x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israeli heavy metal band members apply for Turkish citizenship

Despite relations between the two countries being downgraded over the past four years, members of the band Orphaned Land have applied for Turkish citizenship.

A still taken from Orphaned Land's video Sapari. The band members hope to hear by the end of the month if their applications for Turkish citizenship are successful.
A still taken from Orphaned Land's video Sapari. The band members hope to hear by the end of the month if their applications for Turkish citizenship are successful.

ISTANBUL // Even in the midst of a deep political crisis between Turkey and Israel, there are songs to be sung - loudly and backed by the screech of distorted guitars.

Kobi Farhi sings those kind of songs.

He fronts the Israeli heavy metal band Orphaned Land, which has been playing Turkey for the past 10 years.

Despite the Israeli ambassador in Ankara being expelled and relations between the two countries being downgraded every year for the past four, Mr Farhi and his band mates have applied for Turkish citizenship. They hope to hear by the end of the month. Band members intend to keep their Israeli passports.

Ties between long-time allies Turkey and Israel became strained after Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and plunged deeper into crisis two years ago when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists in a raid on the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying aid for Palestinians in Gaza. Turkey wants Israel to formally apologise for the incident and pay damages to the relatives of the victims, demands rejected by Israel.

The crisis shows no sign of being solved anytime soon. On November 6, a Turkish court is scheduled to begin hearing a criminal case brought by prosecutors against high-ranking Israeli officials accused of ordering the raid on the Mavi Marmara. According to Turkish news reports, Israel has said it will not provide a defence team for the accused, who will be tried in absentia and face life sentences if convicted.

"It is an unfortunate story, and it is a lesson of how easy [it is] to ruin a friendship and how hard it is to rebuild it," Mr Farhi said about the Mavi Marmara incident. He was responding to email questions. "You can say that in many ways, these days we are the only ambassadors of Israel in Turkey. We hope and pray for more understanding and better days."

He said despite the band's music being turned up past 11, it is full of subtle messages of peace and brotherhood and hope.

Mr Farhi believes Orphaned Land's popularity in Turkey is partly the band's use of the oriental musical style of Arabesque in a heavy metal setting. But another reason is the band's music builds bridges, he said. The band also reinforces reconciliation by taking the stage dressed in traditional costumes worn by Muslims, Jews and Christians.

"We are trying to be above politics and to deal only with friendship and brotherhood between the nations," Mr Farhi said. Political tensions have led to a sharp drop of Israeli tourists in Turkey, from 514,000 in 2008 to 79,000 last year, according to official Turkish figures. In March, Israel's Counter Terrorism Bureau warned Israelis against all non-essential travel to Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, dismissed the warning, saying Turkey did not need Israeli tourists.

But Mehmet Sahin, a Middle East expert at Ankara's Gazi University, said the damage to other areas of bilateral relations caused by the political crisis remained limited. He said the number of Turks visiting Israel had risen slightly despite crisis one the political level. According to figures from the Turkish foreign ministry, 13,700 Turkish citizens visited Israel in 2010, up from 13,400 a year before.

"No one in Turkey is against Jews or against Israel," Mr Sahin said by telephone last week. "There is no enmity. The reaction is against Israeli policies [towards the Palestinians]. The political crisis is not reflected in day to day ties between normal people."

Mr Farhi said his own experiences in Turkey also showed that political problems were not mirrored on other levels.

He said Orphaned Land had never met any hostile reaction because the band is from Israel and the band members are Jewish. The band's management noted Orphaned Land was scheduled to play at a festival in Turkey next month.

Before Orphaned Land's first visit to Turkey, some relatives of the band's members questioned "if this is a wise decision with our Jewish roots to go to a country with a Muslim population for a show", Mr Farhi recalled. "During all this time we haven't met even one single person with a hostile attitude because we are Israelis."

He said Orphaned Land fans in Turkey greeted the band with the slogan "Welcome home, brothers". Orphaned Country returns to Turkey September 22 for a festival show.

"Turkey is a magical, wonderful country and I could easily see myself living there," Mr Farhi said. "I say 'There is a Turk hidden inside of me."

In a video posted on the band's website that showed him addressing the crowd at an open air concert, Mr Farhi summed up the band's vision of understanding. "Music is the best religion in the world, right?" he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae