The Unexpected Israeli Soundtrack to Tunisia's Arab Spring

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When singer-songwriter Bezalel Raviv wrote the song “Tunisia” during his vacation in Israel three years ago, its meaning was a mystery to him, as was the reason he wrote it.

Until that time, Raviv – who grew up in Tiberias, the son of Tunisian immigrants – had spent several years in New York and Milan, building an international career in music. After writing “Tunisia," his life trajectory changed completely. From yearning for the West, he turned his glance toward the Middle East and the Arab world.

“When I wrote the song I said to myself, ‘What have I written? What is Tunisia? Why did I write a song about it?’" he tells Haaretz. "I composed the song as if it had been words on paper. It tells this off-the-wall story – like the alchemist who goes all the way to reach the place he had always been, only he never realized it. Tunisia in the song is a place of my own, not the physical location. It is a song about a place where magic exists, a place where there is no struggle to survive. It’s a place where everything is clear and peace exists as a broad concept.”

Raviv notes that as he probed the meaning of his song, he embarked on a process of self-discovery and a connection to his family’s roots.

“The process was a fundamental one – to discover what Tunisia was and who my parents were, since I had been prevented from discovering them. As an Israeli with parents from Tunis, I was always ashamed of my parents. It was like I felt, ‘Stay out of my life – I’m a new generation.’ My mother used to come to my kindergarten bringing Tunisian-style cookies and I would say, ‘Why can’t you just bring hamantaschen and save me all that trouble?’

'People don't survive that melting pot'

“At that point, I should have been ashamed and asked them what Tunisia had been like. So later, I explored it deeply and realized who I was. Then I understood my inner conflict as a boy. I understood that I had closed myself off from my parents so I could be Israeli; that there was this kind of code – either you’re Israeli or you’re Tunisian. Because people don’t survive that melting pot. You want to change sides; you must swear loyalty. That's also why I studied English from an early age. For me, it was a tool for escaping, a test of survival.”

The song’s significance filled Raviv with the motivation to succeed in Israel, since, for him, “it wasn’t a song; it was a personal document.

“To succeed with ‘Tunisia’ was to overcome the obstacle I’d had as a little boy," he reflects, "to show that I could be Israeli and Tunisian.”

Repeated attempts to interest Israeli radio stations in the song failed, even after he recorded a Hebrew version in addition to the original English one. With Israeli doors closed to him, Raviv changed the zip code.

“In a revolutionary, or crazy, moment, I had this flickering image of success in Tunisia,” he says. In what he called a "shot in the dark," Raviv uploaded the song to Facebook, and grew more enthusiastic when he heard about the revolution in the north African state. Shortly afterward, a reporter from a Palestinian network in Ramallah called to tell him he was preparing an article about the song’s success among young people during the revolution in Tunisia [December - January 2010-11], during which radio broadcasters played the song without knowing who the performer was.

Raviv was invited to a festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba, but that didn't happen despite his efforts to obtain an entry permit – efforts that included an online petition and pressure on the Tunisian ambassador in Paris. “I decided it was going to happen because it made me feel good," he recalls. "And if it made me feel good, it would certainly make the young people in Tunisia feel good, after they’d hummed the song and made such a strong statement: ‘We don’t care that he’s Israeli; we want him to perform here.’ It drove me up the wall and put me back into a closet – into a world where I couldn't express myself.”

Ultimately, the singer missed the festival, but later on his visa application was accepted. He performed in the plaza of the synagogue in Tunis and interviewed by the local media.

“My protest is not about people who cannot make ends meet, but people who cannot live their lives," says Raviv. "I identify with people who remind me of the oppression of being in a setting where they cannot say who they are. That is my biggest hurt, which I heal all the time with music. That’s true whether it’s a longing for Tunisia or longing to be who I am, or longing for the freedom to say who I am without thinking about how that hurts other people or how it hurts me.”

Collaborative process

The Arab Spring and the song’s success among Tunisian demonstrators without him being physically there, gave him the inspiration to start a new project that is even more ambitious. “Following the Arab Spring, there are millions who are willing to put their lives on the line for their freedom," he explains. "That can’t be stopped anymore.” His new project, entitled “New World Order” and comprised of Internet-based musical activity and artists from Arab countries, is due to start this April.

“As a child, I knew that my parents got along with Arabs in Tunis, and I didn’t understand why there was a conflict in Israel,” says Raviv. “This is an album of collaborations with artists from countries that I cannot visit, states in conflict, artists whom we cannot meet in the physical space. That’s true whether it’s an artist from downtown Tehran who is taking an incredible risk to collaborate with me (I found him on a website of international artists), or a Palestinian artist, or an amazing woman singer from Damascus who sings classical Arabic music, or someone from Algeria, Yemen or Tunisia. The search will go on until the last moment, like always. There is no exact planning, in the same way that the creative process has a life of its own.”

Smiling, he says the difference between the situation in Israel and the other Middle Eastern states amounts to “Better the tyrant you know.”

Will this project take a position on the Israeli occupation?

“An occupation starts beyond the land. It’s in what a person feels, and that is what we’re talking about,” says Raviv. “I’m not in real estate or politics. Those are things I don’t deal with, because I don’t understand them. But I can meet a person whose essence is occupation and understand him because we share an identity.

“I also feel that I’m under occupation. As an Israeli who lives here, I am under the occupation of my identity, as a person who grew up in a society where there was a code that I was Israeli and nothing else. I also grew up in a society that said I was religious and nothing else. Today, I know that my characteristics as a person are more than the sum of their parts. The moment someone is deprived of his rights, my own rights are taken away. If there is a gay artist in Iran, we speak the same language.

“These are not collaborative works based on the idea, ‘Let’s do it this way because it’s interesting,’ or ‘I’m missing a female voice here,’ or ‘Give me a few vocal runs here.’ The connection is an authentic one that completes both sides.

“This is a project that wants to express the reality, with what is good and less good about it. To present the age we live in using music and conversation that enters a song. To combine excerpts from the Koran and the New Testament and the Bible, and show that we are all from the same place, and that if one person out of a hundred is suffering, then all hundred will suffer as well.”

Recently, Raviv began a fund-raising campaign for the project on Indiegogo. “People are waking up to the new awareness that they influence their environment and can effect change because they are a force – they are not one of many, they are one who is many. I invite everyone in who believes music is an international language that crosses borders, so we can make the project come true and be part of creating a new bridge in our generation, a small step that is a giant one for peace.”

Bezalel RavivCredit: Michal Motil
Bezalel Raviv

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