The Jewish-Arab duo hasn’t heard much applause since being named Israel’s representatives for the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest, which is something of a cross between the Grammys and “American Idol.”
Their selection during the recent Gaza war instantly made them — Awad, especially — targets of the country’s hard-line left and hard-line right. Both said it was wrong for them to represent the country and called on the duo to quit the competition.
Surrounded by supporters April 30 at a party shortly before their departure for Moscow, where the contest will be held later this month, the two sound a triumphant note. They defend their message of coexistence and their own friendship, which they say helped them get through this conflict within a conflict.
“There needs to be a moderate voice to advance things,” Nini, a major Israeli star, says after their brief performance. “Unfortunately, we see moderation get less of a stage because it seems boring and gray against the violent elements who photograph well in the media.”
“True, maybe we also look good in the newspapers — even though we don’t call for violence and don’t even French kiss like Britney Spears and Madonna,” she adds, laughing and jangling a large necklace of plastic geometric pieces that resembled a chandelier. “We just sing our message with our hearts and our heads.”
Neither is a stranger to politics.
Nini, 39, long has been an outspoken advocate of a two-state solution. Awad, 34, says she sees herself as part of the Palestinian nation while also feeling very much Israeli, as one of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens.
Awad found herself under attack as soon as the announcement was made in January by the Israel Broadcasting Authority that she and Nini would represent Israel at Eurovision. This year marks the first time an Israeli Arab will represent Israel, and the timing of the announcement — during the war in Gaza — prompted fellow Arab citizens and Jewish activists and artists to write her an open letter urging her to change her mind.
“The Israeli government is sending the two of you to Moscow as part of its propaganda machine that is trying to create the appearance of Jewish-Arab ‘coexistence’ under which it carries out the daily massacre of Palestinian civilians,” the letter said.
Some right-wing lawmakers, meanwhile, questioned Awad’s loyalty to the state and suitability to represent Israel.
Awad, a singer and actress who grew up in Haifa, speaks of how difficult it was at the time to reconcile the Gaza war and the news that she would be performing at Eurovision.
She says she viewed the criticism from some fellow Arab moderates as of a piece with the Israeli Arab community’s complex feelings about their lives in Israel.
“I think sometimes my people here tend toward a militant way of expressing the pain; that’s just my personal thoughts on this,” she says. “At some point I tried to rise above that kind of guilt and say I need to look above and look at life here. I have a lot of friends who are Jewish Israelis, people who love me and would give their life for me. And therefore it opens your eyes when you realize the human connection is first and foremost, and then come the issues of nationality and religion.”
The two make a striking pair as they weave their way through their send-off party, their music blasting through the bar’s loudspeakers, laughing and embracing. Of the two, Nini, of Yemenite descent, has the more typically “Arab look” — dark olive skin and tight black curls. Awad, whose mother is Bulgarian, is lighter, with honey-colored hair and pale skin.
They seem to revel on mixing up stereotypes and grow angry when asked if their performance, and the song they wrote for the competition, is something of a gimmick.
Gil Dor, Nini’s longtime musical partner, who accompanies her on guitar, also will be performing in the contest. Dor introduced the singers to each other eight years ago, suggesting they find a way to make music together.
Their cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” was one of their first collaborations. They have an album of 12 songs, the Eurovision entry among them, coming out soon.
Dor says he ordinarily would be offended at the idea of musicians facing off in competition, but that in this case there is a noble mission involved.
“We are representing the country in an ideal in how it wants to look and how all would like to see its future,” he says. “So we are very proud to be representatives in this.”
Irit Pearlman, chairwoman of OneVoice, the grassroots peace group that hosted the farewell party, says the song Nini and Awad will be singing sums up the feelings of the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, who seek “another way” out of the violence of a conflict that seems to know no end.
“We are optimistic people and we want change,” she says. “I have two soldiers at home, two boys. I cannot get up in the morning without feeling I’m doing something to change things here. I want a better life for the next generation and we have to work on it.”