Singing the Tune of Revolution

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“Jerusalem will be returned to us!” sings the Egyptian singer Hani Shaker, usually known for his catchy disco-ish pop songs of love. Ask any child in the street what his favorite new “Intifada song” is and the answer will most likely be this one. 

But Shaker’s song is nowhere near the only nationalist tune circulating since the start of the Aqsa Intifada. The trend caught like wildfire. Almost four months into the Palestinian uprising, there are at least two dozen pop-cum-revolution songs on the market. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority is made by the Palestinians’ neighbors – Arab artists that have remained more or less silent for the last 53 years. 

This is surprising because, although the first Intifada lasted years, not months, hardly a melodic peep was heard from the Arab world. Only those artists already in the business of producing Arab and Palestinian nationalist songs had anything to offer. 

Then the Intifada youth sang songs by local Palestinian groups or traditional revolutionary lyrics written and sung by Lebanon’s Marcel Khalifeh or Palestinian singer Ahmad Qaabour. “Unadeekum,” they sang. “We call upon you.” 

These songs are still popular today. Palestinians have dusted off their old cassettes, returning to the “Intifada mode,” one that partly means listening to songs that make your blood boil. 

So why did Arab singers decide to join the revolution this time? In large part, the answer lies in the overwhelming Arab empathy with this Palestinian revolt. With the spread of Internet and satellite, Arabs have had a first-hand account of the daily sufferings of the Palestinian people and the dangers to Jerusalem and its revered shrine, the Al Aqsa mosque. The mass rallies and demonstrations in Arab capitals were evidence that this time, the Arabs – or at least the Arab public – would not stand idle. 

Palestinians, on the other hand, devoured the sign of solidarity. In the face of Israel’s brute force and the operating imbalance of power, any support, even moral support, was deeply appreciated. Music stores have not been able to keep the new songs in stock. 

“I stopped selling regular pop songs,” says the owner of Music Center on Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem. “People just wanted to buy nationalist songs. I even had cassettes put away for years that I couldn’t sell. Now, not only have I sold them, there is a constant demand for more.” 

This is a major change. After the subsequent peace agreements and the arrival of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians finally allowed themselves to enjoy the more “decadent” things in life, including regular old pop music. 

But it did not take long for them to revert back. The ubiquitous Israeli occupation was a constant reminder that a more ordinary life was not yet a permanent one. 

The image of 12-year-old Mohammed Al Durra killed in his father’s arms spurred a number of artists, one of them renowned Lebanese pop singer Waleed Tawfic, to dedicate their songs to the child martyr. 

“The martyr Mohammed was seen by millions. Hiding behind his father’s back, he was killed by malicious bullets,” Tawfic sings, his voice compassionate. 

But the Arabs are sending even stronger messages through their lyrics. Singer Aref Al Khawaja chooses to give his song historical and political undertones. Its title is “The Flower of Canaan” and he dares to sing of a Palestine that goes beyond the borders of any current peace agreement. “Oh, the homeland that stretches from the river to the sea…” 

Almost every song tells the story of a people who suffer and resist, trying to retain what is sacred and holy to them. Many conjure up historical and religious figures from the past, in the hopes that the likes of them will return to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the enemy. “Where is Omar [Al Mukhtar]? where is Saladin?” one song beseeches. 

But not everyone is buying into the sudden surge of Arab nationalism. Many are suspicious that the artists’ motives are not so noble and that they are only putting their sentiments where money is to be made. For these critics, the question asked by Lebanese singer Julia Boutrus – “Where are the Arabs?” – still rings true.

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