Roy Gilbert

Israel’s Rihanna Is Arab and Jewish

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Dan Balilty for the New York Times

TEL AVIV — Who is the ultimate Israeli of 2020, the personification of this country’s soul? Is it the sunburned soldier? The shaggy tech hustler in Tel Aviv? The hilltop fanatic? The correct answer was revealed to me and 9,000 others a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv: the apparition in a glittering crystal minidress rising from beneath the stage on invisible hydraulics to a burst of strobes and smoke and a teenage shriek into my ear: “Nasreeeen!”

In China it’s the Year of the Rat, but here in Israel it’s the year of Nasrin Kadry, who began life on rough Arab streets near the docks in Haifa and has now, at 33 years old, ascended to the pinnacle of pop in the Jewish state. The biggest concert venues, the judging dais of “The Voice,” A-list duets — all belong to Nasrin. Her improbable rise has much to say about this society and specifically about the way it operates in the places where highbrow experts don’t look. Nasrin, known to all by her first name, became famous the modern way: on a reality TV talent show, a kind of local “American Idol” dedicated to a genre of music known as mizrahi. That’s Hebrew for “eastern” and refers to an Israeli blend of Middle Eastern pop with Greek and Western influences.

She’d been singing for years before that, starting as a kid holding a squeegee stick like a microphone in the mirror, mimicking the actresses in […]

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