April 6, 2008

System Ali are living examples of how Jews and Arabs can get along.At an underground bar in Tel Aviv, a crowd waits in excitement for the headline band to take the stage.

One audience member wears a white hijab, through which her olive-skinned face peeks. Next to her, a tall, slim teenager with pitch-black skin and tightly curled hair grooves to the “warm up” music. Only an arms-length away, a pale-skinned Ashkenazi gazes up at the stage, waiting in anticipation.

These young adults have come from very different places, but they are all here to share a common future. It isn’t just any band they’ve come to enjoy – it’s System Ali, a band of Arabs, native-born Israeli Jews, and olim (new immigrants) from Russia whose hip-hop music is their means of telling the nations of the world how to coexist.

An ambitious goal, they do admit. But they are living examples of how Jews and Arabs can get along.

The band is comprised of 10 members, most of whom are vocalists. Neta Weiner, an Ashkenazi-Jewish kibbutznik; Amne Jarush, an 18-year-old Arab woman; 20-year-old Muhammad Aguani from Jaffa and Enver Septibragimov, a 19-year-old who immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan are four of the lead lyricists. They sing about their hometown, Jaffa, and of the struggles they face as a result of the difficult political situation that engulfs them.

System Ali’s members met through the Jaffa Youth Center, an initiative of Sadaka Reut – an organization that aims to bring together young Jews and Arabs who share a vision of a better future for their respective communities. At the center, youth engage in activities such as creative writing, theater, martial arts and music.

System Ali was officially formed when activist communities were campaigning against a Jaffa housing demolition in May 2007. According to Weiner, the band’s goal was to use its music as a platform for getting their voices heard in the community.

On stage, the vocalists work together like a gang of break-dancers that met up in the street: one jumps into the circle and performs a complex combination of movements. Then another joins him, adding his own steps. Eventually, everyone is dancing at once – with each other and for each other. The System Ali vocalists dance with words – each in his or her own language. Aguani and Jarush speak in Arabic, Weiner in Hebrew and Septibragimov in Russian.

“We shouldn’t all have to speak in Hebrew just because that’s the only language everyone understands – especially if it comes at the cost of expressing ourselves from the heart,” says guitarist Yonatan Kunda. “It’s the opposite – we speak our own languages, and people here listen enough to understand.”

Kunda spoke of how important it is for Jews and Arabs to listen to each other. Not to debate or challenge each other’s perspectives, nor compromise who they are, their nationalities or what they believe in. But simply to express themselves and be heard, he said.

System Ali’s song lyrics may express opinions that some don’t want to hear, violinist Liba Neeman adds, but audiences are forced to listen to these opinions because the young musicians have the guts to express them.

In the song Forget, Aguani declares that the more people try to make him forget who he is, the louder he will shout out.

“I am an Arab from the Semite countries, I’m an Arab from Jaffa. My mother is an Arab from Jaffa. And if you say I belong to the past, I’m the past, I’m the present and I’m the future.”

In another song, Deserted House, Jarush expresses her discontent with the violence in her community and calls out to young Arab women to stay in school and choose their own life paths.

Neeman noted that not all of the band members speak all three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and Russian – and they therefore don’t always understand the meanings of each other’s lyrics. But the goal is to give each member a platform to say what he or she feels and to bring each one’s messages to their audiences.

Another of the band’s goals is to break down barriers between the various ethnic communities in Jaffa and in Israel at large. “Jews and Arabs collide every day on the streets of Jaffa,” says Kunda, but the meetings generally do not extend beyond simple interactions. “Everyone keeps to themselves in their own ‘quarters,” he says.

System Ali, however, tries to bring Jews and Arabs together in a positive and constructive light in order to create something from the bottom up. “[We want to] break [down] these borders in order to construct something new that doesn’t compromise the old,” says Kunda.

Each of the band members has a very different history. Some come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and never learned to play a musical instrument until they began participating in activities at the youth center. Others grew up in more affluent environments and had years of musical experience before they formed the band.

Eran Fink, System Ali’s bass player, grew up in Rosh Ha’ayin and attended the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, where he focused on jazz music. Fink currently studies at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon. He decided to volunteer at the Jaffa Youth Center, teaching drum lessons “to kids who can’t afford lessons for themselves,” he says. “When they told me [that the band was forming] I immediately said ‘I’m in’ and I wanted to play.”

Fink says he always had a desire to help relieve tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel and he sees System Ali as a way to achieve that goal. “It’s the beginning of the end of the problem when we create music together. [When we] try to understand each other and the problems each side has,” he said.

By sharing their music with audiences, Fink says, they encourage people to believe that coexistence is possible. Even if four people see a three-minute clip on the Internet of System Ali playing together, and those four people believe that these conflicting communities can coexist, then maybe everyone can believe it, he says.

Kunda draws very clear boundaries to his conception of coexistence. “This band is not about molding or combining everyone into one thing… It’s about keeping those [cultural] differences and embracing them for their individuality and uniqueness,” he says.

“When I’m with the band, I feel like I’m with my family,” says Aguani, “I respect them and I’m proud of them. I love them very much.”

The group’s next gig is April 8, combined with jazz musician Fred Johnson, at Sub Kutzmilega in Florentine in Tel Aviv. On May 22, the group will perform at the Arab-Jewish theater in Jaffa.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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