Band of brothers

Observations on musical Israel

Shlomo al-Kuwaiti first realised the scale of things on a business trip to London during the early 1990s. Sitting in a hotel lobby with a journalist friend, al-Kuwaiti, from Israel, noticed an important-looking gentleman wearing a galabeya (robe) and surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards and assistants. Informed that this man was a senior minister from Kuwait, the Israeli thought: “My name is ‘the Kuwaiti’; maybe I should say something to him.”

He approached the Arab minister, who asked him directly: “Are you the son of Salah al-Kuwaiti?” When Shlomo said yes, the minister grabbed him in a firm embrace. “I think there were tears in his eyes,” Shlomo recalls.

This exchange between two people from countries at such odds with each other took place because of the legendary Iraqi-Jewish musicians Salah and Daoud al-Kuwaiti. Once heroes of the Gulf, they are now, in those same states, enjoying a posthumous revival.

The brothers were born in the country of their name, moved to Iraq in the late 1920s, and swiftly gained fame for their groundbreaking music. Salah composed thousands of songs that took Arab classical arrangements to a new level, earning the brothers accolades across the Arab world.

Then the brothers migrated to Israel in 1951, like thousands of other Jews whose families had been in Iraq for over 2,000 years. “When the plane left Baghdad and flew high up in sky, my father knew his career would hit the ground,” says Shlomo. Israel was – and arguably still is – dismissive of Arab culture, seen as an oxymoron and definitely not something that should represent the Zionist state.

The brothers ran a kitchen supplies shop in a Tel Aviv suburb. “But they were never traders, they were artists,” Shlomo says. “Now I understand it was very sad for [my father], but he never talked to me about it at the time. He didn’t want us to be hurt by his suffering.”

Salah al-Kuwaiti died in 1986, ten years after his brother Daoud. Shlomo is in part responsible for reviving the family’s musical heritage. A few years ago, he released a compilation of the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ songs in Israel, which was also sold online.

“Suddenly we started to get emails from Iraq, from Kuwait, from Iraqis in Europe,” he says. “They were writing to say my father was the best and that they’ve admired his songs for so long.” Shlomo says with help from fans and musicians, he has recovered roughly 700 of his father’s compositions. Many in the Arab world are learning only now that the songs they have adored were composed by these brothers. Saddam Hussein’s regime erased Jewish performers’ names as part of a campaign to “cancel” names perceived to be anti-national.

When Shlomo was growing up, the Jewish nation “didn’t want to encourage this Arab music tradition. They wanted to change it, to erase it.” Now, he says, young Israelis are more willing to listen, and this year, Shlomo and his nephew Dudu Tassa won a campaign to persuade Tel Aviv Council to erect a street sign in honour of the Kuwaiti brothers. Local people complained about the Arabic names that had sprouted on their street – until they were told the brothers’ history.

The Israeli descendants of the legendary Kuwaitis are just glad that the music is treasured once again. “When I was a child, I was raised by teachers from Europe,” says Shlomo. “They tried to erase our identity. I became ashamed if I was with my parents on the bus and they spoke Arabic.” It is a common story for Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who make up about half of Israel’s Jewish population.

The Kuwaiti brothers’ stellar legacy has brought Shlomo friends in the Arab world. Now he is keen to visit Iraq. “If you really listen to Arab music,” he says, “the first thing that listens is your heart.”

Rachel Shabi is the author of “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” (Yale, £18.99)