Shalom, Dubai! With UAE deal, Israeli pop stars tune sound for Arabic audiences

Abraham Accords seen as opportunity to reach new fans for singers Omer Adam, Ivri Lider and other performers

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israeli singer Omer Adam performs live at the annual Kleizmer Festival in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on August 14, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli singer Omer Adam performs live at the annual Kleizmer Festival in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on August 14, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

When Israel signed the Abraham Accords peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates in September, Israeli entertainers began brushing up on their Arabic.

Shalom aleichem? Now it’s salaam alaikum.

The UAE and its busiest city, Dubai, a haven for luxury shopping, with jaw-dropping skyscrapers and a hopping nightlife scene, present new possibilities for stage opportunities, now just a four-hour plane ride from Israel on Flydubai.

Omer Adam, one of the most popular recording artists in Israel (and a dual US-Israel citizen) was one of the first to reach Dubai, where he’s been hanging out since mid-October.

Adam’s first Instagram post from Dubai, on October 13, showed him dressed in a white dishdasha and ghutra headscarf, ensconced in a lavish desert tent with a falcon, the national emblem of the UAE, by his side.

In the month since he arrived, Adam, who sings pop music with Mizrahi overtones and the occasional Arabic slang, has posted photos of himself in a red-and-white keffiyeh overlooking the rolling dunes of the desert; holding a can of Coca-Cola, part of his sponsorship; and with Israeli songwriters Doli & Penn, who joined him in Dubai to record the video for their new single, “On What Girls Think about at Night.”

עומר אדם דולי ופן – על מה בנות חושבות בלילה | Omer Adam Doli & Penn

סבאח אל חיר מדובאי שמח לשתף אתכם בשיר החדש שלי עם דולי ופןואני רוצה שתשתפו אותי קצת מה אתם חושבים על מה בנות חושבות בלילה ? תתחילו לכתוב משפטים + תיוגים ( ומתחנן תהיו מנומסים עדינים ????) אוהב אתכם מקווה שתהנו ומתגעגע אליכם מקסימום ❤️

Posted by ‎עומר אדם – Omer Adam‎ on Monday, November 16, 2020

Adam sang at Dubai’s synagogue on the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah and was feted by one of the country’s high-profile sheikhs for his October birthday.

It’s possible that Adam went to Dubai to look into financial investments, not just singing opportunities, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Israel surmised. Whatever he’s actually doing there, he clearly wanted to be one of the first.

Israelis tend to be impatient, said songwriter Doron Medalie, the lyricist who wrote Netta Barzilai’s “Toy” for her winning turn in the 2018 Eurovision. Israeli performers are also always on the lookout for opportunities outside of their minuscule home market of under nine million, and Dubai offers new audiences.

But, said Medalie in an interview with Zman, they should not rush in to Dubai; they should chill out, take a deep breath and try to gain an understanding of what Israel’s role in Dubai can be.

“There are thousands of singers in Israel, but not in Dubai,” Medalie told Zman Israel. “You have to go and find their local culture, and they’re not on YouTube or Spotify.”

That said, Medalie also jumped on the Dubai bandwagon early in the game, writing “Ahlan Bik,” or “Hello You,” a duet for Israeli singer Elkana Marziano and the Emirates’ Waleed Aljasim.

The main refrain? “You hear my friend, far away, far away. You hear my prayer.”

Marziano, 28, was a winner of Israel’s TV singing competition “The Voice” and collaborated with Aljasim over Zoom, with parts of the song recorded in Dubai and others in Israel. Peace treaties aside, this is still the era of the pandemic, and Zoom is king.

The video for “Ahlan Bik” links Dubai and Tel Aviv, with lyrics that switch from Arabic to Hebrew to English.

Singers who come from Arabic-speaking homes, like Marziano, mega Israeli stars Sarit Haddad and Eyal Golan, or Nasreen Qadri, an Arab pop singer who converted to Judaism and sings mostly in Hebrew, may have an easier time getting their songs heard in the UAE and other Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel — but they’ll have to sing in Arabic.

Those who don’t speak Arabic are finding fellow entertainers who do.

That’s what pop singer Ivri Lider did with his single “Middle East,” composed during the first stage of the coronavirus.

Once Israel and the UAE established ties in September, Lider chose Gaydaa, a 24-year-old Druze singer from the Golan Heights who won second place on the reality TV show “Eyal Golan is Calling You,” to sing his single in Arabic.

The video, with the words now sung by Gaydaa in Arabic, shows the hilltops of the Golan Heights as she drives a gold BMW convertible out of her village, perhaps hoping to make it all the way to Dubai.

Gaydaa, from an Israeli village on the border with Syria where residents can choose a Syrian or an Israeli passport, recently signed a contract with NMC United and a local Israeli PR firm.

“Wow, it’s so exciting that radio stations in Arab countries are starting to play my song,” wrote Gaydaa on Facebook. “This song, now in Arabic, has new meaning given the peace accords between Israel and other Arab nations.”

וואוו כמה מרגש , תחנות הרדיו במדינות ערב התחילו להשמיע אותי .Ronit Arbel

Posted by Gaydaa on Saturday, November 7, 2020

It’s not just Israeli pop stars who are pinning their hopes on expanded opportunities in Dubai; it’s the classical musicians as well.

Tom Cohen, a conductor known to Israelis for the theme to the TV show “Zaguri Imperia” and the conductor of several orchestras of Andalusian music, including one in Morocco, is already working on a piece of music that will be played by musicians in Dubai and sung by a traditional Emirati choir with a solo by an American singer based in the Gulf, with a video clip made in the Judean Desert.

Any chance to work in Arabic culture is a “golden opportunity” to me,” said Cohen, and he appreciates the more relaxed attitude he senses from the Emiratis he’s come into contact with so far.

“There’s something in us as Israelis that we push more than they do,” said Cohen. “I was happy to get the feeling from them that we don’t have to hurry, no rush to do everything right now. There’s peace. It takes time to build things, and we have time to figure this out.”

There is an opportunity to share knowledge, perform for one another and work together, said Efi Benaya, who directs the popular Oud Festival at Jerusalem’s Confederation House.

Benaya is ready to make contact with musicians and bring his festival to Dubai, but said he will wait until the countries have declared their cultural intentions through official channels.

“It will be easier once we have a full agreement,” said Benaya. “I don’t know the music of their country, and I want to get there and hear musicians, with real contacts who can show me around.”

His grand scheme is to expose the Oud Festival to Dubai, and to hear their musicians.

Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby in Israel (Yissachar Ruas)

When Israel signed the peace accords with Dubai, American-Israeli comedian Avi Liberman, who’s spent the last three months in Israel, immediately booked a flight.

There’s a stand-up scene in Dubai catering mostly to expatriates who want to laugh in their own language, said Liberman. He’ll be performing at the Laughter Factory on December 3.

“I’m going as an Israeli, proudly so,” said Liberman. “Usually I bury my Israeli passport in the bottom of my bag; now it’s the opposite.”

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