Danna’s significance and positioning in Israel during 1994–96 was quite different than in Egypt. She was popular and highly successful, at least among certain, but mainly marginalized, segments of the population, but she was also highly controversial and looked on with disfavor by the cultural elite. One sense of the associated baggage attached to her name is conveyed by Yigal Amir who, just before he assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, is said to have remarked to a nearby policeman, “Today, they give us the spectacle of Aviv Gefen; next time, they’ll make us listen to that mutant, Diana [sic] International” (Schattner 1995). Amir was stalking Rabin at a Peace Now rally, at which Rabin spoke and during which he joined featured singer Aviv Gefen for a singalong on stage. Gefen, a major new Israeli rock singer whose long dyed-orange hair, heavy makeup, and androgynous clothing project a “radical” image, performs songs whose lyrics express “existential meaninglessness” and criticize the military establishment. But Gefen is also the offspring of elite circles, a close relative of Moshe Dayan, and his onstage gender ambiguity is entirely nonthreatening. His “rebelliousness,” in short, is firmly located within the national tradition and represents the “respectable” face of dissent. It would have been simply unthinkable, however, for Yitzhak Rabin to have appeared onstage singing together with a “trashy” gender and culture subversive like Danna International. But Yigal Amir’s remark does underscore one of the major issues in Israel with regard to Danna. When I asked an Israeli correspondent whether Danna’s Arab-Jewish identity was of any concern in Israel, she replied that the mainstream media there focused almost exclusively on the issue of Danna’s “sexuality, sexuality, and sexuality,” and in particular, her transsexuality. After Danna was chosen as a contestant in the competition to represent Israel in the 1995 Eurovision pop song contest, Ya’ir Nitsani, one of Israel’s leading comedians, proclaimed that Danna should not represent Israel in this major international event because her transsexuality was a “shame.” This sentiment appears to be widely shared, and to have played a role in Danna’s failure to take first place in the competition (she placed second). When Danna appeared on one of Israel’s major talk shows, hosted by Dudu Topaz (Israel’s Phil Donahue cum Oprah Winfrey), Topaz interrogated her about her orgasms—“They’re my orgasms,” she replied—and asked (with a look of horror on his face) if she had really had “it” cut off during the sex change operation. The Israeli media has speculated that Danna did not really undergo a sex-change operation (although her breasts, an important part of her image, cannot be denied) and that rumors to this effect had inspired Danna to drop her lesbian girlfriend and take up with a boyfriend, an officer in the Israeli navy, to prove her femaleness. But, the story continued, this new relationship was a sham, really a gay relationship and not a heterosexual one (Yael Ben-zvi, pers. com.; Smadar Lavie, pers. com.).
This sexual undecidability (does she have a lesbian girlfriend? a gay boyfriend? a heterosexual boyfriend? what kind of sex and what kind of anatomy does she have?) seems to have contributed to making Danna wildly popular among gay Ashkenazi men, who saw her as a “heroic” role model. Danna started out in show business performing in drag shows in 1988. In the early 1990s, she participated in a Tel Aviv drag show version of “pre-Eurovision,” the Israeli contest to pick the Eurovision entry. Her manager, Ofer Nissim, concocted a scenario in which Whitney Houston sang in Arabic in a concert in Saudi Arabia. Danna did an Arab-camp version of Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan,” called “Sa‘ida Sultan,” in which she screams, “My name is not Sa‘ida!” This was her first cult hit on the drag circuit (Ben n.d.; Ben-zvi 1998, 27). For Ashkenazi gay fans, however, Danna’s Arab identity was merely “exotic” and did not, apparently, lead this audience very far in raising questions about Israel’s Eurocentric racial hierarchies. However, Danna also enjoyed a substantial audience among the Mizrahim. According to correspondents, it was mainly the “disco youths” who were Danna’s fans, and the majority of Israeli-Jewish youths are Mizrahim. And in the youth press, Danna tends to be treated as a “normal” star rather than as a freak (Geir Skogseth, pers. com.). Dance music in Israel, however, occupied a rather low position in the Israeli cultural ranking system. As in Egypt, the Israeli cultural elite promotes “quality” music (in Hebrew, eikhoot), which is what the educated Ashkenazim (like the Egyptian elite) listen to. That Danna sings in Arabic doubly disqualifies her from the category “quality,” for Arabic music is severely ghettoized in Israel, consigned to the lowest rungs of the country’s Eurocentric cultural hierarchy, much lower than dance music (see Regev 1995, 1996; Horowitz and Namdar 1997). This is compounded by Danna’s Mizrahiness, which further positions her at the bottom of the prestige system. It is precisely the fact that Mizrahi singers like Danna enjoy Egyptian pop and do versions of Egyptian songs that puts them at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy. Again, and contrary to al-Ghayti, such singers’ relation to Arab music is one of tribute, not theft; a tribute, moreover, that leads the Ashkenazi elite to view their culture as “trash.”
