Blending in, but not Necessarily Optimistic: Bassam Beroumi, Arab Rocker in Israel - Between the Personal and the Political

Shlomi Daskal surveys Bassam Beroumi's music and analyzes the social and political context of its content.

Blending in, but not Necessarily Optimistic: Bassam Beroumi, Arab Rocker in Israel -  Between the Personal and the Political
Bassam Beroumi (born in Akko, 1977) is a rock singer, artist, and creator from a family of musicians. His uncle, Samir Shukri, was one of the first Arab artists to sing in Hebrew and burst into the consciousness of Israel’s Jewish population in the late 1980s (he is most remembered for his hit “Rona,” which led him to perform a song about co-existence entitled “From Moshe to Mahmud” at a 1987 music festival). [1] Unlike his uncle, Beroumi does not sing in Hebrew, nor does he aspire to mix into the Hebrew radio marke. At the same time, he does not try to integrate into the mainstream Arabic-language music commonly consumed by Arab society. 

In the late 1990s, Beroumi founded Khalas, which was the first metal-rock band in Israel to sing in Arabic, an unusual phenomenon in the Arab music scene in that country. Despite its affiliation with a loud and rebellious music culture, the band did not rebel against accepted conventions, nor did it present any criticism of the society to which it belonged. In one article on the band Beroumi explained, “We live well, we have nothing to complain about.” [2] Because of the band’s limited success and the difficulty those in the music industry face in making a living in Israel, and in Arab music in particular, Beroumi temporarily retired from the music industry. [3]  He also attempted working as an actor, but retired from that profession as well. His reasoning was because he was typically typecast, according to him, as  “a waiter or a terrorist or a construction worker, or a construction worker that was a waiter that became a terrorist.” He added, “The problem is that I’m in the middle – I’m not Arab enough because I don’t have the accent, and I’m not Jewish – I’m Arab. [4]

In 2016, Beroumi released his first solo album, Sirc (Circus). Music critic Ben Shalev characterized Beroumi as “a minority within a minority” – a musical minority within a national minority, since he does not have many consumers - both because of its language and because of the musical genre.[5] Nevertheless, Beroumi is not entirely alone; recently there has been a considerable awakening in the Arabic-language pop-rock scene  in Israel. Shalev reminds us of Jowan Safadi and Luna Abu Nassar, and alongside them attention should also be paid to Maysa Daw (the daughter of actor Salim Daw), to Rasha Nahas, to the bands Ghazal and Maghnatis (in which Beroumi’s brother Ghassan plays), and to others as well. With few exceptions, most of these works are not intended for Hebrew-speaking society, though occasionally it seems that precisely there they are gaining a wider response.[6]

There are three kinds of songs in Sirc: humorous, personal, and political. While the songs are not arranged according to topic, their order is not coincidental and indeed makes a clear statement on Beroumi’s part. The album opens with a restless instrumental interlude named “Indimaj” (Arabic for blending or fusion). [7] Music critic Tom Yogev finds in the opening a testimony to Beroumi’s image, which combines various musical styles as well as personal and political statements. [8]

Among the humorous songs is “`al Saha” (“On the Dancefloor), which describes the suffering of a man who yearns to dance but is embarrassed that he doesn’t know how. The situation related in the song is reminiscent of Sayed Kashua’s novel, Dancing Arabs, most especially in its sarcastic description of the connection of Arabs to dance, although Beroumi is more empathetic in his criticism than is Kashua. In another song, “ana rayeh” (“I’m Leaving”), he strikes a personal tone in telling about a woman who broke his heart. Another personal song, “erja`i” (“Come Back”), which is not included on the album,[9] reveals the reason for his heartbreak -  that romantic relations between Christians and Muslims hardly ever stand a chance. This point was already raised a decade ago in another cultural work, Ajami, a film co-directed by Yaron Shani and Iscandar Copti.[10] 

A character who is complex, struggling, and at times nearly lost emerges from the personal songs that appear on the album. This idea is reinforced in the song “btitdhakari” (“Do You Remember”), about a failed relationship, wherein the woman moves forward while the man is suspended in daydreams.[11]  In the song “ma’ani” (“Meanings”), the personal and the political are joined when the singer implores his female partner: “Come, let’s get away from all the customs and walls.” [12] The last song in this category, “Jamila,” (“Beautiful Girl”)seems like a routine love song, but also serves a purpose – “Jamila” is placed after the album’s most complex song, as we shall see below, in order to dispel the heavy atmosphere left in its wake. In the past, Beroumi had spoken about the superficiality of songs in Arabic, which deal only with romantic issues. In light of his comments, it is difficult to believe that he would fall into the same trap. [13] 

