On Rita, Israel, Iran, and Identity Politics

three countries find themselves at the crossroads of music and politics

3 Nov., 2013 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably

You could be forgiven for suggesting that my comments to NPR journalist Avishay Artsy in his recent report on Israeli-Iranian singer Rita Jahanforuz—who sang at Royce Hall on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012—took the discussion in a political direction (listen here). "It's a political act for Rita to be speaking in her native tongue, after all Farsi is her native tongue, her first language," I told Artsy. "In fact it's a political act if you're an Israeli Jew and you choose to speak Arabic in public, because the Arab culture is seen as the enemy culture. And now Iran is the enemy."

 Rita Jahanforuz at Royce Hall, Nov. 1, 2012 (Photo: Jordan Elgrably)

Rita Jahanforuz at Royce Hall, Nov. 1, 2012 (Photo: Jordan Elgrably)

Of course, it would help to know the background regarding Middle Eastern Jewish migration to Israel, and how over decades, Jews from both Arab countries and Iran were taught that those were the enemy cultures, and therefore to speak Arabic or Persian was not a good thing—you had to be an Israeli, speak Hebrew, and eschew where you came from. Pledge allegiance to Israel, do your military service, be a good citizen of the state. And if you were an Israeli Jew, you were taught that Israel was the only country in the world that was really safe for Jews, and that if it weren't for Israel, who knows what would happen to the Jews? Just look at the Holocaust.

Here's the thing: The media began talking about Rita in June with a major profile on the wallstreetjournal.com site, positioning her in terms of being both Israeli and Iranian. This was in the context of all the war rhetoric coming out of Tel Aviv and Washington. ("Iran and Israel Can Agree on This: Rita Jahanforuz Totally Rocks, Jewish Star Remakes Persian Oldies in Tel Aviv and Her Fans in Tehran Can't Get Enough." ) The WSJ story was one of the few positive mainstream media reports we've seen on the Middle East. It seemed to suggest that Rita's latest album "My Joys," sung in Persian, was evidence of cultural diplomacy.

Could an Israeli-Iranian pop star help to cool down the war-mongers?

I'm not a politico. If anything, you might consider me a cultural diplomat. I speak the language of identity. I don't advocate for one identity over another; nor do I suggest that it's important to possess one core identity, i.e. be American, or Arab or Jewish, or Israeli. On the contrary, I believe in Levantinism—or what anthropologists refer to as "cultural commuting." That is, we are all multiple.

Rita isn't just a singer. She's a symbol. She's also a product.

By the way, interesting fact: at her concert in LA on Thursday night, although the tour was marketed as being all about her new Iranian album "My Joys," she sang only four out of 15 songs in Persian. In other words, for most of her time on stage, Rita was an Israeli pop star. Was that perhaps political—to show support and solidarity for Israel, more than for Iran?

I think so.

Another, minor fact: the day after her concert, I got two phone calls from the Israeli consulate, wanting to meet with me. Coincidence?

You tell me.