A History of Palestine in Song

Rami Soudah


There has long been a crusade to stamp out the Palestinian history and culture. Palestinian identity has been under attack on all fronts for a century, as justifying the territorial expansion of the nation-state of Israel has been dependent on the denial of the history and identity of Palestinians as a people. Still, we have not been erased—in part, because the spirit of resistance lives in our music, and in the music created in solidarity with Palestine by the rest of the Arab world.

The resistance art of Palestine preceded the violent expulsion of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) and the foundation of Israel, finding its earliest form in resistance poetry penned by Palestinian writers; their works would survive the post-Nakba condemnation of Palestinians to statelessness and diaspora. This struggle has never ended. In the decades following the Nakba, Palestinian music flourished in spite of the occupation, especially music revolving around the struggle and the resistance. As a Palestinian national identity began to form, it had to challenge the superimposition of Israel’s borders on the land of Palestine.

The true scale and horror of the Nakba is difficult to comprehend. With the memories of Deir Yassin and other massacres on their minds, Palestinians witnessed the banishment of the people of Yaffa on May 13th, 1948—how settlers pushed thousands out to the sea, depopulating the area—and feared they would meet a similar fate. On May 14th, 750,000 Palestinians evacuated their land and their homes, carrying what they could on their backs, hoping that someday, they might be able to return. 73 years later, they remain waiting. 

Fleeing during the Nakba, Palestinian academics and artists left behind incomplete, unpublished, and uncopied works that were then lost or abandoned. Their creators were legally denied the ability to return to their country and claim their work—or, in fact, any of their possessions at all. The crisis of the Nakba put a pause on Palestinian literature, academia, and culture in general, as an entire population became homeless and stateless overnight. Since then, Palestinian art has provided a means of processing trauma. The shock of the Nakba was imprinted on a generation of poets, unofficially called the Poets of the Nakba. Collectively, they produced a wide repertoire of poems about the loss and nostalgia that this catastrophe embedded in every Palestinian soul. One such poem, by Harun Hashim Rasheed, is called “Al Ghouraba’a,” or “The Foreigners.” In it, a girl named Laila asks her father, “Why father, why are we foreigners?” The text of “Al Ghouraba’a” was made into a song of the same title, with music composed by the Rahbani Brothers, a Lebanese duo, and broadcast on Radio Egypt.  

The Rahbani Brothers

The Rahbani Brothers gave their song to a Lebanese singer named Nouhad Wadie’ Haddad—better known by her stage name, Fairouz. At the time, Fairouz was on the verge of becoming the Arab world’s most successful artist. In her hands, “Al Ghouraba’a” effectively became a love song to the Palestinian people, a collaborative effort from other parts of the Arab world.

Though she hails from Lebanon, Fairouz deserves a place of acknowledgment in any history of Palestinian music; she has long taken a decisive political stance as an unwavering champion of the Palestinian cause. The repertoire of music that Fairouz has released about Palestine, in particular the city of Jerusalem, spans the entirety of her career. Her oeuvre comprises much of the best-known music about Palestine. Fairouz has also long been associated with Arab diaspora artists, though she isn’t herself part of the diaspora. Her style of song and performance, usually somber and nostalgic, hearkens to the emotions that dominate the heart of the diaspora—a longing for home, sorrow, prayers beseeching God for an explanation. Sensations that Palestinians know all too well, and share with many in the wider Arab world.

Fairouz’s music about Palestine is intertwined with her music written for the broader diaspora—unsurprising, as Lebanon has a significant population of refugees who have fled regional violence. The emotions of oppressed peoples, including the Lebanese and the Palestinian populations, all come together in Fairouz’s songs of longing. Fairouz and her listeners embraced the commonalities between the Lebanese and Palestinian diasporas.

