In late september 2012, while being in Istanbul for gigs, receiving a peace prize and applying for a turkish citizenship, singer Kobi Farhi of israeli Orphaned Land took time to answer my questions. The interview was published in Sweden’s biggest news magazine. This is the whole interview, word by word, in english.
What does the name Orphaned Land actually mean symbolically – is it Israel, is it the Middle East?
– The first meaning you can describe is of course Israel. It is like a paraphrase to the Promised Land or the Holy Land. If that was the description thousands of years ago, and still is described as a holy land… we were 16 years old when we started the band, this was 21 years ago. As youngsters we looked upon our land, and we saw the huge amount om misunderstanding, the wars, we could not see what holiness was left out of this orphaned land. After the huge amount of blood, the wars, human meanings are failed again and again. Human life is sacred, we could have conflicts and disagreements, but the fact that we kill each other, raise our swords or gun or tanks. This is a complete misunderstanding. That is why we saw this land as an orphaned land more than a promised land.
What was it that started Orphaned Land when you put the band together in the early 1990s – you wanted to be the next great Metallica, or you wanted to become more of the peace messengers that you are now?
– We were 16 years old, and our first idea was to have our own metal band. We liked a lot of the metal bands and felt that the music was uncompromising, it is true, not radio friendly. The vocalist shouting everything to your face. We liked that and wanted to do that ourselves. We noticed that there are many bands from Germany, US, England, Sweden of course. But in the Middle East we lacked bands. So we tried to sound like the bands in Europe and the US. But we figured out that we have a lot of influences in our own country, in our own region, in our culture. And we wanted to use that and create a new genre of music. And that is what we did.
But what about the message you have today – was it there from the beginning?
– Yes, that message was the same then as it is today. If you take our album from 1994, even back then I took part from the Quran, in Arabic and in English, and used part from the Jewish bible, and I used Hebrew and Arabic, and the subject was always about the Middle East situation. Sahara Storm is about the conflict between muslims and jews. I’ve never written a song about my personal life, like my girlfriend or stuff like that.
Tell me about the problems you face as an Israeli band trying to play live to all of your fans – you are not welcome to all countries in your region, true?
– First of all, the story starts ten years ago. I wasn’t aware that Arabic people or muslim people were following an Israeli or jewish band. Because it doesn’t make sense. Even in football, Manchester United does not cheer for Liverpool. And that is only football. How came blood enemies follow their enemy? That does not make sense. And that was what happened to me.
– I was sitting at my computer and I got an e-mail from a Palestinian guy, living in Jordan. The e-mail consisted of a video file. When I looked at the video file, I could see a dude, I could not see his face, but I heard our music in the background. He lifted up his sleeve, his t-shirt. And I saw that he had a tattoo of Orphaned Land on his arm. That was the moment that changed my life completely.
– Until that point, the band was in some kind of break. And we did not do too much between the years of 1996 and 2001. When I got this e-mail I realized, I’ve always loved music and music was always a big part of my heart and life, but I did not realize how much power music has, I did not realize that music is a weapon, not a weapon to divide, but to unite.
– So I asked the band members, what more important can you do than being in your band? You could be business man, successful in hi tech, in stock market, but if you have children, a family, if you care about your country and humanity, this is the best thing you could do for mankind.
– From that point it has grown more and more and more. I’ve seen more fans with tattoos, from Lebanon and Dubai. I think that thousands of fans are following Orphaned Land because we can act freely in the Middle East. If you are a metalhead in Syria, in Iran, it is hard to be a metal musician, because people hassle you about your Metallica t-shirt, about your long hair. We even heard about an Orphaned Land fan [in Egypt] who was thrown in jail because of us.
– Rock music is actually illegal in Iran. So it turned out ironically that the Israeli band became the leaders of the genre in the Middle East. People from Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, they could listen to Orphaned Land and immediately feel that Orphaned Land is representing their culture too. We are representing their language, their music scale, their culture. And if you think about it, jews and muslims are not that different from each other. It is just politics that divide them. We are sons from the same father.
– Back to your question – the reality is that as an Israeli I cannot enter Syria, I cannot enter Iran, I cannot enter Lebanon. I can go to Egypt and Jordan but this is really dangerous for me to do that. No one can guarantee that I can get home. There is still a huge amount of people who is brainwashed or who will hurt me.
– The only choice that we have where we can meet those fans is when we play in Istanbul in Turkey. Turkey is a muslim country, but is a free republic, a democracy. In Turkey you can be who you are, you can be a metalhead, a homosexual, religious, it is a great country and that is why I ask for a Turkish citizenship. I strongly feel that Turkey is a model for a great modern muslim country. Imagine that Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Egypt after the Arabic spring, imagine that they will succeed to adopt the Turkey model. That would be amazing!
– Yes we are musicians who cannot play for all of our fans, that is a sad reality for us. I am in touch with many fans in these countries.
