'Music as a sign of solidarity': A Palestinian musician’s ode to his homeland amid war
For 27-year-old Jalal I. Akel Jr, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, music became a source of respite and personal exploration amid the repeated phases of violence and unrest against his community growing up.
Jalal recently released an album under his artist name Jahlayal in dedication to his Palestinian roots and spirituality with the hopes of spreading “healing” in the middle of Israel's brutal war in Gaza that has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians.
"When I say I am the Earth and the water [in the album], I speak of our deep connection to the land of Palestine"
He presents music in a tranquil, vulnerable and unfiltered form.
Sounds of nature symbolise life in Palestinian villages and poetic references in Arabic and English stress on connecting with his ancestral roots.
Jalal says his music is an embodiment of emotions that he felt during the events which took place in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in 2021 and the “numbness” that he feels now with the war waged against his people in Gaza.
“When I say I am the Earth and the water [in the album], I speak of our deep connection to the land of Palestine,” Jalal says, referring to the poem titled Infinite in his digital album called Origin.
“My music invites listeners on an emotional and healing journey where an abstract picture of my origin is illustrated,” he adds, sharing that all his emotions during the 2021 uprising over Sheikh Jarrah evictions and everything he saw during some of the violent episodes in his life were documented through music.
Music unites people and is a powerful healing tool; people can relate to it and feel indescribable emotions, according to Jalal, who seeks inspiration from artists and poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Rumi, Trio Joubran and Jowan Safadi.
"River of Joy is inspired by spring water in his father’s ancestral village of Lifta, while sounds of thunder in one of his songs represent the ‘evil forces’ or the occupation"
The land and origin are of great significance to the Palestinians. Traditions like agriculture are long-standing practices and means of livelihood for their local populations, dating back to pre-Ottoman history, according to the info from the Museum of the Palestinian People. Farming practices have been valuable for the sustenance of their local economies.
Many of the words used in Jalal’s poetry and music symbolise nature, land, life in Palestine and the threats facing them. The name of the track River of Joy in the newly released album, for instance, is inspired by spring water in his father’s ancestral village of Lifta, while sounds of thunder in one of his songs represent the ‘evil forces’ or the occupation.
“The story [behind the album] goes like waking up on the farm,” he continues, much like how Palestinian farmers have been taking care of their crops and fields for thousands of years, an integral part of their tradition.
The Palestinian artist spent a lot of his childhood gardening and learning about farming from his grandfather, who was kicked out of his village Lifta in 1948 when he was only nine.
“My grandfather wakes up on the farm, goes to the spring water, and heads to the old city. Upon return to his farm in the village, the Nakba happens,” Jalal underscores, describing how the sounds of natural elements, like fire and thunderstorms, symbolically represent this reality in his music.
Jalal implies that Palestinians are deeply rooted in their heritage and a lot of the psychological agony his community members experience is because they have been expelled from their lands and forced to give up on their simple lifestyles as farmers.
Talking about the incidents post-October 7 with the latest spike in Israel's aggression, Jalal shares that this time it seems more extreme, but the violence and uncertainty had become a normal part of his life.
His relatives’ homes were assaulted in the West Bank in the recent clashes while friends from Gaza were stuck at Rafah trying to see families whose houses had been demolished.
“It [war in Gaza] takes me back to the old times and reminds me of violence in my growing years,” he reflects. “As soon as I graduated in 2014, it felt to me that the world was ending. Cycles of violence kept repeating.”
"I find it difficult to create [music] freely with everything happening around me... We are always under threat, and it is not easy to be here”
One particular incident which left a lasting impact on Jalal was the killing of teen Mohammad Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers in 2014. The 16-year-old was kidnapped from the Shuafat neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and taken to a Jerusalem forest where he was beaten and burned alive.
“Khdeir was my father’s friend’s son. The incident and the unrest that followed, from shootings to tear gas, made me feel like my future was fading away. Events after October 7 have brought me back to all those times,” he contends.
Challenges and restricted space for creative expression
The war in Gaza and a rise in settler violence in the West Bank are also impacting the Palestinian creative community. An Israeli strike on December 7 killed renowned 44-year-old Palestinian poet and writer Refaat Alareer.
Before October 7, Jalal was practising his album to perform live in several Palestinian cities with two fellow musicians, but all plans had come to a halt due to the closure of the Edward Said Conservatory in Bethlehem, which he would regularly visit, in light of the latest hostilities.
“I still want to do shows, but just don’t know when. I find it difficult to create [music] freely with everything happening around me,” he shares. “We are always under threat, and it is not easy to be here.”
Besides the surveillance from soldiers and restrictions on the movement being a hindrance, Jalal says, there is no market currently to support the Palestinian artists and everything they are doing is purely individual efforts.
A lack of funding, threats from conservative social groups and discrimination between Israel and Arab artists put the Palestinian creative community in the crosshairs.
“Art is not a part of our daily life in Palestine. There are no life circumstances that allow the space for our arts [to thrive]. In general, we feel our voices are suppressed due to the occupation, and the conservative nature of our societies and now even more since October 7,” he bemoans, adding that artists from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank cannot come to Jerusalem or other cities and vice versa.
Allia Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist based in Prague, Czech Republic. An Erasmus Mundus scholar, she mostly writes on women's issues and human rights
Follow her on Twitter: @alliabukhari1