Ironically, the latest junkets featuring liberal Israelis and recently domesticated Palestinians threaten to finally collapse the intricate history of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East into two streamlined, easily recognizable blocs: enlightened, idealistic and well-intentioned Zionists (“wounded spirits” as the title of a symposium on Israeli culture in New York had it); and articulate, mild-mannered, well-dressed Palestinians ready to interpret the desires of their less articulate, less well-dressed, stone-wielding and still somehow overly Arab constituents in the occupied territories. This battle of equals can now safely be fought live via satellite or in the anesthetized atmosphere of convention halls and conference rooms, far from the new methods of riot control, crowd dispersion and political repression.

Yet the majority of both populations simply falls through the cracks in such an equation. On the Israeli side, this means the Oriental Jews: factory workers and building contractors, neighborhood and development town dwellers, synagogue-goers and crack addicts, taxi drivers and Arabic-speaking interrogators, petty bureaucrats and social activists.

The historical status of Jews in the Middle East remains a point of contention. One thing, however, remains indisputable: after the Islamic commercial revolution of the ninth century, Jews — no matter what ups and downs they may have gone through at different times in different places — continued to live in cities and communities throughout the region, right up until the 20th century. With the gradual displacement of religious, communal and cultural affiliations by a national entity as the focus of world Jewish life, these Jews found themselves increasingly cut off from their native domain. Without going into the complexities of this process, it can also be said, as Han Halevi put it in his History of the Jews, that only the 1967 “occupation broke the geo-cultural isolation of Israel in the Arab world.” With this, the Jews native to that world found themselves in quite a different position within the social hierarchy than they had been in the old, “beautiful little Israel,” hermetically sealed off from its Arab and Mediterranean environment.

For Israel’s educated elite, 1967 marks the beginning of the end of their version of the Zionist dream, that “rampart of Europe against Asia, of civilization against barbarism” Herzl so fervently desired. The coming to power of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party in 1977 only confirmed their worst fears: they were no longer waiting for the barbarians; the barbarians had already come, in the form of Oriental Jews seeking their share of the collective pie.

For Israel’s Oriental majority, these two dates have an entirely different significance. Begin’s victory signalled the end of Labor hegemony over the Orientals and the beginnings, however tenuous, of a democratization process that at least paid lip service to the possibility of social and cultural equality. Han Halevi describes well the new dynamic created by the occupation of 1967: “They who had attempted to forget the language of their parents could now, thanks to their knowledge of Arabic, do good lucrative business in the occupied territories, speculate and trade, and even move up a military and police hierarchy in which knowledge of Arabic became a professional advantage of extreme importance.”

But these hierarchies of power found themselves in direct confrontation with cultural memories and affinities. Schizophrenia became institutionalized: a “middle-management” security service worker could hum the tunes of Farid al-Atrash, Umm Kulthum or Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab one minute while using a Palestinian subject as the object of misplaced rage the next. As the occupation continues — and with the “democratization” of repression during the uprising — this “relationship” has become even more pointed, cynical and ugly.

Despite such brutal contradictions at the heart of these structures and relations, it seems that almost any scratch on the veneer of Israeli culture and society reveals a distinctly Levantine texture, opening a window onto that suppressed world that once simply constituted a native domain. As Bracha Seri, a poet and activist of Yemeni origin, put it: “Jerusalem on high/and San’a down below/are one./One is my city…/The same openness/the same majesty… I longed to kiss/“these strangers,”/our “enemies,”/to whisper my thanks/that they exist/as in days gone by/never to return.” This sense of identity and gratitude is a far cry from the lyrics of a song like Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold,” in which the old city, empty and deserted, comes to life only after the Jews have “returned” to it.

Poignant Realm

It is music — what the American poet Nathaniel Mackey has called “wounded kinship’s last resort” — that has proved the most resilient manifestation of this Levantine character. In the alleys of the open marketplaces, at the central bus stations, out of suitcases, kiosks, flimsy stalls or tiny shops, virtual walking encyclopedias of popular Middle Eastern culture sell cassettes and videos in every dialect of Arabic, in Turkish, Greek, Persian and Kurdish. Down past the genteel tourist traps in the restored seaport of Old Jaffa, dozens of clubs in the seedier part of town feature Moroccan, Iranian and Turkish stars. The tradition of synagogue music accompanied by large Arab orchestras flourishes; all-night songfests and contests, in which singers try to outdo each other, climbing scales higher and higher or challenging each other to more and more daring feats of improvisation within the framework of whatever Arabic maqam they happen to be using, take place all the time.

