Ofra Haza pho­to: Youtube; tele­vi­sion: Gino San­ta Maria

This essay from Ayelet Tsbabari’s mem­oir, The Art of Leav­ing, first appeared in the 2018 issue of Paper Brigade. Review­ing the issue for Tablet, Liel Lei­bovitz praised this touch­ing trib­ute to the late, great Israeli pop star Ofra Haza … the piece is a gor­geous med­i­ta­tion on what it means to try and fit in when prac­ti­cal­ly noth­ing in the cul­ture looks or feels like you, and how one icon­ic singer can inspire a per­son­al and artis­tic transformation.”

In the mid-eight­ies, after an impas­sioned cam­paign led by my broth­er and me, my moth­er had pirat­ed cable installed in our house. One day, two burly men, unshaven and smelling of cig­a­rettes, climbed on our roof and tin­kered with our anten­na. We weren’t the only delin­quents; every­one on the street did it. Israeli tele­vi­sion only had one chan­nel then, which had just begun broad­cast­ing in col­or and offered lim­it­ed pro­gram­ming for about ten hours a day, most of it drea­ry. The only show we watched reli­gious­ly was Fri­day night’s Ara­bic movie: tear-jerk­ing Egypt­ian melo­dra­mas fea­tur­ing volup­tuous, smoky-eyed, big-haired star­lets my moth­er often scold­ed for their bad choic­es. More often than not, I pre­ferred read­ing books to watch­ing tele­vi­sion. The arrival of ille­gal cable changed every­thing; it broad­cast twen­ty-four hours a day, screen­ing movies and minis­eries rent­ed from the local video store, and some late-night erot­i­ca I snuck down­stairs to watch after every­one fell asleep.

One after­noon, dur­ing my mother’s dai­ly nap, I turned on the TV and was delight­ed to hap­pen upon the 1979 Israeli flick Shlager (The Hit), show­cas­ing my child­hood hero Ofra Haza and the song that launched her career, The Fre­ha Song.” I sat crossed-legged in front of the screen, mes­mer­ized by Ofra’s younger incar­na­tion. Fresh-faced and still unknown, she looked a lit­tle bit like fam­i­ly, like one of my more beau­ti­ful cousins.

In the years since the movie was released, Ofra had gone on to become wild­ly famous, win­ning sec­ond place in the 1983 annu­al Euro­vi­sion song con­test (anoth­er tele­vi­sion event we watched duti­ful­ly) dressed in a glit­tery out­fit and singing Israel Is Alive” in Munich, of all places. Lat­er she would go on to become Israel’s biggest musi­cal export to date, sell­ing mil­lions of records around the globe and earn­ing a Gram­my nom­i­na­tion. Lat­er still, a trag­ic fig­ure whose sto­ry would haunt fans long after her death.

Even with­out a devel­oped Yemeni iden­ti­ty, I knew enough to be proud of Ofra Haza. The young singer from Hatik­va Quar­ter, the impov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood in South Tel Aviv, and the youngest of nine chil­dren born to Yemeni immi­grants, was my community’s Cin­derel­la sto­ry and one of few Mizrahi artists who made it into the heart of the Israeli canon. Ofra’s hum­ble begin­nings gave me hope, for I want­ed to be a singer and an actress when I grew up, just like her. I was already in the school’s choir and had tak­en sev­er­al dra­ma class­es, and I had the right genes. I may have nev­er heard of a Yemeni author (which made my oth­er dream of becom­ing a writer seem more far­fetched), but every­one knew that Yeme­nis were great enter­tain­ers. The three times Israel won the Euro­vi­sion con­test, it was rep­re­sent­ed by Yemeni singers. Despite the glar­ing bias against artists of Mizrahi descent and the radio’s sys­tem­at­ic exclu­sion of Mizrahi music — a genre inspired by Mid­dle East­ern and North African musi­cal tra­di­tions and rhythms — those Yemeni singers were seen as great ambas­sadors for Israel’s image. Euro­pean view­ers went crazy for their exot­ic” looks, their dance moves, and their Yemeni fros. Our singing voice and our cui­sine — spicy, doughy, often yel­low with turmer­ic and fra­grant with fenu­greek and cilantro — were our great­est con­tri­bu­tions to Israeli culture.

