When Druze singer Mike Sharif performed in the West Bank city of Yatta last month, it sparked a storm on both social media and in the mainstream media, Israeli and Palestinian alike. Videos showed Sharif singing in Hebrew in front of thousands of enthusiastic young Palestinians, who were dancing happily to songs such as “Why Not?” and “Basbusa.”
This isn’t a scene one sees every day. What other Israeli singer could perform for a Palestinian audience near Hebron and be welcomed with such warmth?
Sharif, 42, sings Arab and Mizrahi music with Mediterranean influences. He grew up in the northern Druze village of Isfiya, first performed in a local singing contest in the 1980s, and at age 12 appeared on “Kochavei Hamachar” (“Tomorrow’s Stars”) – a program broadcast on what was then Israel’s only television station. That was how he earned the nickname the “Druze wunderkind.”
Following that performance, guitarist Yehuda Keisar contacted the Sharif family and took the singer under his wing. Keisar produced Sharif’s first albums, and “Basbusa” became a hit.
Sharif also worked with other major Israeli artists. He recorded the duets “Ata Lo Raui L’ahava” (“You’re Not Worthy of Love”) and “Shalom Haver” (“Hello Friend”) with Sarit Hadad; the duet “Le’ehov” (“To Love”) with Zehava Ben and the duet “Hakol Koreh B’Tel Aviv” (“Everything Happens in Tel Aviv”) with Dudu Aharon. He has also appeared at the LGBTQ party night Arisa in Tel Aviv, and performed for the king of Jordan in 1996.
In recent years, he has performed in West Bank cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem, and in 2019 sang at a wedding in Azzariyeh, east of Jerusalem, in cooperation with a Palestinian production company.
The Palestinian recording company Master Cast has posted some of his songs on its YouTube channel. Its Arabic description of the video says “Sharif the Druze – a cocktail of songs in Arabic and Hebrew.”
- Druze chef from Israel breaks with tradition - and takes New York by storm
- Palestinians block New Year's Eve show by Druze Israeli singer
- Druze woman takes on a male-dominated society, through a lens darkly
“I was invited to perform at a Palestinian family’s wedding in Yatta,” Sharif says of his attention-grabbing event in the West Bank. “It was in cooperation with a Palestinian production company. When I arrived, I never imagined it would be so big. I was filled with joy to meet the young people, who had come from different parts of the West Bank to be part of this.
'I want to be the first to perform in Gaza for a Palestinian audience'
“This wedding became a big performance that got coverage,” he recounts. “I hadn’t planned to sing in Hebrew, but during the event the audience asked me to sing in Hebrew and I accepted their request. It surprised me that people in Hebron were asking me to sing my songs in Hebrew.”
Waiting on Hamas and the IDF
Sharif and his wife, Nibal, welcomed Haaretz to their home in Isfiya. When we took a brief tour of the surrounding Mount Carmel area, it was clear that the local residents respect him. They would stop him to exchange a few words and he would respond generously, smiling. When we took photographs near an olive grove, the grove’s owner came over and served us coffee.
After that Yatta performance, you posted a video on Instagram in which you said: “Soon, I’ll appear for the first time in the Gaza Strip.” When will this happen?
“I’d also like to know. It will be a private event, a Palestinian family wedding, but the request came through a Palestinian production company. Following the storm caused by the event near Hebron, I was asked to keep the details secret because it hasn’t been finalized yet.”
What do you mean?
“I said yes to the performance, but that isn’t enough. Now, the production company is arranging my entry into Gaza with additional parties, including Hamas, to get my entry approved and have me guarded and also to ensure that the evening will go as it should. So, at the moment I can’t give any more details.”
In an interview with an Arabic media outlet, you urged both Hamas and Israel, in Arabic, to approve your performance. You’ve also appealed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“I’m an artist, and I want to make people happy – all people. Politics is a significant obstacle in the case of Gaza. I’m not a political person, but if I were involved in this field, I would advance peace between the Palestinians and Israel. I have no political positions; I think I have to put that aside and be involved only in music and in a dialogue that advances peace between the peoples. I have both Palestinian and Israeli fans, and both sides deserve to enjoy musical culture and attend my performances.”
