Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Hassiba Hachem: South Lebanon’s Voice of Lamentations

Hassiba Hachem defied societal norms to become one of the last public female Islamic chanters of her time. Her legacy lives on through her recorded chants and continues to resonate with audiences long after her passing in 1992.

Hassiba Hachem
A picture of Hassiba Hachem’s performance.

Dana Hourany

Atop a minbar set up on the side of the road brimming with believers, a woman stands draped in a flowing black robe, her form disappearing into the black banner behind her. The fabric of her garment sways, as she reenacts the mourning of women who survived the Battle of Karbala in a lament titled “Ya Doumou’ al-Ayn Sihi” (O’ Tears of My Eyes Fall). Her head is covered in a black headscarf, which frames her face and draws attention to the movement of her hands raised in supplication, fingers softly tracing patterns in the air as if reaching out to touch the Most High.

As she begins to chant, her voice is powerful yet hauntingly beautiful, bearing the weight of generations of pain and sorrow. The words she utters are ancient prayers of lamentation, invoking the mourning of Muharram. Each phrase is charged with devotion, resonating in the air like a melancholy song that pulls at the heartstrings of those who listen.

In this moment, as caught in a 1991 video of her last known performance in Nabatieh, South Lebanon, she is not just a woman in a black robe; she is a vessel for collective sorrow and mourning, a conduit for the pain and longing of her people. Her lamentations are not simply words; they are a statement of faith and tenacity in the face of calamity, a testament to the lasting spirit of those who have come before her, a declaration of resistance.

Hassiba Hachem died in 1992, but her chants have found their way to new audiences through video sharing platforms on the internet. These videos have gained traction as Lebanon is once again under Israeli attack, with people seeking solace and inspiration through her powerful voice.

Syrian musician Lynn Adib is one such example. Breathing new life into one of Hachem’s mawawil (pl. of mawwal, a traditional non-rhythmic style of singing), she posted a video on Instagram delivering a heartfelt rendition of Hachem’s performance from the film “Koullouna Lil Watan” (We are All for the Fatherland), a 1979 75-minute documentary directed by Maroun Baghdadi, which highlights Israel’s then invasion of Lebanon.

“When I first heard Hachem’s mawwal, I became obsessed with it and felt compelled to learn and perform it,” Adib tells Fanack.

“I was drawn to Hachem’s singing style not only because of her distinct voice, but also because of the fact that Hachem, as a woman, largely seen as the source of life, was chanting about death, in an affectionate and powerful manner,” Adib explains.

“These traditions not only symbolize our personal, social, and political struggles but also represent our need to express ourselves as the people of the Levant. These lamentations give us a sense of comfort, and break the figurative walls of isolation during times of trouble,” Adib adds.

Today, against the backdrop of the Israeli attacks on South Lebanon, Hachem’s mawawil and lamentations of grief resonate more profoundly, according to those who knew her. Her hometown of Nabatieh has recently witnessed a horrific massacre resulting from a salvo of Israeli rockets that claimed the lives of eight Lebanese civilians in a residential building.

At the time of writing, Israel has killed more than 300 people in South Lebanon and at least 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7.

Its history of aggression reveals a consistent strategy aimed at transforming South Lebanon into an uninhabitable buffer zone, analysts say. But despite these attempts, the people of South Lebanon continue to demonstrate their resilience and steadfast attachment to their land, whether during the invasion of the South in 1978, the 2006 war, or the ongoing attacks.

And Hachem’s songs standing the test of time despite the very few recordings are one such example of southern resilience.

One of the Last of Her Kind

Hachem was born in 1926 in Nabatieh Faw’a, or upper Nabatieh, a village on the higher reaches of the Nabatieh governorate. She married Mohammad Mahmoud Bdeir and moved to the city of Nabatieh.

At a time when society was accustomed to mostly men reciting Quranic verses and chanting lamentations at funeral gatherings, Hachem decided to carry the mantle, becoming one of the region’s last public female Islamic chanters throughout the mid to late 20th century. Although the tradition of women chanters survives today, it is not as popular as it once was. It has also become much more of a private practice, historian Charles Hayek explains.

In Shia Islam, such gatherings traditionally include texts recounting the Battle of Karbala, marking the martyrdom of Imam al-Hussein, son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph and first Shia Imam.

The Battle of Karbala, which took place in the city of Karbala, Iraq (680 CE), introduced a tradition of Iraqi religious lamentations and texts centered on Imam al-Hussein and the battle that all Shia Muslims recite worldwide during Muharram and Ashura.

Hachem however brought a unique perspective to this tradition—a flavor that remains distinctively hers to this day.

Building a reputation that still resonates in many corners of South Lebanon, Hachem’s voice, according to those who knew her, echoed the essence of the South, its people, and their struggle in a way that cannot be replicated.

Her neighbor, Hala Hussein, fondly remembers her. Hussein was only 18 when she married and moved into the house next door to Hachem’s, at a time when she had already established herself as an Islamic chanter.