Three of the album’s songs deal with distinctly political issues: “Sirc” (“Circus”), “kutub al-ta'rikh” (“History Books”), and “laji' ala ardi,” (“Refugee on my Land”). “Sirc,” the song that lends the album its name, describes a world that is run as a circus wherein the rich and powerful take advantage of everyone else. A grim and pessimistic picture of reality is presented in the guise of a jovial and exuberant rhythm. Beroumi defined “kutub al-ta'rikh” as “a political song with a hidden trick” in its lack of clarity on whether the song is written for a woman or for the homeland. [14] The fact that the word “land” is in the feminine form in Arabic contributes to the song’s ambiguity. 

Beroumi gives up on hiding behind wordplay in “laji' ala ardi,” whose title and content undoubtedly refer to the Nakba. Among other things, the song mentions names of destroyed villages like Birweh and Tantura that became iconic symbols, as well as a characteristic motif in Palestinian poetry – the free bird flying the sky of her homeland. [15] The song’s refrain relates the history of the Nakba from the personal viewpoint of the writer, and here Beroumi clarifies what refugeeism is to him: “I’m a refugee in my country/ I live on my land/ The air is not mine/ And not even the water/ I live in my country/ A refugee on my land/ The sun isn’t mine/ And not even the moon.” Here, Beroumi uses and at times confusing interchange  of the words arad (country or land) and balad (village/town or country) to convey the message. However, this feeling is not accompanied by a desire to avenge or rebel, but rather by a sense of passivity or even helplessness. He says, “The history books labor over erasure/ the erasure of my address and the address of my children, I am the forgotten/ thrown out on my own land.” [16] Heard as a song of lamentation, the music contributes to the sensation of mourning, built upon the accentuation of the bass guitar. [17] Beroumi has said of the song, “Most of the time I do feel that I belong, I feel unconflicted and everything is fine, but there are those places, there are those days, that I feel like an outsider.” To this, he added: “The song recounted my experience, of being on land that is mine under a regime I did not choose. I was born to the land of Palestine, when the government and the state are Israel. I was born to an existing reality in which most of the time they [the government and the state] remind me that I am not the ‘so-called’ owner and [that I must] behave as [they] want and as [they] have determined. Therefore, there are impressions here that ‘the sun, the water and the air aren’t mine.”[18] 

The band Khalas did little to innovate in terms of content and therefore, the band’s importance is affixed to the very fact of its existence and not to any particular content that it produced. Beroumi testified that in the days of Khalas they tried to move cautiously and avoid provocation. [19] Sirc reflects the opposite situation – perhaps there are no musical innovations, but its content is more consequential. The album provides a window into a certain layer of Arab society in our time – the young generation in their forties, members of the middle class, who tend to place individualism alongside political consciousness.

In one interview given during the Khalas days, Beroumi explained that the band members don’t see themselves as “anti-artists” like the rapper Tamer Nafar, for example.[20] Nafar tends to hit his listeners with all his intensity and strength in his songs. It sometimes seems that his intensity is so great and repetitive that it loses its meaning. Beroumi’s way is different: he conveys his message in a more personal, subtle, and sophisticated way. He is not an uncompromising political activist, but an artist who wants to tell his story. The main angle of his writing is the personal line, and even the majority of his song lyrics are written in the first person (either singular or plural): “I’m leaving,” “Leave me alone,” “I want to dance as I please,” “You burned me with your love,” and so on. This personal is also expressed in his most nationalist song, in which his feelings are presented as refugees.[21]  In so doing, he serves as an example of a phenomenon evident among Arab artists in Israel, who turn to personal writing and renounce committed political writing.[22] However, it cannot be denied that national consciousness is indeed present in his songs, as evidenced by the third of the album which do deal with national-political issues.

