News / Arts & Entertainment

Arab-Israeli Singer Bridges Cultures Through Music

Mira Awad in concert (Photo by Nanni Fontana)
Mira Awad in concert (Photo by Nanni Fontana)
Adam Phillips
Arab-Israeli songwriter and pop star Mira Awad began her weeklong run at New York’s Metropolitan Room by singing a traditional tune from the Arab village in northern Israel where she was born in 1975 to a Palestinian father and a Bulgarian mother.
 
“It comes from the belly. It doesn’t come from thinking," Awad said of her music. "It doesn’t come from a planned way of singing like opera or like the Western kind of singing which is very calculated. This is much more passionate like flamenco, like these things that come from the blood. Like we say: 'We have hot blood.' It’s not by accident.”
 
There is a different sort of heat in the soulful Europop songs Awad’s fans are most familiar with. All My Faces is the title song from her 2011 album.     

“It only tackles the level of my womanhood, but it’s like that about everything," Awad said. "We all have many faces. No one is one thing. That’s boring. We are all made out of many many many many layers.”     

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Awad says this Western, unabashedly sensual style of music would raise eyebrows in her hometown, although the village is relatively modern compared to many Palestinian communities in Israel’s Galilee region.  

“But nevertheless, it’s an Arab culture and still it is very patriarchal and the father decides for the family, the man decides for the woman," she said. "A woman is expected to, OK, go study, go work, but choose family life eventually, and I didn’t. I wanted a career. I wanted to go follow my passions. The word ‘passions’ is scary one in the culture I come from. A woman having passions is scary. It’s a woman you cannot control.”
 
Awad’s history of protest and activism began at the age of 16, when she began started to play in her own rock and roll band. The neighbors would often gossip when she’d get picked up in the village by her band mates, all of whom happened to be male, for the drive to Nazareth to rehearse.

“It was very difficult for them to understand how come my father is letting me do that and they even started to interfere with the upbringing [saying] ‘Take hold of your daughter. Put her in her place,’" Awad said. "So actually that is the place I started from protesting, to have an equal say, to have any say at all,  about my own life and to choose differently if I liked to, as a woman.”

Awad left the confines of village life as soon as she could and enrolled at the university in Haifa, a city unusual in Israel for its mixed Jewish and Arab population. Awad had never defined herself in ethnic terms, because everyone she grew up with was Arab.

But on campus, her fair skin and green eyes did not fit the common stereotype of what Palestinians look like. Jewish students thought she was also Jewish, and felt free to express their true feelings about Arabs in her presence.

“I suddenly started to realize how much racism there is against Palestinian citizens of Israel and I’m hearing this and my blood was boiling in my veins,” Awad said.
    
Although Awad is well known in Israel and Europe for her songs about life and love, she is perhaps best known for her songs about peace, justice and equality. In 2009, she and Jewish Israeli singer Noa were chosen by the Eurovision Song Contest to sing her song There Must Be Another Way about forging peace between their two peoples.
 
But Awad says her hopes go far beyond Israel and Palestine.  

“I believe we have to go together as a human race and try to figure out how we share the resources of this poor planet that we’re on,” she said.      

These days, one of Awad’s favorite instruments is a friend’s cracked flute she saved from the trash. She says she has learned to honor life’s imperfections – that, like the poet  Leonard Cohen, she believes that “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

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