Who is the
ultimate Israeli of 2020, the personification of this country’s soul? Is it the
sunburned soldier? The shaggy tech hustler in Tel Aviv? The hilltop fanatic? The
correct answer was revealed to me and 9,000 others a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv:
the apparition in a glittering crystal mini-dress rising from beneath the stage
on invisible hydraulics to a burst of strobes and smoke and a teenage shriek
into my ear: “Nasreeeen!”
Nasrin Kadri has ascended to the pinnacle of pop in the Jewish
state.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times
it’s the Year of the Rat, but here in Israel it’s the year of Nasrin Kadry, who
began life on rough Arab streets near the docks in Haifa and has now, at 33
years old, ascended to the pinnacle of pop in the Jewish state. The biggest
concert venues, the judging dais of “The Voice,” A-list duets — all belong to
Nasrin. Her improbable rise has much to say about this society and specifically
about the way it operates in the places where highbrow experts don’t look.
known to all by her first name, became famous the modern way: on a reality TV
talent show, a kind of local “American Idol” dedicated to a genre of music
known as mizrahi. That’s Hebrew for “eastern” and refers to an Israeli blend of
Middle Eastern pop with Greek and Western influences.
singing for years before that, starting as a kid holding a squeegee stick like
a microphone in the mirror, mimicking the actresses in the Egyptian musical
melodramas that used to be broadcast on public television here every Friday
afternoon. The movies had cult status not just among Israeli Arabs like
Nasrin’s family, one-fifth of the population, but also among Israeli Jews,
about half of whom have family roots in the Middle East or North Africa.
would yell from the living room, ‘Enough, you’re driving us crazy!’ I’d make a
lot of noise, and it was a small apartment,” Nasrin recalled when we spoke
recently in a cafe near the upscale tower where she lives in Tel Aviv.
At 17 she
was spotted by a few Moroccan Jewish musicians playing Arabic music at the home
of a friend, an Arab girl from Nazareth. After that she spent years working in
bars, singing the classics of the Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum, fending off
aggressive and drunk men. “It was a tough world, but that’s where I learned,”
she said. She had no other musical education.
at home in those years, helping her diabetic mother and cleaning houses to
supplement what her father made driving a cab. In the evenings she’d wait for
the band to pull up and honk. “I’d come home from work, shower, get up on high
heels, put on jewellery, red lipstick, my huge fur coat and go to the clubs to
sing,” she said. This was a questionable pursuit for a Muslim girl. “My mother
didn’t want to let me, because what will the neighbours say, the relatives,”
she remembered. But the family needed the money, and that settled it.
TV song contest in 2012 propelled her from the bars onto the bottom rungs of
the mizrahi pop scene. She had a hit with the single “Learning to Walk” in
Hebrew and a string of others like “Albi Ma’ak,” Arabic for “My Heart Is with
You,” which blended both languages in a way that seemed completely natural. Her
Hebrew, which she says she picked up in earnest only after high school,
improved with coaching, and her look was modified by the glam technicians. But
her style remained that of the grand divas of Lebanon and Egypt, like Oum
Kalthoum, about whom it’s said that she’d wear boys’ clothes to sneak into the
mosque with her brothers to escape the strictures of her Egyptian childhood and
unleash her female voice.
fresh off a gig opening for Radiohead in the U.S., the pop star sang at
Israel’s official Independence Day celebration, an unusual gig for an Arab
artist. The invitation came from the Likud culture minister, Miri Regev, a
sharp-tongued hard-liner whose family roots are in North Africa, like those of
many Likud voters. Ms. Regev has said that Arabic music “has something to offer
If you can
understand why it makes sense for that statement to come from a right-wing
politician and not from the left, you understand something tricky and important
about Israel. The Israelis who are closest to the Arab world — the Jews whose
families are native to that world — tend to lean to the political right, in
part because they were treated with disdain by the left, and in part because
Arab Muslim societies marginalized them, expelled them, seized their property
and then, after 1948, subjected their new state to wars and a siege that has
gone on for more than 70 years.
founders always wanted the country to be European, and its Middle Eastern side
was long kept in the cultural basement. This was reflected in the status of
mizrahi music as a fringe scene scorned by critics and trafficked on bootleg
cassettes. But in the past decade or two, Israel’s old elite, which was rooted
in Eastern Europe and inspired by the socialist ideal of the kibbutz, has aged
out of relevance, and the country’s repressed Middle Eastern soul has surged
into the vacuum.
explain why Israeli politics and culture — and pop music — are increasingly
discordant for Westerners. There’s a renewed interest in the Jewish sages and
religious poetry that flourished in the Islamic world, for example, like the
liturgical form known as piyyut, which now shows up not just in college courses
but on Top 40 radio. Even an Israeli supermarket aisle is confusing for a
shopper expecting what a North American would consider Jewish food: the shelves
are heavy on couscous, eggplants and the rest of the pantry of the Levant.
