Israel city's bid to honor Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum stirs anger

Israel city's bid to honor Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum stirs anger
Umm Kulthum, who died aged 76 in 1975, performed in Haifa in the 1930s. She was hugely popular in the Middle East and worldwide — among her fans were Bob Dylan and Beyonce — and not least in Israel itself.
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Updated 29 July 2020

Israel city's bid to honor Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum stirs anger

Israel city's bid to honor Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum stirs anger
  • Right-wingers in Israel say plan to name street in Haifa after the late Egyptian diva is ‘shameful and crazy’

HAIFA: She was one of the Arab world's most revered singers, praised by Bob Dylan and sampled by Beyonce: the late Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum seems worthy of having a street named in her honour.
But when that street is in Israel, a country she condemned while championing the Palestinian cause, a decision to honour the vocalist branded "the Star of the East," has triggered controversy.
Haifa -- Israel's third largest city, where roughly 10 percent of its 300,000 residents are Arab -- decided earlier this month to honour the woman whose deep, resonant voice was also adored by many Jews.
The decision highlights the diversity of the city, "which represents a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews," Haifa town council head Einat Kalisch-Rotem said.
Umm Kulthum, who died aged 76 in 1975, performed in Haifa in the 1930s when the city was in British-mandated Palestine before Israel's creation in 1948.
Haifa councillor Raja Zaatreh said honouring Umm Kulthum is an appropriate way of recognising the "presence and roots" of Israel's Arab community, which regularly faces discrimination.
After the Umm Kulthum honour was announced, Haifa newspaper Kol Po published a front page black-and-white picture of the singer with some of her lyrics scrawled across the image.
"Now I have a gun, take me in, Palestine, with you," were the printed lines from one of her songs dedicated to the Palestinians.
During the 1967 Six Day War, the artist sometimes dubbed Egypt's "Fourth Pyramid", also performed a song that willed her nation to victory against Israel.
Writing in Kol Po, a lawmaker from the right-wing Likud party, Ariel Kallner, said he was "saddened" by Haifa's decision to honour a woman "who called for the destruction of the Jewish state".
He vowed to find ways to block the street-naming.
And Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu son Yair, a vocal and often bombastic social media commentator, tweeted that the honour was "shameful and crazy".
Despite Netanyahu's outrage, his father's government supported a festival in 2013 that included a night devoted to Umm Kulthum's work.
And Haifa is not the first Israeli city to honour "the Lady of Cairo".
In 2011, the mainly Arab Beit Hanina neighbourhood in east Jerusalem named a street after her and a similar move is planned in the central city of Ramla.
But as the trend has spread, Jewish outrage appears to have grown.
Writing in the Israel Hayom newspaper, commentator Eldad Beck sounded an alarm about the string of Umm Kulthum honours.
"It started with Jerusalem, then Ramla and has ended up in Haifa," Beck wrote, blasting the push "to commemorate one of the biggest and most influential enemies of Israel, who wanted to annihilate the state".
Reducing the controversy surrounding Umm Kulthum to tensions between Arabs and Jews underestimates her wide array of devotees, said Jonathan Mandel, an Arabic language and culture researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
He stressed that Mizrahi Jews, meaning those from North Africa and the Middle East, are equally attached to her music.
Israeli musician Ariel Cohen said that some Jews with Arab roots "grew up with Umm Kulthum," and noted that one of her most famous songs, "Enta Omri" -- the tune sampled by Beyonce -- was translated into Hebrew.
"Umm Kulthum is not an enemy," Cohen said.
Even if she sang patriotic songs during conflict between Egypt and Israel before the neighbours signed a 1979 peace deal, "it is natural for singers to sing patriotic songs in times of war," Cohen added.
Cohen told AFP that the former chief Sephardic rabbi, Iraqi-born Ovadia Yosef, used to play Umm Kulthum's music during parties and would sing along to her Arabic lyrics.


Swedish-Iranian scientist may face imminent execution, say rights groups

Updated 02 December 2020

Swedish-Iranian scientist may face imminent execution, say rights groups

Swedish-Iranian scientist may face imminent execution, say rights groups
  • Djalali was arrested in Iran in 2016 and later convicted of espionage
  • Iran's Supreme Court in 2017 upheld the death sentence

DUBAI: Swedish-Iranian scientist Ahmadreza Djalali, sentenced to death in Iran on espionage charges, may face imminent execution, rights groups said on Tuesday.
"On 1 December, a judge said Ahmadreza was to be transferred to Rajai Shahr prison TODAY to proceed with his imminent execution," Amnesty International said on Twitter.
"His lawyer was informed that Ahmadreza would be transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison ... today (Tuesday, Dec. 1)," Iran Human Rights said in a statement, quoting his wife Vida Mehrannia.
There was no official Iranian reaction to the reports.
Sweden's foreign minister said last week she had spoken to her Iranian counterpart after reports Iran may soon carry out Djalali's death sentence.
Djalali, a medical doctor and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute in the Swedish capital Stockholm, was arrested in Iran in 2016 and later convicted of espionage, having been accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists. Iran's Supreme Court in 2017 upheld the death sentence.
Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting a number of dual nationals to try to win concessions from other countries. Tehran has regularly dismissed the accusation. (Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)