From France 24’s The Observers (with my full interview below).
“That a heavy metal band and a belly dancer perform together is unusual enough. When the band is Israeli and the dancer Lebanese, the performance raises quite a few eyebrows. But when the performers choose to brandish their respective countries’ flags side by side on stage, you have all the ingredients for a potentially volatile mix.
On Sunday, June 19, Israeli heavy metal band Orphaned Land performed alongside Lebanese belly dancer Johanna Fakhri at the Hellfest music festival in the western French town of Clisson. Cooperating with belly dancers has become a trademark for the band, which makes a point of using its music to bring Israelis and Arabs closer together. But this was the first time the group shared a stage with a Lebanese artist.
The gesture is far from inconsequential. Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war. The Jewish state is considered an enemy and any dealing with Israelis is considered criminal under Lebanese law. Orphaned Land lead singer Kobi Fahri told Israeli website Ynetnews that it was Fakhri who had insisted on bringing the flags onstage, despite his concerns that she would be criticized in her homeland. Unsurprisingly, online videos of the performance have sparked a wave of comments, ranging from admiration to shock and anger.”
Roi Ben Yehuda is a New York-based Israeli writer and blogger. He published Johanna Fakhr’s response to the dozens of angry messages she received after the performance on his blog.
Below is my full interview with France 24 on Johanna Fakhri’s performance With Orphaned Land.
– I gathered from the blog posts you wrote that you find the initiative of Johanna Fakhry and Orphaned land brave and positive, so why do you think so many people are angry? And why do you find it positive?
A: I think the “angry” people fall into two camps: The first are those who reject anything positive associated with an “enemy” country or its people. To them Israel/Lebanon is the epitome of evil and one does not dance/play with evil. The second is those who reject any type of activity deemed as “normalization”; which is based on the principle that as long as Israel is an occupying power there should be no contact [between Israelis and others] that expresses a sense of sympathy, symmetry and solidarity.
I disagree with both of these camps. First of all I think that what Johanna Fakhry (and Orphaned Land) did is an example of moral courage – standing up for your values despite all the people (across the world) who would want you to sit down. They should be commended for that. Second, as someone who studies conflict resolution, I’m convinced there is no better way of positively transforming the conflict between Israel and her neighbors without first (or at least concomitantly) transforming the minds and hearts of the people. This, needless to say, is not likely to be achieved through separation. Finally, such artistic collaborations show people there is another way to respond to all the violence and suffering: a way that is at once respectful of identity yet universal. Hard for me not to be inspired by that.
– Many Lebanese in particular seem furious. Can you explain why brandishing both flags together is such a potent, controversial symbol?
A: I’ll first say that I am not a fan of flags. In fact, if god exists I’m pretty sure he hates flags. Having said that, a flag is a symbolic address. And in a region where symbolic addresses seem to be built on top of each other, flags – like national identities – have emotionally charged zero-sum qualities to them. In the minds of people, one flag negates the other. Also, by brandishing a flag both Fakhry and Orphaned Land can be interpreted as speaking for more than themselves. Naturally, people who don’t agree with them will resent them for doing so.
– Can either artist legally get into trouble in their home country for this kind of performance?
A: Not in Israel. If Orphaned Land performed in an enemy country that would have been another story. In Lebanon, I’m not sure. I believe there are Lebanese laws that criminalize normalization with official Israeli institutions, but I don’t know if they apply to the level of private citizen engagement.
– Do you think this kind of initiative can have a concrete impact on mentalities in Israel and Lebanon (or other Middle Eastern countries?) Can art influence politics?
A: Art influences politics all the time. The question for me is whether art can influence politics in a positive direction? I think the answer is yes. Non-political music, like Orphaned Land, does so by creating a space for an inclusive salient identity that circumvents the divisive discourse of the conflict. They also do so by honoring the musical and religious traditions of the regions. At the end of the day, if a song rocks, it rocks equally in Tel-Aviv, Beirut, or Ankara: and fans in those cities will have formed some kind of ties – based on shared values – with each other (a reality that is apparent on the band’s facebook page).
Moreover, the symbolic value of unusual artistic pairing is part of what makes the art so powerful: at once humanizing and injecting some complexity into people’s thinking: from “they are all the same and they want us dead”, to “they are made up different individuals, some of whom desire peace as much as we do.”
But a word of caution: changing political realities through art, and other non-violent means, is a generational project and the person who wishes instant and visible success will be gravely disappointed.
-Do you think this may alienate part of Johanna Fakhry’s fan base? As for Orphaned Land, how are they perceived in Israel (outside their fan base?)
A: Probably. But I’m pretty sure it will also significantly increase her fan base. I know I became a fan. As for those fans that are alienated, perhaps she didn’t need such fans to being with.
Regarding Orphaned Land, the band is widely credited as pioneered Middle Eastern heavy metal, and is recognized and (mostly) celebrated inside Israel for their unusual success in Arab and Muslim countries.