But we live in a politically fraught place. Even when you arrive as a neutral party, your very appearance in a Palestinian town before thousands of enthusiastic young people sparks a political debate.
“So I’ve put all aside that and am working on my performance in Gaza.”
Why Gaza and not, say, Dubai?
“Because I can go to Dubai whenever I please and perform without restrictions. Tomorrow morning I could arrive in Dubai, cooperate with a production company and perform – that’s not a problem. But in Gaza the situation is more complicated; they’ve never done anything like this. I want to be the first to perform in Gaza for a Palestinian audience.”
Bilingual learning groups
How did Israeli Mediterranean music, the genre of which Sharif is part, become legitimate among some young Palestinians? An East Jerusalem resident, who asked to remain anonymous but has close ties with young Palestinians, says that over the last three years, the younger generation of Palestinians has shown an interest in Mizrahi pop music – and learning Hebrew.
“I’m not surprised that Sharif is admired by young Palestinians,” he says. “Some of them follow Israeli singers like Eden Ben Zaken and Eyal Golan. This is a growing phenomenon.”
The enthusiasm of young Palestinians for the Hebrew songs at Sharif’s performance is one of the signs of a silenced phenomenon that has developed on the Palestinian side, he believes. “The spillover of Israeli Mizrahi music beyond the border is connected to the younger generation here being exposed to the media more – and Mizrahi music is very similar to Arab music in its sound and style.”
There are joint virtual groups of Palestinians and Israelis for learning Arabic and Hebrew language: “Learning Hebrew provides young Palestinians with meaning,” he adds.
As far as Sharif is concerned, it is important for him as an artist to reach beyond borders, to connect with audiences he would normally have no possibility of appearing in front of. “It’s exciting for me on a personal level too,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a calling.”
But in spite of his intentions to advance a dialogue of peace and to avoid politics, Sharif has been forced to deal with abusive responses as a result of his cooperation with the Palestinians.
“I feel under attack and like I’m under a magnifying glass right now,” he says. “I think everyone simply needs to enjoy the music. My music crosses cultures, identities and ages.”
Do you remember some of the harshest comments?
“One of the responses that hurt the most was being called a traitor. Why traitor? I work in music and have a global audience that loves me, and they deserve to be happy. I previously toured the United States, and I sing here in Israel and also in the West Bank. Music is something that crosses cultures: people connect to good music and it’s a way to communicate with people. There’s a large group in the West Bank who are educated and interested in culture and music. These are people who don’t have any interest in politics.”
Nibal serves us matcha tea at the table, in special utensils that are similar to those found in Druze towns in the Golan Heights. His wife is also Sharif’s right-hand woman: she accompanies him to performances both big and small, arranges his schedule, sets up meetings, answers the phones and keeps a close eye on everything that is happening around him.
“I worry about him a lot, it’s important for me that he feels comfortable,” she says. Nibal also does his makeup before our photo session and selects the right clothes for him.
I suggest to Sharif that it must be complicated to be an Israeli artist who performs in front of Palestinian audiences. After all, he also felt the need to release a public relations video in Arabic to his fans. “Right, this is the first time that I feel under attack in such a way – from both sides,” he responds. “But it also highlights the importance of bringing up this issue for public debate.”
Sharif takes a sip from his tea, weighing his words. “I’m facing a lot of criticism after my appearance in Yatta,” he says after a brief pause. “In Israel, I received positive responses about it too, and on the Palestinian side there was also criticism.”
Do you really think music can bring peace?
“Only music can bring peace. The experience I had amplified for me how important music is in connecting people. I want everyone to understand that there are good people everywhere, both in Israel and in Palestinian cities. We are people, and this understanding is important to arouse a peace dialogue.”
Who are your partners in this?
“My audience – the people from both sides who believe the time has come for peace.”