A History of Sung Life and Resistance in Palestine
Continuing their efforts to criminalize Palestinian activism in the UK, the Conservative Party’s latest rant has been a threat to ban Palestinian songs, claiming they are pro-Hamas. But what is the true history of Palestinian songs?
But for the Palestinians and their supporters, the charges are politically motivated and unfair. The chant has existed long before the creation of Hamas and, in fact, it is as old as the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.
“To chant and sing for Palestine, according to the common belief, is to connect with and preserve the historical roots, culture and geography of Palestine”
It is present in several Palestinian folk and revolutionary songs and has multiple Arabic derivatives, the most common of which are: min el-maiyeh lel mayieh (from water to water – whose wording refers to the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River).
The expression is deeply cultural and closely linked to the formation of the Palestinian identity and people – it emphasizes the connection to the land, calls for decolonization, freedom and an end to the apartheid regime in Palestine, replaced by a unitary civic state with equal rights. for everyone.
But in Palestine, as the controversy surrounding the song indicates, it is difficult to separate the culture from the political sphere in which it operates. Because this sphere is overbearing and overarching, it has produced equally dominant cultural expressions and artifacts to challenge the ongoing power structure.
Singing is particularly visible among these cultural expressions.
Sociologically, singing has a religious connotation. It refers to iterative, sometimes melodic utterances, as in prayers, recitations, and supplications – as opposed to more structured chanting.
But in the revolutionary context, of which Palestine is a part, singing and psalmody fall under the same umbrella of “musicalized cultural expressions”.
While singing is generally understood as monotonous and iterative sounds, it nevertheless amounts to singing as harmonic and tonal expressions. In other words, revolutionary song and song are contextually indistinguishable, used interchangeably, and serve the same purpose: mobilizing the masses and challenging power relations.
This is why Palestinian song is not an independent form of cultural expression; rather, an intrinsic part and production of several generations of musical heritage.
Information on musical fashions in Palestine before World War I remains scarce. Much of what we know comes from the memoirs of Palestinian musician Wassif Jawahariyyeh (1897-1972), which covered cultural life in Palestine between 1904 and 1917.
According to him, during the latter part of the 19th century, Palestine was a passageway for musicians traveling between Egypt – then a hub of Arab culture – and the Levant. They gave concerts in major Palestinian cities such as Jerusalem and Jaffa, thus influencing musical production in these regions.
We also know that the creation of Radio Jerusalem in 1936 played an important role in the promotion of musical productions, attracting musicians from Palestine and neighboring Arab countries, who came to broadcast or record their work.
“Palestinian singing is not an independent form of cultural expression; rather, an intrinsic part and generational production of a musical heritage”
A turning point was the 1948 Nakba (or catastrophe) when the majority of Palestinians became refugees inside and in neighboring countries following the establishment of Israel. Their traditional musical expressions will soon take on the character of the times: despair and loss.
Since most Palestinian refugees came from rural areas, their local musical folklore would become a defining part of post-Nakba culture. This folklore is mostly oral, its composers and writers unknown; as such it is flexible and adaptable.
Anasheed al-ghazal folk love songs and so-called “flirt songs”, such as the famous ya zarif al-toul (Oh, the big beauty), would be re-adapted, almost without lyrical or tonal alterations, to signify the longing for the lost homeland and the inevitability of returning there.
Indeed, the sense of loss after the Nakba was (and continues to be) embedded in all Palestinian cultural artifacts – including poetry, novels and visual arts. But it was the musical expressions, perhaps because of their tonal and iterative nature, that were the most popular and reached the widest audience. This was aided by the availability of transistor radios from the 1950s.
The establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, soon followed by Israel’s 1967 occupation of the rest of historic Palestine, transformed the sense of loss into defiance and armed resistance in the form of fedayeen, freedom fighters. This ushered in what has come to be known as “Palestinian revolutionary music”.
The group Al-Bara’em (Flower Buds) were among the most important groups associated with new music in the early 1970s. In the diaspora, the PLO created its own ensemble then based in Lebanon, al-Ashiqeen ( Lovers – a reference to homeland and martyrdom).
These musical expressions flourished alongside (and borrowed from) what later became a systematic platform for “the culture of resistance”, such as Mahmoud Darwish‘poetry, Ghassan Kanafani‘novels, and Ismail Shammout‘s paintings.
The First Intifada of 1987-1993 – then the largest and most persistent Palestinian mass protest against the Israeli occupation since 1967 – resulted in the combination of folklore and revolutionary musical expressions, deploying them to represent the couple of victimization and resistance of the time.
The growing popularity of the Islamist singing pattern, commonly known as al-nasheed al-Islami and which coincided with the establishment of Hamas in 1987, has enriched the so-called musical expressions of resistance.
“Singing exists long before the creation of Hamas. In fact, it is as old as the Palestinian struggle against Zionism”
For example, a folk nasheed (chant) like sabbal oyounoh mad eidoh (the one who opened his eyes), which was originally a wedding song, was re-adapted during this period to become the imagery of the chahid (martyr). The nasheed was nonetheless sometimes composed in a revolutionary tone, emphasizing sacrifice and resistance as inseparable dynamics of Palestinian national identity and the struggle against colonialism.
The same trend continues today, even though the means of production have become more accessible to the general public thanks to social media and online tools.
It is common these days at demonstrations or funeral processions to hear crowds chanting revolutionary nasheed, or melodically repeating slogans like: “We will go to Al-Quds (Jerusalem), martyrs by the millions.
For Islamists, the chant sometimes acquires a religious connotation, where protesters shout: “Our highest goal is to die for God’s sake. That is to say, to die for the noble goal of liberation is also to be on the right path of God.
But mass mobilization is not the sole purpose of chanting, it is also, perhaps above all, a matter of self-preservation. Most Palestinians are dispossessed, stateless and forever threatened with physical and psychological oblivion.
To chant and sing for Palestine, according to common belief, is to connect with and preserve the historical roots, culture and geography of Palestine. These are seen as powerful tools to deflect Israel’s ongoing attempts to further uproot Palestinians.
As if to say, to chant is to resist, and to resist is to exist.
Dr. Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer specializing in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa