Tarab: A Journey in Search of Memory and Identity in Two Parts, directed by Boris Maftsir, is a compelling and in-depth documentary film about our cultural identities. It provides a wealth of fascinating material dealing with issues of Arab culture, music and Umm Kulthum, combined with the story of refuseniks from the Former Soviet Union. The film takes us on a journey and provides a cultural dialogue and encounter between the renowned author, Eli Amir (Scapegoat), and the filmmaker, Boris Maftsir, between Jews from Muslim lands and Jews from the FSU.
Part I is about Eli Amir, originally Fuad Elias, who came from Bagdad at the age of 12 and was sent to school at Mishmar HaEmek (which later became the setting for his book). This part of the film is about his memories of the years he spent at the kibbutz school, his analysis of the role and depth that cultural roots play in one's life, and mostly about Tarab – the euphoria or ecstasy of Arab music. It is interesting to note that an Arab singer is called a mutreb – note the root of the word -- a person who causes you to feel the tarab.
Eli Amir talks honestly about Arab culture and how it was negated by Israeli Ashkenazi culture, how the new immigrants were made to feel inferior. Does the predominant Israeli culture look upon Arab culture in a patronizing way, even today?
Eli Amir is obsessed with issues dealing with cultural identity, the clash or border between cultures, and the importance of culture in one's life. In the third book of the trilogy that begins with Scapegoat, he clearly deals with the border or line between different cultures in a literary fashion. The story is about Nuri, the hero from Scapegoat, now an officer in the Israeli army, who meets Jasmine, a Palestinian young woman in post-Six Day War Jerusalem. Jasmine wouldn't have crossed into Western Jerusalem, therefore, the author chooses the luxurious American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem as a setting for their encounter.
Eli and Boris go together to visit a commercial center in Ashdod, where all of the signs on the shops are in Russian. Eli's thesis is that this aliyah was not made to feel inferior, as was the aliyah from Muslim lands, and you can see it expressed in how proud they are of their culture – food, music, literature and language. It is also evident in how well they have been absorbed into their professions.
Part II – Eli's story has caused Boris to return to Riga to look for his past. He talks about the family he lost in the Shoah. Also about his daughter, Orit, who has become very connected to Umm Kulthum and her music, and this expresses itself through her work as a belly dancer. Boris also talks about his youth in Riga, and how he was arrested by the KGB and spent his first year of marriage in a KGB prison.
Boris visits Sylvia Zalmanson, also from Riga, who bravely participated in the Leningrad hijacking. She remembers how her group of friends felt that their lives were of no value if they didn't take a big risk to immigrate to Israel. As a result of her role in this hijacking, she sat in prison for four years, before being allowed to emigrate. After a professional life at Israel Aircraft Industries, today she is a successful and expressive artist.
This is a film of surprising depth and insight, providing a rich experience into two different cultural worlds. Tarab (2009, 78 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.