Mira Awad, Arab singer: ‘The alternative to peace is the hell we see now’

The artist represented Israel at Eurovision with a controversial song about peace in a duet with her famous friend Noa. That was in 2009. She wouldn’t do it again today. She criticizes both Hamas and Israelis’ ‘blindness’ when it comes to Gaza

Mira Awad
Mira Awad, on Saturday at her home in London.Carmen Valiño
Antonio Pita

Physical distance (she moved to London last year) does not spare Mira Awad the pain of what is happening in her homeland. The expression ‘homeland’ has many possible meanings for someone who has so many layers of identity. The daughter of a Christian Palestinian doctor displaced in the Nakba and of a Bulgarian Slavist, Awad has lived most of her life in overwhelmingly Jewish Tel Aviv. In 2009, she became the first Palestinian with Israeli citizenship to represent Israel at Eurovision, when she performed a duet with her friend Noa. An Arab and a Jew were singing for peace under the same flag. Their performance took place a few months after an Israeli offensive in Gaza that was considered brutal at the time, but which has been vastly overshadowed by Israel’s current offensive, which has caused 15 times more deaths. The title of the song sounds prophetic today: There Must Be Another Way.

A singer, actress and composer, Awad was criticized by her own people, who accused her of representing the country that discriminates against her, betraying her fellow Palestinians and allowing herself to be used for political purposes to present a coexistence that doesn’t exist. She defended the importance of grays in the midst of polarization and the need to send a message of hope. She still believes in the same thing, but she would not represent Israel in Eurovision again after such a bloody 2023. “It’s all pretty dark,” she admits.

Since the Hamas attack on October 7, she has been participating in joint vigils of Jews, Christians and Muslims in London for peace in the Middle East, avoiding social networks (“they are designed to feed on our fears, hatred and anger,” she criticizes) and insisting on the need to recognize each others’ pain. She spent a few days in Fuerteventura in Spain’s Canary Islands to try to disconnect from the images of Gaza (where she chats as best she can with friends) and the reproaches she receives from Jewish and Arab friends, who accuse her of navigating between two waters. On Wednesday, she will sing alongside Noa in a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, whose funds will go to the Israeli forum that represents the relatives of the hostages in Gaza and to two women’s organizations for peace, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. She sounds sad during the video call.

Question. How has October 7 changed you?

Answer. It changed all of us. Every time you think you’ve seen the worst of humanity, something new comes up, and you see even worse. It was another low point where, especially as a Palestinian, I felt disgusted, appalled and angry. That these crazy people [Hamas] did those brutal actions in the name of the Palestinian cause. And now we see what it brought on the Palestinians living in Gaza. I am not ashamed of being Palestinian. I am ashamed of them being a part of what I call being a Palestinian.

That same day I was crying from all the things that I was hearing that were happening in Israel and calling friends in Israel because a lot of my friends go to those parties [like the festival that was attacked, Nova]. But as I was doing that, I thought, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen in Gaza now?” I was starting to worry about the retaliation because I was sure it would be very big and very horrendous. So it has been exhausting because... what can you do as a peace activist? I can’t bring global peace. What I can bring as an artist is little windows that I can open between the communities to show them that on the other side, there is a human being. And, as a peace activist, involve other activists because, like Noa, I am on the board of many wonderful organizations that are doing amazing work on the ground with the Israeli and Palestinian communities. Every time something like this happens, it’s like you’ve started to build a building and it gets bombed. And you say: how do I start again now that people are under the rubble? I’m sorry I’m using this metaphor, but it is very vivid for us right now. When people are under the rubble of destruction, you cannot convince them to think about peace and the people on the other side. Every time it’s like one step forward and 11,000 steps backwards. It is very exhausting.

