Galilee Diary: The Old Songs
We will still return to an ancient melody
And the song will be beautiful and sweet…
- Ancient Melody, a 1950s popular classic Israeli folkdance by Michael Kashtun
Recently we attended a sold-out performance at the Karmiel Theater of Um Kulthum, a dramatization of the life and career of the Egyptian super-star of that name, who died in 1975.
The actress who played the lead, Galit Giat, performed in the course of the evening all of Um Kulthum’s greatest hits, in a manner that sounded impressively authentic (to our uneducated ears). We loved the show, and enjoyed learning some of the history of Egypt of the 20th century from a different point of view. (Um Kulthum was very much a “national star,” and was a favorite of the king and then of those who overthrew him.) And it was interesting to see a depiction of how the Egyptians perceived the Six Day War. The drama was mostly in Hebrew (two Arab actors, two Jews); the songs were all in the original Arabic with projected subtitles.
We were somewhat surprised that the audience enthusiastically sang along with many of the songs. Who were these people? As far as we could tell, mostly middle class, middle aged Jewish Israelis from Karmiel, a mixture of Jewish ethnicities. Apparently Um Kulthum, who never, of course, visited or performed here, was nevertheless an important presence in Israeli culture, on the radio and on records, and her music remains a part of the musical memory of our generation. Also, her success here does serve as a reminder of the fact that the majority of Israel’s Jewish population are the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries.
The experience reminded us of a similar one we had a few years ago when we traveled to Tel Aviv for a performance of Woody Sez, a musical revue telling the life story of Woody Guthrie, performed by four musicians visiting from the United States. Clearly, in that case, much of the music was familiar to us and we could join in singing along. However, some of the audience’s favorites were unknown to us. For example, “I’m Stickin’ with the Union.” Looking around, we realized that we were on the younger end of the age range in the hall; we were among a crowd of American Labor Zionist immigrants half a generation, at least, ahead of us. This was an urban Jewish world that had been far from our suburban upbringing. For us, Woody Guthrie’s songs are “folk music.” For them, Guthrie’s life and music touched a deeper root of personal memory and ideological commitment. In any case, it was a joy to be in the room.
Kipling wrote that “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” But since biblical times, the Land of Israel has indeed been the meeting place of east and west: The bridge and meeting place between Egypt and Mesopotamian cultures, between European culture and the “Orient,” between Christianity and Islam, between Um Kulthum and Woody Guthrie. At its worst, this encounter can be explosive, which is why so many wars have been fought over this little strip of land. At its best, it can be enriching and creative, synthesizing new forms and new ideas that can help repair the world.
In 1997, Israel’s public pop music station, Reshet Gimel, announced a policy of playing only Hebrew music. There was some controversy, but I didn’t understand what it was about. Now, however, I think I do. In an age of identity politics, when even in enlightened democracies, demagogues play powerful chords of fear of “the Other,” perhaps we don’t have the luxury of just listening to the songs of our own youth.
Nostalgia for the “old songs” is a strong support of group identity, but for that very reason it also can be a barrier to forming a new, more inclusive identity – which is perhaps Israel’s most pressing challenge on the way to sustainability.