The peace organisation OneVoice is throwing a farewell party in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street for this year’s Israeli entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, and the two singers — newly anointed peace ambassadors for OneVoice — are being rushed from one soundbite-hungry journalist to another in what is the last press opportunity before they leave for Moscow.
For Yemenite Israeli singer Achinoam “Noa” Nini, a veteran singer and peace campaigner, this intense media attention is nothing new — from recording songs for hit films such as Goldeneye to sharing stages with megastars like Sting and Stevie Wonder, she is well used to being in the spotlight.
But in Dizengoff Street it is her less well-known singing partner, the striking Mira Awad, who is grabbing most of the attention; switching casually between English, Hebrew and Arabic as the questions fly in, and clearly relishing every moment.
Israelis are savvy when it comes to using the Eurovision Song Contest to project an image of their country as liberal, tolerant and diverse — just remember the show-stopping transsexual diva Dana International who won in 1998.
But what has got the press excited this year is that when Awad walks out on to the stage in Moscow next week, she will be the first Israeli Arab ever to represent the country at Eurovision, and what is more, the kitschy, bouncy pop duet they will perform, There Must Be Another Way, has verses in both Hebrew and Arabic.
It is difficult not to get the feeling that Awad enjoys breaking convention. An accomplished stage actress, she starred in the Cameri Theatre’s acclaimed Plonter (Tangle) — in which both Jewish and Arab actors play each other’s parts and speak both languages — that was revived so memorably at London’s Barbican Centre earlier this year. Then she starred in the groundbreaking Israeli TV comedy series Avoda Aravit (Arab Labour), written by renowned novelist Sayed Kashua and the first bilingual prime-time hit show in Israeli television history.
With Awad the actress firmly established as a rising star, Awad the singer is wasting no time catching up. She first worked with Noa in 2002 on a version of the Beatles classic We Can Work It Out for the latter’s album Now, and has since contributed songs to soundtracks of hit Israeli films like Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree, and worked alongside world-music superstar Idan Raichel. In her own forthcoming debut solo album, she cites both Arabic music and Pink Floyd as key influences. For Tel Aviv-girl Awad — “I’ve been living here for 12 years now and I love it,” she enthuses, flashing a trademark grin — this constant, artistic blurring of linguistic and cultural lines is clearly where she feels most at home.
Born to Bulgarian mother and Palestinian Christian father in the town of Rame in northern Israel, her soaring profile, which has rapidly turned her into one of Israel’s most visible Arab public figures, has left her vulnerable to harsh criticism. Learning of her official nomination as Israel’s Eurovision representative was a particularly difficult moment.
“The Gaza war was a very painful time for everyone. Both Achinoam and I were glued to our televisions trying to take in everything that was going on there. And then the announcement came that we are going to be singing in Eurovision. We were very far from in the mood to sing and write songs.”
Leading Arab Israelis, including several well-known fellow actors and singers, published an open letter in which they called on Awad to boycott Eurovision. According to their online petition, they believed she was helping the “propaganda machine that is trying to create the appearance of Jewish-Arab ‘coexistence’” at a time of violent crisis in relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
“In the end it was the friendship between me and Achinoam that made me stick to the plan of going to Eurovision,” Awad says defiantly. “It is a collaboration between two people who are women, musicians and friends.”
Awad and Noa have been working together for many years, and she is visibly insulted at the suggestion that the collaboration is part of any “propaganda machine”. “Our friendship was not created for the purpose of Eurovision! It was not created for any other purpose than itself,” she insists. She is philosophical about why she has been attacked by other Israeli-Arab artists. “I’m not a spokesperson for the Arab-Israeli community,” she says. “I’m a spokesperson first of all for myself and secondly for everyone who wants me to be their spokesperson, like OneVoice, who asked us to speak in support of dialogue. But I do think that this more militant way [the petition] of expressing the pain comes from guilt — the guilt that every Palestinian living in Israel has, because we do not have to go through roadblocks, and we do not have to face the reality of occupation. At some point I tried to rise above that guilt and say: ‘OK, I might be feeling guilty for not being persecuted every day, but I need to look above and look at the life here.’
“I am an Israeli citizen and I have a lot of friends who are Jewish, who are Israelis. They are not my enemy — they are people who love me, people who I love and care for a lot, who I would give my life for. The human connection is what comes first of all, before nationality and religion.”
Awad is the first to admit that she would have loved to have left politics to one side and concentrate on her art. But as the title of her album, Bahlawan (Acrobat), makes clear, being an Arab artist in Israel who believes in co-existence and dialogue involves a constant balancing act between external pressures and expectations.
“I’m 34, and I think for some years in my career I tried to get away from the political agenda, and act as if I’m just a musician waking up in the morning and wanting to write songs,” she says. “But years pass, and you understand that you cannot turn your back on who you are. This can seem initially like a burden someone has put on your back… but actually it’s a blessing. If I can say something that will resonate — somewhere, with someone — then I can say that I have really done something worthwhile.”