Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinian Taraweed, a Disappearing Art

Taraweed, or tarweeda in its singular form, is a style of music performed traditionally by women to air their joys and grievances. Such songs are also primarily used in wedding ceremonies and other significant life events.

Palestinian singer Salwa Jaradat at a show
Palestinian singer Salwa Jaradat at a show in Metro Al Madina in Hamra, Beirut on December 17, 2022. Photo credit: Dana Hourany.

Dana Hourany

A portrait of Salwa Jaradat’s grandmother wearing the Palestinian thobe and techno music served as the background as the Palestinian folk singer took the stage at Metro Al-Madina in Beirut. With the support of Lebanese electronic musician “Etyen,” a fusion of electronic and Arabic folk music was performed on a chilly December evening.

Ya tale’een ‘al-jabal (climbing up a mountain), a well-known Palestinian folk ballad, served as the opening number for Jaradat’s performance. The ballad is believed to have been passed down through oral tradition from one generation to the other, and was once sung by women who would walk to the Israeli occupation prisons to inform the prisoners that the “fedayeen,” or Palestinian nationalist fighters, would be liberating them soon. To prevent the soldiers of the occupation from understanding the true meaning of the song, the lyrics would be prefixed with the letter “L” at random intervals.

The captivating voice of Jaradat enthralled listeners. The concert’s ethereal atmosphere, serenaded audiences by voice and rhythm, serving as a reminder of the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.

Taraweed, or tarweeda in its singular form, refers to songs that fall into a category akin to “climbing up a mountain.” It is a style of music performed traditionally by women to air their joys and grievances. Such songs are also primarily used in wedding ceremonies and other significant life events.

In Palestinian folklore, taraweed are used for a variety of emotional, festive, and political purposes. However, if not preserved, experts caution that the genre is in danger of extinction.

Palestinian folk songs

Music is a fundamental component of Palestinian culture as a whole; it infuses social and political gatherings and even serves to explain the struggles and social traditions.

Women have been essential to the growth of music throughout history. Weddings, harvest celebrations, and even routine tasks like collecting water from springs all involved singing.

Together with the traditional food, dances, and clothing, which are seen as markers of Palestinian identity, Palestinian folk music is directly related to the preservation of traditions. Threatened by a system of apartheid that hinders their expression and continuation, and the world’s forgetfulness, Palestinians inside Palestine and in the shatat (diaspora) pass down these traditions in a continuous effort against their erasure.

Folk songs, which are essentially rural songs that have been passed down through the generations, come in a variety of renditions and are characterized by a straightforward, plaintive melody and narrative verses.

Throughout the first Intifada in the late 1980s, numerous organizations and individuals continued to revive and record collections, surviving and accessible, in an effort to compile the scattered folk heritage that had been largely lost over time.

Taraweed are an integral part of this heritage, as they carry emotional and political connotations.

What are Taraweed?

The word “taraweed” derives from the verb “rawwada,” which refers to continuously repeating a melody. The melody is reiterated despite changes in the lyrics or subject matter in the traditional folklore songs of Palestinian women. Despite some alterations and adjustments to the subject content, the song’s opening and closing phrases and tune remain the same throughout.

Other sources claim that the word “tarweeda” arises from the noun “ward,” which describes journeying to the spring and collecting water. According to these accounts, Palestinian women would sing and compete with one another to lighten the load of menial everyday tasks.

Folk expert Hamza Osama Al-Akrawabi explains that during weddings the genre is used to express sadness for the bride’s departure as she leaves her family home; sisters and mothers sing out of grief.

“There has been a decline in the popularity of folk music in general as electronic music and DJs have become more accessible. Nowadays, only a few villages still perform taraweed,” the expert said.

Though the practice was once a dominant aspect of everyday life, particularly used to alleviate the pressure of working long hours in the fields and performing difficult manual labor, it is now only reserved for special occasions.

“Music is known to improve one’s mood, and the melodies of taraweed are generally easy to memorize. This made them more accessible to people at a time when electronic music and technological advancement were not a dominant aspect of our daily routines,” the expert said.

A form of resistance

Historically, the genre possesses a greater political significance. During the Great Palestinian Revolt in 1936, the British Mandate deliberately cut off communication between the revolutionaries and their villages.

Consequently, women devised a method of communicating with the revolutionaries, known as coded singing, which entails either reversing all of the phrases and discarding the phonetic pronunciation or just reversing or changing the last letter.

Although the songs seem arbitrary and unstructured, they were created by mothers and prisoners who yearned for one another as a means for communication. The intention was to render interactions difficult for Israeli occupying forces to track and understand.

Jaradat believes that the occupation is still threatened by folk music notwithstanding the fall in use and would prefer that its influence diminish altogether.

“Not only did they steal the land, food and clothes, claiming them as their own, our music is still a threat to them; they understand its power,” she said.

The spread of folk music has historically been suppressed by Israeli occupying forces. In one such incident, two Palestinian students were arrested at Hebrew University of Jerusalem for singing traditional folk songs in March 2022. The students were suspended from campus for six days after being caught by policemen listening to and singing along to “Ala Dalouna,” which describes the olive harvest and spring foods of Palestinian farmers.

The Israeli police stated that officers studying at the university “noticed two students singing a song in Arabic that includes words of support for perpetrating acts of terror.”

Need for preservation

Among the methods for preserving this tradition, Al-Akrawabi suggests that elders continue to pass down songs to younger generations while also highlighting their historical and cultural significance.

“If oral traditions are passed down and taught to the following generation, they are difficult to eradicate. But for them to endure, they must be practiced and performed. Furthermore, cultural organizations that propagate and document Palestinian musical folklore must persevere in their work,” he said.

The expert believes that collective memory and devotion to identity are crucial components of resistance and land sovereignty. The preservation of the genre can thus persist through the recurrent sharing of taraweed among those who are unwilling to let go of the genre’s legacy.

“We cannot be forced to forget our heritage. It all lives in our minds and hearts, awaiting the moment when it will be shared with others,” he said.

Jaradat points out that social media has significantly contributed to safeguarding and disseminating Palestinian folklore, especially when it comes to music. However, there are limitations, including covert prohibitions and limitations that apply to Palestinian content.

“Apart from shadow bans and restrictions, there is much content that appropriates Palestinian identity. Almost anyone can make a video claiming this is how Palestinian heritage looks and sounds like—even if they’re wrong. And many people are misled because the information is not relayed by experts and elders,” Jaradat said.

“Folklore must be handled cautiously and tenderly; it contains a great deal of responsibility and demands adequate appreciation and presentation.”

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