Not many Israelis knew about the Kuwaiti Brothers' extraordinary story
By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem
MUSICIANS OF THE ENEMY
South Tel Aviv has a newly named street. As of just over two weeks ago, just off Bossem Street, you can now find Rechov Ha'achim al-Kuvaiti, or al-Kuwaiti Brothers Street.
On one corner, there is a handsome, white modernist villa. Opposite, there is a large, run-down apartment block. Many of the residents were not delighted that their street had been given a new, apparently Arabic name.
The Tel Aviv municipality had, though, decided to bestow posthumous recognition on two of its least celebrated residents.
Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti had lived close by to their eponymous street, after they had joined the mass emigration of Jews from Iraq to Israel in 1951.
Theirs were lives of triumph and dejection. They had been the toast of Baghdad, in the words of Saleh's son Shlomo, "the national composers of Iraq, and the founders of Iraqi modern music".
In their pomp, the emir of Kuwait would visit the al-Kuwaiti family home, every six weeks, to listen to the brothers perform.
When Shlomo's oldest brother was born, his father called him Sabah, after the emir's family name.
The emir attended Sabah's circumcision, bringing with him a gold case, filled with gold coins.
But the establishment of the new Jewish state in 1948 brought in its wake a surge in anti-Semitism in Iraq. It reached a point where the al-Kuwaitis decided to move to Israel.
It was then that the brothers began to feel the slow crush of disillusion.
"My father," recalls Shlomo, "suffered twice." The first rejection was that of Israel, which in 1951 had little time for the al-Kuwaitis' music.
"His music was considered the music of the enemy," says Shlomo. "So immediately, they put his music in a ghetto. Instead of the concert hall, my father and his brother had to play weddings and barmitzvahs and family fiestas, with people eating and drinking... and not listening."
The second blow came from inside Iraq. Shlomo claims as much as 90% of Iraq's modern popular music was written by his father.
The new Iraqi regime "couldn't erase the music, because everyone was singing it. But the regime started to call it traditional music. They didn't mention his name. They sometimes forced another composer to take the credit".
Daoud Kuwaiti, Shlomo Kuwaiti and Dudu Tassa, who is now re-interpreting his grandfather's works
Daoud al-Kuwaiti died in 1976; his brother, Saleh, Shlomo's father, died, at the age of 78, in 1986. They were so dejected that they forbade their children from playing music themselves.
"We wanted to learn," says Shlomo. "They didn't allow us."
But now Daoud's grandson, Dudu, has broken the brothers' order. Dudu, 32, is a musician. He was born, three months after Daoud's death.
Only at the age of 15 did he begin to approach his grandfather's music. It was, he says, shockingly different: "They even invented certain scales that didn't exist at the time."
Dudu has now started to take their tunes, and re-interpret them.
"These days, songs last three or four minutes. Theirs are much longer and more complex and more serpentine," Dudu told me in his spartan Tel Aviv bed-sit.
He has produced three songs based on the brothers' music and has plans for an entire album.
Shlomo says there has been a new reckoning across the Middle East. He and his family sent discs of the brothers' music "through London to Arab countries".
It was, he says, a "revolution", as people realised that these "traditional" tunes were in fact the work of the al-Kuwaiti brothers.
Questions were asked in the Kuwaiti parliament: in the words of Shlomo, asking, "so what if they were Jewish?".
Shlomo says people from Arab countries sent him more than 650 songs which he did not know about, saying that they were the work of his father.
Then the family approached the Tel Aviv city council to ask for municipal recognition.
That process culminated with the re-naming of a small street in the south of the city.
Shlomo says that, during the ceremony, in February, the residents complained noisily.
They were, he says, "from the right, right-wing of Israeli society. They said we don't want this name because it's Arabic. We began to describe who these people were. And then the residents were angry with the municipality for not explaining."
A few days after we met, Shlomo was planning to print and distribute leaflets for the residents with more information about the brothers.
And the Israeli director, Gili Gaon, has started filming for a documentary, called Lost Honour, about the brothers.
Dudu Tassa, the grandson and young musician, says that the family has not completely exorcised its fear of rejection.
"My mother is a bit like a mirror to what the brothers would have thought. She is very concerned. She says music is not something you can make a living out of."
Dudu acknowledges that Daoud and Saleh would not be happy with him.
"But maybe there's also something symbolic, me being named after Daoud. Maybe I didn't have a choice. Maybe it's my destiny to be a musician."
