Palestinian-Israeli Mira Awad's duet with Jewish-Israeli Noa at the 2009 Eurovision triggered a fireball of criticism and controversy that might have sent a more timorous soul running into the Red Sea.
Ironically, when Mira appeared at NDK in Sofia on September 20 – in what could be called her second country because her mother is Bulgarian – she received a warmer welcome than she could have expected from some Israelis. Mira's performance at NDK – her first – was a homecoming of a sort because as a child she frequently visited Sofia with her mother.
"It was a big thing for me to perform in NDK because I was always fascinated by that building and the fountains," she told The Sofia Echo the day before her concert.
Mira Awad is an Israeli citizen, yet is an outsider. When atrocities are committed by Palestinians, she is viewed as a "fifth columnist". To some on the Israeli Right she should have been barred from Eurovision because she allegedly "disrespects" the country's Jewish symbols, a charge she vehemently denies. In the run-up to her appearance, racist barbs on the internet from hate-filled extremists followed her.
Yet criticism also came from the other side. Mira's decision to represent Israel was viewed by some Palestinian and Israeli leftists as a useful propaganda tool, a "fig leaf" for the government. In their view she should not have represented Israel at all when the government was busy "killing innocents" in Gaza.
Unfortunately, if Mira seeks popularity in the Arab world she is unlikely to find it there either, at least not officially. To most of their countries she is a pariah figure, banned purely because she is an Israeli.
As if this melting pot is not already full to brimming over, you can throw in the Bulgarian ancestry for good measure just to make it even more complicated. That said, both her parents are full Israeli citizens and live there permanently.
If all this sounds like a recipe for some confusion about identity, Palestinian-Israelis like Mira (she prefers that designation to Arab-Israeli) would welcome a period of reflection. The situation in Israel is, as she points out, far more complex than most people recognise. The subtleties, the shades of grey, are often lost on observers.
Outsiders are quick to take sides and run to the Star of David or the keffiyeh without bothering to understand the background. Adherence to Israel or Palestine – the two are seen as mutually exclusive – is often a litmus test of wider political allegiances. In that sense the conflict has become a political football.
Yes, Mira Awad is indeed an outsider and her outsider status does rankle. Part of her – one senses – would like to concentrate on her career as a successful singer and actress, but she is forever drawn into politics. None of this means she wants sympathy. She comes across as charismatic and contented. She's an attractive, vibrant and versatile performer, a polyglot – her Hebrew is better than many Israelis – who enjoys her life in Tel Aviv. (She is also very comfortable in Bulgaria and very fluent in Bulgarian).
Mira's father is a Palestinian from Galilee in northern Israel, a region that would stay within Israel even after the creation of a Palestinian state. He studied medicine in Sofia where she met Mira's Bulgarian mother. They had a son who was born in Sofia and has now lived there for 23 years. Then they returned to the village in Galilee where Mira was born. (They decided to give their son an Arab first name and their daughter a Bulgarian one).
"He (Mira's father) had a mission to be a doctor to the Arab population which was very much discriminated against at the time," says Mira.
A Jewish soul?
Mira has full Israeli citizenship but she, like the other Palestinian-Israelis who represent a fifth of the population, are on the periphery of national life. Arab-Israeli citizens, "technically" – and Mira articulates the word with special emphasis – have full rights and liberties and equality guaranteed by the state. The reality, however, is different. They are a minority that is often brushed aside as subversive. Their concerns are de-legitimised and their way of life viewed with suspicion by the (majority) Jewish Israelis.
On this subject it's worth quoting Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy, admittedly a left-wing polemicist, whom I interviewed in Tel Aviv in February 2011. "The Arab Israelis should be equal to the Jews but they are not. Not one single Arab city has been created in Israel since 1948. Do you know how many new Jewish cities and villages have been established since 1948? In the national electricity company, which has 15 000 workers, only 10 employees are Arabs; you must understand there is very great discrimination," Levy told me.
Mira's outsider status is so cemented that when she sees the Israeli flag – technically (there's that word again) her flag – it triggers mixed emotions.
"It's the flag of the Jewish state. It has the Star of David on it. It's a symbol I deeply respect as a symbol of Judaism but as a symbol of the Jewish religion it does not include me," she says. "It's the same thing with the national anthem – I have full respect for it, the feeling that the Jewish people have finally established a 'home' after 2000 years of exile. I understand why it's so important but, again, it doesn't include me. As the song goes, 'there's a Jewish soul beating inside my heart' – I have a soul beating inside my heart but it's not Jewish."
We discuss the dilemma and insecurities of Jews worldwide. At first, they feel pride in Israel's success story. Next is a period of disillusionment when they visit and discover that the reality does not quite match the dream. The third stage is defensiveness when outsiders – like Iran's president Ahmadinejad – threaten its existence. In a way, it almost triggers a regression to stage one.
