One look and my soul was imprisoned,
I do not pretend to be the master of my life.
My religion is lost, and I have no country,
My heart beats to the face of my Beloved.
(Written and translated from Hebrew by Shye Ben Tzur)
I catch Shye Ben Tzur on the phone, late at night, just as he is about to board a flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv with wife Sajida and their little daughter, Uriya. We speak about his new CD, Shoshan, to be released next month, and to which I have just been listening. I tell him that at first the music sounded beautiful but quite simple, but when I played and replayed it, I became increasingly aware of its richness and depth. “That’s what I like best,” says Ben Tzur, 34, perhaps the world’s first-ever Jewish Israeli qawwal, “when something very complex seems to be completely simple.” It’s not an obvious quality, it doesn’t announce itself in words. But it’s there in his haunting melodies and lyrics, written in Hebrew, and sung by Rajasthani Muslim qawwals; also in his life journey and his quiet, elegant and modest bearing.
Ben Tzur, who has been living and making music in India for over a decade now, has a small but devoted following here. In Israel, however, he is something of a legend, at least among an eastward-looking (and boisterous and increasingly influential) fringe. “Usually, when Israelis leave Israel to develop their creativity elsewhere, people grumble,” says Jacque Mizrahi, a music critic in Tel Aviv, “but in Shye’s case, everyone is very supportive, because what he does in India he could only do in India, and he is bringing it back to us, enriching us and letting us live this incredible fantasy, vicariously.”
After a period spent searching, Ben Tzur found his guru, dhrupad master Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, and stayed in his house for a year training in that austere genre. “It was amazing,” he remembers, “but extremely difficult. Dagar sahib has changed not only my music but my entire life.”
During his first days in India, Ben Tzur read and loved a book on Sufi music. This took him to Ajmer, where he was befriended by Gudri Shah Baba V, the head of the Gudri Sufi order. Over the years, he spent increasingly more time among the Sufis of Ajmer, living in their homes, soaking in their music, and eventually trying his hand at creating qawwalis of his own. Though he learnt Urdu, he chose to write his lyrics in Hebrew. “Hebrew is a language geared towards holiness,” he explains, “and since these prayers come from my heart, it is natural that I would use my own language, which I love.”
Shye at the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi
One of the homes he began to frequent was that of the late Dr Zahurul Hassan Sharib, “a great Sufi scholar and leader” and that is how he met and married Sajida, Sharib’s adopted daughter. In an extension of the spirit of tolerance and mutual discovery that has marked this Indo-Israeli encounter, both families attended their wedding, three years ago. “His parents have accepted me with open arms,” says Sajida graciously, “they treat me like a princess.”
What's more, he has brought together the talents of an eclectic, talented group of international musicians, including classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal, flamenco guitarist Fernando Perez, qawwals Zaki Ali and Zakir Ali, and bassist Yossi Fine from Israel. The eclecticism extends to the range of musical instruments used in the album too—traditional Rajasthani instruments meld with violins, cellos, sarods and sarangis.
Mudgal can’t seem to praise Shye enough. “I had heard his work in Heeyam and it had a beautiful feeling about it. It is very hard to get together people of so many cultures and musical backgrounds and he does it so well, letting it all ripen,” she says. “In this day and age, with so many communities hating and killing each other, Shye making qawwali, in Hebrew, is a statement of peace and love and tolerance that I really believe in,” she asserts.
Despite his close association with Sufism, Ben Tzur has not changed his religion. And he has an explanation for it. “Sufism is a mystical path,” he says. “And mystics are very different people from what I am. Let’s say that I am one who knocks on the door of the saints, and I thank them if they answer me.”
But there are some who wonder why he doesn’t take inspiration from his own deeply mystical Jewish tradition, I tell him. “I read the Jewish holy texts, the words of the Jewish mystics, and I feel deeply connected to them. But really, the name of the specific path to the divine—Sufi, Hindu, Jewish—doesn’t matter to me,” is his response.
How did the Indian Sufi community react to him as an Israeli Jew, and to his using Hebrew to compose qawwalis? “I have found that the conflict in the Middle East is irrelevant here,” is his illuminating reply. “Most Indian Muslims treat Judaism and Hebrew with a lot of respect. Hebrew is the language of our shared, beloved prophet, Musa-Moses, and of King David’s Song Of Songs, holy to all Jews and Muslims.”
When asked about any anti-Israeli/Jewish sentiments he might have encountered, Ben Tzur is dismissive: “Sure, there were all kinds of small incidents but I hardly remember them.” The answer is the same when I ask about the reaction in Israel to his growing closeness to the Muslim world. “If you look for problems, you will have problems,” he says, “Better to concentrate on all this beauty that surrounds us.”
For Ben Tzur, rapt in his live art, India has gradually become home. “It has become very important for me to say I am an Israeli, that I too carry the immense baggage of an Israeli, for better or for worse. And I miss Israel a lot,” he clarifies. “At the same time,” he adds, “I feel more than ever before that I really belong here; my life is in India...my friends, my music. And my wife is Indian, as is my daughter. I belong to both places now...and I am not sure how it will all work out.”
While much is made of the fact that Ben Tzur’s music—merging Hebrew with Islamic-Sufi traditions—speaks of peace and reconciliation, this is not a point he himself likes to dwell on. He would rather emphasise the fact that his music has no agenda. “I am not making any political statements,” he says, choosing his words carefully, and rephrasing them until he is sure he has been properly understood.
“If someone says that my music bridges these two cultures, my answer would be that I don’t see much need for a bridge because I don’t see much of a difference between them. Maybe I am blind, but nothing feels foreign. Whatever differences there are, they are part of the divine harmony, no?” he asks.
The article Song of Moses (Sep 7) on Shye Ben Tzur was inspiring. He goes back to his roots and, with passion, ties it all up into a powerful message. Pramodh Dhanpal, Sydney
Your article on Shye Ben Tzur is an indication that some of us still remember we are one big family. I’ll buy CDs of his work and, if the music is as good as your article promises, buy many more copies to distribute among my Jewish and Muslim friends in Israel and Jordan.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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