“I am going to sing songs in Hebrew! I am going to make troubles!”
Thus spoke the defiant Kuwaiti award-winning singer, actress, and humanitarian/human rights activist Ema Shah soon after we met in person for the first time. She risked her life to sing in Hebrew in her own country, and then traveled halfway around the world to continue making mischief. She is a force, with talent to match her courage and determination to strike at the hatred in the Middle East.
During WWII, an Afghani prince made his way to Pakistan, where he settled after abandoning his wealthy lifestyle, to work as a double agent for the United Kingdom against Germany. After the war, he built a modest home in Kuwait, where he worked as an oil mechanic. Traveling to Iran for business, he met a young woman from a wealthy family, fell in love, and asked for her hand in marriage. Furious that such a poor, undistinguished man would dare to suggest it, the young woman rejected him. He persisted — the young woman’s bodyguards beat him severely, impairing his eyesight. He still refused to give up.
He told her that despite his poor appearance he was quite wealthy in Kuwait, and he convinced her that not all is what it seems. She agreed to marry him, leaving her family and palaces behind, only to discover that he was indeed poor and living in a hovel. He gave her a choice: go back to her family and never see him again, or stay and be treated with love and respect forever. Surprisingly, she stayed. They then had a daughter who grew up to marry a Kuwaiti man from a religious family.
Eventually the daughter’s marriage ended, and all ties to the fanatical community of her husband were cut. But they had several children, one of whom was Ema Shah.
She comes from tough stock, from people who persisted until reaching their goals.
Most of the world acts out of hate, but I am here for making love — not in the American meaning! But I cannot do it alone. I need help from people like you to help me do that.
On March 10, 2016, Shah said this upon receiving the Pomegranate Award — for her contribution to music and moral courage — from American Sephardi Federation’s Executive Director Jason Guberman. There, Ema performed a number of songs in Arabic, French, and Hebrew, including a vocalization of the theme from Schindler’s List. And “Hava Nagila.” Singing this song in Hebrew in 2010 was the start of her trouble.
Ema grew up going to a mosque on a regular basis — her parents were not religious, though her father’s side of the family was. Nevertheless, her beliefs were constantly challenged by the easy access to the multitude of books her father — a librarian — brought home from work. Her family encouraged her performance talents. She learned piano and guitar; by adulthood she was also an accomplished salsa dancer and puppeteer who wrote and produced her own plays, sang, and acted. Ema was a voracious reader; from a young age, she fell in love with science. Additionally, she was naturally interested in other people’s opinions and enjoyed having conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds.
By her early twenties, she was a much-loved singer and actress. She represented her country at various music festivals. In 2005, however, her career took an unexpected direction — she stood up for a 17-year-old Syrian actress who was being berated by a noted director from Ema’s theater, Hani Al-Nissat. After being confronted by Ema, Al-Nissat physically attacked her, kicking her in the stomach so hard that she flew across the room. Al-Nissat was stopped by the crowd of bystanders who knew Ema, but he later brought false witnesses to bear against Ema to prevent the matter from going forward in the court of law.
Al-Nissat is still a well-known director. Two years ago he beat a female teacher, yet once again nothing was done. This type of hypocrisy turned Ema off. She walked away from the theater, and despite public adulation, refused to participate in any more festivals.
Ema’s calling found its roots in her long-standing fascination with science. Although she never finished college, Ema read a variety of books focused on the sciences, and she started her own musical group which she called Anthropology. As an independent performer, she produced and directed The Prophet, based on Kahlil Gibran’s seminal work, for which she also composed music. Ema was seeking to reach out to an intellectual audience, moving away from the type of crowds that would support Al-Nissat.
Soon she performed her first concert with the band, singing in multiple languages to the delight of her audience. From 2008 to 2010, she continued touring and growing in popularity, introducing modernity and international melodies to the more traditional scene of Kuwait.
The merger of tradition and modernity fascinated her. She vividly recalled the events that took place during Iraq’s invasion, which brought about Islamism and the end of traditional Kuwaiti culture. The colorful outfits, mixed dancing, and traditional Kuwaiti music scene and lore were gone. Rather than give in, Ema embraced Western genres of music.
In 2010, her Lebanese friend Fadhi introduced her to a Hebrew song which turned out to be a game-changer. Prior to that incident, Ema had no deep encounters with Jews. They were an unknown group in Kuwait, and yet also a taboo topic. This forbidden group and an unheard-of language aroused Ema’s interest, but she was also attracted to the novelty of the melody, which fit in well with her pluralistic repertoire.
