Palestinian music in exile

Voices of resistance

Palestinian music in exile
Part of a series that "explores new research on refugees and migrants within the Middle East and North Africa to present some of the most innovative work on displacement and mobility coming out of Middle Eastern studies", this book "engages with the legacies of migration on the region and aims to reclaim refugees’ agency through examinations of, among other topics, livelihoods, advocacy, cultural production, social movements, resilience, and resistance".اضافة اعلان

The preface places the topic in context. It is yet another one of the events that would be boring in their cyclicality if they were not lethal and ugly for the Palestinians, and beyond: "The eleven-day confrontation waged across Palestine from May 10 to 21, 2021, with global mobilizations in defense of Palestinian rights and in solidarity with a new intifada, or uprising, that would continue after the 'ceasefire'.”

It was a time that "brought new and old songs of resistance to the streets", and mobilized musical talent from Haifa, Yafa, Umm al-Fahm, Nazareth, Ramallah, Akka, and farther afield.

A time when "music became an established theme of the rebellion in occupied Jerusalem", vocalists of all styles and genres chipped in, revolutionary anthems, popular and wedding chants were sung for the land, sumud, and the flag.

"Over the ruins in Gaza on June 3, kuffieh-wearing students of the Edward Said National Conservatory played a qanun- and oud-led instrumental arrangement of 'Mawtini' (My homeland), based on Ibrahim Touqan’s 1934 poem against the British occupation."

With no other means to resist, music soothed, stirred, inspired, moved, embodied resistance. For, traditional and patriotic songs, says the author, are part of a rallying cry that "sees the reembrace of indigenous tradition as standing up to normalization, wary of Zionist attempts to claim ownership of Middle East music, alongside attempts to erase the Palestinians from history".

And, as the last words of the book preface put it, "whatever the overwhelming odds, the displaced, the oppressed, and the downtrodden would sing last".

In "Acknowledgements", the author gives a glimpse at the "bigger picture" concerning performers in exile, and it shows "… whether it meant imprisonment under hostile immigration systems or understanding the demands placed on Palestinian performers to 'coexist' or depoliticize in order to get by in the music industry".

The book, says the author, uncovers "histories of Palestinian musicianship in regions of concentrated refugee presence in relatively close proximity to Palestine". It is also a profound socio-political analysis of the region through the thinking of Palestinian artists and intellectuals, the likes of Ghassan Kanafani, Leila Khaled or Naji al-Ali.

It took the author -- "activist, musician, researcher and educator, and a preeminent global scholar of Palestinian music" --  10 years to do ethnographic research spanning over half a century in different locations of displacement.

Exploring creative practices "shaped by colonialism, repression, opportunity, and underdevelopment across a region stretching from Kuwait City to Istanbul", he comes to realize that "celebrity or fame has until recently been anathema to a nation denied real independence".

Music may well carry meanings "from its roots, origins and evolution, but beyond this, musical narratives are revealing of collective histories, confrontations, and hopes. Seen as something that can be appropriated by anyone, music becomes a way of being involved in making history", says the author whose research spans regions that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and North America.

The musical narratives in his book place stories of the internally displace alongside those of people exiled from Palestine, presenting contrasting experiences, "a cross-section of Palestinian musicianship, coming from dif­ferent generations, class backgrounds, genders, refugee statuses, and family histories in historic Palestine".

Unsurprisingly, even when some Palestinian musicians "have broken through in regional and international markets", the grassroots nature of their music "speaks to the struggles, frustrations, and dreams of many others navigating the instabilities of the contemporary situation".

The contribution of those in this book is seen by the author as a chance to analyze musical transmission, from traditional folklore, political songs to jazz, popular, and alternative music.

Music cannot be considered in isolation of the social context in which it is created. As such, the author acknowledges the contributions of Kanafani, Khaled, al-Ali, Edward Said, but also of the oral tradition "harking back to poetic songforms, troubadour wedding singers, and accompaniments to the yarns of the hakawati (storyteller) in social gatherings", and, significantly, of women, whose "leading role… is continually reinscribed in the transmission of Palestinian narratives".

The book is also about "music's meanings, journeys and appropriabilities", about themes, methodology and musical instruments. Like the oud, which was "rethought in Palestinian camps in the revolutionary period after 1967", the ney (reed pipe), the electric guitar or even the Scottish bagpipes "left by British occupying forces a half-century earlier".

The oral histories presented in this book, the author says, "show that music and politics always coexist and frequently coalesce. Exiled musicians are seen here as powerful actors, offering resistance critiques of existing conditions, and presenting alternative visions for the future".

It is the case of George Kirmiz whose "Ana Ismi Sha'b Falastin" (My name is the Palestinian people) would be heard in the streets of Qalandiya refugee camp and whose revolutionary songs would be the reason Palestinian cassette vendors (in the 1980s) would be "arrested by the Zionist occupiers with ferocity", proof that "Israeli soldiers had done their homework on which recording artists to target".

It is important to realize, says the author, that "while musical and social trends have changed with the times — such as the relative decline of zajjal poet-singers and the later rise of selfie style social media musicking — the narratives of the musicians in this book point to the collective social origins of performance, with frequent espousals of sumud indicating that steadfastness continues to have relevance for new generations".

When it comes to music of displaced Palestinians, he finds that instrumental pieces with the title
"Ghurba" (being away from one's homeland, exile) express frustration at leaving Palestine.

Rich explanations of the political situation, life under occupation, world currents and awakenings, and frequent instances of steadfastness, endurance and resistance are added layers that inform the reader, deepen the narrative, put things into perspective and make reading this book riveting.

Space does not permit to mention the many individuals introduced by the writer, who researched, collected, sang Palestinian music, or strove to keep alive the tradition and events that shaped life and music. Or whose life stories make this book. Mentioning some would do injustice to the others. This extremely informative, erudite book that also shows the ability of Palestinian music to chronicle historic events and figures must be read in its entirety to be appreciated.

The extensive research -- 72 pages of notes and bibliography -- documentation, knowledge in the book make it a major point of reference, about music, primarily, but also about the life of the people that produced and preserved it, and, importantly, the political trajectory of Arab states and its influence on music. 

Louis Brehony
The American University in Cairo Press
Published in 2023
Pp. 241 (+75 pages of glossary, notes, bibliography and index)
Purchasing links:
US/Canada: Amazon US Indiepubs
Egypt: AUC Bookstores
UK: Bookshop UK | Amazon UK


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