“YALLA, yalla, raise your hands!” Israeli Druze singer Mike Sharif shouts in Arabic to the Palestinian crowd swaying to a Hebrew hit at a wedding in the occupied West Bank.
The scene, all the more unusual as it took place in Yatta, a Palestinian village near Hebron and site of frequent friction with the Israeli army and Jewish settlers, created a buzz on social networks and local media.
“I had prepared three hours of performance in Arabic only. After half an hour, everyone – the families of the bride and groom, the guests – asked me to sing in Hebrew,” Sharif, interviewed in the northern Israeli Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel, said.
The Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority offshoot of Shiite Islam, number around 140,000 in Israel and the occupied Golan Heights.
Nicknamed “the Druze prodigy” after winning a TV competition aged 12, Sharif – now in his 40s – rose to fame with his Mizrahi (Eastern) pop songs in the 1990s in Israel, but also in the West Bank, Gaza and Arab countries.
“I have always belonged to everyone,” says the self-proclaimed “ambassador of peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.
Hebrew and Arabic
From the inception of Mizrahi pop, influenced by the Jewish cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, reciprocal influences were established with the music of neighbouring Arab territories.
Today, the popularity of artists like Israel’s most popular singer Eyal Golan or the younger Eden Ben Zaken reaches well into Palestinian society.
At the same time, the big names in Arabic music – Oum Kalsoum, Fairuz or Farid al-Atrash – have long been popular among Israeli Jews.
To Sharif, this musical proximity should make it possible “to unite everyone” and contribute to ending conflicts.
“I sing in Hebrew in Hebron, in Arabic in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. I sing in both languages and everyone sings on both sides,” he said.
“Music can contribute to peace. Politics does not bring people together this way.”
His Yatta show, however, brought waves of criticism and even threats from both sides, with some Palestinians and Israelis calling him a “traitor” – the former for singing in Hebrew in the West Bank, the latter for performing at a Palestinian marriage.
And after having said he wanted to be “the first Israeli singer to perform in the Gaza Strip”, the territory controlled by Hamas Islamists that Israelis may not enter, he abandoned the idea “due to tensions”, Sharif said.
Oded Erez, a popular music expert at Bar-Ilan university near Tel Aviv, links the notion of music as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians to the “Oslo years” of the early 1990s following the signing of interim peace accords.
Jewish singers like Zehava Ben or Sarit Hadad performed songs by Umm Kulthum in Palestinian cities in Arabic, he recalled, but according to the musicologist, this phenomenon collapsed along with the political failure of the Oslo accords.
“This shared investment in shared music and style and sound is not a platform for political change or political reconciliation per se, you would need to politicise it explicitly, to mobilise it politically, for it to become that,” he said of current cultural musical exchanges.
Today, the musical affinity between Palestinians and Israelis is reduced to the essential: “more physical and emotional than intellectual”, he said.
The request of the Palestinian revellers at the Yatta wedding was “not a demand for Hebrew per se” but rather for Sharif’s “hits” from the 80s and 90s, when “his music was circulating” and some songs entered the wedding “canon”, Erez said.
The same goes for the title The sound of gunpowder, written in 2018 in honour of a Palestinian armed gang leader from a refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank that is played repeatedly at Israeli weddings, Erez said.
“When there is music, people disconnect from all the wars, from politics, from differences of opinion,” Sharif said.
“They forget everything, they just focus on the music.”