Strange as it may seem, one of the last bastions of Arabic culture in Israel happens to be the synagogue. Almog Behar (a young Israeli so enamoured with his 'Arab' roots that he taught himself Arabic in order to write poetry in the language) has written this long Haaretz feature on Moshe Habusha, a famous Jerusalem cantor inspired by Egyptian music which even Arabs no longer listen to. An interesting piece, except for the last starry-eyed paragraph (' we Mizrahim can make peace quickly'), in which nostalgia blinds Habusha to the harshness of the Jewish past in Arab lands. (With thanks: binhaddou)
Habusha: "In my cantorial singing, and as a singer and oud and violin musician, I introduce authentic music of Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum and Daoud Hosni, the late Karaite Jew who wrote many songs translated into Hebrew and also composed songs for Umm Kulthum ... Most recently, we have introduced [the work of the late Egyptian singer] Abdel Halim Hafez at the synagogue. No musicians more recent than him are being brought into the prayers. In the synagogue, people love old music - it's easier to listen to."
Habusha prefers Egyptian music to any other kind, and has mastered the principles and history of maqam: "I am a big fan of Abdel Wahab and of [the late Egyptian composer] Zakaria Ahmed. If Ahmed would sing his song 'Al-Amal' 100 times - I would still will want to hear it for the 101st time. I would even want to hear him coughing. I have all his recordings, including those of the nationalist anti-Israel songs that Abdel Wahab sang. For instance, he has one song called 'Falastin,' and I introduce it into the prayers in the most holy places, on Shabbat. Music is one thing and the original lyrics are another, although I have also sung this song in Arabic."
Depending on his audience, he will sing entire songs in Arabic. If there was a demand, he would record the songs, too. "But Arabs no longer listen to these songs. We preserved them because of the synagogue."
Habusha is saddened by the fact that local interest of Arabic music is dwindling: "It's a shame that most of the Jewish audience that came from the Arab states has passed away. The few that remain are telling the young people that it's a shame they don't understand what used to be sung."
Several months ago, Almasry Alyoum, the most widely distributed independent newspaper in Egypt, devoted an article to Moshe Habusha and his use of Egyptian music in synagogues. In his article, headlined "Israel from Within: The Arab-Jews Base Their prayers on the Melodies of Umm Kulthum, Abdel Wahab and Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed," translator and Hebrew scholar Mohammed Aboud writes that, when hearing Habusha sing, "it's as if he were born in the schools of Arabic music" because of his vocal flexibility and his ability to execute difficult melodies - skills that grant him the title of "the greatest liturgical cantor in Israel."
Aboud describes how dozens of Jews sit in the synagogue in Jerusalem, filled with a profound, almost drunken contentment induced by the music, as they sing Hebrew words to a Zakaria Ahmed melody, or move from one maqam to the next. And how they sing the words of a prayer while practically hearing the voice of "the star of the East," Umm Kulthum, at the same time. Only she is nowhere to be found: In her place Habusha strides in, singing one of her songs in Arabic, emotionally and at length, before shifting to the Hebrew words of the prayer.
According to Aboud, Ovadia Yosef is one of the most ardent proponents of Arabic music in Israel. He not only listens to it, in its religious Hebrew incarnations, but also listens to original works by Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, as he writes religious legal rulings. The rabbi's connection to Egyptian music, according to the scholar, was forged during the period he spent in Egypt between 1947 and 1950.
On the subject of his own encounter with Egypt's Jews, Moshe Habusha recalls, "I was invited to Brooklyn, to the Egyptian-Jewish Ahava Ve Ahba congregation. When I performed, the audience acted as if they were sitting in coffee houses in Egypt. 'Ya Habusha,' they'd yell. 'Ya salaam!' - using the expressions they'd used for Umm Kulthum, and saying 'Nawart el-balad' ['You've lit up the land']."
Subsequently, Habusha visited Egypt, together with Egyptian-born violinist Felix Mizrahi: "We went to buy an oud and I started playing and singing in the shop, in Arabic, and the salesman couldn't believe I was Jewish. At the synagogue in Cairo, they called me up to recite the liturgical prayers, and as I was singing, all the drivers outside in the street came in. They started asking me questions about the songs of Abdel Wahab, testing me. When I started to sing a song that they'd asked me about from start to finish, they were convinced."
Habusha remembers that when he was in Cairo, he also heard a sheikh reciting the Koran, executing such a "wonderful modulation between maqams that I was simply transfixed. There is an order in the maqams, and a way of modulating between them, and nowadays people are no longer careful to maintain it. I live it. On recent nights during Ramadan, I was listening to Koran readings on the radio. I've heard Koran from a lot of sheikhs, and have even myself recorded chapters of it."
Habusha says he also often works with Palestinian-Israeli musicians. "Recently I was in a coffee house in Acre and ordered a nargileh, and an Arab said, 'Inte Habusha' ['You are Habusha']. He said he once appeared with me on the drums at a performance. He called up a few other musicians and told them to come over; they invited me to stay, sleep there and play with them. I don't know what politics is. I know that music connects Jews and Arabs. I have worked with all of the musicians in Nazareth and Acre, with [Palestinian musician] Simon Shaheen. I've performed in synagogues in Brooklyn, and I don't know what hatred is. I don't know what political tension is. I don't hear or believe the news. I know that I can achieve peace through the music.
"If I had a big party at [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's house, and brought in musicians from Aleppo, and we sang in Arabic - we'd make peace within minutes. You don't need [to involve] the whole Ashkenazi state that doesn't know how to speak their language. I want to say one thing to the Arab people: that the government of Israel does not represent us. We Mizrahim can make peace quickly; the government came from Europe. They have another language. We do not have hatred and we can live in peace, and the day will come when that happens. I have a plan to speak with Rabbi Yosef on this subject - about the fact that the Mizrahim can bring peace."
More Cambridge capers about 'Arab Jews'