What is a home?
In Jewish history, with its centuries of wandering and ritualized longing for a land most never actually saw, circumstances created not so straightforward answers to this question. For the creators of modern-day Israel, the answer was to be found in a state.
But for some Jewish refugees that arrived in this new place, it did not feel like a home, either.
“Our great-grandmother came to Israel only to be put in a tiny, crowded shack in the desert,” says Tair Haim of A-Wa.
The Tel Aviv-based band A-Wa, comprised of three sisters that fuse Yemenite folk with hip-hop and electronic music, frames its answer around what the sisters’ great-grandmother Rachel, a refugee from Yemen, said about the question of home: “bayti fi rasi” – my home is in my head.
A-Wa’s new concept album, Baiti Fi Rasi, released on May 31st, shares many of the stories they heard as little girls of Rachel, a single mother facing hardship in Yemen as a Jew, a woman — and after she arrived in Israel during Operation Magic Carpet, as an Arabic-speaking Yemenite refugee. As children in the Arava Valley, Tair, Tagel, and Liron Haim would “milk from” their elders the spicy food, the henna and those limb-turning folk tunes of Yemen they had been encouraged to leave in the past. Though they never met her, Rachel became a guiding force in the sisters becoming proud, Jewish Yemenite women.
A single mother and feminist long before the term came in vogue, Rachel never found in her wandering a place she could call home, even after she came to Israel a refugee. But she cried out for “ya watani,” my homeland: Yemen. In spite of her suffering there, it was the sights, the sounds, the smells of Yemen that signaled home for her.
After their 2016 debut album, Habib Galbi, the A-Wa sisters travelled the world, encountering Syrian refugees on the streets of Europe. War ravaged Yemen. Thousands of African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv continued to be denied refugee status and deemed “infiltrators” by the Jewish state.
“We saw all the refugee issues in all the world, in Israel, in Paris, and it made us think of the journey [Rachel] made,” said Tair “Being musicians seeing so many places, we thought — what is a home to us? Is it a certain person? A village you grew up in? The country? So we decided to put this idea into a concept album.”
The sisters used the childhood stories they heard of Rachel as the basis for the album’s content.
“Her family would hide [this history] – don’t talk about the past, etc. – but for us, we felt our great-grandma in the studio,” said Tair, the eldest sister, at a café in her suburban neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, just north of Tel Aviv.
Though the album includes stories from their great-grandmother’s past, it wasn’t nostalgia A-Wa sought. As they were always told growing up, the past is the past. But as A-Wa conveys through their music, the past can shed light on what’s happening today, interact with it, even become something entirely different — and downright groovy.
The album’s festive but fierce music takes listeners on a hip hop journey of funky keyboards accompanied by rustic tin drums and Yemenite Arabic melodies. “Everything that is a silver plate or whatever, you can drum on it,” said Tair. “The Yemenite woman would sing about lovers and drum on plates, anything they had while they worked, so we wanted to bring that vibe into the studio.”
The band also decided for the album to decidedly bring together fashion of then and now —adorning Yemenite gold necklaces over Adidas shirts and Nike sneakers — to create a new urbo-traditional fusion aesthetic.
“With our fashion, we don’t want to keep it in the past,” said Tair. “We want to bring the tradition and statement to nowadays and make it relevant. There is no use to just bringing something as it was.”
Though the album is inspired by and reflects stories of Rachel, there’s a universality to their lyrics that reflects the refugee experience as a whole. As they declare in Ma Bish, or “None”:
Home - None
Keys - None
Lover - None
Money - None
Work - None
Solace - None
Neither luck, nor a shoe
None of these possessions did Rachel have. Like so many refugees, Rachel was “mudbira,” or unlucky, a Jew and a woman relegated to second-class. And the lyrics of “Mudbira,” a ferociously feminist anthem that served as the album’s first single, describe sentiments familiar to refugees wandering the land whence they came:
Oh, little one
You’re down on your luck
Stay with us
Where will you go from here?
Even for a Jewish Yemenite refugee, Rachel was resilient, and she was courageous. As her great-granddaughter Tair recalled, Rachel was married off at the age of 12. It was an unhappy arrangement. Soon after giving birth to her daughter, Shama’a, she decided to divorce her husband — norms be damned. She married a second time, but still, luck was not on her side, so she left the man “tight like an old shoe.” Rachel met another man, and they did fall in love, but the daughter of a local sheikh seduced him, and he left Rachel — a story retold in the reggae blues-like song “Bint Al Sheikh.”
