Tearing down Israeli-Palestinian barriers, one headbanger at a time

A heavy metal, Middle Eastern band of brothers

Israeli metal group Orphaned Land and Arabic rock orchestra Khalas join forces for a European tour

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Band members from both Orphaned Land and Khalas at a concert this month promoting their upcoming tour. (Photo credit: Courtesy Kobi Farhi)
Band members from both Orphaned Land and Khalas at a concert this month promoting their upcoming tour. (Photo credit: Courtesy Kobi Farhi)

If headbanging could bring about peace, Kobi Farhi and Abed Hathut would have  solved the Middle Eastern conflict.

Farhi, the lead vocalist for Israeli progressive metal band Orphaned Land, calls Hathut, lead guitarist for the Palestinian rock group Khalas, his brother. The two friends make similar music, but while Orphaned Land has a huge devoted following in Tel Aviv and Khalas is known for packing in the crowds in Ramallah, the bands have never toured together.

That is, until now.

Starting this October, Orphaned Land and Khalas will launch a joint tour across Europe, sharing a stage, a tour bus, and hopefully a bevy of new fans. It’s a co-existence junket of sorts, but both Farhi and Hathut say this joint acid-tinged effort shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Abed and I share the same religion, even though I’m from a Jewish background and he is Muslim, and that’s music,” says Farhi, whose extra-long hair and sinewy, tattooed arms give him away as a rocker the minute you meet him. “We just get along… I literally feel like he’s my brother because even historically he was my brother. We are both descendants of Abraham.”

Khalas calls itself an Arabic rock orchestra and lists among its chief inspirations the rock gods AC/DC, Black Sabbath and System of a Down. Those riffs are meshed with classic Arabic sounds, which produces a blend that is both sensual and metal-studded.

Orphaned Land, whose sound is a bit darker and more smoky, has tens of thousands of fans in Arab countries and Oriental influences woven into nearly all of its songs. The band has, since its 1991 inception, been tearing down Middle Eastern barriers, one headbanger at a time. It opened for Metallica during that band’s 2010 Israeli concert and is undeniably the premiere metal band in Israel, if not the region as a whole.

Abed Hathut, left, rocks out with Khalas. (photo credit: Sulafa Zidani)
Abed Hathut, left, rocks out with Khalas. (photo credit: Sulafa Zidani)

Farhi and Hathut met nearly 10 years ago when Orphaned Land gave a radio interview. Khalas followed them in the studio, and Hathut, himself a fan, introduced himself to Farhi. They have been friends ever since. They have played together before, but this joint tour is their first official collaboration.

Khalas will open the European shows and Orphaned Land will follow, but both musicians promise plenty of shared stage time, as well as an emotional and fitting finale of Orphaned Land’s hit “Norra El Norra,” which Farhi points out was originally an Egyptian song before making its way into Hebrew.

Doing that song together with Khalas will be simply showing the harmony that happens in our music; we will do it onstage,” Farhi says. “I don’t care about nations’ flags or religion. I care that I don’t want my child to fight his child and I don’t want them to kill each other. I want them to play in a band together.

Hathut admits that they both are worried that the politics of their tour, which has been touted in the press as a showing of “metal brotherhood,” will overshadow the art at its core.

“The bottom line is music. It came from music and it will stay from music,” says Hathut. He insists that he isn’t making his music or promoting his message of coexistence in order to change anyone’s mind, but that of course if the mere fact of an Israeli and Palestinian rocking out on stage together can make a change in this fractured region, then he will be delighted.

“We do what we do best, and that’s music. Khalas doesn’t target our music to some specific person and try to change his mind… It’s enough for me if I’m playing a gig or giving an interview, and some Jewish kid asks his father ‘Hey, that’s an Arab and he’s holding a guitar and not a gun.’ That’s enough for me. I made my message without talking about politics.”

Hathut grew up in Acre, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in the Galilee, and he says that as child he played with both Arabs and Jews without thinking about such distinctions. Farhi, who was raised in similarly diverse Jaffa, did as well.

The reason their friendship works, both say, is because no conversation is off-limits. They discuss everything, from politics to hummus to their love of their childhood homes. And if there’s one thing they can definitely agree on, it’s their distaste for the current state of politics in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“We share the same side, which is the third side,” says Hathut. “It’s the side that says, just stop this bullshit; it doesn’t work for anything.”

Kobi Farhi on stage with Orphaned Land (photo credit: Asher Kravitz)
Kobi Farhi on stage with Orphaned Land (photo credit: Asher Kravitz)

Farhi nods in agreement. “Me and Abed, we simply know that all human beings share assholes and angels,” he says. “We don’t want to be attached to a left or a right wing, whatsoever. If the bird wants to fly, she needs both wings. And we don’t think politicians have an algorithm for what we represent.”

A joint Khalas-Orphaned Land album might come later, the pair says. So might a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. For now, both bands are prepping for their European tour and hoping that their fans will take something deeper than just music from the shows.

“I don’t think that as musicians we’re going to change the world or be the leaders who’ll sort everything out,” says Farhi. “We just want to show a way, through our music and existence. Sharing a stage is worth a thousand words.”

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