In the movie, just before Ofra breaks into The Fre­ha Song,” she asks her date, a bor­ing-look­ing, suit-wear­ing Ashke­nazi man, to dance with her. He replies with con­tempt, Are you some kind of a fre­ha whose head is between her legs?” Even at eleven, I knew what fre­has were — knew I didn’t want to become one. The fre­ha looked a lot like the star­lets in the Egypt­ian movies we watched every Fri­day. She wore dra­mat­ic make­up and elab­o­rate acces­sories (as Ofra sings, Wher­ev­er the lights are, that’s where I’ll go, with the nail pol­ish, the lip­stick, and oth­er showoffs”). She wasn’t very smart (“I don’t have a head for long words”), liked to par­ty (“I want to dance, I want to laugh”), was promis­cu­ous (“I want dur­ing the days, I want dur­ing the nights”), and she knew, deep inside, that she would nev­er escape the poor neigh­bor­hood she came from (“At the end of every fre­ha hides a small hous­ing project, a hus­band, and air pol­lu­tion from a thou­sand directions”).

I also knew that the fre­ha was Mizrahi. Not just because in the movie she was por­trayed by a Yemeni actress, or because the term orig­i­nat­ed from a name com­mon among women of North African descent, derived from the Ara­bic word for hap­pi­ness.” But also because I had seen fre­has in my neigh­bor­hood — old­er girls from the tech­ni­cal high school down the street who sat on the bar­ri­cades hold­ing cig­a­rettes with thin, man­i­cured fin­gers, laugh­ing loud­ly, their bod­ies burst­ing from their tight, reveal­ing out­fits, and their gait assured and all-sex. I had seen them on the out­skirts of Sha’ariya, in the new­er addi­tions to the tra­di­tion­al Yemeni neigh­bor­hood where both of my par­ents grew up and my grand­par­ents still lived. Sha’ariya made me uneasy, alive with aspects of my iden­ti­ty I had wished to dis­tance myself from: the loud Mizrahi music blar­ing from car win­dows, the elder­ly women in their head­scarves who squint­ed at me when I walked by with my cousins, ask­ing in their strange syn­tax and thick accents, Bat mi at?” Whose daugh­ter are you? Sim­i­lar­ly, the teenage fre­has I had seen there, loi­ter­ing by the falafel place or at the park, always sur­round­ed by lust­ing boys, brought to light a part of me that I was con­di­tioned to reject. Though I thought myself bet­ter than them, smarter, more versed in the ways of the world, I secret­ly envied the con­fi­dence with which they car­ried them­selves, as though they knew some­thing I didn’t, some­thing about boys, or their bod­ies, or sex, or about how to be hap­py. They were only a cou­ple of years old­er than me, but they appeared to be women already, while I was still a girl.

<p>Though I thought myself bet­ter than them, smarter, more versed in the ways of the world, I secret­ly envied the con­fi­dence with which they car­ried them­selves, as though they knew some­thing I didn’t, some­thing about boys, or their bod­ies, or sex, or about how to be happy.</p>

The Fre­ha Song” had swept through Israel in a fren­zy, remain­ing at the top of the charts for five con­sec­u­tive weeks. Even after this big break, and despite singing main­stream pop that did not fall under the Mizrahi” label, Ofra strug­gled to find lyri­cists and com­posers will­ing to write for her. Even­tu­al­ly, her man­ag­er, Beza­lel Aloni, began writ­ing her music, and lat­er in her career, Ofra wrote her own songs. Her fans vot­ed to award her the Singer of the Year” title, and her albums broke sales records, but the radio rarely played her music. I don’t know why they don’t give me a chance,” she said in an inter­view. Aloni, less diplo­mat­ic, sim­ply said The radio is for Ashke­nazi singers.”

