April 21, 2024

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Arabs surprised that some Jews like famous singer Umm Kulthum


Recently, there was (if I understand the articles correctly) a tribute at a Paris theatre to the songs of Umm Kulthum, the famous late Egyptian singer who was considered the greatest Arabic singer of all time.

Muslims who attended were shocked to see that over 50 Jews, of Moroccan descent, attended the performance.

From the Arab perspective, Umm Kulthum was a big supporter of Nasser and very much against Israel. One official was alarmed at their presence and informed security, but he was surprised that they listened to the performances respectfully and applauded wildly.

The director of the theatre approached the Jews afterwards and asked them how they could like someone who was such an opponent of the Jewish state. They answered that this has nothing to do with politics, they simply appreciate her talent.

This is an understatement.

Some of the tunes from Umm Kulthum songs – as well as other popular Arabic singers – are sung in Sephardic synagogues, and the late Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that this was perfectly acceptable.

There have been Israeli concert series featuring her music.

That Umm Kulthum is highly, even increasingly popular in Israel, despite being an iconic symbol of the 20th century Arabic nationalist movement, is no surprise to Elad Gabbay, a prominent qanun (eastern zither) player and a teacher of Middle Eastern music and piyutim (Jewish religious poetry) at the Musrara School of Eastern Music in Jerusalem.
“For us, music is art, music is joy,” Gabbay said. “We love her, because her songs are beautiful. We grew up on them and we sing them. It doesn’t matter who she was.”
There was “never a question” in Israel, he added, of rejecting Umm Kulthum because of her background, because in the East, music and politics “are two different things.”
In the Western world, music gets mixed up with “spirituality, politics and ideology,” Gabbay asserted, but in the East, music is just “a job, a profession.” Just like “a Jew will go to an Arab carpenter to buy a good table… the Jews have no problem to listen to Umm Kulthum. We love her music, and that’s it.”
Of course, Israel’s Mizrahi Jews are not politically naïve and know very well “who our enemies are,” Gabbay said. Some people “look at old photographs of Arab and Jewish musicians playing together in Morocco or Iraq,” he said, and think that back then it was all “shalom and kumbaya, but it wasn’t. They played together, but afterwards one was a Jew and one was an Arab. The communities were separate, and there was anti-Semitism, and later they [the Arab countries] wanted to get rid of the Jews… but it didn’t affect the music.”

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