Jews get in tune with the Arabs

OUT OF the windows of a Jewish neighbourhood come the unmistakable swooning melodies of the Middle East. Indoors, Amiram Avigzer, aged 66, is seated in front of his television, zapping his way round the Arab world, before settling down for Sabbath prayers.

'You want Egypt? Channel 32. You see? It is Arabic,' he says, grinning as he demonstrates the wonders of cable that recently came to Muzrara, a small neighbourhood in West Jerusalem inhabited mainly by Middle Eastern Jews.

'You want Morocco? This is Morocco, channel 34. I can give you anything you want. On Israel television they don't play Mizrahi (oriental) music,' he says. 'So we listen to Morocco. I was born in Casablanca.'

The revival of Middle Eastern music in Israel signals a growing freedom among the Sephardim (Middle Eastern Jews) to enjoy their culture after decades of discrimination by the European (Ashkenazi) Jewish establishment.

This confidence has been strengthened by the peace process. Many Sephardic Jews now argue that their cultural ties should be the channel for real integration between Israel and the Arab world. Israel must accept its place as a Middle Eastern country, they believe. Middle Eastern Jews now make up more than 60 per cent of the Israeli population.

At the Eastern Wind, the newest disco in Talpiot, West Jerusalem, the swooning sound is drawing a young Mizrahi crowd. While nearby clubs pump out the universal beat of Western disco, Zvika Avraham, 23, (mother Turkish, father Iraqi) is warming up to sing the tunes of the 'king' of Jewish oriental music, Ofra Levy. Later he will sing the songs of Umm Kalthum, the classical Egyptian singer.

'Until now it was hard to hear oriental music. But the public is changing. They want it more and more,' he says.

A cultural flowering among Israel's Sephardic Jews, however, spreads fear among the Ashkenazim, who have always controlled Israel's political and cultural identity. Peace with the Arabs is one thing, but integration quite another. Israel, they say, must be a European outpost in the Middle East.

Shlomo el Baz, a leading figure in East for Peace, a group that promotes the Sephardic role in the peace process, says: 'How can you have peace with Jordan or Syria if you hate their culture and their music?' And Sammy Chetrit, a Moroccan-born teacher, says: 'We arrived here as Arabs, culturally. But very, very fast we had to show what good Jews we were, and negate our culture. We were held against the mirror and told by the Europeans, 'This is your enemy.' We had to spit on our culture and reject it every day.

'It was a painful process. The immigrants' children came home from school to tell their parents that their favourite music was 'anti-Zionist'.'

The Israeli cultural establishment is entirely dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. Western opera and orchestral music is heavily subsidised, while Sephardic culture does not feature on the school curriculum. Oriental music is virtually banned from television and radio.

Since the peace agreement signs have appeared that the Israeli government may be becoming more flexible. The Israel Festival this year was opened by a Moroccan group, for instance. But the real flowering of Sephardic music is still taking place underground.

Ofra Levy and Zehava Ben may not be the biggest sellers at Tower Records in Tel Aviv, but their cassettes sell in thousands at stalls in the Tel Aviv central bus station. Buyers know that nowadays nobody can complain that they are listening to 'the music of the enemy'.

'Of all aspects of oriental culture that they have tried to suppress, music has proved the hardest,' says Shlomo el Baz. 'They put it out the door and it comes back in the window.' Or, as a teenage girl at the bar of Eastern Wind put it: 'This music is just better to dance to.'

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