I can’t wear that,” I told my high school friend Yael. She was offer­ing me one of her short, tight skirts to bor­row for the night. We were going danc­ing at Liq­uid Club in south Tel Aviv, a large, smoky hangar that played new wave, pop, and punk. The evening had just begun and I was already far out­side my com­fort zone: I was wear­ing Yael’s styl­ish but­ton-up blouse, and my curly hair was huge after allow­ing Yael to blow dry it upside down while I was bent over the sink. I didn’t know what one did in clubs. I didn’t know how to talk to boys. I didn’t own the right clothes and I couldn’t dance. Unless, of course, I was at a wed­ding with my fam­i­ly and tra­di­tion­al Yemeni music start­ed play­ing. Despite my aver­sion to pop­u­lar Mizrahi music with its undu­lat­ing voic­es and corny lyrics, my body had a vis­cer­al reac­tion to Yemeni beats, to the sound of tin drums — a buzz that coursed through it, com­pelling me to rise to my feet.

At that point, my obses­sion with Ofra had sim­mered down to a mature admi­ra­tion. In junior high I had removed Ofra’s whole­some posters from my walls and replaced them with Madonna’s. Hyper­sex­u­al and provoca­tive, Madon­na was the moth­er of all fre­has, and as a new­ly pro­claimed fem­i­nist I found her empow­er­ing. My hor­ri­fied moth­er sighed and shook her head when­ev­er I left for school dressed in lace and ripped stock­ings, neck laden with chains, arms dan­gling with sil­ver ban­gles that tin­kled loud­ly when­ev­er I flipped a page in my text­book, irri­tat­ing my teach­ers. Thank­ful­ly, that phase was over.

Ofra, too, had matured and turned in a new musi­cal direc­tion. In 1984, she record­ed Yemeni Songs, an album of remixed tra­di­tion­al Yemeni tunes, devo­tion­al and sec­u­lar, in Hebrew and in Ara­bic — songs her moth­er, who was a hen­na singer back in Yemen, had sung to her when she was a child. Ofra appeared on the cov­er in a tra­di­tion­al Yemeni wed­ding gown, an ornate gold­en hood over her head. The record was met with bewil­der­ment. Not until the album was released in Eng­land to great acclaim, and Euro­pean club-goers began hop­ping to the same Yemeni beats I had danced to at fam­i­ly wed­dings, did Israeli media take notice. Her sub­se­quent Yemeni album, Sha­day, sold more than a mil­lion copies world­wide, and won her the New Music Award for Best Inter­na­tion­al Album of the Year in New York.

My friend Yael held the skirt in front of me. Why not?”

Because I’d look like a fre­ha,” I said. Ani­mal prints were also out. Cer­tain shades of lip­stick, such as blood red and neon pink. Dan­g­ly, large ear­rings. Any­thing gold. Any­thing with rhine­stones. Bleached hair, a pop­u­lar trend amongst my fair-skinned friends, was an absolute no-no. A Mizrahi girl with blonde streaks was as fre­ha as one could get.

That’s crazy. You’re not a fre­ha,” Yael said with con­vic­tion. So noth­ing you’ll ever wear will make you look like one.” Yael’s par­ents had come from Poland. She could wear anything.

For a moment I recon­sid­ered. Then I remem­bered how wear­ing the wrong things in junior high dur­ing the ill-fat­ed Madon­na phase got me atten­tion from the wrong men. Old­er Mizrahi men who wore thick gold­en neck­laces and tight T-shirts and too much gel in their hair. In oth­er words, arsim, the male coun­ter­parts of fre­has and plur­al for ars, the col­lo­qui­al Ara­bic word for pimp.” They would inch by me in their cars, lean out­side the win­dow and say unin­spired things like, You’re a flower that needs a con­stant gar­den­er,” and Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”

