The dulcet voices of the women in Jaffa’s Rana Choir give the impression of perfect harmony.
The 10 Arab and 10 Jewish singers do have a strong bond, yet their views are hardly monolithic.
“It’s not easy; we don’t all agree about everything all the time,” says Lubna Rifi, 40, an Arab Muslim resident of Jaffa who joined the group last year.
“It’s challenging to hear other opinions and try to understand the other person’s point of view. But at least you are seeing the picture from their side and they are seeing it from your side,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “In this amazing choir we are doing something to change our difficult reality.”
Rana (“singing” in both Hebrew and Arabic) was founded as Shirana in 2008 at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. In early 2016, founder-conductor Mika Danny and artistic director Idan Toledano took the group under the umbrella of the Inspiration Global School for Art, Leadership and Social Change and shortened the name.
“I was always involved in political activities and demonstrations, and then I moved to Jaffa 13 years ago and there I felt I had a real chance to do something meaningful using my profession of music,” says Danny, 60, a voice teacher and composer.
She felt that a choir could provide a pivotal point for interaction between Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents of Jaffa, officially part of the Tel Aviv municipality.
“The power of music is immense,” Danny tells ISRAEL21c. “Making music together, especially singing, immediately creates intimacy and non-verbal communication. You have to listen carefully to those standing to your left and right to synchronize with them. You develop a team spirit as you perform together and want to succeed.”
Participants range in age from 35 to 70-something, including mother-daughter and sister pairs.
“We went through a polite stage and then reached a stage where we’re like one big family,” Danny says. “That means we can speak openly even though we don’t all share the same political opinions. The only thing you can aim for is to be able to live together and respect one another.”
She was not sure the fledgling group would survive the summer Gaza war of 2008. “I realized we couldn’t go on without discussing politics,” she says. “Instead of turning into a big fight about who’s to blame, it became a conversation about how we share the same pain, sorrow and anger about the waste of life.”
The deadly terrorist stabbing in Jaffa on March 8, 2016, happened shortly before the choir’s weekly rehearsal. Because they had a performance the next day, the singers all showed up.
“Everyone was in a horrible mood but once you start singing you immediately feel better,” Danny says. “Some of the women were crying while singing but we sang it out, you could say.”
Members have formed cross-cultural friendships and the group spends one or two fun weekends together every year.
“I feel good about knowing Arab women and being friends with them and understanding their situation better,” says Jewish Jaffa resident Irit Aharoni. “If I need anything, I have a warm support group that cares about me and I can always reach out to them.”
For Aharoni, the music is the glue that holds them together. “I joined Shirana about six months after it started because it let me catch two birds: singing and being politically active for coexistence. I really like the material we sing and I like the fact that we sing mostly in both languages, Arabic and Hebrew,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
Working with Arab singer Lubna Salame, Danny chooses apolitical folk and ethnic songs suitable to the women’s sensibilities and voices.
She has mashed up several Hebrew and Arabic songs with a similar motif. “For example, there’s a Hebrew lullaby ‘Numi Numi’ and I found an Arabic lullaby called ‘Nami Nami.’ The words are very much alike and they harmonize well together.” The resulting song is called “Nami Numi.”
The choir also presents songs in Ladino, Greek, Persian, Yemenite and Yiddish.
“The messages behind the songs are very powerful,” says Rifi. “Sometimes we see people with tears in their eyes when we sing. I think this is the way to touch people and maybe change their way of thinking a little bit.”
Aharoni says that some of her children tell her she is naïve to think the choir can make any difference. “I truly believe it can,” says the 54-year-old psychologist. “I lost my father in the Yom Kippur War when I was 11 years old … and I think this is one reason it’s so important to me.”
The more traditional Arab Muslim women face a different problem: Their husbands don’t like them leaving home and children once a week and performing in public.
And for all the members of Rana, an increasingly packed performance schedule presents a challenge in their busy lives.
Rifi struggles to fit in rehearsals and shows with raising three children and working full time for the US Agency for International Development (AID).
“It’s very busy but it’s very important for me,” she says. “It is becoming an objective in life for me to show Arabs and Jews can be united through the arts. I don’t think anything else can unite us as much as singing does.”
Time isn’t the only commodity in short supply, says Danny. “The only money we’ve had until now is from performances. We rely on volunteers and we dream of the day we can hire a professional administrator. We are trying to create an international friends organization to support the choir.”
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