Rhythms of resistance

For many Palestinians music is a means of safeguarding and promoting national identity.

By Giles Trendle

It may not be armed struggle, but music is an important weapon of cultural resistance and a means of safeguarding national identity for those Palestinian musicians living inside Israel and occupied east Jerusalem.

“As Palestinians of 1948, we have struggled to stay on our land,” says Rim al-Banna, a singer from Nazareth in the Galilee region of northern Israel.

“The mere fact that we have stayed here is itself resistance and endurance. If we did not stay here we wouldn’t have had the ability to talk about the Palestinian cause.”

“Through my art, I stay here and resist,” says singer Reem Talhami. “My resistance is my art, and my art is my war.”

‘Stranger in my land’

There are roughly 1.4 million Palestinian Israelis living within the so-called ‘green line’ demarcating the internationally-recognised borders of Israel.

These Palestinian citizens of Israel make up almost 20 per cent of Israel’s total population of 7.3 million. In Israel they are termed “Arab Israelis” – not Palestinian citizens of Israel – to separate them from their kin in the occupied territories.

Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister who is sometimes cited as a ‘moderate’, is on record as saying that Palestinian Israelis should not remain in Israel if a Palestinian state is eventually created.

Avigdor Lieberman, the current foreign minister, has in the past described Palestinian citizens of Israel as the “main threat” facing the country and advocated throwing out those who refuse to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state.

“There are almost one-and-a-half million Palestinians living inside Israel,” says Tamer Nafar, a singer with the hip-hop group Da Arabian MC’s [DAM]. “But I feel like a stranger in my land because the flag that is raised is not mine and the national anthem that is played is not mine. We are Israeli citizens, with Israeli nationality, yet we are still different from the Israelis.”

The three members of DAM were born and grew up in the slums of Lod (Lydda), a mixed town of Arabs and Jews 20 km from Jerusalem. The group’s most popular song, released in 2001, was called Meen Al-Arhaabi (Who’s The Terrorist?). Their lyrics are influenced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as by issues of discrimination and occupation.

Music as a weapon

For Palestinian musicians living in Israel, as well as those in occupied east Jerusalem, music is an important form of cultural resistance against Israel’s policies.

“We are faced each day by occupation and the robbery of our land and identity,” says Suhail Khoury, a leading musician in the current Palestinian musical scene and the general director of The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.

“During the first intifada the Israelis recognised the danger of political songs. They realised these songs were inciting the street and fuelling the intifada. For that reason, they started dealing with this music as if it was a weapon.”

Khoury recalls being arrested at an Israeli checkpoint for carrying music that the Israelis regarded with suspicion.

“I was driving my car and my music tapes were with me. The Israeli police stopped me at the junction and confiscated my car because it carried ‘dangerous substances’. I was interrogated and tortured for 12 days and imprisoned for six months,” he says.

Guardians of identity

Many musicians see their art as a means by which they can strive to safeguard and promote a Palestinian national identity.

“Political songs are a means of defence against Israel’s attempt to eradicate our national cultural identity,” Khoury says.

“Israel has been trying to erase Palestinian folklore, our traditional food, and our traditional clothes and create a cultural identity for itself on the ruins of Palestinian traditions.”

Musicians such as Wasim Murad, a Palestinian singer and oud (lute) player, become, in their own individual way, torch-bearers of Palestinian nationalism and guardians of Palestinian identity.

“I had the opportunity to perform at an oud festival but I declined because they [the organisers] refused to state my origin as Palestine,” says Murad. “They wanted to write east Jerusalem.”

“Palestinian cultural identity is threatened by, and is in danger from, the Israeli state,” says Talhami. “There is a methodology towards eradicating this identity. As Palestinian artists, our role is to maintain our inherited identity.”

‘Personifying Palestine’

Musicians see their music not only as a defence against cultural suppression but as a way of providing a common narrative to unite Palestinians throughout the world, in the absence of a Palestinian homeland.

Traversing borders and boundaries, their music and lyrics reach out to Palestinians from the current internationally-recognised borders of Israel, to occupied east Jerusalem, to the rest of the occupied West Bank, to the Gaza Strip and to other areas of the Middle East and beyond.

“When I sing to the world, I think I portray Palestine through my voice, my singing and my songs,” says al-Banna.

“I get a feeling of immense power because I see myself as personifying Palestine when I am performing on stage.” 

Songs from a Lost Homeland first aired in April 2010.