Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinian Folk Songs: Vital in Preserving Palestinian Identity

Palestinian folk songs played a significant role in portraying the ongoing suffering in Palestine and represent a unique form of resistance for many.

Palestinian Folk Songs
A photo taken for the Dawaween music band while playing folklore songs during a musical heritage concert in Gaza City on March 10, 2016. Momen Faiz / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Yousef M. Sharqawi

Folk music is a crucial component of Palestinian heritage, playing a significant role in safeguarding the Palestinian identity. Palestinian folk heritage offers valuable insights into Palestine, its people and its history.

Music is pivotal in Palestinian culture, being integral to political assemblies and community events. Notably, Palestinian folklore is rich in poetry and innovation and expressive in diverse ways. It encompasses lifestyles, attire, the vibrant dabke dance, customs and traditions.

Folk Songs: Characteristics, Types and History

Numerous scholars have attempted to define Palestinian folk songs and identify their characteristics.

According to researcher Ihsan al-Deek, folk songs are a prevalent and vital form of folk literature, “blending melody and lyrics.” Like all literature, they reflect the “collective subconscious of the people, encompassing their interests and feelings, and it is deeply connected to people’s essence, leaving an indelible mark on every generation.”

Dr. Ahmed Morsi outlined several characteristics of Palestinian folk songs. Firstly, these songs are conveyed orally among people. Their flexibility is another defining trait, contributing to their enduring nature. Furthermore, the identity of songwriters remains mostly anonymous, with the exception of professionals that compose their lyrics and mawwals.

The spectrum of Palestinian folk songs encompasses various types, such as the mawwal, which is subdivided into several varieties, including al-Baghdadi, al-Araj and al-Numani. Distinctions between the different forms of mawwal are based on the number of verses and the assortment of rhymes they incorporate.

Folk songs cover a wide range of themes, including festive songs for holidays and religious celebrations, love songs, wedding anthems, songs for circumcision ceremonies and celebrating births. They also encompass songs of war, enthusiasm and encouragement for battle. Palestinian folk songs serve diverse purposes, addressing political aspects, expressions of lamentation, drinking and storytelling.

Some references indicate that the evolution of Palestinian folk songs can be divided into three stages: the classical, romantic and realistic phases. The classical phase revolved around the “concepts of the ruling feudal class” in the period before the Nakba. During this phase, religion had a pivotal position in its themes, accompanied by notions of destiny, fate and unwavering acceptance, frequently resonating with the peasant class, the impoverished and artisans. Lyrics from this era include:

O planter of affection,
Why have the trees of affection become scarce
And the waters of passion grown shallow?

Some days, we savour the honey’s taste,
While others, the vinegar’s sting we embrace.
Some nights, we lie on soft beds,
But others, the ground is our resting place.

Some days, we dress in fine silk,
And some days, we wear rags.
Days now dictate the fate of the honourable,
To suffer in humiliation.

The romantic phase surfaced with the emergence of the new bourgeoisie in pre-Nakba Palestine. During this new period, poets and folk songwriters discovered a channel for popular sentiments that flowed within a broader and more encompassing atmosphere in Romanticism. Nevertheless, this channel remained confined within the boundaries of the bourgeoisie that prevailed in this era. Notable song lyrics from this stage include:

After the shattering of bones, why the stitches?
You stitched me up while I was the healer.
I examined the body and found a wound
Whenever I stitch it, it slips away.

The realistic phase arose in response to the escalating national conflict in Palestine at the outset of the 20th century and the commencement of popular national uprisings against the British Mandate and the Zionist movement. Notable lyrics from this phase include:

No matter how the night may darken, freedom’s sun will pierce the sky,
No matter how the night endures, concealing ruins from the eye.
Heroes in our land emerge, freedom’s sun they’ll ignite,
For olive, mulberry, and mandarin trees, we’ll fight till death or Palestine’s light.

History of Folk Songs Until the Nakba

The origins of Palestinian folk songs cannot be traced definitively. Their roots may date back to the Canaanite or Pharaonic eras. According to Mohamed al-Boji, a professor of Palestinian Arabic and folk literature at al-Azhar University in Gaza, these songs and their lyrics have evolved since the emergence of the Palestinian question in the early 20th century.

It is worth noting that this development continued throughout the period of the British Mandate, the Nakba and the onset of revolutions and popular uprisings. The songs have remained a vital component of Palestinian artistic heritage, consistently encouraging the sentiments of the masses against the occupiers.

