Combining Revolution with Art in Palestine

by Macdonald Stainsby

When the world learned of the death of Aisha El-Zaben, 55, a participant in the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners held by the state of Israel, it was a sobering reminder of the tragedy of the struggle in the Middle East. So too, is the music of Al-Awda, a band from Palestine whose members were on a North American tour when the death was announced.

Having just recently finished the Canadian wing of the tour — to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto — the traditional as well as modern musical band is enthralling audiences with powerful songs from Egypt, Jordan and of course, Palestine itself from across the history of the 20th century. Once they began to play the audience was hooked with powerful rhythm, even before a note was sung.

The connection between the emotions of the music, the pride of a people and the cultural experience of the audience was clearly on display in Montreal with almost every seat packed, with dabkeh lines spontaneously joining the performers on stage (dabkeh is an Arabic word for a traditional kind of Palestinian folk dancing) and a crowd on its feet chanting the pride and dignity of a people. Khaled Barakat, an organizer of the Al-Awda North America tour explained this cultural-political connection:

“Most of the music they presented is composed by them, by Bilal Badarneh, the main composer of the group. We also wanted to show that part of our struggle — we are not just fighters, we are humans. We like music, and can compose music and write poetry, and celebrate life and dance and celebrate our humanity.”

The songs are set all over the Arab world, and all over history. Mohammed Mohsen of the Arab Student Collective at the University of Toronto, where the band also performed, spoke about the significance of playing a song by Egyptian composer Sheikh Imam.

“He was imprisoned for 17 years for writing dissident artwork against the government. These songs are songs that we grew up listening to. The only thing that can compete with the glory of a revolutionary act is the glory of an artistic act. To combine both is something that leaves me speechless every time I experience it.”

The eight-piece band, formed in 1997 under the original name of Layalina, includes the oud and the Kamanjah, as well as instruments that would be recognizable throughout the West, such as a guitar and drums. I was able to speak with Al-Awda's Tomader Switat, one of four vocalists but one of only three who made the trip to Canada. I asked why the fourth did not and was told that he had been denied entry at the border because his name was “on a list” of names identified by Canadian authorities as a “troublemaker,” even though he has never been here. He was sent back to his living quarters, in the state of Israel.

The six Palestinian members of the band are in fact, all passport holders of Israel. They have Israeli citizenship and can travel to and from the territory. But they don't wish to be called “Israeli Arabs.” This message is at the heart of their message to North Americans of all backgrounds.

“Call us Palestinian. Arab-Israeli only makes differences between us as a people,” Switat said. “We faced [this problem] here during our meetings with people — they told us that you are Arab Israeli, or Arabs from 1948... but for us, we are simply Palestinians.” Her Palestinian village is no longer there, but she says that she is from Jidin, and she only lives in Haifa. I asked her about what she hoped would come out of the trip.

“To let the people know more about the Palestinians and how they live, in Haifa for example, and not only the West Bank. We'd like to talk about the discrimination we face in Israel, in every field: in the economy — we don't get money like the Israelis — even our education is different.”

Why then, the name Al-Awda, which is the name of The Palestine Right to Return Group? “We believe that the right of return will be accomplished [and] then many, many things will change,” Switat said. “All the political maps will change,” to which Mehran Dawoud of Al-Awda Toronto added:

“[The right of return] is sacred, more than just legal. It's a moral right, sanctioned by international law, the UN, and denied by Israel.”

The other two members of the band are also from often neglected starting places: the Israeli-occupied Syrian Territory of the Golan Heights, now also under accelerated settlement expansion, much like the West Bank.

The groups hosting the events in Toronto and Montreal were Al-Awda North America, the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees Montreal, the University of Toronto's Arab Student Collective and Samoud — a Toronto group trying to advance the conditions of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. Mostafa Henaway from Samoud said his determination to support the concert was based on his own experiences dealing with prisoners much like those who were on the hunger strike.

“In the prisons when I was in Palestine, Palestinians would sneak cell phones into the prisons and would be calling up the radio station in Jenin. [The music] kept them going. It's always about more than one's culture; it's about the struggle.”

Some people have said that a group of Palestinian refugees fighting against deportation helping bring up the right of return is contradictory, but Youssef Mahmoud, raised in Burj Barajneh refugee camp of Lebanon and struggling against deportation out of Canada, disagrees.

“We can't go anywhere, and the right of return, well, we don't have that right. It's not a contradiction — we are fighting for the same reasons: for Palestinian human rights.”

Mahmoud explained his situation dealing with the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. It seems as if Canada is determined to send him back into limbo.

“I have two brothers in the camp right now, and I support them from here. I have nothing to do there [...] In Lebanon there are over 70 professions [refugees] cannot work.”

Darwoud added one very important note about the concert.

“[The most] limiting aspect was the language barrier — what could be done is a natural translation of the lyrics. The lyrics are very powerful and show the connection to the land itself.” Here is an example.

from Song for the Golan Heights

between my homeland and me
a throw of a rock,
a jump of a horse,
a step over the guards' uniforms
and those who will accept humiliation once
will never live again.
from A song to the martyrs

he came back on his comrades' shoulders they told us this story
and how he fought
his gun was there —
his soul also fought.

The tour wound up after going through Washington DC, New York and New Jersey. After this, Al Awda will return back to their living space, but when they return to an actual home is up to all of us.

Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance writer from Vancouver, now living in Montreal and studying at Concordia University.

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