“Tell me, do they come to us in Israel to see a concert by Yehoram Gaon?” a woman asked me sarcastically, referring to an Israeli singer.
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I had just returned with a friend from two concerts by Lebanese diva Fairuz in Jordan. The first was so beautiful that the next day we bought tickets to see the second. We ran to the sports stadium on the outskirts of Amman to see her again. We were both so moved we couldn’t stop talking about it.
But the woman who spoke to me in a café all but accused us of revealing state secrets. I wanted to tell her that for us Fairuz’s songs are part of our culture, too. Arabic songs aren’t the “opposite” of Hebrew songs, nor do they belong only to Arabs.
I wanted to explain to her that it’s we who are living in an Arab region, not they who are living in a Jewish-Israeli region. I wanted to explain that it’s both a privilege and a duty to be familiar with this culture.
In the end I only told her that the experience was really fun. She said we had “crossed the lines” and that we were “toadying to the Arabs.”
But you don’t have to go all the way to Jordan to find interesting Arab musicians. Singer Jowan Safadi, who lives in Israel, is one of the most fascinating rockers around. Safadi is a singer who integrates touches of Palestinian folk.
I was excited to discover his song “The Monster,” about a creature inside his head that controls his thoughts and emotions. The lyrics, the arrangement, the ‘80s synthesizer sound and the shrieks reminiscent of the Palestinian debka dance turn “The Monster” into the perfect rock song.
Safadi was born in Nazareth in 1973 and at 21 started playing guitar, ukulele and harmonica. After traveling around the world for three years he returned to Israel and moved to Be’er Sheva, where he studied philosophy and English literature.
In Be’er Sheva he also started his first band, the Lenses, which put out three albums and had a very loyal but very small fan base. The Internet was still in its infancy, and the band got very little attention. After seven years (during which the song “The Monster” was recorded), the band split up and Jowan moved to Haifa.
In 2012 Safadi released his first solo album, “Namrud,” which he financed on his own. The album addresses a topic that never goes out of style: the occupation, the checkpoints and the alleged racism. But Safadi doesn’t overly focus on these things, and his criticism doesn’t only target the Israeli government, the occupation and the Israelis’ attitude toward the Palestinians.
“A society that ignores everything Arab doesn’t really interest me,” he said in one of his interviews. “From the moment I discovered that I’m transparent to Israeli society, I focused on Palestinian society, with the objective of contributing to the creation of an art scene that is daring, protest-oriented, rebellious, expressive and experimental.”
In fact, in the album, Safadi seems to rebel against every possible consensus: from the status of women in Palestinian society to the absurd situation of the Israeli Arab. He throws in criticism of the various Arab regimes and their alleged abandonment of the Palestinian people.
Sound heavy? Not at all. Safadi is full of self-deprecating humor. His lyrics blend humor and sarcasm without undermining the criticism.
Consider the lyrics in the song “All the Girls.” “All the girls are engaged / Except for me, an old spinster / I want to get married, Ma/ I want to be a bride / All the girls have become mothers, except for me, Ma / They have all given birth to boys and girls / And only I am alone, Ma / People’s gossip hurts me / The loneliness is killing me / How I want someone to make me happy / Who will please me?”
The song’s musical style and words echo the traditional women’s and brides’ songs in Palestinian society. But the way Safadi performs the track makes clear he’s critical of the status of women in the conservative society, particularly the attitude toward unmarried women as women who don’t fully express their femininity.
In another song, “To Your Life, My Homeland,” Safadi proclaims: “Drink, homeland, drink / Until the cancer goes to your head / Forget how your cousins beat you and raped you / In front of the eyes of your family / In front of your father and mother / And they, instead of standing at your side / Rid themselves of you / Stand up straight / Keep your head high / To your life, my homeland / Drink to your life.”
The song’s name hints at one of the best-known satirical performances in the Arab world. It’s a comedy with social and political criticism, first performed in Syria starring the great Syrian actor Duraid Lahham.
The play was performed all over the Arab world; it mainly criticizes the Arab regimes, with their corruption and inflated bureaucracies. In this song, Safadi criticizes the Arab world that has abandoned the Palestinians.
Recently Safadi started the Fish Samak band in Haifa. He apparently likes to play on words. Fish in spoken Arabic means there isn’t any and samak means fish.
The other members of the band are Bshara Reziq, Tamer Omari and Jebus Khoury, all of whom live in Haifa. They perform in Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jordan and Egypt. They will soon begin a European tour; in the meantime they’re working on an album.
We can assume that some of the lyrics won’t please the Jewish Israeli listener. Certainly not songs such as “In the Bosom of the Occupation” or “Who Wants to Ride on Us?” But be aware that even for many Palestinians, the criticism in these songs isn’t easy to swallow.
In the song “Who Wants to Ride on Us?” Safadi says: “The Turks came / The Turks went / The British came / The British went / The Jews came / And tomorrow we’ll see / What will happen when they go?/ Who wants to ride on us / When our cousins leave?”
On the one hand, the words seem to express the idea of Palestinian sumud, (steadfastness), which maintains that it makes no difference who comes and rules. The Palestinians will always remain here. On the other hand, Safadi criticizes Palestinian society, which is transferred from one occupier to another and is incapable of producing strong leaders.
Tough stuff? Maybe. But it’s better to understand than to ignore. And Safadi knows that.
“My criticism is liable to harm my popularity,” he said in another interview. “I talk about vegetarianism and compassion for animals. I criticize all kinds of beliefs. I criticize ultra-nationalism, I criticize Zionism and occupation. But that’s me.”
He continued by quoting Kurt Cobain: “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”