There’s more and more about Israel that’s easier to grasp if you’re a Muslim
from Beirut than if you’re a Jewish New Yorker. This is a key trend in the country
right now, and Nasrin’s riding it.
an influential mizrahi radio host, sees a generational change. People around
his age, 50, still call the music mizrahi or Mediterranean. “They still think
of the Mediterranean sound as something different from Israeli music,” and that
has changed among younger listeners, he said. To them, what Nasrin is singing
is Israeli music — and she’s doing it not in small clubs in south Tel Aviv but
in the Menorah Arena, the biggest indoor venue in the city.
If Nasrin is
representative of the hybrid culture emerging here, there’s one part of her
biography that’s truly unique: her decision not just to sing in Hebrew but also
to actually embrace Judaism.
something that almost never happens in the Middle East, where religion isn’t a
private decision but a tribal affiliation that’s virtually impossible to leave.
The exceptions are so scandalous that they’re remembered, like Leila Mourad, a
movie superstar in mid-20th-century Cairo, who was Jewish and converted to Islam.
describes it, her childhood home was Muslim but not particularly religious, and
her first interest in spirituality was through a Jewish boyfriend, a darbuka
drummer from a traditional Moroccan family. She began fasting on Yom Kippur and
keeping the Sabbath in her 20s. They broke up a few times over the course of a
decade, got engaged, then broke up again, but she decided to go through with
conversion anyway in 2018, immersing herself in a ritual bath, accepting
religious commandments and adding a Hebrew name, Bracha, or “blessing.” It was
all covered by the tabloids.
been painful for her parents. “I don’t make light of my own religion and I
don’t forget where I’m from,” she said. “I never wanted to hurt my family or
anyone else.” Conversion certainly hasn’t hurt her popularity with her Israeli
audience, but the truth is they loved her before, and she dismisses any
suggestion of a motivation beyond the spiritual. She has been speaking to God
for years, she said, in the language spoken by Jews. “When I need him, I speak
to him only in Hebrew,” she told me. “He stayed with me. He helped me.
Everything I asked for until now he made come true.”
Nasrin’s conversion, in a state where religious status is controlled by an
Orthodox bureaucracy, is her job. The sparkling red jumpsuit she sometimes
wears in concert, which looks like it might have been borrowed from Rihanna’s
closet, doesn’t quite match rabbinical standards of modesty. And when she was
recently spotted in a seafood restaurant in Tel Aviv, her P.R. people had to
release a statement clarifying that she didn’t actually eat the seafood, which
At the same
time, she has had to fend off prejudice from some Jewish Israelis (who
sometimes tell her that because they love her she’s not “really Arab”) and
anger from Muslims who see her as a traitor (“A Love Story Led Her to
Treachery,” read the headline on a Saudi celebrity site). She’s navigating a
country that is simultaneously more open to its own Arab spirit and more
suspicious of Arabs: a country where Nasrin can show up on TV at the “Big
Brother” house to dedicate a song to one of the residents, the Israeli Arab
transgender beauty queen Talleen Abu Hanna — and also the country that recently
passed the “nation-state law,” which downgraded the status of Arabic as an
official language. Nasrin criticized the law in a radio interview, saying it
“canceled the language of my mother and father, of my neighbors, and of
millions of Arabs who live here.” The law was championed by politicians like
Miri Regev, whose own family spoke Arabic a generation or two ago and who
thinks Israeli culture should learn from Arabic music. It’s a complicated
place, and Nasrin is charting a complicated course.
secret of her success is simple, said Yaron Ilan, the DJ, and doesn’t have much
to do with her ethnicity. “Nasrin is a once-in-a-generation talent,” he said.
Being Arab hasn’t helped her or hurt her. “People accept her as she is,” he
said. “I don’t think it held her back for a moment, and she never used that
isn’t doctrinaire; it’s commercial and unapologetic about pushing any button
that works. At the concert in Tel Aviv there was a buzuki solo and darbuka
drums, but also some effusive strutting to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and a bit
where Nasrin posed against a backdrop of satanic flames flanked by two
guitarists wailing like Slash. There was a lot going on.
audience liked all of that, but it was “Dalaleh Dalaleh,” an Arabic number
popular here at weddings, that made them lose it, the peroxide matrons twirling
their wrists, all the single ladies maneuvering on heels. Everyone seemed to
know the songs — not just the regular fans but also the Tel Aviv celebs who’d
come out tonight to see the Arab queen of the Israeli scene, gazing up from the
V.I.P. seats at her dazzling boots.
in Israel can sell out the basketball arena by themselves, but Nasrin just had.
After the show ended, she announced that she’d be back next month.
Friedman, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of
“Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”
Headline: Israel’s Rihanna Is Arab and Jewish
Source: The New York Times