What kind of hangup do Israelis have with English? Speak the right kind of English, and you might enjoy a few terms of office as prime minister. English is one element in Israel’s craving, and the craving of too many Israelis, to be “part of the West.” But it has to be polished English, uninflected with anything that smacks of being Israeli. Those who can’t get the hang of it will suffer a fate like that of David Levy, a politician whose English was less than perfect. So what if polished English serves us, in our trips to the United States, to defer for all time the possibility that one day we will have peace here? So what if we hone the language only to speechify about ISIS, Iran, the Holocaust and, more recently, Ebola? Polished English is an excellent tool for intimidation, and its absence is a stain. After all, how can one be an Israeli without intimidating? How can one be an Israeli without feeling deep scorn for Arab culture? In the mainstream culture you can’t; it’s tantamount to treason.
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In the face of all this, Dikla, an Israeli-born singer of Egyptian-Iraqi descent, has released a single – sung in English, from her forthcoming new album – that covers the Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Her English is tinged with an Arabic accent that is suffused with a softness to which you can only surrender yourself. It’s an accent not heard around here, where Arabic has become solely the language of the enemy. In Dikla’s voice, singing English in Arabic is as remote as can be from singing English in Hebrew, because the former is effortless. And there’s no presence of the military bluster that has become Israel’s official language.
Dikla doesn’t aim her gaze overseas and wish she were there, doesn’t try to remove all evidence of the Middle East, of the Arabness she has never denied. In interviews, she emphasizes the musical diversity of her upbringing, which is part of her artistry, but instilling the presence of an Arabic accent through English goes further. It’s different from declaring that “This is not Europe,” as the Yemenite-born singer Margalit Tzan’ani did. Dikla doesn’t have to say that: the accent makes it clear that Europe is not what she covets. The point is not to erase the beauty that exists in the West, but to decide what to take from there and what to take from here. And then to see how, from those choices, something new emerges.
The Arabness of Dikla’s “Here Comes the Rain Again” is also conveyed through violins played in the Arab style and a performance to match, but those elements are in thrall to her voice and her Arabic English, which urges us to sing it and not Annie Lennox. It is probably not heard much in Arab countries, either, where those who sing in English also make a supreme effort to erase the Middle East, to come to the West with English that carries no evidence of the Arab locale they came from.
Unlike Arab versions of European hits, Dikla doesn’t Arabize the song through the use of Arab instruments, like the Belgian singer Natacha Atlas in “I Put a Spell on You” with its accompanying darbukas; or in the way that Rotem Shefy covers Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” splicing in Arabic and cries of “Yallah.” Dikla asks us to sing with her the way an Arab girl who heard Lennox will sing Lennox when she listens to it in her room and plays the song she loves over and over. She asks us to sing Arabic English – but how is English sung in Arabic? Where in the throat does this accent, which we worked so hard to eliminate, come from? How to adopt an accent that’s become an object of derogation?
My neighbors in Jaffa will have no problem singing with Dikla, nor will those in whose homes Arabic is still spoken, as they understand the consonants and surrender themselves to her musical scale. When we hear Dikla sing in Arabic English and discover that we aren’t able to sing with her, but only with Lennox – whose version of the song we grew up with – we understand how much we have lost, grasp the vastness of the poverty to which the State of Israel is condemning us on the way to forging the new Jew, and then the new Middle East, though it has already imploded, to the chagrin of all the analytical types, who never really wanted to be here in the first place.
Dikla changes the direction in which our gaze should be aimed, but without eliminating the gaze that customarily looks across the sea and discovers treasures. And without forgetting for a moment that she is here, in the Middle East, in a country suffering from a severe case of split personality, and only because it insists that identity must be uniform. Israel’s split personality isn’t due to a plethora of identities, it’s caused by the erasure of those separate identities, by the Israeli demand to identify with the broadest camp, to be like everyone, to be Israeli.
In her poem “Funny Memory,” the late Mizrahi-rights activist Vicki Shiran relates how her father would sit on the balcony with a transistor radio to which he listened only with earphones that had such a short wire that it almost suffocated him. That’s because dad, she says, listened to Arabic news and music and, heaven protect us, he also read and wrote Arabic and even claimed there was such a thing as literary Arabic – making his daughter think he’d gone around the bend.
“Since when do Arabs have literary besides ya habibi ai-ai-ai / Half an hour of ya habibi in the throat,” Shiran asks her father, whom she also made fun of with her friends. But at the end of the poem, after telling about a painful quarrel between her father and mother about the use of Arabic, in which her mother “shouted something in French at him (like “That’s your problem”),” Shiran, contrite, asks, “Who would have believed, mother of mine, that today / There would be so much ‘It’s your problem.’”
In other words, anyone who wants to sing this version together with Dikla had better start practicing Arabic English and working on the consonants. Otherwise all they’ll be able to sing is Lennox with a Dikla background.