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Arabic tops Israeli charts as Yemeni sisters take Tel Aviv by storm

The music video has amassed 1.2 million hits and has attracted thousands of fans from across the Middle East
Screen grab from A-WA - Habib Galbi - Official Video on Youtube

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.

READ MORE: Gaza artists not allowed to leave Strip: 'We just want to sing for love'

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.

In the Middle East, but not of the Middle East?

Even as Israel lurched to the right beginning in the 1990s and the occupation and apartheid system against Palestinians became institutionalised and strengthened, Israeli popular culture increasingly gravitated toward Middle Eastern forms.

“There is this anomaly where on the one hand, Israelis recognise that they are in the Middle East, and that at least half of the (Jewish) population originated from the Middle East,” Horesh told MEE. “They recognise that factually. But on the other hand, people say, 'well actually we're a Western country; we're more like Europe.'”

But Horesh pointed out that the success of Habib Galbi points to a darker truth regarding racism in Israeli society. While the idea of Mizrahim embracing their historic cultures is increasing, this does not point to an atmosphere of increased tolerance.

“There has been shift among Jews. While the Ashkenazi elite back in the 1950s or 60s looked down on people of Mizrahi descent ... these days it is very much taboo to say anything racist against any Jew,” Horesh said.

“There is of course racism on the streets, but in public discourse you don’t encounter it and it is very much condemned. This is, of course, unlike racism against Palestinians, Muslims or any non-Jew. But it’s okay to be prejudiced against Palestinians in Israeli society.”

“Associating anything within the broad spectrum of Jewish culture as being Arab is frowned upon, especially now when it’s okay again to be racist against Arabs,” he added.

Bleak economic realities facing Mizrahim

Smadar Lavie, a Mizrahi feminist activist and scholar based at the University of California, Berkeley, told MEE that she had “mixed feelings” regarding the current boom in Mizrahi culture and the interest from the historically Ashkenazi mainstream.

“In Israel’s public sphere there has been a complete disappearance of any attempt to talk about any peaceful solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Jewish everyday is lived through a complete denial of what goes on in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, however, there is a renaissance of Judeo-Arabic culture among Mizrahim, after decades of suppression by the Ashkenazi ruling hegemony. Paradoxically, this Arab renaissance goes hand in hand with the Mizrahi majority vote for ultra-nationalist parties,” she told MEE.

While the use of Arabic by Mizrahim might appear to be a kind of cultural "resistance" after decades of Ashkenazi hegemony and discrimination in Israel, Lavie argued that the phenomenon “actually deepens the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi status quo with regard to control over governance, while simultaneously having the Zionist project of obtaining further control over maximum land with minimum non-Jews on it progress without any interruptions.”

She argued that the emphasis on Arab culture devoid of Arab politics functions as a “numbing mechanism,” as Israel’s constant wars against Palestinians enlist Mizrahim against the Palestinians and thus discourages them from fighting intra-Jewish racism.

Culture, on the other hand, “is safe and successful as long as it does not touch on Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours.” This allows Israel to claim itself as tolerant and multi-cultural while at the same obscuring the realities of its political policies, she argued.

While she said she was pleased Mizrahi culture had penetrated the “bastions” of elite Ashkenazi culture in Israel, “in the end, this does not lead to any improvement in the daily lives of Israel’s Mizrahi majority. Israel’s neoliberalism mostly benefits the Ashkenazi industrial and managerial elites. The class gap is widening, and achieving residential and nutritional stability is getting harder and harder for many Mizrahi households. Poetics or Arabic pop tunes sung by Mizrahim do not remedy such problems,” she added.

Beside cultural suppression, Mizrahim have been relegated to the lowest rung of Israeli Jewish society since they arrived in Israel, when they were forced to live in development towns in the peripheries or urban ghettos and denied access to jobs and education.

Even today, Mizrahim are five times as likely to be unemployed as Ashkenazim and around half as likely to attend university, and in general the average incomes of Mizrahi Jews are around one-third less than their Ashkenazi counterparts.

For Lavie, these economic realities - and the six decades of institutionalised racism they reflect - overshadow any talk of a “Mizrahi renaissance” that the success of songs like Habib Galbi have inspired.

Despite politics, cultural connections persist

But while the reasons for pessimism are clear, not everyone is ready to give up hope.

Ted Swedenburg, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas who has studied the relationship of Israeli music to the Arab world, told MEE that he considered the song’s success “exciting”.

He said that A-WA’s rise points to the fact that “despite 70 years of terrible politics and violence,” cultural connections between Israel’s Mizrahim and the Arab world persist.

“On the other hand,” he cautioned, if the politics don’t change, then it won’t go any farther. We shouldn’t overestimate the hope that (the song) gives us.”

Strangely, much of the media hype regarding the band has focused on the fact that an “Israeli” band has scored success in the “Arab world,” even going so far as to suggest that young Arabs are warming up to Israel.

But the realities of this Arabic-singing Yemeni trio are much more complex, as the history of Mizrahi artistic production in Israel shows.

However, for the Haim sisters that comprise A-WA, their success around the world has been a blessing that allows them to connect to a wider world from which most Israelis remain closed off.

“People who see us online and like us often don’t even know where we come from. Some people from Baluchistan have even contacted us, asking if we’re Baluchi because we wear Baluchi scarves in the video,” Tair told MEE.

“People ask us: Are we from Yemen? From Israel? We love the mystery around it, because the music becomes the focus, and we think that’s better.”

“We’re all people and we all eventually want the same things. Music is clean from politics. It’s a common ground, and that’s the beauty of it.”

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