(a version of this was published in Air Canadaís journal, Enroute, in October, 1999)
I am sitting in my car in the middle of an endless traffic jam.† These are becoming more and more frequent lately in Tel Aviv, Israelís most European city.† Iím on my way south to Jaffa for an urgent business appointment Ė or at least Iím trying to drive south. The exotic Mediterranean is on my right, the tall western hotels that block the sea breeze from the city are on my left, and a sea of automobiles are honking all around me.† Thereís not a policeman in sight.† I call up to say Iíll be late and turn on the radio to find out whatíd going on.† Iím drawn into a steady stream of Israeli and upbeat Arabic songs, exactly right for this sudden break from the world of commerce.
As a rock groupie, Iím usually attracted to the more raunchy type of Israeli songs, those influenced by British and American rock groups but with a distinctly literary bent in their lyrics,† Iím drawn to their blackness, their sophisticated wisdom, their Russian depression,.† There is something insatiable about the desires and hungers in rock music that speaks to me.† As a poet, Iím also drawn to the more formal, literary, poetic music that has pretty much dominated the airwaves for years Ė songs about the landscape, war, love, sadness.† Many people even know a large number of classic Hebrew poems by heart because theyíve been set to music.
A song like Because, written by Yacov Gilad and sung by Yehuda Poliker, combines all of the elements I enjoy in Israeli music.† It utilizes a heavy rock beat to illustrate the anger felt by second generation Holocaust survivors, and it does so with the poignancy of the finest poetry:† ďÖbecause of the memories / we too are victims / because there never was a place to hide / because there never was anywhere else/ because of the shadows / because of the darkness / because of the pull of gravityÖ ď
As a child of survivors myself, I was left breathless the first time I heard this song.† It seemed to speak to so much of my own experience in this society.† †And its Greek sound added just a touch of uniqueness and exoticism to the original sound of Poliker and Gilad.
But here in my car, stuck in traffic, that Middle Eastern sound is central and not strange and exotic.† It is a new Tel Aviv that one hears on the radio: the joyous sound of Arabic dance.† My ex-husband used to tell me about how would feel compelled to leave home when his father listen to Arabic music on the radio.† He would sit on the stairs in the hall holding his ears, not because of the political implications but because the atonality hurt his ears.† Itís certainly an acquired taste in sound, and Iím sure his experience was not unusual.
Things have changed, however, around here in the past few years.† First, people whose cultural background is Arabic have become much prouder of the culture.† And Israeli culture has become much more eclectic, capitalizing on the varied backgrounds of a wide range of immigrants.† While the two army channels seem to broadcast American and English rock music at least half the time, the other music channels are beginning to favour a Middle Eastern sound.† Hebrew music with Moroccan, Greek and Spanish sounds has become a major genre, and Arabic songs sung in Arabic, either by the classical Egyptian singers or by Israelis, are becoming popular as well.† Even rock music is taking on a Middle Eastern flavour, complete with electrified bazoukis or ouds (Greek and Arab guitars).† Singers like Egyptian icons Oum Khultoum and Farid Al Atrash now serve as inspiration to Israeli musicians of all stripes.† Israelis are not ďafraidĒ of neighboring cultures anymore.† So while belly dancing is becoming taboo in Arabic countries (except for Russian and German dancers performing for tourists), it is becoming more popular in Tel Aviv.
It is not surprising that I have begun bouncing around in my car, swinging my shoulders to the syncopated beat of a darbuka (a resounding Arab drum), while an oud marks the outwardlu aimless melody.
Even though I was born in London, England, on the last night of the Blitz to Lithuanian parents, and grew up in Rochester, New York, I have now lived here for over 28 years and Iíve totally succumbed to the magic of the Mediterranean.† The Greek sound has filled the air here for many years, ever since the Jews of Salonika arrived on these shores in the 1920s.† And Arabic music is part of the culture of half of this country, comprised of both Jews from Arab countries as well as Arabs.
The popularity of this heavily accented, stylized music seems like a reaction against encroaching industrialization, Westernization and yuppie alienation.† We have always had songs that conjure up surf and sun, Turkish coffee and beautiful bodies, but todayís music is even more in tune with our hedonistic lifestyle.† It suits Tel Aviv, built on the site of a Philistine city, with its countless coffee houses and defiantly beautiful people anxiously seeking pleasure and fulfilment.
By the time the traffic starts moving again (we never find out why it has stopped, but it was probably some kind of terrorist bomb scare), I am exhausted, as if Iíd spent the afternoon dancing.† Thatís when I remember that there are other, more political reasons why Arabic music has been getting more airplay.† It has to do with the peace so many Israelis are longing for and with the joint efforts of musicians from many nations.† Then I remember why there has been more Hebrew music as well on the radio.† During the past three years, the arts were hit hard by the recession, and one of the ways of offsetting this loss of income was by placing new government quotas on the percentage of Hebrew music.†† It is only a gesture.† The arts in countries like ours are greatly restrained by economics because of a painfully demanding hierarchy of needs. No wonder so much of this Hebrew and Arabic music Ė the sound of the new Middle East Ė is united by themes of sadness, loss and grief.