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African Tongues on the Israeli Stage: A Reversed Diaspora
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African Tongues on the Israeli Stage
A Reversed Diaspora

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Figure 1.

(facing page) The lion and the hyena fight, the female monkey tries to stop them. Beyne Getahun, Tehila Yeshayahu-Adghe, and Ayechewe Baye in Hullegeb’s Teret-Teret, directed by Moshe Malka, at the Confederation House, Jerusalem. (Photo by Dina Guna)

Jerusalem, 2005. I am at a performance of Teret-Teret: three young Israeli actors of Ethiopian origin are presenting a highly stylized rendition of Ethiopian folk tales in a mixture of Hebrew and Amharic (a Semitic language of Ethiopia). I am very much taken by the images, the text, the music, and, as a “white” Israeli, the novelty of African Israeli actors. The event unmistakably indicates a new nonmainstream theatrical richness and “otherness” within Israeli culture.1

Furthermore, since 2002, local theatre companies touring with plays in the Moroccan Jewish dialect—Maghrebi2 —have been warmly received. At the same time, a variety of singers and [End Page 48] music projects are making use of tunes and languages from the African Jewish diaspora. When asked about this new trend, the singer Kobi Oz responded: “It is not a ‘trend,’ it is a return” (Oz 2011).3 In other words, these performers are embracing a previously neglected heritage.

In the summer of 2011, when thousands of Israelis took to the streets to demand social justice,4 several theatre artists signed a petition addressed to the Minister of Culture demanding “theatre justice,” which referred specifically to the silenced heritage of the diaspora:

Our subsidized public theatres suffer of too much centralization and single mindedness […, a] lack of competiveness […, and] representing only one socioeconomic group […]. The repertoire theatres do not bring to the stage the heritage of Oriental Jews.5 (Ben-Simhon 2011)

I firmly agree with the need expressed by the petition. It is important to make room for a diversity of voices in the theatre, to fill the void that many spectators experience, and, finally, to enrich Israeli theatre by bringing marginalized, diasporic Jewish traditions to the fore. As Arjun Appadurai wrote, “In the postnational world we are seeing emerge, diaspora runs with, and not against, the grain of identity” (1993:803). An integral element of the postmodern condition is the movement of people around the world; often their sense of national identity is stronger and more focused in diaspora. Conversely, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, the state’s culture was reconstructed after two millennia of diaspora. Israel has had to gather together its many grains of identity, which were scattered throughout a very long-lasting, wide-ranging diaspora.

Nonetheless, diasporic tongues have no official status in Israel: they are only spoken at home. As Pierre Bourdieu (1986) contends, languages constitute a cultural capital far beyond their linguistic aspects. In Israel, Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages. Both are used [End Page 49] in the public domain, such as the educational system, road signs, governmental forms, airport announcements, public TV, theatre, etc. Therefore, the Arabic-speaking population of Israel lives in a bilingual state, while the linguistic condition of much of the Jewish Israeli population is rather analogous to diglossia.6 Although not diglossia in its classical sense,7 many people in Israel have two distinct linguistic codes that show a clear functional separation: one code is employed in the private sphere, while the other is used in public. Theatre is a public domain, where Hebrew dominated mainstream stages almost exclusively until the 1990s. Other languages were relegated to amateur or community theatre, and in the 1950s even forbidden on mainstream stages, as the Yiddish theatre was. This self-imposition of language was meant to recreate and revive Hebrew as a rich and vibrant spoken language, and to establish national uniformity where there once was extensive variety. In this “state of exception,” as Giorgio Agamben (2005) would have it, an entire diasporic legacy and cultural capital was relegated to the private lives of various groups.

The new African initiatives in Israeli theatre are a symptom of a major shift taking place—a shift discussed at length by sociologists and historians (see Kimmerling 2001; Avishai 2001...