At fif­teen, I had just devel­oped a set of hips and an ass that drew more atten­tion than I cared for, espe­cial­ly in con­trast to the rest of my scrawny body. Those hips, if I wasn’t pay­ing atten­tion, swayed from side to side when I walked in a man­ner I soon dis­cov­ered could be read as ask­ing for it.” I didn’t even know they did that until a boy at school point­ed it out, laugh­ing and yelling, Look at her mean­tezet!” using an Ara­bic slang word to describe my hip-sway­ing walk. I had a vague notion that the use of an Ara­bic word some­how made it worse. Ars and fre­ha were Ara­bic words, as were many of the com­mon­ly used swear words in Israel. To add insult to injury, Ha-mean­tezet” was the title of a pop­u­lar Mizrahi song, mocked for its shal­low, dis­taste­ful lyrics. The song was about a woman — a fre­ha judg­ing by the depic­tion of her see-through shirt and provoca­tive skirt” — who shakes her two butt cheeks” as she walks, dri­ving the male nar­ra­tor wild with desire. And I knew what they said about Yemeni women, how they were hot,” and good in bed.” I’d heard the jokes meant to illus­trate the stereo­type, one of which includ­ed insert­ing corn ker­nels into a Yemeni woman’s vagi­na and watch­ing them pop.

My hips and ass became obscene to me: they were doing some­thing all on their own, some­thing I had not asked them to do, some­thing fre­has did on pur­pose. I tried to take small­er steps to keep my hips from swing­ing, con­tain them some­how, make myself less shape­ly, less of a woman.

Around eleventh grade, I real­ized my best shot at not being mis­tak­en for a fre­ha was to aim for the oth­er extreme. I became a hip­pie, which suit­ed my roman­tic notions of a bohemi­an, art­sy lifestyle, the kind of lifestyle I imag­ined a bud­ding writer-slash-actor would lead. Ear­li­er that year I had been accept­ed to a youth group run by Habi­ma, the Nation­al The­atre in Tel Aviv, where we stud­ied act­ing and watched plays. The year before that, I had been select­ed as one of a dozen young jour­nal­ists for Maariv Lanoar, the most pop­u­lar teen mag­a­zine in the coun­try. I pub­lished arti­cles, essays, sto­ries, and poems, and soon was skip­ping school reg­u­lar­ly, tak­ing the bus to the magazine’s office in Tel Aviv and trav­el­ing the coun­try for inter­views and events.

At first, my hip­pie-ness was most­ly expressed through my fash­ion choic­es: long flow­ery skirts and dress­es, trench coats and vests. I perused the flea mar­ket in Jaf­fa for sil­ver ear­rings, chif­fon scarves, and harem pants. I stopped brush­ing my hair and came to school dressed in con­ver­sa­tion pieces. If I wasn’t going to be pop­u­lar, at least I would be mem­o­rable. Then I began catch­ing up on music I fig­ured I should lis­ten to in order to grant my image more cred, music far more sophis­ti­cat­ed than Madon­na or Ofra Haza, like Janis Joplin, Car­ole King, Led Zep­pelin, and Pink Floyd.

When strangers asked — judg­ing by my new­ly cul­ti­vat­ed look — if I were from a kib­butz or a moshav, Ashke­nazi strong­holds in Israel (the same way that devel­op­ing, impov­er­ished towns were pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mizrahi), I took it as a com­pli­ment. When meet­ing new peo­ple, I casu­al­ly men­tioned my con­tempt for Mizrahi music, made ref­er­ences to Chekhov or Lor­ca, worked my writ­ing career and love of the­ater into con­ver­sa­tion, and flaunt­ed my impres­sive vocab­u­lary, so they would know I had a head for long words.” I shared pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal views that were not nec­es­sar­i­ly in line with what you’d expect a Mizrahi girl to have, as Mizrahim tra­di­tion­al­ly vote for right-wing par­ties. At one demon­stra­tion I attend­ed, a cou­ple of men gaped at me: a Mizrahi, hip­pie girl car­ry­ing a peace sign. Look at this lit­tle scho­ra.” They spat their words with deri­sion. Who do you think you are?” I’d been called black before— once, by a dis­ap­point­ed boy Yael had set me up with, to whom she neglect­ed to men­tion my Yemeni back­ground. Even though I had always been fair for a Yemeni, fair­er than many of my cousins who had been taught by their moth­ers to fear the sun; fair like my grand­moth­er who was admired for her light skin, while her twin sis­ter, Sai­da, was nick­named Aswa­da—“black” in Arabic.

