The Sound of Resistance: Palestine

Learn about the history and traditions of musical resistance in:
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Lebanon

  • Palestine: Histories of Musical Resistance

    Iltizam: (Commitment) through song

    Sheikh Imam

    Cultural resistance has been synonymous with Palestinian music and song since the forcible expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from their villages in 1948, a series of events that is referred to as the nakba, or catastrophe. For many composers and singers in the greater Arab world, especially those working in the cultural mecca of Cairo, the Palestinian crisis has and continues to figure in their work as a symbol of the struggle to establish political sovereignty and the commitment to creating modern forms of Arab culture that are distinct from Western influence. Of the many artists who have evoked Palestine through the power of song, the Egyptian composer Mohammad Abd al-Wahhab marked the first major attempt to align Arab unity and nationalism with the liberation of Palestine through his "Filastin" (1949).

    Another important Egyptian figure was Sheikh Imam 'Isa, a blind dissident whose work circulated widely among underground circles of Arab intelligentsia, fueled a revolutionary spirit in solidarity with Palestinian guerrillas, and landed him in jail under both Egyptian presidents Nasser and Sadat. His "Ya Falastiniyyeh" (1968) is still beloved for its position of sympathy and solidarity with Yasser Arafat's then-nascent PLO. An indicator of how music can be used as a weapon of resistance, Arafat reputedly insisted on meeting Sheikh Imam during his visit to Cairo in August 1968 and requested a performance of the song:

    O Palestinians, I want to come and be with you, weapons in hand
    And I want my hands to go down with yours to smash the snake's head
    And then Hulagu's law will die

    O Palestinians, exile has lasted so long
    That the desert is moaning from the refugees and the victims
    And the land remains nostalgic for the peasants who watered it
    Revolution is the goal, and victory shall be your first step

    After 1967, a genre of political songs were produced by Palestinian diaspora musicians, such as al-Firqah al-Markaziyya and Abu 'Arab in Lebanon, that conveyed collective loss and rupture. These revolutionary songs took up Palestinian forms of improvised poetry, known as mawwal, 'ataba, or mijana, to express outrage and grief at the razing and appropriation of Palestinian villages by Israelis. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife set to musical composition the early works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in ways that evoked the everyday struggle for a Palestinian national identity, for example, the song "Jawaaz al-Safer" ("Passport") in his 1976 album "Promises of the Storm."

    In the 1970s and 1980s, due to Israeli authorities that viewed music as a propaganda weapon of resistance, active Palestinian musicians worked under the constant threat of arrest and censorship. Their work was marginalized by the censorship of Palestinian nationalist lyrics in the Israeli broadcasting industry. Moreover, cassette tapes were frequently confiscated by Israeli security in border checks, in addition to personal belongings. Many artists, such as singers Suhail Khoury and Mustafa al-Kurd became more popular after their arrest or confiscation of their work.

    Musical resistance during the first Intifada (1987-1993) was practiced through both the abstinence of music and emerging directions in Palestinian music. For many living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza during the Intifada, musical performance was an expression of joy that violated the experience of living conditions under occupation and the everyday losses of militant resistance. To refrain from playing instruments or cassette tapes was a gesture of respect in honor of those who were martyred. In this same period, one of the most influential groups in Palestinian cultural history was founded in Ramallah. Since the early 1980s, Sabreen has sought to represent the Palestinian struggle in avant-garde compositions that adapt Western and Arabic instruments to the themes of land and its fertility, romance, and dreams. Examples include their 1980s album "'An As-Sumud" and "Ala Fein." Sabreen continues today as a non-profit association for Palestinian culture, while the group's lead singer, Kamilya Jubran, departed in 2002 for a solo career that continues to explore processes of modernity in Arab song and voice. Her album Wameedd (2005) is a particularly haunting experiment in trip-hop and tarab vocals.

    Other prominent artists who emerged in the first Intifada and expanded their work during the peace process of the 1990s include Amal Murkus, who, like many others, has been strongly influenced by Marcel Khalife, as well as Rim Banna, Nawa, Baladna, al-'Ashiqeen, Firqat al-Fanun al-Sha'biyyah, Issa Boulos, and Trio Joubran.

    Lullabies and Children's Songs

    In addition to those artists who are popular among audiences outside of Palestine, certain figures continue to grace the local landscape of Palestinian song, particularly lullabies. Um ("mother") Jawaher Shofani is a grandmother beloved for her singing of traditional songs at weddings, funerals, circumcisions, and baptisms. She is featured on an album, Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, that is available in the US.