An otherwise favorable review of Danna’s 1995 release, E.P. Tampa, in the daily Ma’ariv exemplifies the entirely commonplace stigma attached to Israeli Jews of Arab background (Assif 1995). The reviewer labeled Danna’s music frehiyoot-bivim, from frehiyoot, a derogatory term that Ashkenazim frequently use to denote young Mizrahi women, meaning “slut,” and bivim, meaning “gutter.” The Mizrahi community, however, is relatively unaffected by such Ashkenazi Eurosnobbism, and Danna has a more mainstream appeal among Mizrahim as a successful ethnic insider. For instance, a friend of mine took her son to see Danna perform a concert of children’s songs for kids in Holon, a poor Mizrahi town near Tel Aviv.
With the exception of “My Name Is Not Sa‘ida,” it is her songs in Hebrew that are chiefly responsible for her fame in Israel. Among these are heterosexual love ballads that function as parodies in light of her sexuality, as well as covers that, from queer and Mizrahi positions, poke fun at canonical Israeli popular music from the fifties and sixties, including “songs of the beautiful Israel” and “military songs.” According to Smadar Lavie (pers. com.), when you hear a macho Israeli soldier song like “Yeshnan Banot” coming from the mouth of a “black” Mizrahi woman rather than from a muscular, blond, square-jawed Ashkenazi, the effect is hilarious. Moreover, that such songs emanate from a “trashy”-looking Mizrahi who appears hyperfeminine but whose very femininity is ambiguous adds another dimension to their uproariousness.
Danna’s song, “Qu’est-ce que c’est” (on Umpatamba, 1994) is a hilarious riposte to racist Ashkenazi parodies of North African Jews’ pronunciation of French. Such parodies were a constant theme of comedic radio and stage skits of the 1950s and 1960s, which exaggerated Mizrahi “mispronunciation” of “qu’est que c’est?” and made a play on words with “cous-cou-sou,” referring to the North African food, couscous, as well as the similarity of “qu’est que c’est / cous-cou-sou” to the Arabic word qus (cunt). Modern Israeli Hebrew has borrowed most of its curse words and epithets from Arabic, so the word qus is, of course, widely used. “Qus ummak” (literally, the cunt of your mother; i.e., fuck your mother), is a curse shared by speakers of colloquial Hebrew and Arabic.
There is also an Israeli dimension to Danna’s song “Susu ya Susu” that highlights the country’s disavowed but complicated and intimate connections to Arab culture. When Israel started broadcast television in the early 1960s, it had more programming in Arabic than in Hebrew, and one of the programs developed in the Arabic section was a children’s show called “Sami and Susu,” a kind of Arabic cross between “Mr. Rogers” and “Sesame Street.” At the same time there were no good children’s shows in Hebrew, so in the late 1960s “Sami and Susu” was given Hebrew subtitles, and it rapidly gained great favor with Israeli Jewish kids. According to Lavie (pers. com.), the name “Susu” therefore “evokes cuddly memories” among the generation of Israelis who grew up watching “Sami and Susu.” The Sami character was played by the young actor George Ibrahim, a Palestinian leftist who eventually lost his job during the intifada when he started to express his political views openly. Sami used to tell Susu, “Khudni ya Susu” (Take me Susu), a phrase that reappears in the lyrics of Danna’s song, and the two characters were then transported to a new site as an “airport/spaceship” sound track played, a musical theme that is also evoked in Danna’s “Susu ya Susu.”