For a high-profile singer and actress with a three-album deal and a leading role in a forthcoming Israeli film, Mira Awad is unusually preoccupied with questions of identity.
On Sunday night, she was to receive a human rights award from the New Israel Fund at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London, along with the Israeli-Jewish singing star, Noa. But not everybody felt like celebrating back home.
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Awad is a member of a minority within the Jewish state that, while equal in the eyes of the law, faces discrimination and challenges from both sides about loyalty and identity. The very reason for the award — her decision to represent Israel with Noa in last year’s Eurovision Song contest — provoked a storm of controversy.
“Each side wants me to align myself with them,” she said in her small Tel Aviv apartment. “Israelis would like me to show alliance with the Israeli state, to prove my loyalty. On the other side, I have to prove my loyalty to the Palestinians who ask if I have forgotten my father was kicked out of his village in 1948.”
“I’m tired of being cornered all the time, of having to explain myself. Most of the time I’m making both sides unhappy because I don’t do what they want, but I don’t live in a black-and-white world. This place is very complicated,” she said.
The collaboration between the two artists, which goes back 10 years, has been condemned as much as welcomed. During the three-week war on Gaza from December 2008 to the beginning of last year, Israel announced that its entry into last year’s Eurovision competition would be sung by Noa and Awad.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to represent this country,” Awad said. “I was very angry, [the war] was so devastating.”
A petition against Awad’s participation, organized by Palestinian and Israeli leftists, called on the singer to withdraw.
“They said I couldn’t represent a country that was killing my own people, that performing would give a green light to the killing of children in Gaza,” Awad said.
After much thought, Awad decided to go ahead.
Having made coexistence and dialogue the hallmark of her beliefs, she felt that she “didn’t want to walk out and slam the door. You can’t solve anything when each is in his bunker.”
However, there was another factor: The recent elevation of right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman to the government. He had campaigned on the slogan “no loyalty, no citizenship,” in reference to Israel’s Arab population.
“He meant me,” Awad said. “Suddenly I felt the importance of nailing my existence to the wall in a way no one could question. I am an Israeli citizen — and I’m here to stay. Eurovision was my way of saying you [Lieberman] are not going to decide who is a citizen of this country. I was here before you.”
(Lieberman emigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978 at the age of 20.)
Awad feels proud of her decision, despite the censure.
“It opened a big window. People now listen to ideas of coexistence and dialogue,” she said.
She had never considered the question of her identity while growing up in a Christian family in an Israeli-Arab village in Galilee. However, as an unconventional teenager, the daughter of a Palestinian doctor and a Bulgarian mother, she faced tensions within her community.
“At 17, I had a bald head, a nose piercing and I was in a rock band, which was unusual. I was criticized for the way I looked and behaved, for being ‘out on the loosem,’ for the people I associated with,” Awad said.