From Umm Kulthum to Woody Guthrie: Thoughts on cultural sovereignty

For an Israeli who has only known occupied, subdued and desperate Middle Eastern cities, there is something exciting about rediscovering the cultural world of a confident, proud Levant, cognizant of its traditions and histories.

By Amos Noy (translated by Matan Kaminer)

From Umm Kulthum to Woody Guthrie: Thoughts on cultural sovereignty
Istanbul, Turkey. (photo: John Virgolino/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To ‘Amar, with fond remembrance.

Between the demand for “authenticity,” which, while conscious of itself, is impossible (and has something petty and repressive about it), and the option of assimilation, or “self-effacing imitation” – one form of cultural oppression (which is, of course, a form of political oppression) – there is also third option: cultural sovereignty.

I imagine that many visitors to cities such as Istanbul and Cairo have experienced, like me, the wonder that grows into a sort of joy at encountering a confident, proud city of the Levant, cognizant of its traditions and working within them. For an Israeli (that is, for me) who has only known occupied, subdued, desperate Middle Eastern cities and impoverished ghost towns sadly longing to be transported to the American Midwest, there is something about this experience – about the naturalness, the self-respect, the self-evidence of a language, music and poetry which have been denigrated by the dominant culture under which we have grown up – something exciting about the rediscovery of a cultural world, as well as of a hidden personal level, obscured, denied, deep within. A sensation of sovereignty.

Umm Kulthum performs “Enta El-Hobb”:

Or: sitting in an Algerian (Kabyle) bar in Paris, in a diverse, cosmopolitan space which is not the product of a flattening globalization, but that of a multicolored counterculture of “others.” There is solidarity between immigrants, where the soundtrack features Idir, Billie Holiday, Salif Keita, Janis Joplin, Anouar Brahem, Ilham Al-Madfai, Misia, Paco Ibañez doing Brassens and Rachid Taha covering The Clash, until it ends in tears when Umm Kulthum’s “Enta El-Hobb” (“You are the Love”) comes on. Not because we are at a conference on multiculturalism at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque or watching some gluttonous “Taverna” TV show [1], and not as part of a world-embracing declaration or a polemical demonstration or a damning statement, but just so – for no reason. Because that’s what the owner ‘Amar likes to hear. ‘Amar doesn’t ask anybody what to like and what (and why) to play, and sometimes he happens to get what his clients – free of complicated theories – like, or at least are curious to hear. They unknowingly help him create a bubble of cultural sovereignty.

Rachid Taha’s cover of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”:

Generally, many more subscribers of the Cairo Philharmonic listen to Mozart besides Ismahan and Leila Mourad, without knowing or caring that some boorish and uncultured European bourgeois or Tommy Lapid [2] type (and perhaps some finicky authenticity-loving purists from the “other” direction) demand that they choose between them. Because they are acting out of “cultural sovereignty” just as ‘Amir Benayoun does Tchaikovsky, without agonizing too much over West and East. Without “Tulkarem has conquered us[3] or “you’re becoming Ashkenazi, bro.” Because if music is war, then I surrender in advance to all the belligerent parties. Woodie Guthrie’s wrote “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar, and Bob Marley sang: “one good thing about music – when it hits you feel no pain.” Because sovereignty is good.

Amir Benayoun covers Tchaikovsky’s Op. 50:

Laila Mourad’s “Laih Khalettny Ahebek”:


[1]  A genre of television shows featuring Mizrahi (and especially Greek) music, with a live audience in a “tavern” setting.

[2]A journalist politician notorious for his racist views on Mizrahi and Haredi Jews.

[3] A reference to an infamous comment made by Lapid upon hearing Mizrahi singer ‘Amir Benayoun’s music in the wake of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Amos Noy is a former journalist, editor and a senior researcher on hi-tech issues. He teaches at both Achva College and the Schechter Institute, and lives in Jerusalem. This article first appeared in Hebrew on the Café Gibraltar blog.