Mira understands the quandary. "It's a problem when you go from one extreme to another," she says. "That's why the cleverest way is the complex way; it's not totally black and white, it's totally grey. It's very naive to think of it as black and white. It's very complicated to convey the whole picture. Not in one report, or two or even a thousand can you convey the whole situation. You cannot see it as either good or bad. You lose the case once you describe Israel as 'evil'".
She is categorically against a boycott of Israel, a crusade popular with European leftists.
Life in the bubble
Mira lives in Tel Aviv, Israel's very Jewish and very liberal second city. Walk around and you could be in any affluent Mediterranean metropolis.
"Tel Aviv is a bubble; it does not represent Israel," says Mira. "It's much more tolerant. For example, the gay community finds Tel Aviv the best place. You don't get judged or criticised as much as you would in Jerusalem." That, she says, makes her feel at home.
Mira says that most people she meets are friendly. Or – perhaps more accurately – the people she surrounds herself with are like-minded and therefore tolerant people, open to the "other" viewpoint. Yet, to judge by the way the Israeli electorate is moving – seemingly on an endless trajectory to the Right – the liberal intelligentsia in Tel Aviv is a minority.
Israelis, says Mira, are mostly reactionary because they are indoctrinated to live in perpetual fear and paranoia. "It makes sense to keep the masses scared of war and promise them you will keep them secure," she says.
I point out that the likes of Iran's Ahmadinejad do not help. Mira believes that "dinner jacket" (as UK columnist Richard Littlejohn calls him) – whom she points out is not an Arab – is not helping the Palestinians' cause one iota. She believes that he has little support among Palestinian-Israelis within Israel proper, although she concedes there are divisions.
Before Eurovision, Mira felt besieged from all sides. It was a two-pronged attack from Left and Right, inside and outside Israel. Her singing partner Noa, was a legitimate choice for the Right (even though they dislike her) because she was Jewish. Although her views (in Israeli terms) are not politically correct – she too is a vocal opponent of the Israeli government – Israelis were perhaps more willing to accept criticism from her. Coming from a Palestinian-Israeli like Mira, it was harder to bear.
Loser in all camps?
"I was opposed by extreme Left and extreme Right," recalls Mira. "Knesset (parliament) member Eli Yishai could not live with the idea of an Arab representing Israel. He even approached the committee of Eurovision in Israel to try to cancel my participation. He called me someone who does not respect the Israeli state's symbols. Because I say they don't include me he interprets that as meaning I disrespect the symbols of my state. He's wrong because I do respect them. It's just that they don't include me. The extreme Left claimed – maybe they had a point – that during the Gaza war when my own people were being bombed I should not represent the state that was doing it. Not just Palestinians but also left-wing Jews made the point that I should not represent Israel. I thought about it. I also have doubts because as a peacemaker you can lose all hope. It was such a horrible time."
Nevertheless, Mira believes that her appearance at Eurovision was important. Israel was represented by a non-Jewish person for the first time. It was also the first time in Eurovision that Arabic lyrics were included in the Israeli entry.
Mira agrees that Jews should have a right to their own state but she also believes that the issue of right of return of Palestinian refugees should be on the negotiating table.
"They should have the right of return. I don't know how practical it is but it has to be one of the subjects for negotiations. I know that the Jewish population is afraid of a Palestinian majority. I know all the problems, but the only solution is to sit down and negotiate."
Mira blames both sides for the breakdown in negotiations but says she understands the recent Palestinian bid to seek recognition at the UN.
"I respect their desire to be recognised as a state with pre-1967 borders and some exchange of territories. Of course, the settlements have to be included in negotiations and all the emotional stuff, the return of refugees and the rights of Arabs inside Israel."
She says she is "open to persuasion" on the crucial issue of whether Israel would remain a Jewish state but she says it's "a very complicated debate".
Despite their success at Eurovision, no Israeli cabinet minister ever invited either Mira or Noa round for tea. Perhaps Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reason to avoid such an encounter. Mira's opinion of him is, she says, unprintable. And to judge by Noa's recent posting on her site, she would not be very warm towards him either.
"If he (Netanyahu) wants to make history, he should find a way to get to the negotiating table and compromise and find a way," says Mira. "But if he stays the way he is right now there's no future."
She describes (Israeli foreign minister) Avigdor Lieberman as a "horrible extremist" and she thinks that Netanyahu is "scared ****" of Lieberman.
"I don't think people realise how dangerous he (Lieberman) is to the Israeli state. He is dangerous to his own people. He is ruining so many bridges that have taken so long to build, for example the bridge with Turkey."
She has, however, met Israeli president Shimon Peres about whom she has "reservations and contradictory feelings". However, she admits he's amazing for a man of 88 – "a medical phenomenon".