Bored and rest­less in school, I start­ed doing fre­ha impres­sions dur­ing class to my teach­ers’ dis­plea­sure and to the delight of the back row. Mak­ing fun of fre­has ensured— so I thought — that no one would ever con­fuse me for one. Lack­ing the con­fi­dence to sing on stage, I had long giv­en up on my musi­cal aspi­ra­tions, but act­ing was dif­fer­ent: play­ing a role grant­ed me a wel­come hia­tus from my unhap­py, awk­ward self. And the fre­ha was an easy act: I threw my head for­ward and combed my hair with my fin­gers to give it vol­ume, chewed gum with an open mouth, blew bub­bles, tossed my hair from side to side, and dumb­ed down my lan­guage. My class­mates were entertained.

Then I wrote an entire fre­ha mono­logue and act­ed it out in a cou­ple of audi­tions for com­mer­cials and movies. The fre­ha mono­logue got me the small part of a vul­gar, angry wife for a Turk­ish cof­fee com­mer­cial. It made the judges for the cov­et­ed Army Enter­tain­ment Band, which per­formed at remote bases to raise morale, laugh out loud. It got me past the first cut and into a sec­ond selec­tion process. This was no easy feat. Incon­ceiv­ably, Ofra her­self had nev­er made it into the Army Band. I guess she didn’t fit the style,” her man­ag­er said dryly.

Lat­er, I per­formed the mono­logue on demand at par­ties. Do the fre­ha,” my friends would implore. And I would, enjoy­ing the laugh­ter, high on the atten­tion. Not once stop­ping to think about the girl I was mock­ing. My own inner fre­ha began escort­ing me every­where, my side­kick, always ready to make an entrance. While I was often inse­cure around new peo­ple, she was chat­ty, and too stu­pid to care what peo­ple thought of her. Some­times in social sit­u­a­tions I’d slip into her momen­tar­i­ly for laughs, mak­ing a com­ment or an inar­tic­u­late obser­va­tion accom­pa­nied by a hair toss. Peo­ple who didn’t know me some­times con­fused her for me, exchang­ing glances with their friends and rolling their eyes. And though I should have regard­ed it as the best com­pli­ment to my act­ing skills, I was mor­ti­fied, and quick­ly made sure they knew I was kid­ding. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t her.

Peo­ple in Israel like to say that the com­pul­so­ry army ser­vice is Israel’s biggest melt­ing pot. Young men and women from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and social and eco­nom­ic sta­tus­es are brought togeth­er, mixed, and blend­ed at high speed. In real­i­ty, there is also a great mea­sure of seg­re­ga­tion, rem­i­nis­cent of — and like­ly orig­i­nat­ing from — a track­ing sys­tem that directs Mizrahi youth toward tech­ni­cal schools, gear­ing them for menial jobs in mechan­ics, cook­ing, and sec­re­tar­i­al staff.

At the end of basic train­ing, the army decid­ed the best way to use my skills was to sta­tion me as a sec­re­tary in an admin­is­tra­tive base. I knew I’d scored high in the pre-army clas­si­fi­ca­tion test we took in twelfth grade. I had peeked at my print­out sheet dur­ing one of the appoint­ments in basic train­ing, notic­ing, also, that it said Yemen” under fam­i­ly ori­gin even though I was born in Israel and so were my par­ents. For weeks, I cried over my assign­ment. I had been work­ing as a jour­nal­ist from the age of fif­teen, and my test results were high enough for me to become a pilot had I been a man. Sure­ly there was a bet­ter way the army could have used me. Not to men­tion, I couldn’t type, file, or make cof­fee. I wasn’t even a high-rank­ing officer’s sec­re­tary, but every­one knew that to be in those offices you had to be thin, pret­ty, and prefer­ably blonde, because you were the face of the Israeli Defense Force.

I had peeked at my print­out sheet dur­ing one of the appoint­ments in basic train­ing, notic­ing, also, that it said Yemen” under fam­i­ly ori­gin even though I was born in Israel and so were my par­ents. For weeks, I cried over my assignment.

