Palestinian Music in Exile: Louis Brehony on the voices of resistance

Palestinian Music in Exile: Louis Brehony on the voices of resistance
Book Club: Author Louis Brehony discusses the impact of oral history in Palestinian music, anti-colonial mobilisation and nostalgia in terms of exile and song.
8 min read
06 March, 2024

Palestinian Music in Exile: Voices of Resistance (AUC Press, 2023) is a book brimming with research which weaves together the many strands of Palestinian resistance, explored through music and from a Marxist perspective.

“Musical narratives are revealing of collective histories, confrontations and hopes,” Louis Brehony writes in the introduction to the book.

Focusing on exile as sites where space is reclaimed, Brehony illustrates Palestine as a constant.

Despite the different exilic experiences and influences, Palestinian music encapsulates much of the anti-colonial struggle — including sumud narratives — and shines the spotlight on the participatory experience against a backdrop of what is retained in terms of culture, which is also a reminder of what Palestinians lost as a result of the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.

Brehony’s book is the result of ten years of ethnographic research among Palestinian refugees, who hold the key to the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle both in terms of exile experiences and oral history – the latter of paramount importance since the 1948 Nakba that not only resulted in the ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians but also the destruction of Palestine’s history.

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Speaking to The New Arab, Brehony discusses the impact of oral history in Palestinian music, anti-colonial mobilisation in exile through Palestinian music, and nostalgia as continuity in terms of exile and song.

Can you discuss the impact of oral history in Palestinian music?

The relationship between music and oral history is huge in the Palestinian case. As in much of the Bilad al-Sham region, Palestinian music is historically linked to poetry and seen as primarily a vocal tradition.

We see this in the 1936-39 revolution against imperialism and colonialism, analysed in a classic pamphlet of Ghassan Kanafani, who saw that the struggle found its expression in poetry.

Kanafani quotes the song Hizz al-Rimh (roughly, “shake the spear”), for example, which upheld the heroism of the armed struggle against the treachery of the colonising forces and which had become a wedding song.

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It is interesting that a quarter-century after its composition, the same song was arranged by the Gaza-based band Dawaween, fronted by vocalist Rawan Okasha, and performed in the last decade in theatres now decimated by Zionist warfare.

Mawtini (My Nation) – Palestine’s alternative national anthem – also dates to this period of struggle against British imperialism and has been sung again by many since October 7, 2023.

Beyond these well-known songs, oral history has found expression in improvised sung poetry, through a centuries-old tradition whereby poet singers (zajjalin) made direct reference to the struggles of the time. This involved mass participation, with audiences at weddings and other social events joining in the singing.

In the months before the 1987 intifada, for example, zajjal Mousa Hafiz sang hida poetry at concerts in occupied Palestine, picking up on such issues as emigration among sections of young Palestinians who left to study.

In one performance, we hear him sing “Why do you leave for America and sell your homeland like an antique?” (rhyming “Amrika” and “antiqa”), while the crowd responds between quatrains: “Where are you going? Where, where?”

In Palestinian Music in Exile, I pick up on the tendency of dispossessed Palestinians to critique their conditions, including the opportunism of self-appointed leaders; of course, those travelling to the US in the years following the intifada included PLO leaders pursuing the neocolonial “peace” process.

At the same time, methods of performing on musical instruments have been transmitted overwhelmingly via oral means. I feel it is important to recognise that instrumental music plays a role in Palestinian history.

Although post-Oslo Palestine saw the foundation of several heavily European-influenced music schools, most instrumentalists continue to learn by oral methods.

Among many examples in the book, I discuss the camp learning of Ahmad Al Khatib, now an international oud master, but we could also mention Salam Srour, Ziad al-Qasabughli and other players currently under the bombs and genocide in Gaza.

Local reed instruments like the mijwiz and yarghul provided the melodic basis for wedding dance, itself inextricably bound with sumud and resistance. In south Lebanon, young musicians have reached out for wind instruments, learning tarab forms alongside songs of the heritage of resistance.

