Singing Palestine: Rim Banna

Rim Banna has given melodic interpretations to the suffering of Palestinians and their defiant hopes and aspirations.

rim banna
Listening to and watching Palestinian singer Rim Banna perform, "you can hear Umm Kulthum in Egypt, Edith Piaf in France, Joan Baez in the US, or Mercedes Sosa in Argentina" [EPA]

Between October 3 and 7, I was part of a wide-ranging celebration of Palestinian arts and culture in Milano, Italy. 

The Philastiniat festival of Palestinian film, literature, theatre, folklore, music, dance and poetry opened in various locations in Milan to the enthusiastic reception of the city officials, the Palestinian community and their European friends and families. 

Distinguished guests ranged from writers Suad Amiry and Salman Natur, film directors Michel Khleifi, photographer Rula Halawani, singer-activist Rim Banna, poet Zuhair Abu Shayeb, writer-journalist Akram Musallam and poets Nasr Jamil and Asmaa Azaizeh, and many others. 

At the heart of the festival, which included performances, poetry readings and film series, was also a tribute to the late Palestinian scholar and public intellectual Edward W Said (1935-203). 

A conference on Said was held on October 5 at Palazzo Marino – Sala Alessi – Piazza Della Scala – right across from the historic Scala opera house. Younger and more senior scholars from various universities in Italy exchanged ideas on the significance of Edward Said’s legacy.  

The panelists included: Wasim Dahmash (Università degli Studi di Cagliari), Paolo Branca (Università Cattolica, Milano), Marco Gatto (Università della Calabria), Mauro Pala (Università di Cagliari) and Mariantonietta Saracino (Università Sapienza, Roma).  

Rim Banna 

Particularly memorable in this event was the featuring of Palestinian singer Rim Banna in the very last night of Philastiniat. Born (1966) and raised in Nazareth, and educated in the Higher Music Conservatory in Moscow, Rim Banna is a Palestinian singer and composer who was initially celebrated for her endearing renditions of old Palestinian folk songs.  

“In songs like ‘Sarah’, Rim Banna transforms the brutal murder of young Palestinian children by Israeli army or their obscene settlers into unforgettable ballad, contemporary folksongs of her people.”

She has now emerged as a major voice in Palestinian music of resistance, giving melodic interpretations to the suffering of her people and their defiant hopes and aspirations. In pain and suffering, defiance and struggle, confidence and pride, Palestine sings in Rim Banna.  

Listening to Rim Banna (here is a sample from her album “Maraya’ al-Ruh” – The Mirrors of My Soul) is an experience in living through the trials and tribulations of Palestinians, as their newborns are sung to by the lullabies of their resistance, their youngsters are point blank shot dead by Israeli soldiers and settlers alike, and as their heroes are loved and admired for their resistance.  

Rim Banna sings love songs for towering Palestinian men and women, bearing witness to their people’s struggles, raising and protecting their children against a vicious killing machine that has occupied their homeland – and the result is the creation of a repertoire of folkloric and contemporary songs that have now blended into each other to become the common staple of Palestinian lives and resistances.  

From her renditions of Palestinian lullabies to her lovingly flirtatious “Mash’al”, to her “Tayr Hawa” – Fly Love, Rim Banna’s ballads of Palestine have become integral to her people’s stories of struggles and resistance.  

In beautiful and yet heart-wrenching songs like “Sarah“, Rim Banna transforms the brutal murder of young Palestinian children by Israeli army or their obscene settlers into unforgettable ballad, contemporary folksongs of her people.   

As in the cases with jazz, blues, or ragtime, Rim Banna’s ballads derive their power from their deep-rooted connections to her people’s struggles.  

Listening to and watching Rim Banna perform, you can hear Umm Kulthum in Egypt, Edith Piaf in France, Joan Baez in the US, or Mercedes Sosa in Argentina. In her voice and in her songs, she has wed the stories of her people to defiant joys of people around the globe. It is as if it has been the fate of Palestinians in their heart and soul to travel around the world and in the best and the most beautiful everywhere, find a way to tell and share their stories.  

They say that the United States is the most powerful country on planet earth and when the Israeli Prime Minister goes to the US congress to deliver yet another vulgar and inane speech, there are so many standing ovations for him by the even more vulgar and inane members of the US congress that they probably spent more time on their feet applauding their Israeli benefactor than seating on their chairs thinking of their duties to the people who had elected them.  

But what has AIPAC really bought for Israel with such obscene display of power – turning the democratic institution of a nation into the Joker-Jack-in-the-Box of a bankrupt ideology – when with one single, beautiful and powerful song, Rim Banna can make the whole world rise up and sing with Palestine? 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his books is his edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (2006).