– In Istanbul the majority are Turkish people. But I see flags from other countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iran. But this is only the ones who can afford to travel to Turkey. It is expensive, travelling and hotels. I always ask the promoter to bring these fans backstage, they are always bringing us presents, they are kissing me and you know what, they even kiss the flag of Israel when the camera is off. Because we know, yes, there is a conflict, but we are talking to each other, we do not have problem with each other, we want to live together, we do not mind living in the same building. Last year we were on a tour with bands from Tunisia, from Jordan and from Algeria. And our belly dancer is from Lebanon. We lives together in a tour bus, were we can smell each other’s feet! Each other’s clothes. We lived like that for one month. Like a happy family! We do not need the politics or the propaganda. I see the easy reality, we can get along if we want to.
Are you in contact with the underground bands in your region, outside of Israel?
– Yes. But the bands we toured with, some of them live in European countries. Yes, we are in contact, they see us as the founders of the genre. They always admire us, appreciate us, want to tour with us, because when we play in Europe the fans that are coming are fans of Middle East oriented metal, so our fans can become their fans. We are an example to politicians. I am proud of my band, and proud of those people that has changed their opinion about Israelis. ”Okay I have read in the news paper to believe that A, B, C. But have I ever met an Israeli?” I’ve even asked myself this: ”Have I ever met a Palestinian guy? An Arabian guy? Have I had a decent honest conversation with them?” At one point in my life the answer was no. But I have decided that I am clever enough to judge for myself.
I read in an interview with you that the photo where you are dressed up as different religious people is controversial – but is it considered controversial when you do it?
– It is controversial indeed. But our fans immediately understood. We got some hostile reactions even for using the image of Jesus by catholic people. Some orthodox jews asked me why the jews were on their knees or stuff like that. And arabs asked me why are the arabs are holding the jewish prayer book? I explained it to them, that we are trying to unite cultures. We are trying to do it in an artistic way, we are trying to explain that this is possible, this is beautiful.
– Sometimes muslims are pissed off at me because I use texts from the Quran. I combine it with a very seroius text, serious lyrics. I read the Quran to find the text. We did it with a lot of respect, with dignity. A guy 500 years ago told us that we should not combine the Quran with music and we are following like blind sheep? I cannot accept this. In order to change the fucked up reality, that we raise kids and send them to the army, we must let people think and judge for themselves.
Many people say that metal helps them deal with their aggressions, but for you it seems that metal do the opposite?
– We are coming from a region of aggressions. How much aggression do we need to face? Israel has existed for less than 70 years, and we already have had five wars. Terror. Conflicts. Take the other side, the Palestinians, this is the same story for the. Or the Arab countries, this is the same story for them. We have conflicts of war, of civilians killed, of soldiers killed. Aggression is all over us. Wherever I look there is aggression. I take that aggression and turn it into something else. That is why I chose metal music. To transform aggression into something that unites people, creates brotherhood, friendship, a strong bond between enemies. This is not new age music. This is heavy metal. Could probably only happened in the Middle East and in our region.
I think you have answered the following question indirectly already, but I ask it anyway: Are you against religion in general, since it causes so much trouble, or are you indifferent?
– No, I respect it. I have a lot of friends who are religious. But I have many problems with it. I do not follow any religion myself, but if you ask me, I think music is the biggest religion. Because music literary brings people together, it does not claim to be the absolute truth or way to God, or to heaven or to hell. Music is there to embrace you, to help you in you bad moments. It can combine all religions together.
If you were born in Europe or the US – would you still play music like Orphaned Land? That is, how important is being born in Israel for a band like Orphaned Land?
– You know, speaking about Sweden, we worked with Steven Wilson as a producer on our last album, who also worked with Opeth which is a great band. One day I was sitting with Steven Wilson, and he told me ”You know, if Opeth were born in Israel they would have been Orphaned Land. And if you were born in Sweden, you would have been Opeth.”
So what does the metal community in Israel – Eternal Grey, Salem and so on – say about your broad fan base – are you unique?
– Everyone think that we are unique, and they are proud of us. In many ways we are the flag band of our region.
And Israelis in general?
– People are proud of what we do. Israel is a big machine for bad news. But Orphaned Land is good news. Everyone who hear our story are amazed, they see us as true ambassadors of the country. People are disappointed of the government, or media, or how Israelis are represented in media. So this is definitely good news.
What does internet mean to Orphaned Land in order to unite your fans?
– We owe internet a lot because it wouldn’t be possible for us to reach Arabian countires without Internet. If it wasn’t for internet it would be very hard for Arabian metalheads to be aware of Orphaned Land. There is no commercial benefit, we have even put our album for legal download for free in some Middle Eastern countries. The benefit is bigger than the economical side. I wouldn’t like Swedish fan to download our music illegally though, but in Syria, I’m okay with that.
– And then you have Facebook as well. We always send greetings for the holiday, for all religions even muslim holidays.
Yes, following you on Facebook really shows how wide your fan base is. This I have to ask you – will you ever become a politician?
– No, I contribute more by being a musician. As a politician I belong to a few people who are against other people. As a musician, I belong to everybody, to Palestinians, as much as to Israelis. And to Swedes as much as to Germans and Americans. This privilege I do not want to lose. And I would lose it as a politician.