Since its cre­ation in 1948, Israel has nev­er had a Mizrahi prime min­is­ter, and it’s only had three Mizrahi chiefs of gen­er­al staff, with the first one com­ing into the posi­tion thir­ty-six years after the found­ing of the coun­try. And while you’d be hard pressed to find a Mizrahi pilot (being a pilot is con­sid­ered the most elite posi­tion one can attain in the IDF, or as the Air Force’s slo­gan claims The Best for Pilotage!”), it was appar­ent that most dri­vers, jan­i­tors, quar­ter­mas­ter clerks, and sen­tries in the army were of Mizrahi background.

After a year as the army’s worst sec­re­tary, and after giv­ing up on the army entire­ly (arguably, it gave up on me first), I found myself in one of these low­er­most posi­tions, press­ing but­tons that opened and closed the gate to the base.

A friend from school came to vis­it one day. Ilan­it was an offi­cer now: it was evi­dent in her step, her new­ly acquired poise, her con­fi­dence boost­ed by those rec­tan­gu­lar pieces of met­al sewn on her shoul­der straps that indi­cat­ed her rank. The pity in her eyes was pal­pa­ble. While she was there, I got into an unnec­es­sary argu­ment with one of the jan­i­tors, in the mid­dle of which he yelled, Shut up, you dumb freha.”

Ilanit’s cheeks red­dened. How dare you?” She stum­bled for words. Do you know who she is?”

Yeah,” the guy said. She press­es but­tons at the gate.”

She’s a writer!” Ilan­it said, but the guy snort­ed and walked away, wav­ing in dismissal.

It’s fine.” I shrugged. I don’t care.”

I was in kha­ki like every­one else. But I was on the bot­tom rung of the army lad­der, and I was Mizrahi, and it was the only slur that fit.

You’re a sim­ple girl,” a guy I met on a beach in Sinai once said to me, with a pater­nal smile. My (Ashke­nazi, kib­butznik) boyfriend Roee and I had come to Sinai for a vaca­tion after com­plet­ing our army ser­vice. We slept in a straw hut by the sea, struck up con­ver­sa­tions with strangers, made friends with oth­er back­pack­ers in the huts next door. This man — edu­cat­ed, well-off, Ashke­nazi, and slight­ly old­er — was one of them.

I am not sim­ple,” I snapped. You don’t know me.”

I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” he said.

I glared and said nothing.

I just don’t get it. Why would he think of me as sim­ple?” I asked Roee later.

He shrugged. Who cares about this guy?”

A slang dic­tio­nary by Dan Ben Amotz and Nati­va Ben Yehu­da describes the fre­ha as A sim­ple girl, vul­gar, une­d­u­cat­ed, and lack­ing in class, who dress­es accord­ing to the lat­est fash­ion.” All that effort and still, to this man, I couldn’t be any­thing else. With or with­out the hip­pie cloth­ing, with or with­out the kib­butznik boyfriend.

I am a sim­ple girl from Hatik­va neigh­bor­hood,” Ofra had said in an inter­view once, unchanged by her fame or for­tune. A Yemeni girl with legs on the ground who enjoys life, loves her par­ents, and thanks God.”

I had spent a life­time prov­ing to unim­por­tant peo­ple that I was com­plex, slip­ping into yet anoth­er patron­iz­ing label, mish­taknezet—a Mizrahi who’s try­ing to pass” as Ashke­nazi, as if being cul­tured, edu­cat­ed, and artic­u­late were qual­i­ties reserved for Europeans.

Ofra was known for her gen­tle man­ners and great con­straint. She didn’t par­ty, she didn’t date. Her make­up was sub­tle and her attire con­ser­v­a­tive. If any­thing, Ofra Haza was the anti-fre­ha. There was some­thing almost unrea­son­ably pure and inno­cent about her. She found joy and pur­pose in sim­plic­i­ty, in being ground­ed, in being con­nect­ed to one’s roots, qual­i­ties I had failed to appre­ci­ate or pos­sess. I had spent a life­time prov­ing to unim­por­tant peo­ple that I was com­plex, slip­ping into yet anoth­er patron­iz­ing label, mish­taknezet—a Mizrahi who’s try­ing to pass” as Ashke­nazi, as if being cul­tured, edu­cat­ed, and artic­u­late were qual­i­ties reserved for Euro­peans. It had been so much work to keep apol­o­giz­ing when I hadn’t ful­ly under­stood the accu­sa­tion. I couldn’t see that by striv­ing to prove myself dif­fer­ent, I was estrang­ing myself from my her­itage, my his­to­ry, myself.