I’m trying to keep away from social media. I hate it because now it is just a place where we are hurting each other. Algorithms love it when we hate each other

On the other hand, I just don’t see another option. What is the alternative to peace? What we see now. So we have to pick ourselves up from the rubble, the devastation, the despair, the pain, the anxiety and the worry, and move forward together, because there is no other alternative. The alternative is hell. And we are seeing hell in front of our eyes every day. Is this how we want to see Gaza? How is this going to lead to a flourishing, prosperous life, not only for the Palestinians, but also for Israelis? If your neighbor, half an hour drive from you, is under rubble, with no place to live, no job, no schools, no routine, how can you be happy? There is no equation in the world that says that if they are living in this hell, you will be living in heaven.

Another idea that increasingly baffles me is how easily people are ready to send their children to fight in a war. There is no ethos for the sacrifice that we need for peace. When I talk to people about the necessity for peace, they tell me: “Yes, but the other side doesn’t want it.” And I say: “that’s okay, but you want it, you have to show that you want it.” And they say: “What if I do the compromises and they stab me in the back?” I tell them that we’re always going to have the bunch of extremists or people who are going to disturb the peace and disturb the processes and try to create mayhem, but I promise you 100%, it will be less sacrifice than war.

I’m trying to keep away from social media. I hate it because now it is just a place where we are hurting each other. Algorithms love it when we hate each other. It is built to feed on our fears, hate, anger, rage.

I promised myself I will not share anything. We all want to show the world what is happening in Gaza and the south of Israel, but what we’re really doing is sharing snuff violence. You don’t know how many letters I get from angry people. Israelis are angry because I’m not sharing the horrible images from the south of Israel. And Palestinian friends are enraged that I’m not sharing pictures of dead children and dismembered children from Gaza. The problem with social media is that you cannot have a complex discourse. It’s very shallow. It has to fit in a tweet. Complexity will not be shared, it will not go viral, it will not go anywhere.

And I don’t think you have to choose. You can stand with the Palestinian nation for the freedom of Palestine and condemn the actions of Hamas in the south of Israel and say: “I am with your freedoms, with your full rights, but I am against that.” It’s the same for the other side. It is okay to be for the Israeli nation right now in its pain and loss and demand the return of the hostages and the safety of civilians in Israel, but criticize the government.

Q. Have you changed how you define your identity?

A. No, but in recent years I have been thinking about why we are still going with nation states, with often arbitrary borders. I consider myself a human belonging to the human nation. Of course, I come from a Palestinian father and a Bulgarian mother, I grew up in Israel. All of these things brought beautiful things into my personality, into my heritage, into my culture, into my traditions. Now I am married to a Ukrainian. That got added into my life. He’s half Jewish, that also got added to my life. Why not? The more the merrier. I don’t understand why we are so possessive about identities.

I don’t think you have to choose. You can stand with the Palestinian nation for the freedom of Palestine and condemn the actions of Hamas in the south of Israel

Q. I was referring to whether it has changed the way you feel when you say you are Palestinian and Israeli.

A. I am Israeli-Palestinian. I’m both. And Bulgarian, by citizenship as well. But first and foremost, I am human. Of course, I have my sentimental value for being Palestinian. It makes me happy when I hear the language, the music, when I eat Palestinian food. It is the same when I’m in Bulgaria. And in Israel, the weather, the people I love. Even Hebrew, which is not one of my cultures, but I love it and I have listened to music in Hebrew all my life.

I’m a very realistic person. I’m not a tree hugger. And I believe we can make peace because if we do things differently, we’re going to reach different results. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to end up in the same place, which is exactly where we are now: the cycle of doing the same thing and getting the same result. And, from time to time, it’s worse.

Q. When you sang with Noa in 2009 there was a whole debate and you said that you did it more for the future. Fourteen years later, it seems that the situation was better then.

A. Ahinoam [Noa] and I are not the same. We don’t have exactly the same ideas. We share some visions and concepts, but we have different narratives and sensitivities. But that’s all. Over time we understand that we are the same in more ways and we have to respect those differences.

