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World Music Features

How Arab and Jewish Musicians Navigate the Middle East Crisis

By Eliana Gilad
Published January 30, 2006

It has now been several years since the current Intifada erupted in the Middle East. Is music strong enough a language to keep the song of coexistence in tune?

It has now been several years since the current Intifada [political conflict] erupted in the Middle East. Its outbreak pierced the bubble of a five-year period that gave birth to many social and economic projects supporting peaceful coexistence between the people of the Palestinian Authority and Israel. At the time of the uprising, dozens of musical projects reflected optimism on both sides, as many artists remained on the forefront of political and social change and strove to make their instruments weapons of peace instead of war.

         How has the situation changed over these last two years? Is music strong enough a language to keep the song of coexistence in tune? Or, are the dissonant notes too strong, destroying the harmonious balance that once seemed so close at hand? How are these musicians affected by what is euphemistically referred to in the Middle East as “The Situation”?

         The response is as varied and divided as the multi-faceted population. In researching this article, this writer encountered Arab and Jewish musicians who were quite willing to be interviewed, and others who declined, refusing to mix music with the issue of politics.

Among the eight Israeli, Palestinian and Norwegian musicians who recorded the Music Channel CD in 1995, at the height of the Oslo Peace Process, was Israeli oud master Yair Dalal [see GLOBAL RHYTHM feature, October 2002], of Iraqi Jewish origin. Prior to the Intifada, Dalal frequently performed with the Music Channel project in addition to recording other projects, with the Azazme Bedouin Tribe, for example. Since the Intifada began, his collaboration with the Palestinians has come to a full stop. Saed Sweiti, one of the Palestinian musicians from the project, has neither performed nor visited Jerusalem during the past two years. Sweiti expressed sadness over his true life’s work, music and peace, being curtailed because of the current circumstances. He wonders how and when it will end.

The ramifications of conflict reverberate everywhere. After September 11, Dalal was refused entry into the U.S. as the government became leery of admitting overseas visitors from the Middle East. 

The annual Beresheet [Genesis] Festival, a three-day nature, camping and world music event, typically draws a huge crowd for its quality showcase of the biggest names in East-West music. Last year, the festival was half its normal size. The majority of international musicians invited to perform declined because of the presumed political and physical risks. One exception was Omar Faruk Tekbilek, the half-Turkish, half-Egyptian Moslem world music master who accepted with honor on behalf of “all those committed to finding a peaceful resolution.” He said, “Music is the language of peace. Performing is my way of bridging the gap. It must be done. That is pa