Iranians and Israelis find an unlikely musical detente in Germany

Israeli-Iranian ensemble Sistanagila, which combines both cultures' music into melodic wholes, is just one of several such collaborations that have sprung up in Germany.

Tabea Sternberg/Courtesy of Sistanagila
The Iranian-Israeli musical group Sistanagila performs in front of the French Cathedral at the Gendarmenmarkt square in Berlin earlier this month.

Ten Iranians, now living in Germany, entered the recently reopened Bezalel Synagogue in the sleepy small town of Lich.

The amber lights dimmed and they tuned into the music as the ensemble Sistanagila began to play: a series of Iranian piano melodies and Israeli folk songs in succession, and sometimes fused together.

The group, which mirrors their often multicultural audience, is comprised of two Iranians, two Israelis, and a German. For the first time in mid-September, they performed to a packed house – including their Iranian audience members – at a synagogue, following a weekend performance at a cathedral and beforehand a mosque.

The freshly formed Berlin-based group is one of several unlikely cross-cultural musical collaborations sprouting up in Germany, which has experienced a surge of Middle Eastern migration in recent years. They include Berlin’s No Beef, a collective of Israeli and Iranian disk jockeys, and Cherry Bandora, an Israeli band that jams modern Turkish, Greek, and Egyptian tunes.

“The fact that we’re in Germany is one of the reasons that this project could happen,” says Yuval Halpern, Sistanagila’s composer from Israel. “It could not happen in Israel. It could not happen in Iran. I think Germany is a relatively immigrant-loving country, or at least a place that allows collaborations like this.”

Music and politics

Though Sistanagila promotes itself as apolitical, it’s inevitable that merging Israeli and Iranian musicians performing together will carry political undertones “whether we like it or not,” says Mr. Halpern.

When No Beef, founded two years ago, last DJed at a Berlin club during the outbreak of the Gaza invasion, “some [attendees] were worried about security,” says Reza Khani, its Iranian co-founder, who dismissed the concerns. Still, he uses a pseudonym to avoid problems re-entering Iran.

Mr. Khani launched the collective with an Israeli friend in order to communicate that “Iranians are not anti-Semitic. Tension is completely politics, and not the people themselves,” he says. Now the group's DJs splice a techno mix of Iranian funk from the '70s and Tel Aviv beach music together, and through the fun, open atmosphere, strive to show that the two groups have “no beef” with each other.

Sistanagila’s name itself is a hybrid of the two cultures, says Babak Shafian, the group’s Iranian initiator and organizer. Sistan is a province in southeast Iran and Nagila was plucked from “Hava Nagila,” an upbeat Jewish folk song and modern bar mitzvah staple.

Neutral territory

Groups like Sistanagila and No Beef need to find a neutral territory in order to exist, says Tal Alon, the editor-in-chief of Spitz, the first Hebrew-language magazine in Berlin since the Nazi era. And Germany is turning into such a place, she says.

Israelis, who often carry German passports due to a law that grants them to those whose grandparents had them revoked, are coming to Berlin for its creative community in increasing numbers, says Dr. Albrecht Fuess, an Islamic Studies professor at Phillip University of Marburg. Some estimates place the number in Berlin as high as 20,000. Ms. Alon moved to Berlin with her husband, a German-Israeli painter, two years ago.

Germany also has a community of up to 120,000 Iranians, most living in Hamburg. Nowadays many young Iranians head to Germany’s cities to study, and end up remaining.

“The fact that Germany is the external meeting place,” says Alon, “is the beauty of history.”

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