Rina Ne'eman
Translator. Traveler. Challah baker. Salad maker.

Translating Tehran: Israel’s Rita

Rita, Israel’s preeminent female vocalist, is an Iranian-born Israeli. With Iran at the top of the international news cycle in the wake of the elections, and immediately prior to her appearance at the Israeli Presidential Conference this week in Jerusalem, it seems very timely to be speaking with her, today. Rita’s latest album, My Joys, delves deep into her roots in the Tehran of her childhood, and is sung entirely in Farsi.

Rita, as an Iranian-born Israeli, how are you feeling today?

“Ah, you are referring to politics. I do not want to say anything about the election, and all that. I want to talk about something much more profound. If I waste words on politics, that usurps my role in other realms, realms of dialogue between our peoples, which run infinitely deeper.

“Notwithstanding, because I do need to relate somehow to yesterday’s election, I will say that I believe that the emergence of a more moderate leader shows how much the Iranian people want to return to a process of normalization and democratization. In my ongoing dialogue with Iranians in Iran, through my e-mails and conversations with them, I know that the people do not have the same opinions as the regime and the government of Iran.”

I should note that I am a blogger, and not a professional journalist. As a matter of fact, I am a translator and interpreter. The reason that I mention this is that your work, your art, also strikes me as a type of translation. You create a bridge between languages and cultures and weave a tapestry of music – in Hebrew and in Farsi. Not only have you brought a voice of Iran to Israel, you have brought a voice of Israel to Iran. Do you believe that language and song help to bridge the differences between Israel and Iran?

“First of all, thank you very much. When I started to work on the Persian album, friends and colleagues were surprised, even shocked. A whole record in Ahmadinejad’s language, they said. Are you crazy? Do you want to end your career? First and foremost, I made the album for myself, for my memories, to perpetuate the soundtrack of my family life.

“What ensued simply amazed me, because Israelis accepted this music. I couldn’t believe the extent to which Israelis embraced an album that was entirely in Farsi. The album went gold in less than a month. Israelis said that it made them think differently about Iranian culture and music. That meant the world to me.

“And Iranians, incredibly, have embraced me, too – me, this Jewish, Israeli woman, as their own. They are constantly thanking me for showing the world the culture of Iran, and not only the darkness of the bombs. So yes, I have come away from this understanding how language and music transcend boundaries and can really forge a meaningful connection between peoples – even so-called enemies.”

Language opens hearts and has the potential to connect between peoples in a way that nothing else can. I’ve read that you regularly receive love letters from Iran, and that your CDs are sold there underground. Your music is played there at weddings and celebrations, and the Iranian people just love the fact that you are Israeli. Was it always like that, or just since you recorded the last album of songs in Farsi?

“This last album was entirely in Farsi, but I have done one Iranian song in each of my albums, since the very first one that I recorded. They have known me in Iran from the very beginning of my career. They have always known that I am a singer in Israel. Whenever I was interviewed, I was told that I am listened to in Iran, but with this album, the connection became much stronger, because it is an entire album of classical Persian music, with a little bit of Israel inside of it. I added the Israeli parts of me to it. That made the Iranian music a little bit new and fresh and different for them.

“I was born in Iran, I lived there until age 8, and I know the Persian people, the real people – not the regime, but the warm, modest, family-oriented people of Iran. The Iranian people have treated me like their cultural ambassador, and have responded with enormous esteem, because they have no other ability to express themselves internationally.

“I receive e-mails from Iranians all the time, thanking me. The Persian language – not the street language – the high language is so beautiful and so rich. The Iranians write to me so politely and in the most amazing way. They tell me that with your voice, you can make peace on earth and between our peoples and that they love to listen to me.”

The last few months have been remarkable for you. You recently sang for President Obama, and you appeared in a one-woman concert in the General Assembly of the United Nations, coordinated by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor. Entitled ‘Tunes for Peace’, you sang in Farsi, Hebrew and English. Chemi Shalev wrote a beautiful piece in Haaretz about your concert, calling it one of the most unusual diplomatic achievements of all time – “a full-fledged, U.N sponsored event full of goodwill and sympathy for Israel.” He said “inside the hall of the General Assembly, it seemed at times that either the Messiah had arrived or that the world had turned inside-out.”

“Really? The Messiah? I didn’t hear that!  Ambassador Prosor said to me ‘every day we are the target of anger and vitriole. For one evening, the entire United Nations embraced us and you embraced the entire United Nations.’ That was very moving and meaningful for me.

“U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told me that many revolutions have been started by music. ‘Don’t underestimate the power of music,’ he said. ‘You can connect between peoples where politics fails. You are a messenger.’ It was amazing to hear that from someone who truly stands in the center of controversy.”

Israel’s Rita Rocks the United Nations

What was your childhood like in Tehran?

“I remember – I don’t remember everything. I have images in my mind. I have memories of the smell of food and the taste of things and the music and the colors of Shiraz and Isfahan. They were not at all like they are now. Then it was like Europe, no chadors – it was a modern European city.

“I remember that my mother wore the shortest mini-skirts and the most colorful dresses. Not like what you see on television now. I know that still, under the chadors, the women are wearing designer clothing – Prada and Gucci and Dolce Gabbana.

“In my mind’s eye, I still have the colors and textures and fragrances and emotions. They are like a Persian carpet of sensory experiences.”

You share two very complicated identities – Persian and Israeli. What does that mean to you? How does one inform the other?

“They are the most complicated identities! I live with them amazingly. I feel great, because in my singing, in my being a singer, an artist, even in dancing, my writing, my lyrics – everything has roots in my Persian culture. I am like an Israeli-Iranian stew – I have all of those flavors inside of me.

“The power of language and music has already created a dialogue with the people of Iran. Many who e-mail me write that they have no hate for Israelis, and that they want nothing more than to come to Israel to hear me perform.

“One fan said: ‘I am writing to you from Shiraz in Iran, and I just wanted to tell you that you are a source of great pride for us. The beautiful and emotional songs that you sing in this time of war, in this crazy time of Islamic control, give an overwhelming sense of closeness and love between the countries of Iran and Israel.’

“And yes, I believe that music can connect, but not only music. We must each do something, in our own way, to connect our world, and not to perpetuate the hatred that is so unnecessary.”

About the Author
Translator. Traveler. Challah baker. Salad maker. Enamored savta. Proud Israeli. Family, food, fashion and photography. Tel Aviv is my happy place.