- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

TEL AVIV — The hot new trend in Tel Aviv’s bar scene is Arab music.

Israeli sophisticates normally take their cultural cues from New York and Europe and long have dismissed the music of their often-hostile neighbors as parochial and primitive.

These days, the place to be seen is Shoshana Johnson, a club named for an American soldier captured during the Iraq war. Photographs of bearded Taliban men adorn the walls, and the music fuses aggressive club rhythms with lilting Arabic melodies by the likes of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum.

Some see the trend as a sign of improving relations with the Palestinians. Others brush it off as a passing fad. Still others see it as a yearning among Israelis, many with parents of Middle Eastern origin, to embrace the prevailing culture in the region.

The lyrics, generally about love, are meaningless to most of the listeners as well as to the disc jockeys who play them, but it is the novel beat that seems to be drawing the audience.

“Before I even opened, I knew that that’s the kind of music I wanted to play here. It’s the kind of music I grew up with,” said Assaf Ohayon, a co-owner of Shoshana Johnson whose mother hailed from Morocco.

“Lots of people here think we are European and we are on the standard with Americans. But the fact is that we are here in the Middle East and are sitting next to Arab neighbors.”

Mr. Ohayon says his motives aren’t political, and that he is pessimistic about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Still, the growing popularity of Arab music is a sign that Israeli attitudes toward their neighbors are softening.

Disc jockeys and bar owners say they often are upbraided by patrons who consider Arab music unpatriotic or insulting, but note that the trend could not have taken root at the height of the Palestinian uprising.

“If there were terrorist attacks left and right, there’s no way I could play this music,” said Oren Alkalai, the co-owner of a jazz club named Mishmish, which hosts an Arab music night every Monday. “It would be a very naive thing to do to be listening to the music of your enemy.”

Even the Israeli army is getting into the act, joining Palestinian radio in plans for a simultaneous broadcast on Sunday of a love song written and performed by Jewish and Arab performers. The song, “In My Heart,” will be performed in both Hebrew and Arabic.

For club owners, though, the motive is mainly financial. When Mr. Alkalai realized that his customers were tiring of swing and bebop music seven days a week, he inaugurated Cafe Cairo nights with Arab tunes, a belly dancer and a menu of Middle Eastern food.

“This is killer music that far surpasses what we have in the West,” he said.

A recent article in the weekend magazine Ha’ir attributed the Arab music trend to a long-established habit of importing fads from abroad. But local devotees of the genre argue that the affinity for Arabic music is more genuine in Israel than in Europe, where it also is catching on.

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