I was late for their show in the Muslim quarter but I later caught up with the band in a Jerusalem bar called Uganda.
Their FaceBook page reads: “AUTOSTRAD is a Jordanian Indie band formed in 2007… Rated as one of the top 5 bands in the region, Autostrad invests in the diversity of its members and the regions richness to produce music that goes beyond language, identity, and barriers.”
Indeed, their appearance in Israel went beyond barriers, as the latest controversy surrounding their tour shows. Obviously, many of their fans didn’t appreciate the fact that the band decided to get visas issued through the Israeli consulate in Amman, a process which gives recognition to the official state of Israel.
From talking to some of the band members and managerial staff I learnt something about their reasoning. For some of them, music is their life’s cause, no matter the audience. For others, bringing Arab culture to Arabs in Israel and the West-Bank is more important than not recognizing Israel in the visa application process. From the managerial point of view, they won more and better fans than the ones they lost.
As it turns out, the band has played in Israel 3-4 times in the past, visiting various mixed cities such as Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, as well as predominantly Arab towns and cities such as Nazareth and Magdel-Shams. It appears, however, that growing attention is given nowadays to the issue of normalization with Israel, hence the controversy.
From our conversations it became apparent that no recognition of Israel was given by the band. Land conquered in 1967 was considered occupied, naturally, but so was land held by Israel since 1948!
Why should ‘48 Arabs, citizens of Israel, not get to see Autostrad on stage while ‘67 Palestinians can attend a performance by them in major West-Bank cities, they ask.
So, while they were obviously careful not to recognize Israel in any way, they did express support of the idea of having cultural exchange between international groups and Arabs within the ‘48 borders. They would also not keep non-Palestinians out of their concert halls. Thus, Arab culture may spread and develop, without having to recognize Israel in the process. The visa thing, if you ask them, can be regarded as a nasty technical necessity. In fact, they violated the conditions of their visas when they played multiple West-Bank cities on a visa that allows them access to Israel only.
So much for recognition of Israel’s authority…
Putting the emotional aspect aside, I must say I was pleased. With their line of thought, more bands, artists and academics from across the Arab and Muslim world could enter Israel. More cultural and intellectual exchange would benefit Israeli-Arabs and any non-Palestinian who may be interested in the event. All of this could go on without having to give recognition to the state, or without addressing the issue.
Whether this cultural and intellectual exchange will be good or bad for Israel, time will tell. It is sufficient to say it will benefit those who take part in it, local and international Arabs and Muslims. Further cultural development might draw non-Palestinians towards them, further influencing the exchange, making the eventual outcome even harder to predict. I am all for it. Everyone has something to gain from any exchange, especially if it is self-driven and conducted freely.
At some point a Haredi friend of mine joined the conversation. He was performing at a Klezmer concert in Me’a She’arim (Haredi part of town) so he also missed their show (Muslim part of town). Fortunately, he could converse in basic Arabic with them so they were able to bridge the Haredi-Muslim divide rather quickly.
Interestingly, my Haredi friend started explaining the connection between Klezmer music and Druze melodies, singing a few tunes for Autostrad for illustration purposes. As it turns out, Eastern European Jews used to visit the grave of Rabi Shimon Bar-Yohai at Mount Meron in the Galillee on their annual Lag Ba’omer festivities. There they would meet local Arabs and Druze who also held the site to be holy. They would all play their instruments and sing together. Thus the Nigunim (tunes) of Mount Meiron carry within its repertoire some resemblance to Druze music, and even preserves the Arabic names of some tunes (Mustafa, Yazin).
One of the band players took it very seriously and promised to look up Klezmer music. He asked me to write down and translate the meaning of Klezmer for him. “Kle” - “Zemer” means “tools” (of) “song and music”. He was quick to point out that “Zimr” in Arabic was the same as “Zemer” in Hebrew.
So there you go. Without giving recognition to the state of Israel, the band Autostrad was able to fulfill its mission of spreading current Arab culture to “occupied Palestinians” across the country. Me and other Israelis were exposed to them along the process. We had ourselves a bit of cultural and linguistic exchange, uncovering some of the common grounds of our musical roots and vocabulary.
And though I am less than thrilled about the whole issue of not giving recognition to Israel and the whole anti-normalization trend, I am happy to know some people can go beyond that, for the sake of promoting culture, knowledge and understanding.
Thank you Shira Rubin and Mutasem for introducing me to the band and their story.