Q. Have you found it difficult to talk to your Israeli Jewish friends since October 7?

A. Some conversations are difficult because, like I said, they are under the rubble right now. They are in a state of emergency, with high anxiety, fear and worry. When someone is traumatized, I don’t try to argue with them and convince them. I’m just say, “Listen, I’m here for you.”

Some say or share things on social media about Palestinians or Palestine in general that, in my opinion, are horrible. And it hurts. But I know they are saying it from a place of deep despair and anxiety. Everyone in Israel and Palestine is in deep trauma. And human beings are not meant to be in survival mode 24/7 for two months.

Many Palestinian friends are not happy because I do not broadcast the message they expect, because I keep it balanced. I want to address both sides, not because I think everything is equal. I am not comparing sufferings, but I do make a point of always addressing both sides.

On the other hand, I have friends in Gaza that I’m in constant relationship with on over WhatsApp, when they have WhatsApp because sometimes there’s no internet. Israelis like to say: “We left Gaza in 2005,” but that’s not the case. They control everything coming in and out, including water, electricity, the internet. Israelis don’t know these things. Israelis right now are being kept from seeing what is happening in Gaza by their government and by their media. They are completely blinded. They are given a terminology that says that every bombing in Gaza is justified. The average Israeli is being kept in complete darkness as to what is happening in Gaza, including all the destruction and the deaths, the death tolls, and of course the gritty and ugly details of the humanitarian crisis.

P. As a Palestinian, don’t you sometimes feel the need to focus on these issues that Jewish Israelis don’t know about?

A. Yes, sometimes I do. And it’s very hard because I want to be understanding of the trauma that people are going through. I want to tell them: “I understand that you’re hurting, but you cannot be blind to the hurting of other people.”

I have to also remind you that my father was expelled from his village [in the Nakba, between 1947 and 1949]. Exactly like these people are being displaced from their neighborhoods in Gaza and with the same methods: they throw brochures on them from planes. My father, as a 12-year-old kid, remembers the brochures coming down from the sky, telling them that for their own protection, they should leave their village. He was displaced from his village, although they returned and luckily it was still standing. When he’s seeing these people from Gaza, with their children on their backs, leaving their homes, he is watching the Nakba all over again. These are familiar photos for him. He can’t believe that this is happening again in front of his eyes. Seventy-five percent of Gazans are refugees from that time. It’s like an ongoing trauma and the Israelis don’t think about, they don’t know, they are blind to that trauma. They don’t know why these Palestinians are fighting. What do they want from us? It’s amazing how this discourse has won. The Palestinian issue has been swept under a carpet so thick that people are living on it. What do you mean by occupation? We’e not occupying. It’s a very difficult conversation to have right now.

Q. You propose a ceasefire. Most Israelis would say that there is no guarantee there won’t be a second October 7.

A. How do I make sure it doesn’t rain tomorrow? There is no way to make sure of anything. But facts have shown us that if we keep on living the routine of conflict, we will be making a fertile ground for hatred, despair, depression and oppression. And, of course, this will bring another wave of resistance, of retaliation, whatever you want to call it. But if we are putting our efforts towards developing an environment of acknowledgement, dignity, equal rights, freedom of movement, choice, thought and expression, we are making the ground fertile for other things.

It has exploded in the ugliest and most brutal way possible. And it will blow up again if we keep the same mindset as Israel right now: going to Gaza, wiping it out and getting control.

Q. You sang at Eurovision in 2009, after another offensive in Gaza. Would you do it again this year if you were asked to?

A. In 2009 I hoped to open a door, but nothing changed. I was really motivated, even to sacrifice myself, to be making change. It was also a very rough time and a very complex environment to represent Israel. But I went through with it because I thought that, even with the hardship, it will make a mark, it will start a path. I wouldn’t do it today. Maybe it’s age. Or that I’m not as enthusiastic as before. I feel like that door is closed. I hope we reopen it, but it’s pretty dark right now.

Q. So?

A. It breaks me to think that there is a small chance that after all this we will go back to the same shit and nothing will change, but I really want to have hope. Otherwise, in two or three years we will talk about this again. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?

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