An unusual guest performed last month during the Christmas Market festival in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Yasif: Jordanian singer Aziz Maraka. An audience of about 5,000 people, mostly young people and families, gathered in the Galilee town to hear Maraka – many of them surprised that a musician of his standing would actually show up there.
Maraka wasn’t sure he would either. “Until the last moment it wasn’t clear to me whether the show would take place,” the 37-year-old singer and composer told Haaretz. “I was under crazy pressure. And when we were permitted to enter Israel, the musicians and I got stuck in such traffic jams that I thought we wouldn’t make it on time.”
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They did make it and Maraka was excited to meet his local Arab fans but, as expected, his performance made waves and there was "a tough response from the BDS” – the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Indeed, right after the show there were calls to boycott the Tunisian-born singer because of his “support for the occupation.” One of the organizations that came out against him was BDS48, which is active in Israel, and claimed they had approached Maraka before the performance to make very clear to him what the political implications of his appearance would be.
For his part, Maraka responded to the criticism on his Facebook page, stressing that it isn’t logical for performers from Arab countries to cooperate with the cultural siege on Palestinian citizens of Israel, and thus magnify the latter's disconnect from the greater Middle Eastern cultural scene.
“I decided to respond with my own Facebook video, in which I say these things, so as not to leave any 'holes,'" he explained. "This generation is so confused by the flood of information on social media. I feel that nobody knows what to believe.”
Along with comments on the page that called to boycott him, there were some who posted sympathetic messages, urging Maraka to stay true to his cultural path – even at the cost of risking his professional reputation. There were local Arab fans who wrote that they appreciated the fact that he had come to perform despite the expected media storm that resulted, and added that from their point of view, the connection to the greater Arab world is more important than BDS, which leads to separation and isolation.
Asked why he chose to respond so directly to calls to boycott him, Maraka was adamant: “I’m not willing to stay silent anymore. I’m not willing to be dictated to about what to believe and who to talk against. And about BDS either. I felt that I had to tell my side of the story. I have to be accountable only to my artistic path. And even more than that, I will go out and sing before any audience that's willing to hear me, and it doesn’t matter at all where this audience lives. Now I can say that BDS will think twice before they touch an Arab singer.”
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So your show in Israel was an act of protest against BDS?
“It’s absurd to think that. I don’t support the Israeli occupation, of course, but I’ve been accused of [being part of] its normalization. That hurts, but doesn’t surprise me at all. I was ready for this battle. In fact, I’ve been getting ready for it ever since I chose music. I want to perform for anyone who will listen to me, especially Arabs. And I don’t care if they live in Kafr Yasif, Jordan or Australia."
And if the Arab audience were in Tel Aviv? Would you perform there?
“I really think that music can break down the walls of politics. BDS people, as well as politicians and activists, have an interest in keeping me – and us, the artists – paralyzed and intimidated. I’m not willing to play into their hands. I want to appear anywhere people will hear me. Not out of some arrogant attitude of a singer and fans, but out of a feeling of a real mission of the music. I performed although I knew what was going to happen and I did it only for the good of my Arab audience and not for anything else. For that reason, a performance in a place that’s clearly identified with [Jewish] Israel would be a problem for me."
What about the West Bank or even in the Gaza Strip?
"I’ve performed in Ramallah before. But my real dream, for a long time now, is to perform in Gaza. I have some friends from there and I’m waiting to reach them. Gaza is a special place. Like limbo. It’s outside of real time. I want to remind the people there that they aren’t alone in the world, that somebody hears them – that somebody is giving them the right to hear him.”
Appearing on one stage or another, no matter how important, is not enough to spread his message defying geopolitical and other dictates, so Maraka has established Bands Around Borders – an umbrella organization of Arab artists and musicians from across the Middle East that encourages collaborations with Arab artists living in other countries.
Maraka: “It’s important to me to connect all the Arabs in the Middle East, maybe because I myself grew up in a strange identity chaos. “I was born in Tunisia to a Palestinian father and my mother is from Lebanon. When I was 12, we moved to Jordan. When I grew up, I moved to the United States to study music and now for a long time I’ve been in Jordan. It’s my home. You know what? Music is my home.”
In that same metaphoric vein, it seems that the walls of that home are really his many fans. He shares his recording sessions with them on Instagram and he meets them face to face at performances. As part of a campaign he initiated in cooperation with the Jordanian Education Ministry, he is working to an end bullying in schools and has also performed at some, in Amman. Queen Rania even attended one of his shows.
“I treat social media like a conversation with a friend in a coffee shop,” he said. “In both cases it’s important to me to get across a clear and simple message that the other side can understand without any mediation. I don’t want to be the face of something I never said.”
Maraka, who plays the piano and the ukukele, composes in a style that he calls – like the name of his first band – Razz: a fusion of rock, Arab music and jazz. In 2008 he put out his first solo album, “Master Copy,” featuring tracks that became hits like "Ya Bay,” a heartbreaking song about disappointed love, and “Bint Gawiyeh,” an unusual song about the status of women in Arab society that urges them not to apologize for who they are.
He produced his second album, “Leka@Eka3” (2010), with the popular Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila, hosting guest musicians like the band Ressala, Yacoub Abu Ghosh and Yaseen Qasem. Most of the album was recorded long distance: Maraka was in Jordan and the band was in Lebanon. After it came out there was a flood of performances before large audiences, he said, adding that he frequently appears throughout the Middle East, mainly for young audiences.
“Young people are open to hearing," he observed. "They haven’t been brainwashed with empty slogans, and I want to be part of what molds their identity.”
After his show in Kafr Yasif, Maraka told Haaretz later, he met a young Jewish woman at the Allenby crossing into Jordan. They got to talking and it turned out that they both love Mashrou’ Leila. When he said he'd made an album with them, and she asked him to sing the songs she loved from it on the spot.
“We had a nice chat,” he said. “She was really cool. She said she loves music and wanted to know about my performance in Israel. She told me that in a year she’ll be going into the army. And I look at her and think to myself that it doesn’t suit her. It just doesn’t figure. But I understand that she has to do it anyhow. It seems to me that fear can push any creature to be aggressive.”