One of Fairouz’s first official singles is called “Sanarjiou’ Yawman,” or “We Will Return Someday”—a fine example of the cultural overlap of the two populations, and their identification with one another. Once thought to be derived from a Palestinian poem, it was later confirmed to be an original Rahbani Brothers work. Though written with the Lebanese diaspora in mind, it has long been a classic favorite of Palestinians. Many relate to it deeply. Fairouz often performed “Sanarjiou’ Yawman” at concerts outside the Middle East, playing to stadiums packed with Arabs of the diaspora, dreaming of a home that she conjured through her voice.


In Palestinian music, Jerusalem often holds a distinct status. Palestinians have never accepted either the division of Jerusalem between themselves and the Israelis or the UN proposal to internationally administer the city; it still remains, in their hearts and minds, the eternal capital of Palestine. The exceptional status of Jerusalem has manifested in the broader culture and found expression in music. Fairouz references Jerusalem in a multitude of her songs, even those not about the diaspora. In her work and elsewhere, the city is a symbol of sanctity and object of prayer, religious values shared among the Abrahamic faiths.

Between 1948 and 1967, any hopes that the Palestinian displacement would be a temporary affair faded. Prominent figures who had publicly championed the Palestinian cause on their political platforms, such as former Egyptian president Gemal Abdelnasser, intensified their calls to action. Instead, it was Israel that first took action when, on July 5th, 1967, Israeli airpower assaulted Egyptian bases as IDF ground forces swept across the Sinai, wrapping up the brief Six-Day War with an enormous annexation of territory: a full occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in addition to seizures of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. The humiliating Egyptian defeat decisively enshrined Israel’s military supremacy in the region, shattering Palestinian dreams of return and prompting a second diaspora from the newly occupied territories: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.   

While Palestinians were focused on their own liberation, the wider Arab scene was divided: some parties sought to make peace with Israel in return for the restoration of their territories and an end to the violence, while others stood steadfastly with Palestine. The cultural voices of the Arab world spoke out for the Palestinians. Fairouz released the tragic “Zahrat al Mada’en,” or “The Rose of Cities,” about the occupation of Jerusalem, vowing that “the doors of our city will not be locked, for I am going to pray.”

Egyptian singer and actress Oum Kalthoum, “the Star of the East,” collaborated with renowned composer Mohammed Abdel-Wahab to put to music Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s poem “Asbah Endi Al’an Bondoquiya.” The song, its title translating to “I Now Own a Rifle,” was a call to armed resistance. It joined the Palestinian longing for return with the spiritual trauma of losing a religious refuge, and the rage and frustration of the neverending war. It’s difficult to select a single lyric that aptly conveys the sensations produced by this masterwork, but here’s one line: “I search for my childhood, the children of my neighborhood, my books, my photos, every warm corner and every vase.”  

Oum Khaltoum

A crushing defeat in the Six-Day War prompted a serious reevaluation among Arab leaders: how much were they willing to sacrifice for the Palestinian cause? At the same time, questions were arising about the legality of armed Palestinian resistance, although international law permitted an occupied power to resist their occupier by any means necessary. Egypt’s priority became to retake the Sinai. The PLO were expelled from their base of operations in Jordan in 1971 after tensions ignited infighting between Jordanian forces and PLO fighters. The organization was relocated to Lebanon, where their Muslim majority refugee and fedayeen (freedom fighter) population tipped the scales of a delicate religious demographic balance and led to a 17-year civil war.

Symbols of resistance, such as the keffiyeh, became the paramount signifier of terrorism in the Western imagination. Palestinians, already reviled in the West, saw their public image deteriorate significantly in the Arab world as well. This divorce from the Arab world manifested musically, as songs by Arabs about and in support of Palestine declined in popularity. Palestinians pressed on in their attempts to foster a culture of their own, made difficult by their continued statelessness. They had long relied on the existing Arab cultural bases of Egypt and Lebanon—and both of those countries, at the time, seemed to be adopting more moderate, if not positive, stances toward and relations with Israel.

