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In Jerusalem, Israelis celebrate nostalgia for Egyptian film music

Israelis, who have remained enthralled with the outpouring of emotion in Egyptian films for decades, rediscover their passion through a series of concerts at Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art.

Though Israel and Egypt fought bitter wars throughout the mid-20th century, Israelis eagerly turned on their black-and-white TVs to watch Egyptian melodramas every Friday for decades. The Museum for Islamic Art in the heart of West Jerusalem now celebrates this nostalgia with five concerts that pay homage to the golden age of the Egyptian cinema.

Firqat Alnoor, an Israeli classical Arabic music ensemble, has been holding a concert series every Tuesday since Jan. 15. The concerts focuses on famous singer-actors from the Egyptian silver screen: Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Asmahan and Farid al-Atrash, Abdel Halem Hafez and Layla Murad. The final “festive” concert, scheduled for Feb. 12, will feature Egyptian music’s greatest hits.

For many Israelis, particularly older generations, whether or not they understand Arabic, Egyptian films are a cultural cornerstone. For decades, Israel’s single national TV station aired classic Egyptian films every Friday afternoon. Israelis of every stripe — Arab and Jew, traditional and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi — all watched the black-and-white Arabic films, which eventually were subtitled in Hebrew.

“It’s part of the DNA of Israeli culture,” Firqat Alnoor’s founder and director Hannah Fetaya told Al-Monitor. “For us it is music that transcends time. It is eternal music that came before us and will survive us.”

Firqat Alnoor, Band of Light in Arabic, was founded in 2014 with the mission of “introducing people to this music and the history behind it, the main figures who worked within it,” Fetaya said.

Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Arabic Orchestra, founded in 1948, was closed in 1994, and since then Israel had been without a full-time classical Arabic performing group. The ensemble is comprised of 20 men and women representing a broad sweep of Israeli society: Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews from European and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

“We are an ingathering of the exiles,” Fetaya joked.

They perform concerts at festivals around the country, playing classical Arabic music rich in string instruments from the oud to the cello. It is a genre that has historically been marginalized in Israel but has seen a revival in recent years.

The monthlong concert series at the Museum for Islamic Art has proven successful, particularly among the older generation of Israelis for whom Egyptian idols such as Layla Murad and Abdel Halim Hafez remain household names.

At one of the weekly events, Firqat Alnoor played songs by Farid al-Atrash and his sister Asmahan, the Syrian-born sibling film stars from the golden age of Egyptian cinema who were particularly renowned for their musical talents. The concert before a packed museum gallery was part lecture about the legendary lives of Farid and Asmahan — their stories dramatic enough to be the plot of an Egyptian film — and part concert of their greatest hits. But the audience — made up of mostly older Israelis — quickly converted the performance into a singalong, accompanying the band in its rendition of Arabic hits such as “Zina, Zina” and “Ya Gamil.” 

“It was very important for us to maintain the traditional, classical methods,” Fetaya added.

The musicians use no sheet music and play the songs entirely by ear and follow the instructions of the conductor and lead singer, Ariel Cohen.

“I grew up with music like this at home," said Cohen, an Israeli of Moroccan descent who began performing around the age of 12. He told Al-Monitor, "From a young age, I was not only interested in listening to this music, but also researching it — Who wrote it, who sang it."

During its heyday in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Egyptian cinema produced a glut of musical films, most of them romances, starring popular singers as the leads. “Some were good in their own right, some weren’t so good, some were good thanks to the music,” Cohen said.

“When you talk about the big figures in the world of Arabic music, immediately the conversation turns to Egypt,” he noted. The foundation of that musical genre is made of film stars like Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. “Egyptian music turned into the second mother tongue of music in the Arab world.”

The state of war between Israel and Egypt during the period when these films were made did not stop them from becoming hits among Jews in Israel and across the Arab world.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe and Sara Tsifroni’s 2015 documentary “Arab Movie” explored the country’s love affair with Egyptian cinema and its enduring heritage in Israel. It notes that, to this day, the manner in which Egyptian films that aired on TV were smuggled into Israel in the 1960s and 1970s remains a closely guarded secret. Some were evidently smuggled into the country, others were copied from films brought to Arab film theaters in East Jerusalem via Jordan.

Bizawe theorizes that the Israeli enthrallment with Egyptian film in part stemmed from the relative dearth of emotional expression in Israeli cinema at the time, compared with the outpouring of emotion in Egyptian film. These films, he said in the documentary, are filled with “loud arguments, rolling laughter, uncontrolled crying and love as bold as death expressed in countless heartbreaking songs” like the ones performed by Firqat Alnoor.

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