Ahead of her London concert, singer Mira Awad tells Francine Wolfisz about the challenges of being her country’s most famous Arab-Israeli
Amid a whirlwind of controversy, Mira Awad made history when she became the first Arab-Israeli to represent Israel at Eurovision.
Seven years later the sincere message of her song, There Must Be Another Way, which she performed alongside her close friend, Jewish-Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (also known as Noa), is still close to Mira’s heart – as is the fierce debate over her identity.
The talented 40-year-old singer and actress, who performs at West London Synagogue next month, knows all about life within a mix of cultures. Her father is an Israeli Palestinian from the Galilee, while her mother is a Bulgarian Christian. She shares her Tel Aviv home with her Jewish Israeli husband, Kosta Mogilevych.
On the surface, Israel indeed seems like a melting pot, but not one the star of hit sitcom, Arab Labour believes has been very successful.
“Israel is a pot with many nice ingredients – and I love the diversity we have here – but don’t be fooled into thinking we are melting into one dish. We’re refusing. Just think if we did, we could create something beautiful.”
Mira became all too aware of the divisions within her native country shortly after being selected in 2009 for Eurovision. Rather than being lauded for her performance, which was also the first Israeli song to include Arabic lyrics, she was criticised for taking part – from both Israelis, who thought she aligned herself too much with her Arab roots – and Palestinians, who equally felt she was too loyal to Israel. Even today, she struggles with how to describe her identity.
“You call me Israeli Arab – but I call myself Israeli Palestinian and even that causes controversy,” Mira explains. “If I say that I am Israeli Arab, then my fellow Palestinians think that I am trying to disown my Palestinian roots and if I call myself an Israeli Palestinian, then the Israelis feel offended. They say: ‘If you are so Palestinian, go live in Gaza.’
“So I identify myself only as an Israeli and not Palestinian. It mixes things up when you say both. The mere fact there is controversy around the definition, might show you just a little bit of the situation faced by Israeli Palestinians in Israel. We are walking a very thin line all the time.”
Her feelings on the issue even inspired her song, Bahlawan, which means “Acrobat” in Arabic.
“That very much came from my experience as an Israeli Palestinian, though of course it’s a metaphor that can work on many other levels.”
With the 61st Eurovision Song Contest taking place in Stockholm in May, Mira recalls her own experiences of the 2009 competition, where she finished in 16th place with 53 points.
She tells me: “The contest itself is a very escapist bubble. It’s nothing to do with anything I’ve ever experienced before! Leading up to the competition, there was a lot of controversy about us, with people calling our duet a cynical PR stunt, because it came just after the first Gaza war. People thought this was a way of ‘beautifying’ the face of Israel. So I was attacked from all sides.
“But when we landed in Moscow, I immediately understood this had nothing to do with politics and I had landed on the moon! Whatever rules I had known about the music business or about media were out of the window. It’s really a place of its own.”
In hindsight, Mira says she remains proud of her performance and thought at the time it would “do some good”, but feels disappointed at today’s situation.
“We are seven years on and I don’t know whether it did anything other than open a little window – the discourse here has become more and more extreme,” adds Mira, who currently has a third album in the pipeline. “We are deteriorating with anything to do with integrating Arabs and there’s a lot of incitement everywhere, on both sides.
“We have not advanced as much as I would like us to. On the contrary I feel we have gone backwards. It’s very frustrating and very sad.”
In the years since Moscow, Mira has continued in her efforts to try and bring Arabs and Israelis closer together, including becoming a board member of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit dedicated to promoting co-existence.
She will appear as a guest of the organisation and West London Synagogue when she performs her mix of Arabic and English music at on 12 March, followed by a talk about her role in Arab Labour at JW3 on 13 March.
Just as with her music, Mira was again on pioneering turf when she starred in the 2007 series, the first primetime Israeli television show that featured Arabic and depicted Palestinian characters, “who were neither cleaners or terrorists – just ordinary people”.
Written by Sayed Kashua, Arab Labour ran until 2012 and featured Mira as Amal, an Arab-Israeli human rights lawyer who falls in love with a Jewish man. As with her previous experiences of Eurovision, Mira found herself again walking a tightrope of criticism from all sides, because of her character.
Mira tells me: “For Israelis, she was a very outspoken woman who defends illegal Palestinian workers, something Israelis didn’t like talking about, while for Arab viewers they had a problem with her because she is a very free woman, a feminist, who goes out with a Jewish man. Those criticisms seemed to die down as the series went on and people fell in love with the show. It was really a first after many years of nothing of the sort.
“We didn’t change the world, but I like to think we did open doors.”
Mira Awad performs on Saturday, 12 March, 8pm at West London Synagogue, Seymour Place, London.
Details: www.ticketsource.co.uk/eretz or 020 7535 0285.
Mira will also discuss her role in Arab Labour on Sunday, 13 March, 8pm at JW3, Finchley Road, London. Details: www.jw3.org.uk or 020 7433 8988.