How a Seventeenth-Century Yemenite Liturgical Poem Became an International Pop Hit

4 min readOct 17, 2017

Song: Im Nin’Alu (remix by Izhar Ashdot)

Artist: Ofra Haza

Year: 1988

Every so often, a pop song breaks out of its local market and onto the international scene for worthy reasons other than a catchy chorus or a viral video. Ofra Haza’s “Im Nin’Alu” (remix by Izhar Ashdot) is one of these songs; you might not recognize the title, but it’s been sampled by artists as diverse as Madonna, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and Punjabi MC. It’s playing in the background of an American Psycho scene and also shows up on the playlist for Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City. When an obscure Middle Eastern pop number stretches its influence that far, it has to be good. Madonna, Public Enemy, and GTA can’t all be wrong, can they?

Haza in better times.

Turns out they weren’t. From the first pleading, crystalline a-cappella notes, “Im Nin’Alu” is a soaring pop masterpiece given wings by the pure mezzo-soprano of Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza. It’s sung primarily in Hebrew, with a few scattered verses in English. The drum machine, synthesizers, and strings sound a little dated at times, but that’s not the focus: “Im Nin’Alu” is about the sheer beauty and emotion of Haza’s voice, possessed of an almost-flawless tone, welling up from the Tel Aviv slums to sing a prayer from the sun-scorched desert of Yemen. You don’t even have to understand what Haza is singing about; her voice transcends languages, cultures, continents, religions.

For an international pop hit, the lyrics are almost as captivating as Haza’s delivery. This wasn’t a pop confection scribbled down in EMI’s back office, or a vapid summer hit about working in a cocktail bar (sorry, Human League). “Im Nin’Alu” is a Mizrahi Jewish prayer written by a famed Yemenite rabbi, Shalom Shabazi, in the seventeenth century. The Hebrew lyrics are “Im nin’alu daltei n’divim daltei marom lo nin’alu,” which translates into English as “Even if the gates of the rich are closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed.” If you’re wondering why the esteemed rabbi wasn’t writing about cocktail bars and working for the weekend, it’s because the Yemenite Jews of that time were banished to an inhospitable desert to go farm sand (see “Mawza Exile”). Due to the twin prongs of famine and persecution, only 850 of Shabazi’s estimated 15,000 liturgical poems survived to the present day.

Ofra Haza.

Ofra Haza herself was no less of a tragic figure. She grew up poverty-stricken in a Tel Aviv slum as the youngest of nine children. As the “Madonna of the Middle East,” she enjoyed huge success in her native Israel, but did not become an international name until 1988. That was the year when producer Izhkar Ashdot remixed her traditional version of “Im Nin’Alu,” from her 1984 album Yemenite Songs, as a more pop-friendly tune. The song became a surprise international hit, but Haza did not receive worldwide acclaim again until 1997, when she sang the haunting “Deliver Us” for the DreamWorks animated film The Prince of Egypt. In 2000, at the age of 42, she died of AIDS, contracted either through a tainted blood transfusion or- some speculate- the drug use of her businessman husband, who fatally overdosed a year after Haza’s death.

The path of “Im Nin’Alu” is fascinating; somehow, somewhere, a producer decided it would be a good idea to remix the four-year-old version of a three-hundred-year-old Sephardic Jewish hymn. Speed up the original, add a few English verses, replace the traditional Yemenite tin with a drum machine. Get Warner to distribute it worldwide, where it became a dance staple in European clubs over the summer of 1988. Send some copies to England, where it would be mixed with Eric B. and Rakim’s classic anthem “Paid in Full.” Most hit songs don’t begin or end or like this. Granted, Haza was managed by Warner at the time, which was no slouch when it came to distribution, but Warner wasn’t really in the business of promoting obscure Yemenite Jewish singers; their roster included Madonna, Paul Simon, Prince, Van Halen, and Dire Straits. The fact that this song made it out of Israel at all is a testament to its beauty and power, and serves as a lasting legacy for both Shabazi’s poetry and Haza’s voice.




Musings on Music, Mostly. Top Music Writer and amateur ethnomusicologist. D.C. native. Rottweiler mom.