In my ear­ly thir­ties, I start­ed work­ing at a Lebanese restau­rant in Van­cou­ver. Mona’s was a hub around which the Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­ni­ty in the city assem­bled, a new Mid­dle East to which I — the Israeli, the Jew — was gra­cious­ly per­mit­ted entrance. At Mona’s I looked like every­one else. You look more Ara­bic than I do!” Mona often said with a chuck­le. The music they played, the food they served, the lan­guage they spoke, was famil­iar and com­fort­ing. The fam­i­ly quick­ly adopt­ed me, cel­e­brat­ed hol­i­days and birth­days with me. I was half a world away from my coun­try, and for the first time since I’d moved to Cana­da, I felt at home.

The groups of young women who came to Mona’s to dine and dance and smoke water pipes often looked like what I imag­ined the actress­es from the Ara­bic movies would have looked like today. They remind­ed me of the teenage girls from Sha’ariya, exhibit­ing that over­stat­ed expres­sion of wom­an­hood that made me — the late bloomer who couldn’t walk in heels, who found skills such as apply­ing eye shad­ow or blow-dry­ing one’s hair inscrutable and for­eign — feel like an impostor.

Dur­ing my six-year stint at Mona’s, their mag­ic start­ed rub­bing off onto me. It was dur­ing that time that I also dis­cov­ered my own Arab-ness, my way back to the Yemeni iden­ti­ty I had reject­ed as a teen, as though my body retuned itself, gave up the fight. Per­haps feel­ing at home in my own skin had made me more at ease with my fem­i­nin­i­ty, too, made me care less about what peo­ple might think or what they might call me. Or per­haps it was the accep­tance of one­self that comes with age. Some days, I wore miniskirts to work; reveal­ing blous­es over pushup bras; long dan­g­ly ear­rings or large hoops; dra­mat­ic, ornate jew­el­ry, some­times even gold. I learned to apply make­up, had my eye­brows thread­ed at the Iran­ian aes­theti­cian they rec­om­mend­ed, cut my hair at the Lebanese hair­dress­er who spe­cial­ized in curly, Mid­dle East­ern manes. I strut­ted with my trays across the floor, hips sway­ing, and bel­ly-danced to Ara­bic pop much like the Mizrahi music I had once snubbed, embrac­ing the sen­su­al­i­ty of the dance, allow­ing the nat­ur­al move­ment of my body to take place, for my body to take up space. Nev­er had I spent as much time on my appear­ance as I did while work­ing at Mona’s. And though I did not pull it off as well as my young tutors did — nev­er with the same effort­less­ness — dur­ing those years at Mona’s, I felt more beau­ti­ful and wom­an­ly than ever before.

The late Dr. Vick­ie Shi­ran, a Mizrahi schol­ar, activist, and poet, once wrote about the twinge she feels when she hears the word fre­ha. I see you,” she wrote, a Moroc­can woman stand­ing embar­rassed, and behind your back the shim­mer­ing ugly face of the Israeli mob who took your beau­ti­ful name and made it syn­ony­mous with a vul­gar woman whose heart is rough … Took your name and used it to mock my daugh­ters and your granddaughters.”

It’s been thir­ty-sev­en years since The Fre­ha Song” took over Israel, and prob­a­bly twen­ty years since any­one has called me by that slur. Things have changed in Israel: the dis­par­i­ties between Ashke­nazi and Mizrahi have nar­rowed, part­ly because of inter­mar­riages; pop­u­lar Mizrahi music found its way into the heart of main­stream radio, and Mizrahi activists began call­ing the media out on their under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Mizrahi char­ac­ters, demand­ing to see more brown-skinned actors in adver­tise­ments and com­mer­cials, and not just in the role of fre­has, arsim, crim­i­nals, and work­ing men. Young Mizrahi poets have side­stepped the gate­keep­ers by crowd­fund­ing their own books and launch­ing their own poet­ry read­ings, and poet Erez Biton became the first Mizrahi writer to win the Israel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. Sub­se­quent­ly, the Israeli gov­ern­ment asked Biton to head a new com­mit­tee that rec­om­mend­ed adding Mizrahi con­tent to the school cur­ricu­lum. Still, only nine per­cent of the aca­d­e­m­ic staff in Israel is Mizrahi, and most key posi­tions in places like the Supreme Court and the media are held by Ashke­nazi. And while Israeli slang has also evolved and changed, fre­ha” shows no signs of fad­ing away.