Mira thinks that most of the Israeli population are sick of the situation. The recent demonstrations in Israel about the cost of living are a case in point. The obsession with the security issue, according to Mira, has led to reduced salaries and less spending on education. Israel is becoming a very expensive place just for essentials.
"Much of the population just want to live a normal life without worrying about war and oppression. With all the joy and pain it's still my home. I really care for the destiny of that small place. Otherwise I would have packed and gone."
Unfortunately, most Arab countries do not welcome Mira although the internet means she can forge connections in places she cannot go to. For example, she learned that a guy in Qatar downloaded one of her songs from the radio and it has since become popular.
She admits it's her "dream" to perform in certain Arab countries but that it's still unlikely.
"They don't understand us (the Palestinian-Israelis). They don't know the story. I can go into Egypt and Jordan but I'm never invited. Being Israeli is not very commercial," she says.
In Israel she was better known as the star of a television comedy show called Arab labour. It depicts the lives of Palestinian Israelis but manages – as perhaps the best shows so – to illuminate a sensitive and controversial subject with humour.
"Arab labour is actually a racist phrase. When Jews allude to Arab labour they mean a very bad job done by Arabs, but the writer took the phrase and played around with it ," says Mira.
The show has proved popular with all Israelis. Beneath the comedy, however, lies a stark truth. She says that many Israeli Jews remain prejudiced towards Israeli Arabs within Israel itself.
"Jewish Israelis do not know the Arabs living next to them as much as they should because of ignorance and stereotypes and insufficient connections. Arabs generally speak Hebrew, so we get to know the culture, the Jewish holidays and way of life. We get exposed to the Jewish heritage and tradition but Jews don't get exposed to the Arab way of life. We are a fifth of the country, not a small minority, but a sizeable one. Yet Israeli Jews do not know how an Arab living side by side with them think. Instead they may take their images from Egyptian movies but they're not in touch with real life. The author (of Arab labour) plays on that and creates many funny situations. You can look on it as a disaster or as funny material, and we choose to look at it as funny material."
She acknowledges that Israel has some advantages compared to Arab states.
"I do not ignore or deny the advantages of Israel being a modern and open state but sometimes, even though I'm very Israeli and very inside the Israeli mainstream, I just want to run away and be somewhere where they would understand me and understand where I come from. It's so sad that in my own country I feel this way. I'm sick of being treated as the inner enemy, lurking in the dark to stab you in the back once you don't notice. You get sick of that, really sick of it. Sometime you really want to run away and go somewhere else."
Ironically, as I point out, the status of Arab Israelis in Israel, as a kind of renegade "fifth column", exactly mirrors the fate of Jews in many other countries throughout history.
Mira agrees but says her plight is no better for that. "When that crazy guy went into that family's house and killed the parents and children (in the West Bank in March 2011) then all you hear is 'your people are doing this to our people'".
Noa's and Mira's song "There has to be a better way" was written by Noa and Mira and Gil Dor, Mira's musical director, who also appeared with them at NDK. The song eventually finished in 16th place with 53 points. Mira says that she and Noa fulfilled their ambition to seek exposure for the song and the message.
Mira and Noa, who have now been collaborating for 11 years, both have independent careers but also sing duets.
"I don't think we would have gone to Eurovision if we didn't have that message. It's all about the show, less about the music and less about the originality of the music. It's a kind of a variety show with music," she says.
Mira is currently working on her second solo album. She and Noa pursue independent careers but their collaborations will continue and they are very close off-stage.
"We would not have lasted so long if we had not been friends. I've collaborated with so many musicians but the unique thing about this collaboration is that we really resonate with each other. We are both passionate about music, which is important because I have worked with people in the past who are not really that passionate about their work. Noa is like a different version of me. We share the same sense of humour."
Mira trained as an actress but now she's known as more of a singer. She attended music school but did not study acting. Her influences were Pink Floyd and Abba. But, in a nod to her Bulgarian "half", she says she also likes chalga.
When in Tel Aviv, Mira likes to go to some Bulgarian bars. Jaffa, the northern (traditionally Arab) suburb of Tel Aviv, has bars with names like Vitosha and Sofia. Sometimes she speaks to her mother in Bulgarian but mostly in Arabic.
Mira and Noa's NDK concert was a reflection of their melting pot ancestry – Noa is a Jewish girl of Yemeni descent – and she even sang an old Yemeni song her parents had taught her. Mira also sang some traditional Arabic and Bulgarian songs. Noa capped the concert with a powerful and moving rendition of Ave Maria. The message of the concert, attended by Israeli ambassador Noah Gal-Gendler, was one of harmony and peace, leaving everyone feeling more optimistic about the future of the Middle East.
On the news that evening Palestinians were rioting in the occupied West Bank. That, sadly, is the real world that Mira will never be able to escape from.