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The Rare Place Where Israelis And Iranians Play Together

What do you get when three Israelis, two Iranians and a German walk into a room? A Berlin-based world music ensemble known as Sistanagila, named after an Iranian province — Sistan and Baluchestan — and the popular Jewish folk song "Hava Nagila." (Courtesy of Sistanagila)

Like many Iranians living abroad, Babak Shafian cringed whenever Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his country's former president, spewed hate-filled rhetoric about Israel. The 33-year-old computer scientist says the diatribes ignored thousands of years of shared history between Jews and Persians.

"The main thing which annoyed me really is that Ahmadinejad was presented in the Western media as the main voice of Iranian society," says Shafian, who moved to Germany 14 years ago.

He decided the best antidote would be a musical collaboration with the alleged enemy. The problem, however, is that he didn't know how to play a musical instrument. So three years ago, Shafian talked to friends and scoured the Internet to find Israelis and Iranians living in Berlin who did.

Yuval Halpern, a 34-year-old lsraeli composer there, recalls getting Shafian's invitation through couchsurfing.org, a website that connects travelers with locals offering a place to crash.

"At first I thought he's a terrorist wanting to kidnap me, as most Israelis think when they think of Iran," Halpern says. "But then I thought I would just meet him and see how it is because I thought the idea was a nice one, and that is how it started."

At first I thought he's a terrorist wanting to kidnap me, as most Israelis think when they think of Iran. But then I thought I would just meet him and see how it is because I thought the idea was a nice one, and that is how it started.
Israeli composer Yuval Halpern, describing when Iranian Babak Shafian first contacted him about collaborating

Shafian, his German wife, two other Israelis and two Iranians now form the band Sistanagila, which plays what members describe as world music with improvisations and a folksy flair. The name, like the group, is a mix of Israel and Iran, combining the names of an Iranian province and a popular Jewish folk song played at bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and weddings.

Halpern says the members have learned a lot about each other — not only about their countries' different musical styles but about each other's food and traditions. He jokes it sometimes can be a bit much, like when the Iranian members first heard "Hava Nagila."

"Israelis can't hear it anymore from [its] being done thousands, millions of times, and actually the Iranians were the ones who told us: 'Oh, let's do Hava Nagila,' " he recalls. "We said, 'Really, are you sure?' "

In the end, they did perform it. But just like "Yalla Yalla," a Moroccan folk song they recently rehearsed in a cramped basement in the trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, when they do Jewish songs, it's with a Persian twist.

That twist is provided in large part by their Iranian percussionist, Jawad Salkhordeh, who plays a traditional Persian instrument called a tombak.

The 34-year-old immigrant from the Caspian Sea region of Iran earns his living in Berlin working as a nurse. But he says his real passion is music and that he loves having the freedom to create songs and lyrics with his Israeli colleagues and friends.

In Iran, "all of the lyrics and music has to be approved by the Islamic Guidance Ministry, a process that can take months," Salkhordeh says. "Women singers can't usually hold concerts unless they are just for women. It's very difficult to organize concerts, especially if men and women are performing together," as is the case with Sistanagila.

The group is one of a growing number of Middle Eastern musical collaborations in Germany where more and more immigrants from that region are settling — including tens of thousands of Israelis and Iranians.

Sistanagila members say they are determined to keep their music about art rather than politics, which is why Shafian says he turned down an invitation by the Iranian Embassy in Berlin to play at an interreligious event. Even so, several previous Iranian members of the group quit because they feared authorities in the Islamic Republic might lash out at them or their families in Iran for working with Israelis, Shafian says.

"In Iran there's always a risk, regardless of whether one has done something or not. So it could happen," he says.

The members nevertheless want to increase their visibility, which is why Sistanagila is starting an online campaign in the coming weeks to help fund its first CD.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The relationship of sworn enemies Iran and Israel often sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: That's former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leading a chant of death to Israel while he was in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: And here is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on CBS's "Face The Nation" last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This is the greatest terrorist regime in the world.

SIEGEL: But what if there was a different soundtrack - one more like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Some musicians from the Iranian and Israeli communities in Berlin say they're determined to provide a musical bridge between their nations. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The musicians cram into the basement of an old factory here in the trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood to rehearse.

YUVAL HALPERN: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: They are led by an Israeli composer named Yuval Halpern, who tells his group let's do "Yalla Yalla."

HALPERN: One, two, three, four.

NELSON: It's a Moroccan Jewish folksong and this band plays it with an unusual twist, one provided by Iranian percussionist Jawad Salkhordeh, who uses a tombak. The traditional Persian instrument is one of many cultural improvisations by the six-member ensemble called Sistanaglia. The group is a mix of Israel and Iran, just like its namesake song written by Halpern. He and other members came up with the name Sistanaglia by combining the names of an Iranian province and popular Jewish folksong played at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Iranian-born computer scientist Babak Shafian founded the group in Germany three years ago as an antidote to the hate filled rhetoric of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

BABAK SHAFIAN: The main thing which annoyed me really was the fact that the words of Ahmadinejad was presented in the Western media as the main voice of the Iranian society.

NELSON: He thought a musical group could change that, but Shafian didn't play an instrument so he reached out through friends and on the Internet to find Iranians and Israelis here who could. Halpern, the 34-year-old director, says Shafian contacted him through an accommodation website.

HALPERN: At first, I thought he's a terrorist wanting to kidnap me as most Israeli thinks when they think of Iran. But then I thought I'll just meet him and see how it is 'cause I thought the idea's a nice one. And that's how it started.

NELSON: Currently, three Israelis, two Iranians and Halpern's German wife are in the band that plays what he describes as world music with improvisations and a folksy flair. Halpern says the band shares not only each other's music, but their food and traditions. He jokes it can be a bit much at times like when the Iranian members first heard "Hava Nagila."

HALPERN: All Israelis can't hear it anymore from being done thousands, millions of times. And, actually, the Iranians were the ones who told us oh let's do "Hava Nagila." And we're like really? Are you sure?

SISTANAGLIA: (Singing in Hebrew).

NELSON: In the end they did perform it. Other songs Sistanaglia plays have a more Persian flair. The Iranian percussionist Salkhordeh says playing these songs would be a lot tougher in his homeland.

JAWAD SALKHORDEH: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He says in Iran every lyric and chord has to be approved by the Islamic Guidance Ministry, a process that can take months. Salkhordeh adds women and men performing together as they usually do in Sistanaglia is usually forbidden. The Berlin-based group is fervent to keep their collaboration about art rather than politics, which is why Shafian says he turned down an invitation by the Iranian Embassy here to play at an interreligious event. Even so, several previous Iranian members quit Sistanaglia because they feared authorities and the Islamic Republic might lash out at them or their families in Iran for working with Israelis, Shafian says.

SHAFIAN: I mean anyway in Iran there's always a risk, regardless whether one has done something or not so it could happen.

NELSON: But the current members, Iranian and Israeli, are nevertheless determined to increase their visibility. Sistanaglia is planning a campaign online in the coming weeks to help fund their first album. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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