Big in Tetouan: The Jewish Women Who Pioneered Modern Arab Music

Upcoming concert is occasion to recall these artists who were honored in the Arab world - but in Israel, not so much.

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They scorched the stages of Algeria and Tunis, in Casablanca and Baghdad, and also in Berlin and Paris. With bobbed hair − a daring style for the time − a thin cigarette in a holder between their fingers, they were among the leaders of the musical and cultural scene in their countries and even became international stars. They are the great Jewish female musicians and singers who were active in North Africa and the Middle East in the mid-20th century: Leila Mourad, Faiza Rushdi, Zohra El Fassia, Habiba Msika, Louisa Tounsia, Reinette L’Oranaise, Line Monty and Raymonde Abecassis. Msika, a Tunisian Jew, was an actress in the Arab world’s most prominent theater. El Fassia, a Moroccan Jew, was the first woman from that milieu to release a record album. Like many others, she too wrote the lyrics and music of the songs she performed.

Abecassis, the last of the giants of that generation, will be appearing Thursday with the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra of Ashkelon in a concert titled Ki Kolech Arev ‏(For Your Voice is Beautiful‏), conducted by Tom Cohen. The concert, which will be part of the Heart at the East Festival in Tel Aviv, will be dedicated to the women who were singing stars in Arab and Maghreb countries.

Why were Jewish female singers so prominent among the pioneers of modern Arab music? And how did it come about that in Morocco and other places, they are engraved in the collective memory and remembered with esteem − yet most Israelis never heard of them?

Shira Ohayon, the education director of the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra and a prominent Mizrahi feminist researcher and activist, conceived and produced the concert. She is researching the singers’ histories, has written essays about them on the Cafe Gibraltar website and plans to publish a book containing her findings. She says she started researching their stories when she started wondering why there were no female singers in the Andalusian Orchestra in Israel. Her father, who was born in Morocco, told her about the great singers of the past. The discovery that there were quite a few Jews among them surprised her. “I asked myself, Why Jewish women, specifically? After all, I know the conservative Moroccan Jewish way of life from home,” she says.

It turns out that the picture is a complex one. “Our knowledge here about Jews in Islamic countries is nourished by Zionist stereotypes that spoke about absorption by modernization, and portrayed the Jews who came from those backgrounds as coming from the back of beyond,” says Ohayon. “But of course, they didn’t all come from the same mold. They went through profound processes of secularization starting in the 1920s. Our history doesn’t start at the moment the Zionist movement discovered that it needed ‘natural workers’ and population distribution,” she says.

New ideas

“These processes affected the women a great deal. Women began to study. In 1886 the first Alliance school for girls was established in Tetouan, the city my mother came from. The legal age at which girls could marry was raised. The development of colonialism at the time strengthened the financial position of the Jews, many of whom were merchants and had connections overseas, and increased their openness to new ideas.”

Leila Mourad
Raymonde Abecassis
Faiza Rushdi
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Leila Mourad
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Raymonde Abecassis
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Faiza Rushdi

It was in this atmosphere of mixed cultures and languages that the female singers appeared. Their successful appearances in Europe also exposed them to the feminist ideas of the period, says Ohayon.

“Habiba Msika became a legend. She was an admired artist, a hot subject of conversation during the 1920s in the Maghreb, France and the Middle East,” musicologist Mohammed Emskeen writes in an essay published in honor of the Atlantic Andalusian Music Festival held in Essaouira, Morocco last October. The festival was dedicated to the female singers and their contribution to Jewish-Arab music and culture. Msika was the first Arab woman to perform onstage, in 1911. She appeared throughout Europe and the Maghreb, living and loving freely. Coco Chanel described her as having “a fiery temperament under her Eastern graces.” She met a tragic end: In 1930, a jealous lover murdered her by setting her ablaze. Books were written and films made about her life.

Another superstar was Leila Mourad, the daughter of a well-known Jewish family of cantors and liturgical poets. “To the Egyptians, she’s an Egyptian in every way, a cultural icon, alongside other stars of Arab music such as Umm Kulthum and Asmahan,” says Ohayon. The Jewish community distanced itself from Mourad when she converted to Islam to marry the well-known actor Anwar Wagdi. Other Jewish stars in Egyptian film and theater such as Raqia Ibrahim, Camelia ‏(Liliane Levy Cohen‏), Nagma Ibrahim and Nagwa Salem also won recognition from the musical establishment and the audience, even though they remained Jewish and some even expressed solidarity with the State of Israel and the Zionist movement.

Ohayon says that in addition to these stars, “in Iraq there was Salima Pasha, a hugely popular star, who was the wife of Iraq’s greatest singer, Nazem al-Ghazali. There was Maya Casabianca, a native of Morocco, who was the wife of Farid al-Atrash. We can wonder how that could happen. After all, she was a Jewish woman who went with a Muslim man. In those communities, families sat shiva for women who did that, mourning them as if they had died. But these women had a different status. They were already deeply involved in Arab life, and here, too, they crossed boundaries.”

There were also Line Monty, “the Algerian Edith Piaf”; Reinette L’Oranaise, a rabbi’s daughter who became blind and became a virtuoso oud player; Louisa Tounsia and others.

Immigration tragedy

But Zohra El Fassia was fairly well known in Israel, if only because of the poem by Erez Biton lamenting her fate here.

El Fassia, who died in 1994, is a cultural heroine in Morocco. In the Atlantic Andalusian Music Festival in Essaouira, an evening was held in her honor, says Ohayon. “Among the Muslim leaders of culture in Morocco, she was seen as an integral part of Moroccan culture and collective memory, and her contribution to folk music ‏(the chaabi and malhun styles‏) is held in high esteem there.

“Erez Biton described the collapse of these stars here in Israel very well,” Ohayon says. “The poem ‘Zohra El Fassia’ is an excellent allegory for the culture of Morocco’s Jews, which was an object of mockery. It seems some of the singers realized what was in store for them here and didn’t immigrate to Israel. Line Monty moved to France. Salima Pasha stayed in Iraq. She never came to Israel, so she avoided that fate.

“In the case of the musicians, in addition to the contempt for Mizrahi culture, which the Zionist movement regarded as an inferior subculture or folklore at best, Israeli society held the Mizrahi women in contempt as well,” Ohayon continues. “The society regarded them as frehot ‏(bimbos‏) − in other words, as women who were cheap, vulgar, flighty and uneducated.”

Today, Ohayon says, Jewish Mizrahi women are humiliated twice: once by Israeli society, which was built on an ethos of a rejection of the East in general and rejection of Arab culture in particular, and again by Mizrahi men, who use religious or other explanations to exclude them from the field of culture and song, in direct opposition to what is transpiring in their countries of origin.

But the development of Jewish musicians will not be severed so easily. Young Israeli singers who did not grow up listening to Arabic music are returning to their roots, or embracing the genre as a kind of rebellion.

The Heart at the East Festival takes place May 19-24 in Tel Aviv.

Clockwise from top left: Habiba Msika, Zohra El Fassia, Leila Mourad, Raymonde Abecassis, Line Monty.
Shira Ohayon.Credit: David Bachar

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