The music video has amassed 1.2 million hits and has attracted thousands of fans from across the Middle East
TEL AVIV, Israel - All summer long, the streets and bars of Israel’s hippest city have been filled by what may be a bit of an unexpected tune: three women belting out the Yemeni dialect of Arabic with a heavy darbuka beat behind them.
The surprise hit Habib Galbi - performed by a band of three Israeli sisters of Yemeni background named A-WA - managed to rise to the top of this country’s music charts, shattering records and all expectations. The song has also proven a major success abroad, with the music video amassing 1.2 million hits and attracting thousands of fans from across the Middle East.
The song is actually based on a tune that the group’s grandmother - who was born in Ibb, Yemen, but moved to Israel in 1949 - taught them, and for sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel singing it was the most natural thing in the world.
But this summer marks the first time in Israeli history that an Arabic-language song has managed to top the charts, and its positive reception across borders in countries Israel has been at war with for nearly 70 years has many experts wondering if the song is a sign of a cultural thaw and hope amid the increasingly bleak political landscape across the region.
‘We open the ears of young people’ to Yemenite music
Born in the tiny desert town of Shaharut in the Arava Valley just north of Eilat, the three Haim sisters that comprise A-WA began singing Yemenite songs from a young age.
Tair, the oldest member at 32, told Middle East Eye that at home the family listened to many different kinds of music but that Yemenite music was always present at the weddings, henna celebrations and other parties they grew up attending.
“Yemenite music was something very special for us, something overwhelming. The first time I remember hearing Yemenite music, I was five years old and attending a henna celebration for my uncle. There was a singer on a tin drum, singing with such a unique voice that it caught my ears and I started imitating her.”
From then on, Tair began singing in the Yemenite style, and her younger sisters soon followed suit. The entire family would sit down to watch the weekly Arabic movie shown on Israeli television throughout the 1960s and 70s, and the sisters gradually learned other styles of Arabic music as well.
“We’d put a scarf around our hips and belly dance while watching the movie, imitating the music. We always loved it, and we always felt like it was okay, and even more than okay - that it was a beautiful culture and language,” middle sister Liron, 30, told MEE.
Despite the fact that Arabic language and culture has been widely denigrated in Israeli society since its founding in 1948, Liron noted that at home, “the music we grew up with was in both Hebrew and Arabic. Arabic wasn’t something foreign to our ears”.
Habib Galbi is from a genre of songs traditionally sung by women back in Yemen. While the most famous Jewish Yemenite music is Hebrew religious hymns called piyutim, secular music - especially women’s music - is sung in the community’s native Arabic.
Although many singers of Middle Eastern origin in Israel remake traditional songs from the Arab countries they came from, they often translate them into Hebrew, or else pick religious tunes that were originally Hebrew.
But the A-WA sisters explained that they never considered the idea.
“It was natural for us to choose Arabic. It’s more authentic and it felt right … We never even thought of translating the songs. We wanted to preserve them as they are and only give them our own twist,” Liron told MEE.
The sisters' bet paid off. After releasing their video Habib Galbi, in the spring, it quickly went viral. The group’s debut album, meanwhile, premiers this month.
“We are three sisters singing Yemenite music. It is very rare that women from Israel, especially young women, sing this kind of music, because these days you only hear it at private gatherings, and usually performed by older women,” Liron told MEE.
“But we take it front of stage and give it a modern twist that opens the ears of many young people as well.”
Arab-Jewish culture’s troubled history in Israel
But while the story may at first seem simple - three sisters reviving their grandmother’s songs - A-WA’s story is wrapped up in the dark history of the suppression of Arabic culture in Israel.
About 50 percent of Israelis are Mizrahim, or Jews who trace their ancestry to the Middle East, compared to the 30 percent who are European-descended Ashkenazim. A large percentage of Mizrahim are Arab Jews, i.e. originally from Arabic-speaking countries like Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, and many others. On top of those, around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinians, and thus Arabic-speaking as well.
On the surface, the commercial success of an Arabic-language hit seems a given in Israel, considering the fact that a majority of the population is Arabic-speaking or of Arab origin, regardless of religion.
But there is a reason that Habib Galbi is the first chart-topping Arabic song in Israeli history. For decades, Arabic music - and Mizrahi music more broadly - was banned on Israeli radio, in what is seen as part of a larger cultural suppression.
Since the years following Israel’s creation in 1948 that saw the arrival of nearly 700,000 Arab Jews - a result of both voluntary migration as well as persecution in Arab countries that followed the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in what became Israel - the government largely sought to de-Arabise them and assimilate them into a Eurocentric idea of Hebrew Israeli culture.
This process included the intense stigmatisation of the Arabic language and a process forcing migrants to adopt Hebrew as their home language.
Uri Horesh, an Israeli linguist who studies the relationship between Arabic and Hebrew in modern Israel, told MEE that as a result of the language suppression of that period, “many older Arab Jews in Israel just stopped speaking Arabic, even those who were native speakers.”
Their children, meanwhile, largely avoided the tongue as well, particularly as it became associated with “the enemy”. Historically, Arabic culture might have been the shared heritage of Muslims, Christians and Jews, but with the rise of Zionism and the idea of a distinct “Jewish state,” a dividing line between “Jew” on one side and “Arab” on the other emerged.
In this climate, “Arab Jewish” identity became increasingly difficult to maintain, and many first-generation immigrants refused to pass on their language to later generations.
In the 1970s, the Ashkenazi monopoly on Israeli culture was slowly broken as the music of Mizrahim began to enter the public airwaves for the first time after being restricted to private gatherings for decades. But these songs were always in Hebrew - albeit often Arabic-accented Hebrew - and their association with Arabness waned.
Members of the second generation of Israelis slowly began exploring their cultural roots in the Arabic world, and in the late 1980s a few Israeli performers began singing in Arabic occasionally as well. Most famous of these was Ofra Haza, a Yemeni artist who brought to life many old songs that were increasingly being lost with the passing of the first generation and the Israelisation of the second and third.