The Mindful Bard – Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance since 1900

Reflecting and Shaping a National Identity

Book: Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance since 1900

Editors: Moslih Kanaaneh, Stig-Magnus Thorsén, Heather Bursheh, and David A. McDonald

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Palestine’s struggle is, to some extent, the story of every nation. So rare is it to find a country or ethnic group with no memory of ever having been colonized.

And as this book makes abundantly clear, the very survival of a tradition of songwriting and performance within a colonized culture is itself an act of resistance?a reaction to oppression as well as a kind of parallel to political discourse?that makes any serious discussion of music in Palestine a relevant topic for mindful bards the world over.

Not all Palestinian songs can be identified as songs of resistance, but love songs, funeral songs, lullabies, and work songs are all evidence of community spirit and a call for autonomy that refuses to be silenced.

The book project began in 2007, as a discussion among a number of acquaintances, both European and Palestinian, with vested interests, some academic, some artistic, in Palestinian culture. The idea that emerged was to host a symposium to which they would invite smart people to present essays on the subject of Palestinian music, with the results going into a book.

In 2010, a three-day symposium was held in Jordan. The reason Jordan was chosen was that it was the closest country that would admit speakers from both Palestine (and those barred from re-entering Palestine) and Israel (and those barred from re-entering Israel). After the speakers presented their essays, lively debates and discussions explored the ideas they presented. This helped other thinkers hone their own ideas and also helped the speakers further refine their work for publication.

Not pointing the finger too steadily in the direction of Israel, the book reveals how Palestinian music developed in response to a number of influences, a significant one being a whole slew of past colonizers including Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and Great Britain, and every one of whom contributed elements to the music’s development.

Other key components of the Palestinian music’s evolution are globalization, and the rise of Arabization and political Islamists, both of which share the goal of neutralizing regional differences in the interests of creating a pan-Arab culture. Another influence on the development of Palestinian music is the West’s financial support for the arts there, a liberality often suspected of being a ploy to neutralize active political resistance.

An important observation brought out in the chapter by Issa Boulos (?Negotiating the Elements: Palestinian Freedom Songs From 1967 to 1987?) is that although in the early half of the 20th century the question of whether art should be created for art’s sake or to bring about social change was as intense a debate in the Arab world as it was in the West, it stopped being in question after 1948, when musicians expelled from Palestine began showing up in other Arab countries to share their stories. Arab musicians, writers, and artists quickly rallied around the cause of Palestine liberation and supported it with their creations and performances. It was no longer just about the art.

But obstacles to freedom of expression don’t always come from the colonizers. Musical artists in Palestine share the universal plight of marginalization within their own groups. For example, Palestinian folksinger Reem Talhami tells interviewer Heather Bursheh that she faced great opposition to her dream of singing from within her own family and community. They saw a singing career as low in status and economically precarious.

Reem’s social conscience began to merge with her music after the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 1987. She describes being in a group that put music to the words of noted Palestinian poets and how this put her in demand as a performer. In the end, the same community that had once discouraged her from singing now welcomed her to their concert stages and theatres.

In the eighth chapter, David A. McDonald explains that this music of the people doesn’t just reflect the people’s feelings; it produces and shapes their emotions, their identities, and the connections between them.

The writers in this book are agreed that music is a common expression of humanity and, at the same time, a way of asserting difference. On the one hand, music is humanity’s common language and there seems to be no limit to the amount of collaboration and syncretism that can occur among the most disparate of genres. On the other hand, a group’s music is sometimes a way of saying, ?we’re not like you.?

Palestinian Music and Song manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.

It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; it stimulates my mind; it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

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