The Mood of the Oud

An Arab instrument finds popularity in Israel.

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David Assraf's contemporary adaptation of the same song:           


The Friday-afternoon showing of Egyptian movies in Israel was itself part of an Arab-Jewish cultural exchange that had greatly diminished after the Jews were run out of the Arab world in the wake of the founding of the state of Israel. Still, it has never fully disappeared. Moshe Habusha, one of the leading contemporary Israeli payytanim, is a master of Egyptian music. A recent Israeli film, The Band's Visit, tells the story of an Egyptian army band stranded in an isolated Israeli desert town, where it temporarily fills a cultural vacuum for the local Jews who have left one world and are still struggling to build a new one. Sasson Somech, an expert on Arab literature at Tel Aviv University who dedicated much of his career to analyzing the works of the great Egyptian novelist Nagib Mahfouz, is credited by some with helping to pave the way to Mahfouz's Nobel Prize.

Israeli Familiarity With An Arab Icon

It thus comes as little surprise that at the tribute to Farid al-Atrash, many in the almost entirely Jewish crowd knew the songs well enough to sing along in Arabic. An Arab-Israeli orchestra performed, and to judge by their faces, the musicians were pleasantly taken aback by the intensity of the emotions unleashed in the hall, with a few audience members adding their own spice to the performance by downing shots of arak between songs. The slightly raucous atmosphere harked back to the secular Arab culture once dominant in the Arab world but in steady decline with the rise of religious fundamentalists. In that world, there are fewer and fewer venues for this kind of music; an Arab orchestra that can play Farid al-Atrash for an enthusiastic Jewish audience in Jerusalem would be forbidden, in Hamas-controlled Gaza, from playing al-Atrash for any kind of audience at all.

At the end of the day, one can only mourn Israel's cultural isolation from the finer aspects of the Arab-Islamic environment in which it is situated. But that's the political reality, a reality rooted in a fantasy, buried deep in the hearts of many, that one day Israel will simply disappear. It would take a singer the caliber of Farid al-Atrash to lament, in melody and rhythm, the waste of it all.

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Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper completed his doctorate in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July, 2010. He presently writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.