This music has always existed on the margins, as part of a subculture, but it was only in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the term “Oriental” music even entered the general Israeli vocabulary. This came about largely through the efforts of Shlomo Bar and his group ha-Breira ha-Tiv‘it (The Natural Choice), despite the fact that he played something quite different from what has come to be called “Oriental” music. Bar’s overpowering stage presence took Israeli audiences, used to primarily blond and blue-eyed singers and choirs ethereally harping on about making the desert bloom or some forever lost and misty “there,” entirely by surprise. His hypnotizing performances, in which he almost seemed possessed by the music, reached beyond the confines of “protest” music into that fertile and poignant realm of “wounded kinship,” with its self-censorship and collective amnesia.

Following the appearance of Bar, the mid-1980s saw the explosion of “cassette music.” First sold in the bus stations and open air markets, this music for a time seriously threatened Israel’s major record company. The cassettes (by such singers as Zohar Argov, Haim Moshe, Jacky McKaytan, Maragalit Zanaani, Itzik Kala and others), produced in make-shift basement and garage studios, outsold by far anything that mainstream singers were doing. While it could not strictly be classified as protest music, its very tone and raucousness was a shout serving to renew old affiliations and assert the legitimacy of pent-up emotions.

Because of the commercial potential, “white” singers and groups began using (not to say stealing) Oriental material, inserting Eastern instrumental motifs and Arabic words. Naturally, these songs got more airplay, larger and better quality pressings, more promotion and, last but not least, more money. This led to the next stage in which some of the original “cassette” singers (along with other, newer ones) began producing more marketable music: some of the high notes got lower and weren’t carried as long, the beat changed, strings were added, original or religious lyrics were replaced by the material of established songwriters.

On the commercial plane, the “perfect” mix was achieved by a singer like Ofra Haza: only after having gone through the process of assimilating the codes of &ldqou;acceptable” Israeli pop culture was she allowed to produce a record of Yemeni songs. Removed from the context of any kind of social struggle or testimony, the work of such an artist is perceived as a benevolent gesture toward “roots” which, though exotic, can then be seen as part of the common Israeli heritage. This holds true as well on the less commercial plane: in fact, insofar as artists or performers involved in the practice or recuperation of non-Western forms do not express explicit social or political opinions, their work is sure to be co-opted by the mainstream, a feature of the cultural “richness” and “diversity” brought about through the “ingathering of the exiles.” This curious phenomenon can only be seen as a last-ditch effort to divert attention from the massive structural fissures that threaten the very stability of Israeli society itself, for it is only against such drastic realities that the old guard could even imagine considering the entirely outlandish and taboo notion of a vital, plural and creative Middle Eastern culture.

Even here, much of what is most interesting — whether or not there is an overt or implicit political consciousness at work — still involves the conscious use of non-Western materials in a way that is not gratuitous but earned. On the more popular end of things: the heartfelt wailing of Yehuda Poliker, either accompanying himself on the Turkish baglame or joined by his hard-rocking band; the spirited mix of punk and new wave with lyrics like “The Night Train to Cairo” by the group Mashina; or the unique mix of instruments and tempos presented by The East/West Ensemble. These are light-years away from what used to pass for “with it” Israeli pop culture of even five years ago.

On the less commercial side, a garage band like The Brotherhood has even gone so far as to use voice-overs of Ben-Gurion within the setting of a Laurie Anderson-like arrangement, and sing a song in Turkish dedicated to filmmaker Yilmaz Gliney. This penchant for mixing various contemporary artistic meta-languages with material from a little closer to home extends to other media as well.

While Israeli film is nowhere nearly as developed as the contemporary Arab cinema, there are indications that younger filmmakers are starting to use the material of popular native traditions as a structural base for new forms. This can be seen, for example, in the use of Turkish thrillers in Yononas, a prize-winning short film by Benny Turati.

These tendencies are evident on the literary scene as well: one of the more interesting things to appear recently is the Israeli-edited French language journal Levant, dedicated to presenting writers from around the whole Mediterranean basin as well as the Arab world.

Plain Language

The first two issues included the work of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Dib and Adonis, among others. Nor has a publication like this arisen out of a vacuum: despite enormous obstacles and against great odds, native Mediterranean and Arab Jews — on different levels and in different ways — have maintained certain connections and allegiances. The Algerian-born poet Erez Biton revived the practice of reciting poetry accompanied by music as his work eloquently limned the parameters of “another Hebrew,” a language far from the fashionable phrasing of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff St. and its slavishly imitative modes that set the tone for the country as a whole. [1] The poetry of Shelley Elkayam charted the further recesses of “plain” language in a Hebrew that finally felt native by simply relying on knowledge localized and encoded in her own experience as a seventh-generation resident of the land. Roni Somek, one of the youngest Israeli poets born in the old Levantine world, counters the dominating forms of foreign pop-culture by ironically domesticating and personalizing the indigence of local myths. Sami Chetrit, another young poet born in the old world, consciously stakes out the material considered quintessentially Israeli and relentlessly subverts it in one of the most powerful Hebrew poems to emerge from the intifada: using the parameters of the Bible and the Palmah, here the victim is no longer Isaac (long a staple image of modern Hebrew poetry) but a son of Ishmael; and the casual, jeep-riding “heroes” are nothing but thugs in combat boots.