In recent years, some young, pro­fes­sion­al, Mizrahi women in Israel have decid­ed to reclaim the term. They cre­at­ed a Face­book page defi­ant­ly named Who are you call­ing a fre­ha?”, its cov­er pho­to assert­ing, This is not Europe.” Their About” sec­tion reads, Do you love wear­ing ani­mal prints but they twist their face at you in uni­ver­si­ty? Do you enjoy rhine­stones but peo­ple call you fre­ha?,” and their pho­tos show­case women with long man­i­cured nails and bold fashions.

When I watch Ofra singing The Fre­ha Song” now, I see there is some­thing uncon­vinc­ing about her deliv­ery that I couldn’t see then, a lit­tle flinch in her eyes when­ev­er she utters the words, Ani fre­ha.” For a while, I want­ed to believe it was sub­ver­sive and brave of her to be singing those lyrics, an act of reclaim­ing the demean­ing label as these young women in the Face­book group try to do today. But the song was nev­er tru­ly hers: The Fre­ha Song” was writ­ten by Assi Dayan, son of the leg­endary Israeli defense min­is­ter Moshe Dayan, a tor­tured artist with a pen­chant for drugs and women, and a priv­i­leged Ashke­nazi man who knew noth­ing about the fre­ha experience.

Despite Ofra’s whole­some image, The Fre­ha Song” is one of the songs most asso­ci­at­ed with her begin­ning. But the song, and the con­tro­ver­sy it spurred, was also a road­block in her career. Offi­cials at Galey Tsa­hal, the pop­u­lar army radio sta­tion, con­sid­ered ban­ning it, con­cerned with its inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent. Some Israelis thought it racist and offen­sive. Toward the end of her days, Ofra refused to sing the song, dis­tanc­ing her­self from it and from what it represented.

Ofra’s death in 2000 from a dis­ease lat­er revealed to be a com­pli­ca­tion of AIDS shocked every­one. She was young, recent­ly mar­ried, and at the height of her career. By then, I was liv­ing in Van­cou­ver, work­ing part-time as a barista, most­ly stoned, and aching­ly lone­ly. It was in the days before social media and I was slow­ly becom­ing dis­en­gaged from mycoun­try, its pop cul­ture, its gos­sip, and news.

Lis­ten­ing to Ofra’s CDs in my West End apart­ment in the days fol­low­ing her death— the gray from my sixth-floor win­dows infi­nite and vapid — I found that I still knew all the words. Her voice stirred for­got­ten child­hood mem­o­ries, an old nag­ging ache. I had always held an irra­tional con­vic­tion that one day I’d meet her in per­son. Even after she sang for Disney’s The Prince of Egypt, and sat on John­ny Carson’s couch, she felt so close, so human and real, as though I could run into her at any minute on the streets of Sha’ariya.

Now, I thought, I would nev­er get to tell her what she had meant to me grow­ing up, how much she had inspired me, giv­en me hope, empow­ered me. Because in a world where the actors on TV were Ashke­nazi and the singers on the radio were Ashke­nazi and the mod­els in mag­a­zines were Ashke­nazi, there was Ofra, the sim­ple Yemeni girl from Hatik­va neigh­bor­hood whose star shone brighter than anyone’s, who made it against all odds, and who looked like me, or like one of my more beau­ti­ful cousins. Like family.

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large fam­i­ly of Yemeni descent. After serv­ing in the Israeli army, she trav­eled exten­sive­ly through­out South­east Asia, North Amer­i­ca, and Europe, and now lives in Toron­to, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. The Best Place on Earth won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and was long-list­ed for the Frank O’Connor Inter­na­tion­al Short Sto­ry Award.