In Sirc, Beroumi is revealed as a creator who lives between the personal and the public, between the national and the civic, and between the desire to blend in and lead a routine life and the reality of belonging to a national minority in Israel. Beroumi states, “I am not against – I am in favor. In favor of connection, in favor of being together […] the question is whether I want to live here and now in wars or in togetherness, and that’s what I say to everyone who asks my political opinion. I don’t want to waste time on blame and sacrifice, but to invest my day[s] in being together […] I don’t believe in working on coexistence, but in being in it. [23]

And indeed, in his songs Beroumi does not view the state as an enemy or adversary as other artists do, and he concerns himself mainly with daily issues. However, he is troubled by the reality of life in Israel. In the survey “Citizenship, Identity and Political Participation” recently conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, it was found, among other things, that most respondents accord more importance to issues connected to routine aspects of their lives (like personal security against crime and violence, dealing with racism, the economy  and employment) than they do to political matters (like issues connected to the Palestinians or the political process). Additionally, it was clarified that many of the respondents in the same age group as Beroumi hold positive attitudes toward their experience of living in Israel, even if they believe that things are not moving in the right direction.[24] This combination of optimism and pessimism is evident throughout Beroumi’s work, with a slight tendency to lean toward pessimism, in my opinion. For him, as for many of his generation, life alongside Jewish society in Israel isn’t just a slogan or a song about coexistence but rather a reality of life, for better or for worse.


Shlomi Daskal is a media researcher on Arab society in Israel. His book, A-shams Radio on the Seam Regulation, Politics, and Economics (co-authored with Tehila Schwartz Altshuler), was published in 2015 by the Israel Democracy Institute.

[1] Samir Shukri, “Rona,";  "From Moshe to Muhammad,”

[2]  Inbal Shatawi, “Singing in Arabic Against The [Arab] Sector” (Hebrew), NRG 14.10.2004. It’s possible to assume that the editor couldn’t resist the temptation to give the article this title even though it contradicts its contents.

[3] Pressure from Beroumi’s family, who had witnessed his uncle’s failed attempts to make a living in music and eventually chose to leave Israel in spite of his success in the eighties and nineties, also contributed to this decision. Eran Eldar, “I’m Going There, Rona” (Hebrew), NRG, 24.10.2008.

[4] Amit Mizrahi, “The Prince of Arab Rock.”  

[5] Ben Shalev, “Refugee on His Land: Israeli Arab Rock Singer Is the Voice of the Minority” Haaretz, 10.09.2016.

[6] There is a Wikipedia page for Beroumi in Hebrew but not in Arabic. This is also true for Luna Abu Nassar,  Joan Safidi and others. See Wikipedia, “Arab-Israeli Singers” (Hebrew).

[7] Bassam Beroumi, “Fusion”,

[8]  Tom Yogev, “Blend in, Don’t Shake Things Up” (Hebrew), Columbus, 7.08.2016,

[9]  ارجعي – بسام بيرومي ,  

[10]Yaron Shani and Escander Copti, Ajami, 2009.

[11] The song’s opening recalls the song “Fasatin” (“Dresses”) by the Lebanese band Mashru Layla. The song is about an interfaith relationship, and in it the relationship fails as well.

[12] In this sentence it is unclear whether the meaning is walls (aswar) or voices (aswat). In either case, the general meaning does not change.

[13] ”Qahwetna” (“Our Coffee”), mix tv, 3.10.2010

[14] Yogev, see citation 31.

[15] This motif appears in innumerable songs. It gained more strength in recent years following Gaza native Mohammed Assaf’s 2013 “Arab Idol” victory. He chose to sing “Ya ter al-ta’ir” for the finale, a song that depicts a bird flying over Palestine who has been asked to say hello to her cities.

[16] Passivity is also expressed in the song “kutub al-ta'rikh” in which Beroumi speaks about the books of history that were erased, leading to the erasure of memory, all of which is given from a passive point of view.

[17] Shalev, see citation 28.

[18] Yogev, see citation 31.

[19] Galit Adot “Arab Metal” (Hebrew), Maariv, 13.07.2016.

[20] Shatawi, see citation 25.

[21] Khalas also had a nationalist song – “Biladi” (“My Country”), but in it Beroumi sang about the Palestinian people (and not of the individual Palestinian) in a pompous tone that is characteristic of the metal-rock genre.

[22] Janan Bsoul,“ What Occupation? New Generation of Palestinian Writers Shifts Focus From Politics to 'Life Itself'” Haaretz, 04.06.2017,

[23] Adot, see citation 42.

[24] Itamar Radai and Arik Rudnitsky, “Citizenship, Identity and Political Participation: Measuring Attitudes of the Arab Citizens in Israel,” Bayan, Volume 12, December 2017.