The Rare Place Where Israelis And Iranians Play Together : Parallels Iran and Israel are sworn enemies, but Germany is neutral ground where people from those countries can collaborate musically. Sistanagila, an Israeli-Iranian ensemble, is doing just that.
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The Rare Place Where Israelis And Iranians Play Together

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The Rare Place Where Israelis And Iranians Play Together

The Rare Place Where Israelis And Iranians Play Together

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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.

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