“Her eight children were already married, with seven of them having emigrated to Germany and one to Sweden. She used to tell me that she had a difficult life,” Hussein told Fanack.

Hachem was not very social and was mostly dedicated to her craft. Hussein recalls her waking up at dawn, the sound of the metal bucket of water resounding loudly as Hachem would clean her house, cook a meal, before heading out for her tour of Quranic readings. She would return only in the evening, where she would pray, eat, and sleep, and repeat it all the next day.

“It was very rare for her to have a day off,” Hussein said. “She was a very brave woman and did not like anyone meddling in her business. She was also very playful, loved life and a good joke.”

Hachem defied norms in more ways than one. She divorced her husband and single handedly raised her 8 children, Hussein told Fanack.

“She set a powerful example to mothers who were not blessed with good marriages by carving out her own path. She relied on herself to make sure she and her children had a decent life,” Hussein said, adding that Hachem was not shy to speak her mind and went all out with her expression and voice during traditional gatherings.

Hachem also participated in the celebrations of “Mawlid al-Nabi” or the observance of the day of birth of the Prophet Mohammad where special religious texts are recited and chanted on the day.

Mahdi Abdel Hussein Sadek, a social activist and Nabatieh local, reflects on Hachem’s early career. She is said to have been singing a lullaby to her child when a woman overheard her. The woman, entranced by Hachem’s voice, immediately advised her to become a chanter.

She went on to arrange a meeting with Fatima al-Asaad, the wife of Ahmad al-Asaad, Lebanese lawmaker and Speaker of Parliament from 1951 to 1953. In the late twentieth century, the al-Asaad family enjoyed great prominence and wielded influence in South Lebanon.

“Fatima, known as Umm Kamel, was known for loving to engage in religious ceremonies and was fond of organizing mourning rituals,” Sadek told Fanack.

Hachem recited poetry in front of Umm Kamel, and despite not being a trained or professional chanter, Umm Kamel was immediately impressed, and Hachem’s career took off from there.

According to Sadek and Hussein, people from many southern villages, far and near Nabatieh, and from all religions and sects sought out Hachem to chant during funeral gatherings according to their respective tradition.

Achievements and Legacy

Hussein fondly reminisces about what made Hachem truly unique. “Her voice emanated warmth,” she noted. “She knew how to strike a chord and tug at people’s heartstrings.”

Sadek echoed this sentiment, describing Hachem’s voice as transcending “the male and female experience.”

“It mirrored the land in its hillsides and fields, echoing the people who turned the soil and tilled the fields,” he said.

Indeed, Hachem’s voice possessed a gentle rasp that lent a melancholic yet comforting tone. It held a hint of texture and roughness that evoked a sense of familiarity.

Despite lacking formal education, Hachem had the ability to transform popular religious recitations, originating from Iraqi colloquial tradition, into southern Lebanese lamentations that resonated with the region’s people, Sadek explained. She would also compose her own laments tailored to each deceased individual.

Furthermore, she employed the art of “ataba,” which translated to “plaint” or “dirge,” a traditional musical form in Arabic folklore, often performed solo without instrumental accompaniment. Ataba singers weave verses of traditional poetry into improvised melodies.

According to Hussein, Hachem would begin her laments in the ataba style, before transitioning to the standard mourning tradition.

“Her voice carried much truth,” Sadek remarked. “It is difficult to listen and not have the urge to cry. That is the effect and weight it possessed.”

Hachem’s talent garnered attention beyond her local community, leading to appearances in two renowned films. Apart from Maroun Baghdadi’s “Koullouna Lil Watan,” she appeared in Borhane Alaouié’s “Kafr Kassem,” a 1975 Syrian drama portrayal of the Kafr Kassem massacre by Israel’s Border Police (Magav), killing 49 Palestinian civilians returning home from work in 1956.

She also held a key role in Nabatieh’s annual Ashura passion plays, commemorating the Battle of Karbala. Adorned in black, she would sit behind the stage, initiating her chants and laments upon the reenactment of Imam al-Hussein’s martyrdom.

To this day, her recorded chants are played during the Ashura procession.

“Hachem never sought popularity and didn’t mind performing for even the smallest of crowds,” Sadek said. “Despite occasional opposition from some youths responsible for organizing the Ashura play back then, Hachem would assertively take the microphone and begin her religious chants, unfazed by their opinion.”

A Unique Phenomenon

According to Sadek, another noteworthy aspect of Hachem’s character was her determination to learn how to drive at the age of 50. “Despite having multiple accidents, she was adamant on honing her driving skills at that age,” he said.

“She also maintained a notebook where she penned her laments and chants. However, she wrote them in coded symbols so that no one else could read them,” he revealed.

Hussein recalls her children attempting to persuade her to retire, but she firmly refused.

She died on December 17, 1992.

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