Instruments are themselves wielded in the battle. It is highly symbolic that instrumentalists have resisted the Zionist colonisation of the oud. For example: a Masar Badil petition calling for a boycott of the Israeli oud festival in occupied Jerusalem attracted the signatures of well over 100 musicians.

How do the various forms of mobilisation in exile contribute towards the anti-colonial struggle as expressed through Palestinian songs?

First, I think it is important to restate what we mean by exile. Edward Said rejected the temporality of the term diaspora and referred to displaced Palestinians as a “dispersed national community” with the right to return to their lands.

Those with familial roots in the expulsions of 1948 and after were largely concentrated in what I refer to as the near ghorba, or place of exile, in the Arab World, while significant numbers ended up further afield in Europe and the Americas.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were internally displaced — what are now referred to as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are filled with refugees.

As Said once wrote, “Palestine is exile,” and nowhere is this phrase truer than in Gaza. We have seen recently that the steadfastness and resistance in the face of the waves of violent Zionist repression in Gaza have once again found their cultural expression, from the singing of Sawfa Nabqa Huna (We will remain here) by medical workers on the steps of the besieged al-Awda hospital, to the optimistic Ajras al-‘Awda”(Bells of return), sung by Rola Azar after the October 7 resistance operation.

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Internationally, the cultural creations of oppressed Palestinians have formed part and parcel of solidarity mobilisations. Mawtini was performed recently by Reem Anbar in Ireland, joined onstage in Inishowen by Irish singers and instrumentalists who had learned the song.

In Sweden, masses of demonstrators have sung Leve Palestina, the protest anthem composed in Swedish by Palestinian songwriter George Totari and recorded by his Kofia band in the 1970s.

Singing its openly anti-Zionist and socialist lyrics after October 7 was an act of defiance – the Swedish Social Democrats had attempted to have the song banned.

I believe this principled approach taken at the grassroots level echoes some of the approaches taken after the 1967 Naksa. I wrote recently on Totari and fellow songwriters George Kirmiz and Zeinab Shaath, active in this period, and argued that their works “operate on another plane to individualist stardom.”

In other words, there is a great tradition of collectivity at the heart of these musical movements that really presents an alternative to the depoliticised commercial industry that dominates the airwaves today.

There is an emotion, or nostalgia, linked to the ramifications of exile, that is brought out in the book. Can you talk about this continuity in terms of exile and song?

There is understandably a nostalgic or emotional connection to historic Palestine among the families of those forced to leave it.

We see a form of this among Gaza’s Palestinians, who have strong memories of the region’s theatres and performance spaces, destroyed by the Zionist invaders in recent months and weeks.

Where, in many other cases internationally, musical nostalgia often embodies certain abstract qualities – romantically, for times and places past and gone forever – in Palestinian music, something else happens.

"Even within genres known for their romantic qualities, Palestinians find ways to voice that ongoing connection to their land with hope and political tenacity"

Amira Silmi reminds us that the uprooting of people from their villages and cities “is neither a fantasy nor illusion.” When Palestinians sing, Ya ghusn al-zaytun al-akhdar (oh, green olive branch) or find relatability in the singing of Lebanese vocalist Fairuz, the association is not merely with something bygone, but with a land snatched from Palestinian hands within living memory and remaining there to be liberated.

At the same time, abstract nostalgia becomes an impossibility, and I think this is reflected across many genres in the Palestinian field.

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In Hymn to Gentrification, Faraj Suleiman sings of a great beast “tearing apart the city’s heart,” singing with urgency amidst an ongoing process of Nakba, colonisation and impoverishment in a way that really raises questions on the solution.

Singing in Istanbul in 2021 as part of a makeshift band including Fares Anbar – now living in a tent in Rafah after the bombing of his home – Ahmed Haddad gave a new voice to Fairuz’ Raja’in Ya Hawa (We’re returning, my love).

Even within genres known for their romantic qualities, Palestinians find ways to voice that ongoing connection to their land with hope and political tenacity.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent