Yes, that’s right- tonight, I heard country music on a Saudi radio station. It took me by total surprise. It just goes to show that the Middle East is a whole lot more diverse than you might think- and a whole lot more interesting that you’ll find out by reading the news!
Today I had a very productive day. On my way back from the mall (man is it cool to see a mall all in Hebrew! Never had that as a kid!), I switched on an app on my phone and started listening to Arabic music. Last night, I listened to Syrian radio- to an entire evening of the majestic Fairouz. The host’s greeting in Arabic was adorable: “Masa’ Fairouz, Masa’ al kheyr” – A Fairouz evening, A good evening! Listeners even called in from all corners of Syria. It was surreal to be listening to the radio station just north of the border- of a country in the midst of a horrifying civil war and a country I cannot legally visit.
Tonight, I decided to give the Saudi stations a try. At first, there were the typical and beautiful rhythms of khaleeji music– music from the Persian Gulf. Gulf Arabic music sounds quite different from Egyptian, Lebanese, or Moroccan music. Each one has its beautiful elements.
Then I started to get nervous. The announcer said in a grave tone in the Saudi dialect: “once upon a time, we were great. We were revered and respected. Now what?” Holy shit, I thought, this is going to be a depressing news story about the latest political intrigue in Saudi Arabia. But instead the next sentence shocked me and made me giggle: “a few days ago we were defeated by Portugal 3-0. What are we going to do about our soccer team?”
Just goes to show that things aren’t always what we expect 😉
Speaking of which, I switched to another Saudi station. Expecting more Arabic jazz, I instead got some American country song filled with y’alls and drawls. In complete shock, I continued listening as pop songs followed rap songs followed, both male and female artists singing.
Curious what else I’d find, I hopped on another station (found an angry preacher) then another (beautiful Quranic chanting) and two Indian music stations from Dubai and then I visited Jordan. The Jordanian radio station was playing something oddly familiar. The beat- it wasn’t Arabic- it was…reggaeton. That’s cool, I thought, it’s not just Israel that 20 years after the fact discovered reggaeton music I grew up on. Our neighbors like it too.
In fact, they like it so much, they’re now mixing it with Arabic music! A quick YouTube search for “Arabic reggaeton” will reveal a boatload of songs. It is catchy and fun and I highly recommend trying it out.
People love to hate on technology. It’s ruining society. Young people don’t know how to socialize. It’s no replacement for human interaction. Yada, yada, yada.
Some of the critiques are valid, others are the same stupid stuff people said when the printing press was invented. The point is technology is like anything else in life- it’s about how you use it.
For me, I’d love to be able to go to Syria and Saudi Arabia. And I hope to visit Jordan sometime soon, although if we’re totally honest it can be challenging both as a queer person and an Israeli. I’m sad that for political reasons I can’t- and I’m sad in particular for the people of Syria who are suffering. I’m also sad because Saudi Arabia doesn’t look like it’s headed for a lot of long-term stability either. I’m sad because in every country in the world there are good people I’d like to meet- and who’d like to meet me. Of course there are fire and brimstone clerics (we have a few in Israel) and mean people and bigots, but there are good people out there too. Complicated people. People I can learn from- and teach.
So this is what I have to say: I’m not going to wait until the borders open between Israel and countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia. I’m going to use technology to get to know my neighbors as best I can. Why shouldn’t I enrich my life with the treasures their cultures have to offer? I’m sure somewhere in Riyadh there’s a kid secretly listening to pirated Mizrachi music. If you think that’s naive, you need to do your homework. As the phrase goes, “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”.
As I walked down the streets of South Tel Aviv, I’m sure there are people I passed by who would utterly disapprove of me listening to Saudi Quranic chanting or Syrian pop. That’s the music of Arabs, of the enemy. Those people hate us.
But I bet there are more than a few people who have held on to their Middle Eastern roots. Who if I pumped up the volume loud enough, might join in and even dance. Because the beauty of South Tel Aviv is that the people who live here- the music they blare every morning when I wake up. It’s so utterly and deeply Middle Eastern that you don’t know where the Umm Kulthum starts and the Omer Adam ends.
All Middle Eastern countries are more diverse than you might suspect. I speak Arabic so I actually know what my neighbors are saying- and it’s interesting.
I live in a country built on a miracle, on a 2,000 year old pipe dream that came true. And while people are reading and re-reading Ha’aretz and Yisrael Hayom and the New York Times, I’m practicing my southern drawl. Because one day, by the grace of God, I’m going to hop on a plane, get my passport stamped, and listen to Kenny Chesney play Riyadh.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so. 🙂