How music preserves Palestine throughout the Palestinian struggle against erasure

How music preserves Palestine throughout the Palestinian struggle against erasure
Music makes the world a better place, but for Palestinians, it imprints their place in this world.
6 min read
28 February, 2020
Rola Milad Azar is a Palestinian musician [Getty]
Whether at home or in exile, the arts are essential to Palestinians. Experiencing decades of conflict, displacement, occupation and siege, the arts play a role in not only lifting the spirits of those living the reality of Israel's brutality, but to preserve a culture that has endured attempts of erasure on all spectrums.

However, even the arts are slowly disappearing inside Palestine because of the brutal occupation.

"Palestine has been embroiled in conflict for over 50 years. As a result of being cut off from the rest of the world due to travel restrictions and no means to reach the international market, the music industry has been left behind," John Keating (Johno), founder of Delia Arts told The New Arab.

Delia Arts is a foundation that provides musicians with support in conflict ridden regions zones, and works with artists from conflict high-poverty marginalised communities across the world.

For their latest project, Delia Sessions took to Palestine to find talented musicians who allow their Palestinian identity to seep through their vocal cords.  

Among them was Rola Milad Azar, 27, a Palestinian musician who was chosen to debut Delia Sessions. Performing at the Singer's Café in the occupied city of Bethlehem, she performed two traditional folk songs: Ya Mayla Alghossoun and Almaya Almaya, portraying the struggle of being a Palestinian refugee and the Palestinian's connection to their land.

Originally from Nazareth and currently living in Jerusalem, she uses music as a tool to not only express herself as an individual, but to preserve Palestine as the brutal Israeli occupation continues to throw obstacles in the way of Palestinians in their daily lives.

For Palestinians, art is our weapon because we use it to make our voices heard

"For Palestinians, art is our weapon because we use it to make our voices heard," Rola told The New Arab.

"And because music is a form of art, we're able to use it to stretch our stories across the globe in a peaceful way," she added.

The concept of using art as a form of resistance against the Israeli occupation is one that the greatest of Palestinian writers, artists and musicians have used.

Ghassan Kanafaini, a writer and leading member of Palestine's leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine group consistently urged the concept of adab al-moqawameh, an Arabic term that emphasises the role of arts and literature in Palestinian resistance. 

He was not only famous for his advocacy of preserving Palestine's culture through the arts, but he himself used vivid imagery in his own work for those exiled to imagine Palestine in the most lucid way possible.

Despite its importance, many fear traditional Palestinian music is dying with its youth.

"In Palestine in particular, music of their culture has been disappearing. For example, you hear less and less Palestinian music at weddings," Johno explained.

"We are helping to preserve some of this identity, and also give a modern context so the music can be shared with a new generation. That coupled with the creation of new music is helping them evolve their music identity in a way that is relevant to a modern audience."

Connecting with the diaspora

For Palestinians, not only is music a way of spreading their message and preserving their culture, but it's a bridge between Palestinians across the world.

Across the world, there are 7.2 million Palestinian refugees alone and millions more are citizens of other countries but have Palestinian roots. 

With millions of Palestinians being ripped out of their homelands, some of whom are unable to preserve their Arabic tongue or lack vital ingredients to make traditional meals that keep Palestine alive in the kitchen, music becomes the thread to preserving their heritage.

Even if one can't understand the lyrics, the nostalgia of familiar voices, tunes and even dabke beats take them back to Palestine in their own personal way.

"For Palestinians in the diaspora, music is very important to them so they can express themselves and their identity," Rola urged. 

"Music allows exiled Palestinians to return to their roots, even if they haven't once seen Palestine and it helps them stay connected to who they are, which is important for all of us and the cause above all," she added. 

Rola has travelled the world, singing Palestinian folk songs and says she's always left emotional when she sees diaspora Palestinians' passion for their homeland. 

"When I perform outside, seeing everyone still connected to Palestine makes me so happy. I always see the longing in their eyes to preserve their culture and return to their homeland and it always makes me want to cry," she said.

Cultural grievances and Israeli-imposed barriers

Another barrier that many Palestinians face is cultural barriers that come with pursuing a full-time career in the arts.

"Palestine is not only faced with conflict but in certain areas the conservative views of the culture can make it even more challenging for musicians to freely create music. The fact that this conflict has been going on for decades has created a fragile situation for the preservation and identity of Palestinian culture itself," Johno said.

A growing trend of conservatism in Palestine is infringing in freedoms of many who want to express their creativity or exit the mainstream.

In some extreme cases, lives have even been taken in honour killings and bigoted attacks against the country's LGBTQ+ population.

However, for some, it's not just the growing pockets of conservatism in Palestinian society, many are discouraged from following their dreams as not having a conventional, "stable" career is seen as a form volunteering themselves into an abyss of instabilities. 

"Music runs in my family and my sister and I always played music with my dad who is a singer and musician," Rola said.

Even for her, anxiety took over when she decided to pursue music as her full-time career and lifelong passion, especially in the context of living under occupation.

"When I told my family I want to be a musician, they were initially worried but they fully supported me," she said.

The worry is exasperated for Palestinians, whose lives are under the mercy of Israeli apartheid, occupation and in the case of Gaza, a crippling siege.

Nearly a quarter of Palestinians are currently unemployed and nearly 30 percent of Palestinians live under the poverty line. Freedom of movement is often stifled by Israel, making it all the more difficult for Palestinian musicians to travel across their own country for concerts. 

"The occupation has affected my life in many terrible ways," Rola explained.

"Because of the occupation, my voice can't be heard the way I dreamt for it to be heard, with many obstacles in my path. I may have extra barriers in my way because of Israel, but the barriers don't stop me from dreaming," she said.

There is no doubt that music is an inherent part of Palestinian culture and is the road for preserving identity in the face of an occupation and mass exile.

Musicians in Palestine are more than just a source for entertainment and joy, they are a form of resistance and a show of pure steadfastness under circumstances that put their culture and identity at threat. 

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh and Instagram: @flowerknafeh