At a time of battered bilateral political relations, Turkish and Israeli musicians continue to bridge differences. Although music alone does not have the power to transcend all political problems, it does keep some level of people-to-people contact alive, helping to create better understanding between cultures.
“The sound of music doesn’t have any passport … It does not recognize any border or religion,” explained Yinon Muallem, an Israeli composer and percussionist who is also the cultural attaché at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. “The aim of the music and the art in the greater sense is to unite peoples and cultures, to bring hearts together around a multicultural language,” he added.
As a self-described lover of Turkey, Muallem has taken the stage with various Turkish musicians like Omer Faruk Tekbilek, harpist Sirin Pancaroglu, singer Ferhat Gocer and the Tekfen Philharmonic.
Muallem is not alone in fostering Turkish-Israeli understanding through music, as is attested to by the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land, which made yet another visit to Istanbul this week.
Having a wide spectrum of fans across the Arab world, Orphaned Land was given a peace award in 2010 by Istanbul Commerce University for their contribution to the friendship between Muslims and Jews in Middle East. Many of their songs include prayers from the Koran, Jewish liturgy and other religious texts. The band takes part of their inspiration from Mevlana — the Anatolian philosopher and the father of the Mevlevi sect — as well as from Turkish beliefs and culture.
The band also collaborated with legendary Turkish rocker Erkin Koray for a duet of Koray’s song, “Estarabim,” on their newest album. Orphaned Land sees Koray as a kind of musical mentor.
“This duet was a symbol of friendship. In a world where everyone goes at it hammer and tongs, we emphasized that music has no boundary,” Koray told SES Türkiye.
Orphaned Land has been performing in Turkey since 2001, and did not hesitate to continue this during the most difficult period in the two countries’ relations. Ahead of their concert in Istanbul, lead vocalist Kobi Farhi talked with SES Türkiye about their music.
“I think that music is the best religion in the world — with that said I respect all religions. Music doesn’t force itself on any one and doesn’t claim to hold the absolute truth,” Farhi explained.
Farhi emphasizes that his band is living proof of the fact that music brings people together, even adversaries, and is a cure to hearts and souls. “We are Israeli Jews and we have a huge fan base in Muslim countries, including Arab countries and of course, Turkey,” he adds.
Enis Isler is one of their earliest fans in Turkey. “I didn’t have any kind of prejudices regarding that band when I started to listen to them in the early 2000s, during which time Turkey and Israel were friends and allies,” he told SES Türkiye.
“And as this band founded its philosophy on the basis of mutual understanding and the friendship of religions, it has attracted a lot of Turkish fans regardless of the current political atmosphere,” Isler added.
Rapprochement through music is, however, not limited to this original endeavor of Orphaned Land. In January 2012, world-renowned Turkish conductor Cem Mansur, having close family ties in Israel and the Jewish community in Turkey, conducted three concerts with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra.
Jewish harpist Sarah Shemesh has also performed with Turkish flute virtuoso Ceren Dik.
“My life experience has proven and made me believe that people are not ‘flags,’ neither governments,” Sarah Shemesh told SES Türkiye. Her work with Dik started four years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland, where they were studying for their masters’ degree. They found that they shared a common denominator: the same Mediterranean mentality.
During this time the Mavi Marmara incident plagued Turkish-Israeli relations, but their strong friendship continued despite some people finding “The Jewish with the Muslim” quite odd. After they finished their studies, they formed a flute and harp duo.
“I believe our story is worth telling and I hope knowing us will cause Israeli and Turkish people to change a bit the taboos and their way of thinking, especially in times of crisis,” Shemesh said, adding that a real dialogue can start only by listening.
“I find playing classical chamber music is a good example of ‘listening,'” Shemesh continued. “By playing it, you have to be focused on listening very well to your colleague because the ensemble becomes more important than the content, and the audience can see it quite easily. And finally, you create one piece which is a mixture of the two minds.”
Israeli guitarist Itamar Erez, who performs often with Omer Faruk Tekbilek, also had a concert tour in Turkey in August 2011. Talking to SES Türkiye, Erez described music as a way to put differences aside. “Music is reminding us of our humanity and divinity,” he said.
When performing together it doesn’t really matter if the musician is Israeli or Turkish. “When there is animosity, fear or tension, then the music is slowly taking it away,” he said, adding, “It creates an even greater bond and feeling of oneness and love.”
“Each one of us contributes to making this world either a better place or worse. I choose to be a positive force and I hope that it is expressed through my music,” Erez said.
“By sharing the stage with fellow Turkish/Muslim musicians, especially in this time, we help people realize that peace and harmony is possible and available to us right now,” he added.
Israeli singer Yasmin Levy, who has performed often around Turkey, follows in the footsteps of her colleagues and contributes to the musical bond between the two countries.
“I know from my own experience, that wherever I go, people who come listen to my music somehow open their hearts to our music, our songs, and in the case of my Ladino songs, this beautiful heritage — even when it is not their own, and even when perhaps they never even knew about this tradition,” Levy told SES Türkiye.
“I’m not a politician and neither am I an expert on friendship or issues between countries. But as an artist and a musician, I feel I understand a bit about people; their heart and their soul,” she concludes.