Haji Jaber’s Black Foam is full of diverse cultural, linguistic, and musical landscapes. It opens in Addis Ababa, Eritrea, one of the final stages in our main character’s journey from his tangled past to what he hopes will be a new life in Israel. Throughout the novel, Adal (later Dawoud, David, and Dawit) re-invents himself, finally managing to slip in with the Jewish community in Gondor, Eritrea. As he journeys through different cities in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Israel, the music he listens to changes. There is the Bob Marley we hear at a bar in Addis Ababa; spirituals on the journey from Gondar; Amharic music on the streets in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood in Tel Aviv; classic oud music in Jerusalem.
A FIVE-SONG TOUR OF THE NOVEL:
In Addis Ababa, Eritrea
Teamir Gizaw singing “Yeregem”
As the novel opens, our main character—who was named “Adal” but sometimes calls himself David, sometimes Dawoud, sometimes Dawit—steps into a bar called Edel, which means “Destiny” in Amharic. It’s the night before he’s headed to a new life in Israel, and he drinks his beer as he gazes at the singer, Deborah. At first, she’s singing a Bob Marley cover, but then shifts to a local song. Although the narration doesn’t tell us what Deborah might be singing, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in the small bar, drinking a bottle St. George’s beer, as you listen to the Amharic song “Yeregem.”
On the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport:
Hagit Yaso sings a shabat song in Lalibela
When our protagonist’s plane—full of migrants from Gondar, Ethiopia’s Jewish community—lands at Ben Gurion airport, the newcomers are packed in tightly. A long time passes, and no one comes to open the door, foreshadowing of some of the treatment to come. Anxiety sweeps through the group, which only eases when someone on board begins to sing. Earlier, a friend had told Dawit, of the Ethiopian Jewish community: “They sing when they grieve, they sing when they’re happy, and they sing when they’ve got nothing else to do.”
Ethiopian-Israeli singer Hagit Yaso sings a shabat song as part of a documentary.
In Tel Aviv, Israel
Teddy Afro’s “Addis Zefen”
Dawoud hears this song in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Dawoud feels a startling sense of recognition here, in one of Tel Aviv’s most heterogeneous neighborhoods, which he calls a “piece of Africa in the heart of Israel,” and which is populated mostly by migrants and refugees. This song blasts into his path as he’s exploring the neighborhood for the first time. “Some Black faces passed by, while others were sitting on the sidewalk. There were shops and restaurants with their Amharic and Arabic signs and familiar music—as soon as he got closer, he recognized Teddy Afro’s song ‘Addis Zefen’ booming out from a barber shop.”
In Asmara, Eritrea
Feven Tsegay’s “Habibi”
Midway through the book, our protagonist recalls his first meeting with Aisha, the great love of this novel — or at least the great love of the protagonist’s memory and imagination. On the day they meet, she asks his name, wwhich was then Adal. But because of what that name reveals about him, he can’t share it with her. He tell her instead that his name is Dawoud. When she repeats his name back to him, he remembered how she filled it with music. So, as he falls for Aisha, I imagine his head bursting with Feven Tsegay’s “Habibi.”
In Jerusalem, Palestine
Azraq’s “Baby Please Don’t Go”
Near the end of the book, in Jerusalem, our protagonist finds himself among Afro-Palestinians, near the city’s African Community Center, where he has a job selling prayer beads. Although his boss and benefactor, Mariel, would probably listen to more religious sounds in the store, Mariel’s atheist brother Yassin would surely have brought our protagonist some Black-Palestinian music to listen to, perhaps even Azraq’s “Baby Please Don’t Go,” an American blues standard re-invented for the oud with Kam Franklin and Kareem Samara.
–by M Lynx Qualey