Middle East

Arab singer in Israeli spotlight after talent show win

Nissren Kader wining 'Eyal Golan is looking for you'
Image caption From wedding singer to talent show winner: Nissren Kader is a household name

A young Israeli Arab woman who won a popular Israeli TV music talent show has become an unlikely star in a country where suspicion and hostility often mark relations between Israel's minority Arab population and the Jewish majority.

Nissren Kader won first place on a programme that seeks to find the best singer of Mizrahi songs - the musical tradition of Middle Eastern Jews.

The past few months have been an incredible journey for Ms Kader, who used to work as a wedding singer in the coastal city of Haifa.

"My life has completely changed. Before I used to perform in front of a small audience, but now this summer I will perform in front of thousands of people," she says.

"In every house in Israel somebody now knows my name. Even on the street people come and talk me and know who I am."

Ms Kader is not Jewish but part of her winning performance on the show included a Hebrew prayer - a song written to commemorate Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian militants.

Cultural divide

The show, Eyal Golan Is Looking For You, aims to find the next Mizrahi music star.

Mizrahim arrived in Israel from countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen and Iran in the years following its establishment.

They were met with condescension by the European establishment who saw them as inferior and threatening because of their resemblance to the perceived Arab enemy.

They are a group that is still under-represented in Israel's institutions of power and are economically disadvantaged.

Rachel Shabi, a Mizrahi journalist who has written extensively on the subject, says Palestinians and Jews from the Middle East suffer a similar type of cultural discrimination in Israel.

"Ultimately nationalism trumps everything," she explains. "If you have this entry card called Jewish you will be less discriminated against than if you are Palestinian, but there are shades of discrimination and I think the thing that they both share - Palestinians and Jews from the Middle East - is cultural discrimination dictated by the European minority."

"If you look at Israel, how it presents itself is European, despite a majority population which is Middle Eastern, if you combine the Palestinian Israelis and Jews of Arab or Muslim lands."

Despite several areas of common ground, there is no real closeness between Israel's Arab citizens - who mostly identify as Palestinian and make up about 20% of the population - and the Mizrahim.

Eyal Golan, a Mizrahi music star and host of the television talent show, says that initially there was some negative reaction to Nissren Kader's appearance.

"Some people don't like Arabs. I encouraged them to listen to Nissren's music. They heard her voice and they loved her," he says. "She's not political and won with her music."

Identity problem

Image caption Ala Hlehe says the roots of Mizrahi music are Arab

Ala Hlehel, a well-known Arab writer and cultural commentator, says Mizrahi music is very popular in Israel but he insists its roots are Arab.

He feels the music is an imitation of Arab music utilising similar instruments and vocal techniques.

"You know the Mizrahis have a serious identity problem. Call a Mizrahi an Arab Jew and he'll kill you," he says.

"They don't want any relationship with us because it will make them less in this country if you are connected with Arabs. And yet they make a lot of money from this music, which is Arab and the most popular music in Israel."

Ms Kader says only the music matters to her.

"My first and main language is Arabic. Arabic feels the most comfortable for me but regarding music I don't have a primary language, it's the music that counts."

"If I love the song but its in Turkish or Greek I will also perform it. The language is not the main thing for me but the song and the music."

Mr Golan's next project is to record an album in Hebrew and Arabic with Ms Kader. He is confident that the Israeli public are ready to hear it.