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From Umm Kulthum to Woody Guthrie: Thoughts on cultural sovereignty

For an Israeli who has only known occupied, subdued and desperate Middle Eastern cities, there is something exciting about rediscovering the cultural world of a confident, proud Levant, cognizant of its traditions and histories.

By Amos Noy (translated by Matan Kaminer)

Istanbul, Turkey. (photo: John Virgolino/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To ‘Amar, with fond remembrance.

Between the demand for “authenticity,” which, while conscious of itself, is impossible (and has something petty and repressive about it), and the option of assimilation, or “self-effacing imitation” – one form of cultural oppression (which is, of course, a form of political oppression) – there is also third option: cultural sovereignty.

I imagine that many visitors to cities such as Istanbul and Cairo have experienced, like me, the wonder that grows into a sort of joy at encountering a confident, proud city of the Levant, cognizant of its traditions and working within them. For an Israeli (that is, for me) who has only known occupied, subdued, desperate Middle Eastern cities and impoverished ghost towns sadly longing to be transported to the American Midwest, there is something about this experience – about the naturalness, the self-respect, the self-evidence of a language, music and poetry which have been denigrated by the dominant culture under which we have grown up – something exciting about the rediscovery of a cultural world, as well as of a hidden personal level, obscured, denied, deep within. A sensation of sovereignty.

Umm Kulthum performs “Enta El-Hobb”:

Or: sitting in an Algerian (Kabyle) bar in Paris, in a diverse, cosmopolitan space which is not the product of a flattening globalization, but that of a multicolored counterculture of “others.” There is solidarity between immigrants, where the soundtrack features Idir, Billie Holiday, Salif Keita, Janis Joplin, Anouar Brahem, Ilham Al-Madfai, Misia, Paco Ibañez doing Brassens and Rachid Taha covering The Clash, until it ends in tears when Umm Kulthum’s “Enta El-Hobb” (“You are the Love”) comes on. Not because we are at a conference on multiculturalism at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque or watching some gluttonous “Taverna” TV show [1], and not as part of a world-embracing declaration or a polemical demonstration or a damning statement, but just so – for no reason. Because that’s what the owner ‘Amar likes to hear. ‘Amar doesn’t ask anybody what to like and what (and why) to play, and sometimes he happens to get what his clients – free of complicated theories – like, or at least are curious to hear. They unknowingly help him create a bubble of cultural sovereignty.

Rachid Taha’s cover of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”:

Generally, many more subscribers of the Cairo Philharmonic listen to Mozart besides Ismahan and Leila Mourad, without knowing or caring that some boorish and uncultured European bourgeois or Tommy Lapid [2] type (and perhaps some finicky authenticity-loving purists from the “other” direction) demand that they choose between them. Because they are acting out of “cultural sovereignty” just as ‘Amir Benayoun does Tchaikovsky, without agonizing too much over West and East. Without “Tulkarem has conquered us[3] or “you’re becoming Ashkenazi, bro.” Because if music is war, then I surrender in advance to all the belligerent parties. Woodie Guthrie’s wrote “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar, and Bob Marley sang: “one good thing about music – when it hits you feel no pain.” Because sovereignty is good.

Amir Benayoun covers Tchaikovsky’s Op. 50:

Laila Mourad’s “Laih Khalettny Ahebek”:


[1]  A genre of television shows featuring Mizrahi (and especially Greek) music, with a live audience in a “tavern” setting.

[2]A journalist politician notorious for his racist views on Mizrahi and Haredi Jews.

[3] A reference to an infamous comment made by Lapid upon hearing Mizrahi singer ‘Amir Benayoun’s music in the wake of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Amos Noy is a former journalist, editor and a senior researcher on hi-tech issues. He teaches at both Achva College and the Schechter Institute, and lives in Jerusalem. This article first appeared in Hebrew on the Café Gibraltar blog.

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    1. Amit

      Falastini Qudsi, Jews are part of the middle east – not only as a second class minority but also as an independent collective – and they are here to stay.

      A.Michaeli maybe doesn’t know how to pronounce correctly Ein Karem, but to the same extent a native arabic speaker doesn’t know how to pronounce Ein Karem (they will pronounce Ayn Karim) and many other names of places throughout the land – ancient and new – like all the names that contain the vowels “o” (sounds like “u” by arabic speakers”) or “e” (sounds like “i” or “ee” by Arabic speakers). This is even though all the ancient languages of Canaan – including Hebrew – experianced few thousends years ago what linguistics call “the Canaanite shift” that added the vowels O and E into them (instead of long a). This differs the Canaanite languages (Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, etc) from other Semitic languages, like arabic.

      As for the term “Arab-Jews” – it’s funny because you attack the wrong person. Amos noy does apply this term and he did many times. Even though the term Arab-Jew have no real base in history nor in current reality. Jews who lived in the middle east, like other ancient middle eastern group – Copt, Assyrians, Kurds, etc – lived among Arabs but never saw themselvs as ones, nor the Arabs saw them as ones. When Ibn Khaldun writes about the history of the Jews he calls it the “Israeli civilization”. Muslims started to see Jews as only as a religious group and not as a tribe\people only in recent times, as part of the mythology-creation for fighting Israel. In fact since the quranic text and until the last decades Jews apear in muslim thought as a tribe\a people as well as a religious group. The same way, the Jews who lived in the middle east saw themselves throughout history as a distinct group from Arabs. The Maimonides is considered as the main figure of the Jewish-Muslim “goldan age” in spain, and he in his writing use the term “Ismails” to define Arabs and not only that he doesn’t see jews as part of this group but he calls it “the most hostile nation for the Jews” in his Letter to yemanite Jews that faced massacers in that time. There is no real historical basis for the term “Arab-Jew” nor contemporary basis since clearly most Middle Eastern Jews don’t see themselvws as Arabs. Not because they were “brainwashed”, but since we never in history saw ourselves nor Arabs saw us as such.

      on a lighter note, to answer your “I cant see how Israel can contribute to the ME musical culture “. Here is one band that I love in particular :

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Thank you for pointing out the myth of the so-called “Arab Jew”. As usual with the “progressives” here, the official line is that the Jews had it very good in the Arab/Muslim countries and wanted to stay, but somehow the evil Zionists planted non-existent memories in them of discrimination and persecution. In other words, they tell them “you don’t know what you remember, I will tell you what your remember”.

        Regarding Um Kulthum, I recall reading that during the “waiting period” before the Six-Day War after Nasser said he was intending to reverse the outcome of the 1948
        Arab-Israeli war, she came out with a hit song called “Cut Their Throats”. I would appreciate any further information about this.

        Reply to Comment
    2. NIZ

      I agree with Falistini Qudsi. Israel wants the Middle East without Arabs, and this new nostalgic reconstruction of the old middle east is done in a very orientalist way. Searching of the authentic and a middle eastern city ‘not subjugated’…It reminds of Liza’s stunt in Beirut. A search of the unknown and ‘wow, they play yoga in Beirut’ moment. The discovery that the middle east has a culture even… all of this if anything shows how racist and closed the Israeli society really is and how much it despises in a colonial fashion its surroundings.

      Reply to Comment