They come from two different worlds — ever so close, yet a chasm apart. One was born to a Jewish family hailing from Yemen; the other to an Arab Christian family in Palestine. The former started her musical career a couple of decades ago and has more than a dozen albums to her name; the latter “stumbled into” music from a career in acting. Individually, Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad are among the best known performers in Israel. Together, they put out a potent political message for the world.
In their own articulate ways, Achinoam, or Noa, and Mira — who were in India to kick off a year-long series of cultural programmes marking two decades of India-Israel diplomatic relations — represent the complexity of the Israel-Palestine divide. Their message, aimed against the violence of the Israeli settlers on one side and the Palestinian Hamas movement on the other, has earned the wrath of hardliners on both sides. Death threats have forced organisers in Tel Aviv and London to call off their concerts. But the duo has remained steadfast in their collaborative commitment.
Though they started working together a decade ago with a version of the Beatles song ‘We can work it out’, their message didn’t reach beyond West Asia till they represented Israel in the Eurovision pop music contest in 2009. “Eurovision isn’t my sort of music,” says Noa, a 42-year-old who grew up in ‘a Jewish-Israeli-Yemeni enclave’ in New York before shifting to Israel. “I had refused to participate earlier. But that year, I put down many conditions — wanted to sing with Mira, I wanted to sing something written in English, Hebrew and Arabic... When they agreed to it all, we took part.” And they created a sensation with their bitter-sweet song of hope, ‘There must be another way’.
Jewish-Palestinian politics wasn’t the topmost on the mind of Mira, a 36-year-old whose career bloomed when she acted as Eliza Doolittle in the “biggest Israeli musical in 15 years”, when she was growing up in the predominantly Arab-Christian village of Rameh in north Israel. At that time, she says, she was more occupied with making her mark as a woman in a relatively “chauvinistic society”. “It was when I moved to Haifa that I became conscious of the complexity of my identity as an Arab in the Israeli society — as an ‘inner enemy’ who is waiting to stab others. I realised I was in a paranoid state that ignored the Arab identity in its symbols, rights and budgets.”
Noa, who sang at the 1995 Tel Aviv rally “10 minutes before (Israeli premier) Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated” there, says, “Despite everything, the support Mira and I have received from our communities has been much more overwhelming.” That has given them the courage to push ahead. Mira says, ““People have realised we are not a flame, a fad or a whim.” Last week, they wowed Delhi with their “insistent and consistent” musical message.