In these years, Palestinian cultural identity became even more deeply focused on resistance and survival, their music endlessly revisiting themes of struggle and return. Palestine’s celebrated personalities were now more often figures who had taken direct action or had been martyred. The place of honor in Palestinian literature that was once filled by resistance poet Ibrahim Tuqan, who had died of natural causes before the Nakba, was now taken by Ghassan Kanafani, a radical writer assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. Yasser Arafat was increasingly dismissed as a pacifist, and the more aggressive, Marxist-Leninist PFLP (People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine), headed by George Habash and home to Ghassan Kanafani and the famed Laila Khaled, took center stage as a symbol of resistance.

In 1980, a band called Sabreen, meaning “Still Patient,” or “The Patient Ones,” was formed by a group of Palestinian musicians. Sabreen began to experiment with combining Western and Arabic styles and instruments in their music. They regularly incorporated Palestinian poetry into their lyrics, drawing on poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Hussein Barghouthi, and Fadwan Tuqan, daughter of Ibrahim Tuqan. Sabreen’s first single, “Dukhan al-Barakin” (“Smoke of the Volcanoes”), featured lyrics by Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim. Its release coincided with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, and the siege of Beirut. “Tell the world about the home whose lantern they broke,” Sabreen sang. The band eventually transformed into a non-profit organization that promotes Palestinian music, paving the way for more Palestinian musicians and bands to express the traumas and triumphs of struggle in their own voices.

Sabreen (1993)

Despite the growing distance between Palestinians and some Arab states, solidarity had not died out, and many in the Arab populace, as the popularity of their leaders waned, began to valorize Palestinian resistance and anti-imperialism. Arab culture never lacked for artists who praised Palestinian obstinance and their survival against all odds. What shifted in this era was the source of production for resistance art—Palestinians took greater ownership of these emotions, which they transferred into their music.

Half-Lebanese, half-Palestinian (of Armenian descent) artist Julia Boutros, whose career flourished in the ’80s, was able to find success singing about resistance, as she did in the songs “Wein El Malayeen” (“Where are the Millions?”) and “Ana Betnafas Horriye” (“I Breathe Freedom”). This genre intersects with two key aspects of Palestinian culture: struggle and international solidarity. Thanks to its lyricism and resonant emotional tonalities, other Arab populations experiencing strife could find ways of identifying with the Palestinian struggle and its associated cultural markers. The feelings of solidarity went both ways, as the Arab citizenry lost faith in its leadership for selling out the Palestinian cause, and remained staunchly in the Palestinian corner.

Julia Boutros

Solidarity among Arabs was perhaps aided by the sense that they could be the next people to be subjected to occupation. Israeli territorial expansion and settlement in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai seemed to validate those fears.

No histories mentioned thus far saw Palestinians take matters into their own hands to the extent that they did during the First Intifada in 1987. The Intifada manifested as a compilation of every possible form of resistance: civil disobedience, graffiti, homemade explosives like Molotov cocktails, rock-throwing, boycotts, and general strikes, all of which Israel retaliated against with live ammunition and military force, in a move that was internationally condemned.

Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was quoted as having instructed the IDF to break the bones of Palestinian protestors, instructions which, whether meant literally or not, were taken in the literal sense by Israeli soldiers. That order has tarnished Rabin’s image in the Palestinian mind ever since, despite the world’s attempts to rehabilitate him. He has been considered a peacemaker for his role in the Oslo Accords, and was notably killed by an ultranationalist, a fellow Israeli, for those efforts. During the time of the First Intifada, the genre of resistance music that flourished in the hands of Palestinian artists like Julia Boutros and Sabreen would undergo a change in tone. It became angrier, more explicit and literal—less guarded, often referring explicitly to the targets of its anger: Israel, Zionism, and Western imperialism.

Resistance music became even more central to Palestinian identity because it persisted as one of the few things Israeli culture couldn’t appropriate. This music sometimes specifically called out Israel, and the artists had often made their thoughts about Israel very clear. It would simply make no thematic sense for Israeli culture to incorporate it. Israel’s disproportionate aggression against Palestinian resistance is always portrayed as its right to defend itself, and appropriating resistance music would have presented too jarring of a disjuncture to nationalists, already balancing a world of contradictions in their minds.

