demonstrations, and the hidden parties of young people — we know that all these things are happening in Iran.” 

 The Iranians were equally fascinated by the drama and perturbed by inaccuracies, said Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, the Washington-based think-tank.

“This is the first time a wide Israeli audience got a glimpse of their enemy, Iran, beyond the news cycle. 

This is also the first time Iranians got to see what Israelis, to an extent, think of them,” she said.

The timing helped too. “The unusual explosions must’ve added more interest in the series for both audiences as it unintentionally served as publicity for Tehran because the plot is about Israel taking out nuclear facilities.”  

Read article in full (registration necessary)

Break the Yom Kippur fast with these two Sephardi recipes

It is customary to fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Different communities have their own specific traditional foods for breaking the fast.  Here are two – one from Morocco and the other from Iran. 

Wishing all those observing Yom Kippur GMAR HATIMA TOVA!

Photo: The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
TORTITAS ( From the Jewish Journal of LA)

6 eggs 

2 teaspoons anise extract or 2 tablespoons arak liquor (optional) 

1-2 tablespoons anise/fennel seed, to taste 

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

 2 teaspoons baking powder

 4 cups flour

 In large bowl on stand-up mixer, mix eggs, sugar and oil until well blended.
Add the anise extract (or arak liquor), seeds and baking powder and mix.
While mixing, add flour one cup at a time and continue to mix.
Mix dough until it comes together and forms a ball.Let dough rest for 10 minutes.Preheat oven to 350 F.Divide dough in tennis ball-size pieces. Roll out dough as thinly as possible. If using pasta maker, use lasagna setting.Pierce dough with fork or decorating tool. Cut into squares or use cookie cutter or drinking glass and cut into circles.Bake on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet for 15 minutes until golden.

 FALOODEH  (from the Jewish Food Society)

 4 gala apples, peeled and coarsely grated 

2 tablespoons turbinado (demerera) sugar

a drop of rose water

3 cups water 

5-6 ice cubes


In a medium bowl, top apples with sugar and rosewater. Flatten a bit, but do not mix at this point. Place the ice cubes on top of the mixture, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. When ready to eat, add water. Mix and serve immediately to break the fast.

More posts about Yom Kippur

Mukhtar forced Silwan Yemenites to buy more land

The blogosphere has been buzzing with reaction to a BBC Arabic programme   – some have called it a hit piece– politicising the funding of Elad, the organisation responsible for developing the archaeological site of ‘Ir David’, the city of Jerusalem in King David’s time. ‘Ir David’ has been built over by  the ‘Palestinian’ village of Silwan. Accusing Elad of evicting Palestinians from their homes, the BBC paints a partial picture  of ‘Jewish settlers stealing Palestinian land and  property’.  The reverse is true.  This blog has documentedthe fact, conveniently omitted by the BBC, that  Silwan 

( formerly Kfar Shiloah) once had a population, at its height,  of 200 Yemenite Jewish families, but these were forced out by Arab violence in the 1930s. David Collier uncovers some surprising nuggets: 

This photo from 1865 shows that the area now known as Silwan was mainly empty space.
Not long ago, the ‘Arab village of Silwan’ was a tiny settlement on the eastern ridge of a hill on the outskirts of the old city of Jerusalem. Building on the western ridge – in the ‘City of David’ began in the 1880s when Jews began buying land there. This image, showing all the empty space is from 1865:

A new village, Kfar Hashiloach  was formed, Jewish land purchase increased and in 1910 the Jewish community were FORCED to purchase more land – by the then head of the Arab village of Silwan. Don’t be so surprised – Jews were already paying the village protection money so that their burial sites would not be vandalised.

 In pre-Israel days, Jewish protection was often provided by local Arabs ‘at a cost’.

Much of the land purchased by Jews was stolen when Jews were forced out in the 1930s due to ongoing Arab violence. Arab families simply moved in to the vacated Jewish property. 

Obviously between 1949 and 1967, when Jordan had control, the Jewish presence was obliterated completely. When Israel recaptured the land in 1967 it came complete with a new population.When Jews began to repopulate some of their old property – such as a local synagogue – they had rocks thrown at them by local residents.

Read post in full

More about Silwan (Kfar Shiloah)

Central Zionist Archives

Letter confirms that Shafik Ades was a scrap metal merchant

Seventy two years almost to the day since the hanging of Shafik Ades in Basra, Iraq, a letter has come to light which corroborates his activities as a scrap metal merchant – and not, as charged by the Iraqi authorities, a weapons smuggler working for the Zionists. 

The letter, from the A & C Ades Company, states that a car was donated to the community for the use of the Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society) for the transport of the dead. The letter, dated August 1946, was found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive,a collection of materials confiscated by the Iraqi secret police from the Jewish 

community and now in the US.


The two letters referring to the gift of a car made by the Ades Company to the Burial Society. Right: Shafik Ades (photos: Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center)

 “We are proud to comply with your request and provide you with a large second-hand car purchased from the British army,” the letter read.

The archive also contains a response from Hakham Sasson Khedouri, chief rabbi of the community, thanking the Ades company. 

 The existence of the letters was revealed by the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel. 

Shafik Ades had thought that his wealth and connections with the royal family had made him immune to false accusations.

Ades’s hanging on 23 September 1948 sent shock waves of terror through the Jews of Iraq and was probably the single most important reason why 90 percent fled the country, when emigration became legal in 1950.

More about Shafik Ades

Report in French marking the 72nd anniversary of Ades’s death


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.