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

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.

She learned the song and sang it at a concert in Kuwait shortly thereafter. The fallout was spectacular.

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.