Israeli appropriation of Palestinian culture, therefore, did not often incorporate music. Instead, it has manifested in other cultural areas, like the controversy over ownership of regional cuisines. Meanwhile, Israeli musical culture drew from the larger Arab world, primarily Egypt, which, in the early 20th century, saw a significant number of its Jewish citizens making major contributions to music and the arts. Dawood Hosni, born David Haim Levi, composed for Oum Kalthoum, Laila Mourad, and Amal al-Atrash, to whom he suggested adopting the stage name “Asmahan.” Hosni was a trailblazer in the Egyptian music scene, often celebrated alongside Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Riyad al Sunbati, and Sayid Darwish.

The Mordechai family, all of whom would adopt the stage surname “Mourad,” produced Zaki Mourad, a composer, musician, and synagogue cantor. Two of his children would go on to make great strides in music: Laila Mourad, and her younger brother Munir Mourad. Though no one in the Mourad family accepted Zionism and they all insisted on their Egyptian patriotism, their Jewish identity had been politicized. Serious distrust had arisen between Jews and non-Jews in the Arab world,  leading many of the former to migrate to Israel.


Laila Mourad

As a result, the Mourad family was subjected to persecution and arbitrary arrests by Egyptian police, and Laila Mourad, despite her universal popularity inside and outside Egypt, was briefly blacklisted when a rumor emerged that she had made donations to the state of Israel. Despite a government investigation that dispelled the rumor, and the fact that she had converted to Islam in 1947, the stigma of distrust still accompanied her, and she retired at what was considered the height of her career in 1955.

In his 2009 movie “The Time That Remains,” Palestinian director Elia Suleiman includes a scene in which Israeli soldiers, after capturing the city of Nazareth in 1948, play Laila Mourad’s “Ana Alby Dalili”—“My Heart is My Guide”—on a gramophone looted from a house. While the music plays, the guards take shifts going into the house, emerging to show the rest of their squad what they’ve looted. Standing at the gate of the house, two guards rhythmically fold a white sheet to the waltzing rhythm of the song. Another guard shows off a clock before tossing it into their vehicle.

The scene stages the traumatic losses inflicted by conquest and appropriation. The house that was just raided is now under the control of Israel. The possessions within it are taken by Israelis. The city of Nazareth is now in Israel’s territory—not Palestine’s. “Ana Alby Dalili,” a song by an artist staunchly opposed to Zionism, plays as we witness this violent shifting of borders, this forcible revocation of rights. The song appears once more, later in the movie, when the main character, who has lived through the Nakba and witnessed the looting, plays it from a cassette in his son’s car. He listens in a daze while his son drives him home. It signifies the memory of what once was, and what is gone forever.

It has all been the same struggle, since the very beginning. Just as a Palestinian identity had begun to establish itself after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it was swiftly denied the opportunity to flourish. The development and maintenance of a Palestinian cultural identity is itself a form of resistance. The erasure of Palestinian identity wasn’t meant only to cleanse territory of Palestinians, but also to rewrite history so that the concept of a “Palestinian” people never existed in the first place. Just an indistinct group, not a people with a shared culture and history. They were merely historical afterthoughts—if they existed at all.

As long as a Palestinian identity continues to exist, in whatever form, it jeopardizes the self-declared moral authority of Israel in its historical and modern annexations of land and its subjugation of civilians. Palestinian culture continues to provide evidence that a people did and do live here; yet their lives have been deemed to matter less. To be Palestinian is to struggle against the indignities that so many others believe we deserve, or that are simply denied. To be Palestinian, then—in our history, our identities, our culture and music—is to push against the obscurity and statelessness to which we have been condemned. To be Palestinian is to force into the world the fundamental acceptance of a people as human beings, deserving of the same dignity extended to any other.♦



Rami Soudah is a Master’s student studying Arabic music in the 20th century. He’s extremely fascinated with the movies of the golden age of Egyptian cinema, and especially the starlets and divas that made this era so iconic. 


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