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.

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  • while many of the biggest stars in the Arab world were/are indeed Arabs, a substantial minority are not. And some are mentioned here, for example farid al attash who was druze (I would not call a druze an Arab. that would not be a good idea), salima Murad was Jewish, Sabah was a Maronite, a descendant of the ancient Phoenicians. None of these people were arabs. Other stars not mentioned here such as naguib al rihani, asmahan, Leila mourad, halim el dabh were not arabs either. just because one is from an "arab" country, doesn't mean one is arab. those who say that their culture and identity are Arab identify with the people and culture who are illegally occupying countries like iraq, lebanon, and egypt, etc., where the non-Arab indigenous peoples are being oppressed on a daily basis.


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