    A 2004 film production on the conditions of occupation in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, "The Sun Doesn't Shine in the Camp" features several songs recorded by children.

    Palestinian Hip Hop and al-Aqsa Intifada

    Any history of al-Aqsa Intifada must include the story of Palestinian hip-hop, which began in 1998 with the Nafar brothers and is now one of the main modes of cultural resistance in Palestine and the Arab diaspora. Though the rise of Palestinian hip-hop corresponds with the collapse of the peace process, Palestinian rap artists confront not only the ongoing Israeli occupation but social issues in Palestine, such as drugs, crime, hypocrisy of Arab governments, commercial corruption of music, and the crisis of being caught between (at least) two cultures. Those in the West Bank and Gaza hip-hop scenes bear an uneasy relationship with Islamists, especially those affiliated with Hamas, who may censor—sometimes violently—hip-hop concerts. When considered loud and morally suspect celebrations, these concerts violate a code of conduct that respects the duress of hostilities during the second Intifada. Palestinian hip-hop artists are not isolated from their Jewish rap brethren in Israel—various festivals and documentaries, such as Anat Halachmi's Channels of Rage, present the politics, influences, and collaborations among rap artists in Israel and Palestine.

    Channels of Rage

    Slingshot Hip Hop

    Detroit-based filmmaker Jackie Salloum's documentary film frames the artistic work and personal lives of Palestinian hip hop crews in Gaza, the West Bank, and inside Israel. It aims to spotlight alternative voices of resistance within the Palestinian struggle and explore the role their music plays within their social, political and personal lives. The film's trailer and website are portals to Palestine's contemporary hip-hop scene. A hip-hop group based in the United States, The Philistines, released a compilation CD "Free the P", the proceeds of which support the film project and Palestinian hip-hop more generally.


    Palestinian hip-hop group DAM seeded a scene with an attitude that it's "not just hip-hop, it's living two's mixing our Palestinian culture, our Arab culture, with our situation living among the Jews as a minority culture and with American hip-hop," says Tamer Nafar. He started rapping in 1998 with his brother, Suheil, and joined with Mahmoud Jreri to form the leading Palestinian hip-hop crew. DAM—which is Arabic for eternity, means blood in Hebrew, and is an acronym for Da Arab MC's in English—takes musical influences from Arabic pop and urban American hip-hop (e.g. Public Enemy) and raps in Palestinian Arabic, Hebrew, and some English. Through political songs such as "Min Irhabi" ("Who's a Terrorist?" 2001), DAM voices the common experience of Palestinians in provocative and confrontational lyrics:

    "You call me the terrorist?
    Who's the terrorist?
    I'm the terrorist?
    How am I the terrorist
    When you've taken my land?!
    Who's the terrorist?
    You're the terrorist!
    You've taken everything I own
    while I'm living in my homeland."

    (full lyrics)

    PR - Palestinian Rappers

    Palestinian Rappers

    Mohammed Farrah, otherwise known as DR or Dynamic Rapper, joined with Moutaz Hwehy (Mezo), Mahmud Abdallah (Bond), and Nadir Abu Ayash in 2002 to start the first rap group in Gaza. Strongly influenced by DAM, these four began rapping as a strategy of resistance against life under occupation by Israel. Their lyrics communicate the struggles of daily life, such as demolished homes in the refugee camp of Maghazi, orphaned families, the extremes of poverty, and the boredom that incapacitates the creative life of a twenty-something living in Gaza. Restrictions on mobility in and outside of Gaza, imposed by Israeli authority on males between the ages of 16 and 35, frustrate PR's attempts to record an album and travel to the West Bank to collaborate with other artists. Meanwhile, some Hamas supporters protest PR's concerts in Gaza—sometimes violently—on the ethical grounds that this Western form of music violates a moratorium on public entertainment. PR responds:

    "I am Palestinian...
    I live like a prisoner, estranged in my own land during this time
    For your sake Palestine, our screams have been silenced
    Our words have been denied
    Our movement has been paralysed."


    Also based in Gaza, R.F.M. is a rap trio that reaches out to youth and critiques those Palestinians who ignore the social problems in their society. Their message is critical, uncensored, and confrontational, but it has generated an appeal to multiple generations and audiences. Below are the lyrics to what some call their most controversial song, "Watch Your Back, Arabs," which addresses both Israelis and Arabs:

    "Where are the Arab people?
    Where is the Arab blood?
    Where is the Arab anger?
    Where, where and where ...
    Driving the coupe car
    Smoking the cigar
    Voting for the super star "American Idol"
    And forgetting about our martyrs, wounded, prisoners...Have you heard the last news!?"