Meet the 'Bad Girl' Who Faces Death Threats for Singing 'Hava Nagila' in Kuwait

“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.

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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.

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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.