ABSTRACT

Israeli singer Dana International has been celebrated abroad for, first, the “scandal” surrounding her popularity in Arab countries and especially Egypt; second, her victory at the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest; and for her transsexual status and her prominent role in Israel’s LGBTQ scene. The significance of her Mizrahi (“Eastern” Jewish), Yemeni background, has remained relatively unexamined, especially outside Israel. The family of Yaron Cohen, the future Dana International, belonged to the wave of thousands

of Yemeni Jews that migrated to Israel in the late 1940s. After spending time in Israel’s notorious ma’abarot, the rough tent camps where Jewish migrants to Israel from Arab countries were routinely dumped (Nivelle 1998), the Cohen family eventually settled in Kerem ha-Temanim, an old neighborhood of Tel Aviv founded by Yemenites in 1903. It was in this community, with its majority Yemeni population, that Yaron was born in 1972. He no doubt grew up hearing the local bands that routinely performed at weddings and parties and that were key players in the growing Mizrahi music scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Kerem ha-Temanim was home to several of the era’s most important Yemeni/Mizrahi artists, including vocalists Daklon, Moshe Ben-Mosh, Rami Danokh, and Ahuva Ozeri, and the group Tselile ha-’ud (Horowitz 2010; Saada-Ophir 2006). By the mid-1980s the music of Mizrahi artists, which came to be known as Israeli Mediterranean music, was making inroads into the Israeli cultural mainstream. The music was Eastern-tinged, more Greek-flavored than Arabic. Yaron, who began singing at an early age, claims to have been influenced in particular by the popular Mizrahi singer Ofra Haza, whose 1984 album Yemenite Songs, a collection of traditional Yemeni music sung in Hebrew, was a bestseller in Israel. Yaron began to frequent the gay clubs of Tel Aviv as a teenager, and he eventually joined

the drag review of Ofer Nissim, a DJ and producer, also of Yemeni heritage. Yaron specialized in doing drag parodies of popular Israeli and American songs, at gay clubs in Eilat and Tel Aviv. It was his performance of an “Eastern” sounding song, however, that caused his career to take off. Ofer Nissim dreamed up a drag scenario in which Yaron was Whitney Houston in Saudi Arabia, performing her 1991 hit “My Name Is Not Susan,” a song of a woman outraged because her boyfriend has confused her with his ex. Yaron added Arabic verses to the Whitney original, and screamed at the conclusion of the chorus, “My name is not Sa‘ı-da!” “Saida Sultana,” as the song was known, was the first cult hit on the drag circuit for Dana International, the stage name that Yaron adopted, and it was released as a single in 1992. In 1993 Dana put out her first

album, Danna International (her first name was rendered “Danna” in English on her earliest recordings; “Dana” became standard in 1996). It was an immediate hit, achieving gold status in Israel. Four of the album’s ten songs featured Dana singing in (mostly) Arabic: the title track, “Dana International,” “Samar-mar,” a version of Egyptian sha’bi singer Hassan al-Asmar’s “Samara,” “Arusa” (Bride), and “Saida Sultana.” She sang two of the remaining six songs on the album in English; one, a cover of Baccara’s 1977 Euro-disco hit, “Yes Sir I Can Boogie,” and the other, “Ha-Hatzga Chayyevet L-Himshakh,” a cover of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” sung in Hebrew and English. She sang the remaining three tracks in Hebrew. Most of the album was in the dance vein.