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Not long after 9/11, my favorite local record store began stocking up on European reissues of Turkish psychedelia from the late sixties and early seventies. Perhaps the third wave of musical imports from the greater Middle East that I can remember being taken up by American hipsters (beginning with their adoption of Ofra Haza in the mid-nineteen eighties,) the timing was entirely appropriate. Amidst the wreckage of the World Trade Center, American music fans were instinctively finding themselves drawn to the sounds of the Islamic equivalent of New York, London, or even San Francisco.
Indeed, if one wants to take a sampling of what makes the music of the eastern Mediterranean so unbelievably great, you can’t do any better than listen to what’s been coming out of Istanbul over the course of the past fourty years. Thus, I was reminded, as I delighted in the strangely familiar sounds of an American album whose arrangements epitomized what’s best about Middle Eastern pop. The second full-length to be issued by Madlib‘s younger brother, Oh No, Dr No’s Oxperiment is the closest thing that one will get to an archetypal Lebanese or Israeli Arab hip-hop record like Clotaire K‘s Lebanese LP, or DAM’s more recent album, Dedication.
Relying exclusively on regional source material, if there is a recording that reflects a Middle East-impacted American zeitgeist, this album is ground zero. Opening with the Turkish fuzz guitar of “Heavy”, to the mournful Arabic vocal part of “Down Under” near the it’s end, Dr No is an excellent example of how organically Middle Eastern music and American hip-hop speak to each other. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s the political metaphor implied by that conversation’s fluency that’s so crucial. Think back to the pretense of the album’s title. It’s like a book report about the positive things Americans may have learned from their Iraqi sojourn. Baghdad Calling, anyone?
The subject line: Shi’ite Culture Jamming.
“They’re extending their range of fire,” my father said as I answered my mobile phone. Before I had a chance to ask him why, he stated, “They finally managed to hit Afula.” Almost a week into last year’s war, this was not reassuring news to hear. “Well, Abba,” I responded, trying to sound comforting, “That’s still far away from your home. At least they didn’t point the weapon southwest. ”
What more could I say to my clearly anguished father? That a strike on a nearby town was better than one on our own? Of course not. He knew what I meant. But with each missile fired at Israel’s north, it was clear that they were slowly getting closer. “Well,” my father said, clearing his throat. “Our pilots are doing the best that they can to knock these things out…”
I’d taken the day to work out of my house, and was standing in front of a local, Arab-owned convenience store as my father and I spoke about the situation. When we were done, I told Elie that I loved him, and walked inside to buy some smokes. “Your family in Israel?” asked the clerk, who clearly had overheard the conversation. “Yes,” I said, feeling a little uncomfortable. “They live in the north.”
“My parents are under fire too,” he said. “In a Christian town, just across the border.” “Have you had a chance to speak to them?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, sounding worried. “Apparently their power has been cut off, and they’re running out of food. I am puzzled by this, because they are Christians, not Shia. Why are your people targeting us? It’s stupid. We used to be your allies.”
Though I have since quit smoking, I have gone by the convenience store several times, hoping to say hello again to the fellow and hear what ended up happening to his beleaguered family. He’s never reappeared. Since then, I’ve chatted several times with his replacement. A Christian from Bethlehem, he told me that he’d escaped to the US during the siege of the city in May, 2002.
Spotting him sitting outside the store yesterday, I wondered if his Lebanese colleague’s parents were lucky enough to have done the same. Oftentimes, I ask myself why I just don’t ask him what happened to the guy, whether his parents survived. Seeing as several rockets did eventually fall near my parents’ home, I think it’s because something inside me prevents myself from asking, as though I already know why.
Between the fall of 1999 and the summer of 2001, I spent an untold number of hours capturing field recordings of anti-capitalist demonstrators from around the world. Posted to an assortment of websites ranging from Indymedia to the BBC, once I’d start playing a file, I’d record it in real time to a Phillips 765 CD-R dubbing deck.
The best example of these recordings is a montage I pieced together of a demonstration in front of the IMF HQ in Washington DC, in April 2000. Cut and sequenced manually, and then placed over a heavily edited hip-hop percussion track, the song, What’s Your Badge Number?, ended up on the first Elders of Zion record, Dawn Refuses to Rise.
Today, at the request of a listener, a community radio DJ posted the piece to her blog. Click here to read the entry and download the track.
Placing our carry-on baggage on a conveyer belt in order to be scanned, we could see the contents of other peoples’ bags on a black and white video monitor. As a Middle Eastern-looking gentleman in front of us watched his bag go through the x-ray machine, a pistol and several grenade-like objects appeared on the television’s screen.
Two Carabinieri carrying submachine guns immediately appeared. Without a word, they took the owner of the bag by the arm and escorted him out of line, while the rest of the flight’s passengers continued through to the gate. Looking up at my father, as though to signal my recognition of what had just transpired, he returned my stare, and silently nodded in reply.
–from a manuscript in progress
It’s always a pleasure to encounter an image that perfectly corresponds to a piece of music or a band. Scoring a two dollar copy of one of my favorite punk records today – Bolides over Basra, by Men’s Recovery Project – sent me looking for a picture of the CD. Oddly enough, this turned up.
Given the kind of irony that MRP specialized in, I’m sure that singer Sam McPheeters would appreciate what Google is mathematically tying his music to. Is there a connection between a SWAT team hunting house cats and a concept record about the Middle East? You most certainly bet.
The timing of this book’s publication couldn’t be better. As Israelis and Palestinians resume peace negotiations, its also an opportunity to consider what separation really means, and why there can be no such thing as a total break.
Using Jewish and Arab literature to demonstrate how their respective identities both overlap and inhere in one another, In Spite of Partition makes a compelling case against simple-minded and destructive notions of cultural difference.
Israeli progressives look to Europe for the ideological and financial support they do not get from the United States. Though liberal American Jewish organizations such as the New Israel Fund are making enormous efforts to redress such deficits, despite their numerous philanthropically funded social assistance, worker training and educational programs, the perception is that when it comes to Israel, Europeans have a monopoly on liberalism.
Just look at the coverage accorded to Israel boycott initiatives by British university instructors to understand why. Whereas the United States is identified by the UK press with Christian Zionists who love Israel to theological death, the United Kingdom is conversely identified by many American and Israeli periodicals as the home of a growing anti-Semitic left, eager to punish Israeli educators in order to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
This is why the increasing intimacy between Israel and the EU over the course of the past several years has been fascinating. Coming to a head with the large-scale deployment of European peacekeeping forces in Lebanon after 2006’s conflict with Hezbollah, the European commitment of troops came at a time that two of the same countries providing forces were withdrawing from Iraq out of disagreement with US policy.
Excerpted from Israel vs Utopia