Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Rim Banna: Voice of Palestine

Palestinian singer Rim Banna was an inspiring symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation. She also was a beacon in the fight against cancer as she won several battles during her years of treatment.

Rim Banna
Palestinian singer Rim Banna performs during a concert in Damascus on January 8, 2009. Banna insisted during her concert to perform songs representing various aspects of the Palestinian life, including happiness, war, love and resistance. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

Years after she passed away, Rim Banna’s voice continues to embody Palestinian aspirations. The Palestinian singer has brought Palestinians across the political spectrum closer together. Rim’s music broke segregation and rejected the curfew.

Rim had only one voice, the voice of Palestine. Her voice encompassed all the Palestinian factions, and her music embraced Gaza and Ramallah, Muslims and Christians; Palestine was unified. Rim was able to spread Palestinian culture all over the world.

A Gazelle was Born

Rim Banna was born in Nazareth in 1966 to Zouhaira Sabbagh, a poet and a pioneering Feminist.

Since she was ten years old, Rim participated in ceremonies at the Baptist school where she studied. She also participated in many festivals and events in her hometown. She chose to devote herself to singing and travelled to Russia to study at the Moscow Conservatory.

In 1985, Rim released her first album, Jafra, at the age of 20.

After releasing her second album, Your Tears, Mother, the following year, she met Ukrainian musician Leonid Alexeyenko. They married in 1991 and returned to Nazareth that same year.

In 1993, Rim released her third album, The Dream, and dedicated her talent to the Palestinian struggle.

The Struggle

Rim did not put away her traditional Palestinian thobe but used it to spread the art of embroidery instead. Her vision was to revive the forgotten craft.

Additionally, she founded a project to protect the intangible Palestinian cultural heritage. Rim started recording and archiving traditional nursery rhymes and compiled them in the albums New Moon (1995) and Mukagha (1996).

Rim’s music is culture-centric, seeking to “reintroduce – and sometimes reinvent – the past in a more contemporary and vibrant form.”

According to writer Israa Arafat, Rim’s commitment was “a founding principle, as her explicit bias towards the Palestinian people and defending their rights was evident throughout her career.”

Rim’s dedication extended to the entire Arab world, as she was a staunch supporter of the Arab Spring.

Her commitment to struggle is reflected in her albums. The album The Mirrors of My Soul, for example, is dedicated to Palestinian and Arab detainees in Israeli prisons. The album This Was Not My Story is dedicated to the Lebanese and Palestinian people. The album Seasons of Violet includes traditional Palestinian love songs. Similarly, the album April Blossoms includes songs dedicated to Palestinian refugee children. In the album A Time to Cry – A Lament Over Jerusalem Rim collaborated with Palestinian artists. Another album is called Revelation Of Ecstasy & Rebellion.

Palestinians consider her lyrics a good representation of their culture and history because Rim has portrayed their suffering, concerns, sorrows and hopes. She was also known for the Palestinian folk songs called Tahalil.

Chronicling Tragedies

Tareq Hamdan says Rim was born in the year of the “Big Lie.” In 1966, the occupation claimed it would “give rights to the remaining 1948 Palestinians.” However, Naksa (The June War) took place the following year. So amid disappointment, in Nablus, where Rim grew up, she witnessed the racism of Israel, the discriminatory laws and the confiscation of all Palestinian properties. She saw settlers invade her homeland and devour everything around her.

For this reason, it was only natural for Rim’s songs to reflect the everyday reality of Palestinian life, derived from her firsthand experience with the painful reality of Palestinians.

After the Oslo Accords achieved nothing for the Palestinians, Rim became disillusioned at a very young age. She quotes the poet Samih al-Qasim in her album The Dream: “Tell the world of a House whose lantern they have broken. And why have cursed ropes bound our hands?”

Rim has chronicled our biography through over three decades of music and resistance.

The 2000s and Children

By the turn of the new millennium, Rim ventured into new territory, departing from the usual exploration of heritage and culture.

In her 2001 album Al-Quds Everlasting, she criticised the Palestinian cause’s conversion into a popular trend. She emphasised that the Palestinian people and their cause “transcend their global representation in art.”

In 2007, Rim released the album Seasons of Violet, which included a collection of love poems from Palestine. Rim returned, with this album, to focus on Palestinian love songs and poems, which had been overshadowed by politically-charged songs for many years. In 2009, she released a second edition of nursery rhymes with the April Blossoms album. She dedicated the album to Palestinian refugee children.

Music therapist Raneen Hanna said, “Rim was not trying to subliminally preach to the children, but rather to envelop them in the nature and geography of their homeland, customs and traditions, values and warmth.”

Legacy and Awards

During her lifetime, Rim released 13 albums and participated in numerous other projects. She received numerous awards, including Person of the Year and Ambassador of Peace from Italy in 1994 and Person of the Year from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture in 1997. She also won the Palestine Award for Music in 2000 and the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2013.

Last Words

Rim was an inspiring symbol of the struggle against the Israeli occupation. She also was a beacon in the fight against cancer as she won several battles during her years of treatment.

At her 2016 Cultural Personality of the Year award ceremony, Rim said, “My voice is my only weapon against the occupation, against the terrorism of Israel, which killed, displaced, slaughtered, besieged and exiled the Palestinian people, and continues its heinous crimes to this day. However, even if I can’t get back to singing, it doesn’t mean my weapon has dulled. I will not sheathe my weapon as long as I can serve my people and Palestine, my first and last inspiration.”

She continued, “When I mention Palestine, I am talking about historic Palestine, complete from north to south. For me, this award is for Palestine, the martyrs, the prisoners and detainees and all the Palestinian refugees waiting to return to their original homes one day.”

Days before her death on 24 March 2018, Rim wrote her last words: “Yesterday, I was trying to alleviate the impact of the suffering on my children. I made up a story. I said, ‘Don’t worry. A body is like a shabby shirt; It doesn’t last. When I remove it, I will sneak between the roses in the coffin. I will leave the funeral, mourning and small talk about cooking, joint aches and flu. Watching the others enter and the crammed smell. I will skip to my house like a gazelle.'”

“I’m going to enjoy a hearty dinner. As usual, I will tidy the house, light candles and wait on the balcony for your return. I will sit with a cup of sage herbal drink, watch Marj Ibn Amir and sigh, ‘Life is beautiful. Death is akin to history, a fake chapter.'”

Rim was, as Fadi Islaih puts it, “a symbol of the Palestinian who lost her country, her people scattered and remained on her land.” He adds, “She was born when Israeli military rule was on the horizon. Her generation became ‘the second generation of the Nakba.’ Her loss means a chapter has ended. Her music is an important milestone.”

Like her generation, Rim has overcome the oppressive Israeli system and the subsequent consequences for the 1948 Palestinians: the fear of the Palestinian identity, self-denial and self-isolation from political participation.

Rim’s songs bolstered the Palestinian youth. They provided an outlet to reinforce the Palestinian identity. Her voice echoed worldwide, representing the Palestinian Israelis when the world did not know they existed.

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