Ema’s then-boyfriend, a wealthy Palestinian, attacked Ema for her “Zionist” song (in reality, Hava Nagila is a traditional wedding song), and for abandoning the Palestinian cause. Ema got angry and told him she cared nothing for the Palestinian cause. She, like many young Kuwaitis growing up with the images of Saddam Hussein’s attempted annexation of her home country, remembered Yasser Arafat aided Hussein’s brutal invasion.
Ema, by this point, had been serving with a number of human rights organizations and had assisted young people from a variety of backgrounds. She refused to mix political causes with human rights, nor saw an ineluctable connection. She left her boyfriend for good that night.
Soon enough, however, the outrage swept into her professional life as well. Widely condemned for her rendition of Hava Nagila, Ema was invited to several talk shows and repeatedly asked whether she would like to apologize for her decisions. Ema not only refused to do so, she embraced her decision, thus creating even more fodder for anger inside the country. Although generally ignorant about Jews and Israel, Kuwait received its information on those subjects from the conspiracy-ridden, one-sided Mideast media.
Although she continued touring, she was receiving threats on a regular basis. However, Ema was unstoppable. Her curiosity about Jewish artists and music persisted. Enrico Macias was one of her favorite singers; she studied one of his songs in French for two months in order to be able to sing it correctly. At the same time, Ema continued with satirical subversion in her music videos, such as “Masheenee Alcketiara,” which plays on the contrasts of the traditional Kuwaiti culture and the entrance of the modernity. The music video earned Ema 18 awards, including one from Hollywood. (Due to the nature of the content, the song is not yet publicly available. Its description reads: “A traditional Kuwaiti girl seeking life beyond her society, to achieve her ambitions and dreams in the modern era, to sing, to dance, and to flourish. We don’t know for sure if it’s a dream or reality. Entertainment and Humor.”) At the same time, she continued an acting career which won her several awards.
In November 2015, Ema’s performance at a human rights concert with the participation of the women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai resulted in a false arrest by the local police.
Shortly after that incident, she traveled the United States to pursue additional career opportunities in Los Angeles. During this visit, she was introduced to me by a mutual friend, Iraqi activist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. He works for Advancing Human Rights and social media platform Movements.org, which matches the persecuted with activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians and other advocates around the world.
In March 2016
In March, the 19th Annual Sephardic Film Festival opened with Ema Shah performing five songs and receiving its Pomegranate Award for risking her life to perform a Hebrew song and for not relenting under death threats.
Some ISIS supporters have found safe harbor in Kuwait, utilizing their positions there to instigate the public against any kind of modernization or liberalization of cultural norms. It is not that Kuwait is missing any potential for moral or cultural progress; there are secularists, liberals, and open-minded individuals of all sorts, but they fear a backlash of the sort that Ema has faced.
It will take many years and more courageous souls such as Ema to change Kuwait. Ema takes her position as Kuwait’s daredevil cultural ambassador to modernity very seriously — she accepted ASF’s invitation and stayed for the week-long duration of the festival, to meet new people, see the films, and scheme for future engagements and performances. Here, Ema and Faisal, an Iraqi and a Kuwaiti, discussed human rights with a Jewish organization. They demonstrate that there are no limits to the human spirit, that noxious dogmas can be abandoned.
Ultimately, any movement is started by a few willing to overcome the insurmountable. We, on the other side in a safer place, must meet people like Ema halfway, offering opportunities and support.
Also in March, we had the honor of hosting Ema for Shabbat dinner. Shabbat is a time to open up your home to friends and strangers alike, to bond over good food, the light of the candles, and whatever else brings you enjoyment. To put away the stresses of the week and to focus on the eternal. Ema was there with us, in a Jewish home, seeing how we wrap up the week and do what our nation has done for thousands of years. We live in a modern home in the United States, and we choose to embrace the good ideas that have kept us together as a nation and as a culture for so long while also embracing others who wish to share those moments with us.
After dinner, Ema shared the most precious things she could have given us — her time, her beautiful voice, a beautiful performance with the guitar. In the end, it’s all anyone needs — a few good people willing to stand up for the right thing, a few people to include in your little circle. That alone inspires courage and the will to fight.
Ema stayed on, and performed at the closing night as well. That night brought not only Faisal and our Moroccan friends, but also many Iraqis and even a Palestinian. Ema performed in various languages in a more informal setting. We enjoyed delicious Iraqi food after seeing films about Iraqi dishes and music, we mingled and chatted, and it was a room full of happy, convivial people who would otherwise never have met.
Ema will be back, and we will have more nights like these. While building on them, we know that the first steps towards transformation have been taken, that there is no turning back, and though much of our future plans may be an uphill battle, there is a clear goal. A much better future to look forward to, all thanks to the “bad girl” of the Middle East who dared to sing in Hebrew.