Throughout Yemen, Rachel went from village to village, a single mother struggling to find a place they could call home. In “Malhuga,” or “Haunted,” the sisters describe when Rachel came to a new village, knowing nobody, and moved into a house she discovered to be haunted. There’s an old Yemenite proverb that says, “a person’s home is their fortress.” The sisters cry out:
A person’s home — their fortress
How insecure I feel
In between these four walls
I am a haunted tenant
Neither in Ibb nor Sana’a nor the ma’abarot refugee camps of Israel could Rachel find shelter she could call home. So “what is a home?” A-Wa asks again. “Bayti fi rasi,” is their response –
My home is in my head
A refugee for my heart
Wherever I go, it is with me.
Poor and fleeing persecution, Rachel brought from her homeland only what was intangible, possessions that she kept in the mind and soul. “She took her daughter, her loneliness, her Yemeni food, her father’s weaving and her mother’s tongue,” said Tair. “This is about identity… it’s what every refugee brings.”
The pressure to bury that identity upon arriving in a new place is widely felt among refugees, but in the album, A-Wa takes the story down the particular, dark path that Israel set Mizrahi refugees like Rachel on.
This marks new territory for the band. In their 2014 debut album, Habib Galbi, A-Wa’s music was revolutionary in Israel by its basic nature: three Jewish sisters, born and raised in southern Israel, singing modernized versions of Yemenite folk songs in Arabic. The band’s very existence is an act of rebellion against suppression of Mizrahi culture. But in the song “Hana Mash Al Yaman,” or “Here is Not Yemen,” the album’s second single, the band confronts the nature of that historical oppression itself:
Where will I stake a home?
(You have a tent for now)
Or at least a small shack
(Along with four other families)
And here I will raise a family
(Don’t let them take your daughter)
I’ll find myself a job with an income
(Either in cleaning or working the earth)
And I will learn the language
(Lose the accent)
With time I’ll feel like I belong
(Here is not Yemen)
The call-and-response section of refugee hopes and discriminatory reality — which Tair said was inspired by West Side Story’s similarly themed “I’d Like To Be In America” — describes in stark terms the Yemenite experience after arriving in Israel, including decrepit, overcrowded tent conditions in the ma’abarot, or refugee absorption camps, and the phenomenon in which thousands of Yemenite children disappeared and families say hundreds were abducted by the state and given to childless Holocaust survivors. From those earliest days, MIzrahim were confined to the lowest rungs of Jewish Israeli society, compelled to abandon Arabic and their native culture.
The A-Wa sisters dutifully avoid politics, but their decision to address this past feels timely following last year’s passage in the Knesset of the Nation-State Bill, which downgraded Arabic in Israel from an official language.
“A lot of Jewish people came from Arab countries, and to try to erase their language or identity, it’s really sad,” said Tair. “When Rachel and our grandma, Shama’a, came to Israel, [Israel] wanted to change their names. Shama’a [Arabic for “candle”] became Shoshana, which means rose, not a candle. So [with the Nation-State Bill] we observe it now even.”
By releasing this daringly personal album, the A-Wa sisters resist the forces they had sometimes felt even within their own family. “Maybe our grandparents were ashamed of their culture,” said Tair. “But not only are we not ashamed, we are proud of who we are. We celebrate the many identities that we wear. I’m a woman, I’m a Yemenite, I’m Jewish, I’m a sister… it goes on.”
Through the sisters’ music, however, a revival has taken place.
“Our dad was kind of surprised at first when we were going further with the Yemenite music. We said, ‘Dad, this is what we love. Yemenite groove is almost like hip hop,’” said Tair, before smiling. “Nowadays, he’s our number one fan. He’s going back and listening to Yemenite music all of a sudden, and saying, ‘wow, it brings us back to grandma’s house.’”
For the narrative- and genre-bending A-Wa sisters, the past is no more — but memory isn’t static. It is alive, dynamic and changing with the times so a Yemenite headdress complements sneakers and tin drums turn up the dance-floor in a modern-day hip-hop production. This process that manifests in Baiti Fi Rasi’s music and aesthetic – fusing the cultures of there and here, then and now — is happening among refugees all over the world.
I wondered how the Haim sisters — second-generation Sabras with Hebrew as their native tongue and a wide but sorely incomplete Yemenite vocabulary — would relate to Rachel’s profound words. What can baiti fi rasi mean to them? “We feel we are luckier than the last generations. Israel is a home to us. The village we grew up in the Arava Valley is a home to us. My husband is a home to me,” said Tair. “But the idea of bayti fi rasi means I’m taking my home to everywhere I go. Home is a feeling. It’s a spirit.”
Steven Davidson is a freelance journalist who previously worked at the Forward and has written for Narratively and Salon, among other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @sdavidson169.