While Arabic as a primary language of Jews proved to be one of the ideology of return’s true victims (with only Samir Nakash, an Iraqi-born novelist still writing serious work in Arabic), writers like Shimon Balas and Sami Mikha’il made the transition into Hebrew, producing work that seems to have much more to do with contemporary Arabic or North African francophone literature than with the work of their own Israeli contemporaries. This holds true as well for younger writers like Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, not to mention Anton Shammas, the Palestinian novelist who has written in Hebrew. Nor does this even take into account the popularity of other Palestinian writers like Emile Habibi, Samih al-Qasim, Siam Da’ud and Sahar Khalifah in Hebrew translation. The work of all these writers spans many worlds, worlds once considered forbidden territory, illuminated only on occasion by the foreign gaze of domination, contempt and ignorance. Here the voice belongs to the subject again, inscribing versions of the past and present that go against the grain of official discourse and the sanctioned guidelines for exportable Israeli cultural products.

Alongside (or, better yet, beneath) these more visible forms, a whole other cultural world exists, outside even the context of contemporary Israeli writers whose concerns have decidedly been shaped by their experience as native Middle Easterners. Against more obstacles and greater odds, non-assimilating (i.e. predominantly working-class or “aristocratic”) Orientals have managed not only to preserve some part of their culture but even to continue producing it in both oddly frozen and new hybrid forms. Far removed from the deadening pallor of metrical polemics in academia (where doing research on 18th- century North African poetry, for example, is seen as radical revisionism, since only 11th-century Judeo-Islamic culture, albeit in a completely decontextualized form, is acceptable), people continue writing original muwashahat (a medieval Arabic poetic form). In addition to the countless collections of new liturgical poetry (no longer printed in Livorno, Baghdad or Smyrna but now in Or Yehuda, Be’ersheva and Bat Yam), Oriental Jews continue to produce thousands of books.

These works reflect the same kind of genre displacement typical of the Levant since the advent of colonialism, but often contain a polemical urgency along with a fiercely recuperative tone. Almost none of this material (which includes autobiographical political memoirs in both Hebrew and Arabic; historical and sociological works falling well outside the academic mainstream; community histories; childhood memoirs centered on cities or particular neighborhoods; and local, community-based newspapers and journals) is published by commercial presses or generally available except by word-of-mouth or through direct contact with the authors/publishers themselves. Once thoroughly documented, a good case can be made for this alternative line constituting the primary culture of a good part of the population; yet it remains largely ignored and rarely cited even in purportedly thorough historical accounts of Israeli culture.

The most significant and potentially liberating alternatives to the existing structures of Israeli society have emerged either directly from the Oriental experience or from some consciousness of its importance as a key but missing element. Running on a shoestring and operating on the margins, these alternatives include projects like David Hamo’s Haifa-based magazine of social and political criticism, The Other Newspaper; Erez Biton’s cultural journal Aperion; Charlie Abutbul’s Jerusalem-based Morasha theater and Keshet sound studio; Benny Zadeh’s Tel Aviv-based neighborhood paper, Pa‘arnon; Mony Yakim’s now-defunct but influential public forum, New Direction, once based in the notorious ha-Tikva slum quarter; Moti Abu’s Shahar youth movement; HILA (The Israeli Committee on Education in Oriental Neighborhoods and Development Towns), an extremely important grassroots organization that challenges the present inequalities in education; the People’s Alternative College (along with its Alternative Media Center), founded by a collective in Tel Aviv; and Barbara and Shlomo Swirsky’s vital Breirot Publishing Company, as well as their broadly-based new project, the Adva Institute for Reorientation. In addition, the umbrella activist/ peace groups East for Peace and The Oriental Front, include most of the people involved in other more particular projects.

Each sphere of activity briefly surveyed here, despite the enormous differences in purpose, intent and form, displays an unequivocal concern with questions of nativity. And nativity writ large — that is, the historical presence of Oriental Jews and what they have produced in that part of the world, including Israel — waits poised, like a time bomb, ready to shatter and make obsolete the hegemonic but ultimately more tenuous forms that have served as models until now. The sheer amount of material that lies dormant, ready to be recycled and reinterpreted once the subject begins creating itself within the terms of an altered social, cultural and geopolitical economy, is truly staggering. Despite signs of frustration, despair and exhaustion, the scene is indeed diverse and exciting. It is this energy of possibility, of blending and mixing, that finds expression in the activities of the groups and individuals actively remaking and redefining the terms of Israeli culture.


[1] See Ken Brown, “A Conversation with Erez Biton,” MERIP Reports #92 (November-December 1980).

How to cite this article:

Ammiel Alcalay "“Wounded Kinship’s Last Resort”," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

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