Nationalism in the Palestinian Folk Song 1917-1948, a study by researcher Banan Salah al-Din, reveals that the vocabulary used in folk songs began to expand to challenge the British Mandate and resist its plans, a development that started with the Balfour Declaration in 1917. One famous plaint from the era encapsulates this sentiment as it concludes with:

Balfour, your declaration won’t come at the cost of those who perished.
My Riches are Rightfully Mine.

The evolution of the language in Palestinian folk songs continued during the Buraq uprising in Jerusalem in 1929. During this period, one of Palestine’s most prominent songs emerged, chronicling the execution of three revolutionaries: Fuad Hijazi, Atta al-Zeer and Mohamed Jamjoom. In 1930, Noah Ibrahim wrote the song that the al-Ashqeen ensemble later performed in the 1980s. Over time, it became one of the most celebrated Palestinian folk songs.

Palestinian folk songs continued to adapt to the changing dynamics of the Palestinian cause, particularly during the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936. The songs endeavoured to document the battles of that era, including those in Bal’a, Tarshiha, Jaba’ and Bani Na’im. The folk songs meticulously captured the minutiae of this historical period leading up to the Nakba of 1948. Notable examples include narrations of the battles of Bab al-Wad and al-Qastal.

Following the Nakba, Palestinian folk songs shifted their focus towards depicting the plight of Palestinian refugees and recounting their tragedy. Some songs offered satirical commentary on the aid provided by international organisations, particularly the Red Cross and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), with lyrics such as:

Throw out the Red Cross’s flour,
As they harmed our nation.
Toss away the Red Cross’s canned sardines,
As they’ve brought ruin to our country.

Another song utters:

We left the orchids of grapes and figs
And came to Ariha to beg for flour,
We left our towns of grapes and almonds
And came to Ariha to beg for cheap oil.

While a song addressing UNRWA expresses:

They call us immigrants, consider us poor,
Gave people a kilo of flour from the colonial’s door.
At the supply centre, lines of folks we see,
For a bit of flour, what a disaster and shame it be.

The Palestinian folk song persisted in the subsequent period, conveying the yearning of refugees for their homeland and their hardships in foreign lands and places of asylum.

Two renowned Palestinian folk songs, Jafra Wehya al-Raba’ and Ya Zarif al-Toul, have earned particular recognition. Researcher Hussein Salim Al-Attari dedicated a book to the detailed discussion of these songs.

Resistance Through Song: Linking Past and Present

Writer Ashraf al-Hassani asserts that the heritage of Palestinian songs extends beyond mere documentation, archiving and history. Instead, they continue to echo the rhythms of Palestinian reality, capturing its evolutions and changes. They have transcended the everyday aspects of people’s lives, articulating their wounds and heartbreaks while critiquing the Israeli occupation.

According to al-Hassani, folk songs have broadened the concept of Palestinian resistance, serving as a medium for expression and criticism. Since the late 1970s, resistance songs have gained significant popularity in the Arab world, becoming a dominant feature of Palestinian folk music.

It is crucial to underscore the importance of preserving Palestinian heritage, including its folk songs. This heritage plays a direct role in countering attempts to sever today’s Palestinian identity from its historical roots. Thus, efforts to recover heritage and integrate it into contemporary Palestinian life contribute to consolidating the Palestinian national identity.

Palestinians naturally hold their heritage in high regard, particularly in light of the diversity of social, political and historical conditions they experience in their land and among the diaspora. According to Romman Cultural Magazine, Palestinians’ persistent efforts to revive their lyrical heritage serve as a means to reaffirm the cultural identity of the Palestinian people.

Palestinians have undertaken various collective endeavours to revive their artistic, lyrical and musical heritage. Notable examples include groups such as the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, al-Hannouneh Troupe, al-Ashqeen ensemble, Dertna Band, Asayel Band and Jafra Band.

Additionally, there are numerous individual initiatives, including the efforts of Abdullah Haddad, Reem Kilani, Amal Murkus, Rim Banna, Sanaa Moussa and Dalal Abu Amneh.

Alongside efforts to revive heritage, there are initiatives aimed at its preservation and documentation, exemplified by the Popular Art Centre, which started working on documentation in 1994.

In conclusion, throughout their history, Palestinian folk songs have played a significant role in portraying the ongoing suffering in Palestine. They have also been instrumental in the documentation of historical events.

For many, these songs represent a unique form of resistance, cementing the Palestinian national identity by bridging the present and the past and countering attempts to sever this link.