Here is a selection of your thoughts on Tim Franks' diary:
Thank you for the poignant article which highlights the repression of the music of Saleh Alkuwaity in Israel when he arrived there in 1951, and the disgraceful act of Saddam in erasing his name. However music and culture cannot be suppressed for long. The people of Iraq and Kuwait love his music and even in UK there has been a renaissance of his compositions. On 3rd December 2008 there was a centenary celebration of his birth, at the School of African and Oriental Studies, where a day of talks was held, together with a concert of his compositions. The website www.Alkuwaityevent.com marks that memorable celebration. Organising Team of Alkuwaity Event, London, UK
Dear Zein el din, Vancouver, Canada: Mahmoud al-Kuwaiti does not belong to Al-Kuwaiti Jewish family mentioned in the article, although he was also a famous singer in Kuwait and had the same family name. He was Muslim and (I think) from Persian roots. Salman, Kuwait City, Kuwait
The article makes no mention of how they got their name stage name "Al-Kuwaiti"... their real names were Saleh and Daoud Ezra and they were based in Kuwait while travelling back and forth to Iraq to perform, specifically in Basra and Baghdad. To Zein el din: Mahmoud and Abdul-Latif Al-Kuwaiti were not related to Saleh and Daoud, and in fact weren't even Jewish. I personally believe that driving out all the Jews of the Arab world was a big mistake Ziad, Kuwait
To Zein el din, Vancouver, Canada: Mahmood Al Kuwaiti is not related to the brothers. Wildildeera, Kuwait
Mr. Frank, it's so refreshing to get some genuine local colour reporting! The heavy bias in favour of European style music in Tel Aviv is beginning to change, but as you report, the Jews who brought Arabic style music and songs with them to Israel were often sidelined by mainstream society. Personally, I have enjoyed Jewish "Sephardic" music at weddings and other family celebrations over the many years we have lived in Israel, although we are originally from England. Meira, Israel
Nice article. It is about time the Arab Jews of Israel were recognized and encouraged to search for their roots in Arab countries. The music piece is not bad at all. Joseph Elmaleh, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I grew up in Kuwait and I am very familiar with the music of the al-Kuwaiti brothers. I would not describe their music as revolutionary as it was more like the music of middle east and specifically Iraqi and gulf genre of Arabic music. Their type of music was not ground breaking, but it was very popular and common of their era. I also know there was another brother, Mahmoud al-Kuwaiti who was very famous in Kuwait and I'm not sure why is he not mentioned in this article. In my opinion, the popularity and success of Al-Kuwaiti brothers are proof that before the meddling of the imperial powers and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Jews were able to live and thrive in Middle East. So this whole notion of anti-Semitism is a European invention and Europe is responsible for all the bloodshed and hatred that followed. Zein el din, Vancouver, Canada
Mohanned al-Zahrani, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - you are playing semantics when you say "Arabs are Semites, so I don't know see how Arabs can be anti-Semitic if they belong to this race". While you are technically correct that Arab people are also Semitic, the term "Anti-Semitic" nowadays is purely a synonym for "Anti-Jewish". Benjamin Arnold, London UK
Rock on Daoud. You did not have a choice. You must fulfill your destiny. Look forward and rewards will come to you and your family's honor will be restored. Even the great Mahmud of Ghazni could not keep the poetry of Ferdowsi down. Nobody can keep good music down for long. Eddy, davis, USA
What a beautiful story! Their music is beautiful and I'm glad they are finally getting the recognition they deserve. As an Iraqi, I became sad that Iraq lost its 2,500-year old community in such a small time scale. I remember from the stories I was told on how my grandmother grew up with Iraqi Jews who were her neighbours. There was a harmonious relationship. Then the cancer came - that is the Arab nationalism and the subsequent Baath party that forced this community to leave. Iraqi Jews were very prominent, respectable people in Iraq. Iraq's first finance minister, who was knighted by George V, was an Iraqi Jew. I hope the new Iraqi government starts a scheme, like Spain has done recently, where they offer citizenship to Iraqi Jews and their descendants in Israel - so that they can have a dual citizenship and compensate them as well for their previous losses. Ali, London
This article is beautifully written and expresses some problems within Israeli society, other than the loss of the family legacy of music. What concerns me the most is that the residents were upset by the fact that the new street name sounded Arabic; after it was explained that the brothers were Jewish, than it seemed to have quieted down. This is a case of judging a book by its cover, and until that mentality stops, I do not think that peaceful steps forward can be taken. Molly, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Thanks for the great report. The loss of the brothers' work is truly sad. I wonder if it's possible to get a list of the music they had composed so that everyone recognizes their contribution to Iraqi music. Omar Fadhil, Iraqi in New York
Thank you for this fascinating reportage. My parents escaped from Iraq to Israel. The Iraqi Jews lived great with their Muslim neighbours, until the ideology of Hitler and of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni arrived in Iraq in the 1930s and 40s. Mohammad Amin al-Husayni was the mufti of El Aqtza mosque in Jerusalem and his goal was strict: to destroy any dialogue between Jews and Muslims. He spread anti-Semitism in Iraq and Muslims who had never met a Jew their lives started to persecute them. These persecutions escalated until they resulted in the massive expulsion of Jews from Iraq. The Jewish refugees found a homeland in Israel, not from a Zionist ideology, but from the understanding that they didn't have any other place to go. These stories must be learned in the Arab countries, in order to achieve fruitful dialogue between the two cultures - Arab & Jews. Kobi, Israel Tel Aviv
I thought this article was quite interesting, however I found part of it to be quite offensive where it says: "But the establishment of the new Jewish state in 1948 brought in its wake a surge in anti-Semitism in Iraq." Arabs are Semites, so I don't know see how Arabs can be anti-Semitic if they belong to this race! Mohanned al-Zahrani, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
What a sad, sad loss for the Arab world. What's worse is that if peace isn't achieved soon, the coming generations of this family will loose interest in their ancestral homeland, Iraq. Jasem, Dubai, UAE
Tim Franks' article is welcome, but it is a shame he downplays anti-Semitism in the Arab world or portrays it as a reaction to the creation of Israel after 1948. In fact there were anti-Jewish laws and quotas as early as the 1930s and almost 200 Jews were murdered in a pro-Nazi pogrom in 1941. This is the context which the Al-Kuwaitys and virtually the entire Jewish community fled Iraq. Of course they could have been granted more recognition in Israel but Yiddish actors and klezmer players were also given the cold-shoulder in 1951 Israel. Eventually the Al-Kuwaitys were given a slot on Israel's Arabic channel. At least in Israel their names were not airbrushed out of existence, as happened in the Arab world.
In Iraq in the 1930s there were some 250 Jewish musicians and only three Muslims, but for too long the Arab world has been in denial not just about the Jewish contribution to Arabic culture, but about the destruction of their Jewish communities. Recognition in the Arab world of the Jewish contribution to music and the arts is long overdue and could pave the way, eventually, to reconciliation between the Arabs and Israel. Lyn, London, UK
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