Obituary: Palestinian artist Rim Banna (1966-2018)

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 29 Mar 2018

Palestinian gazelle leaps to the other side

Rim Banna
Palestinian singer, composer, songwriter and activist Rim Banna (Photo: AFP)

Palestinian singer, composer, songwriter and activist Rim Banna, 51, died on 24 March in her hometown of Nazareth, in historic Palestine, which is now within Israel’s 1948 borders.

In the months leading up to hear death, Banna regularly updated her Facebook posts in what now reads like a diary she shared with her 1.2 million followers. The lyrical posts formed an extended swan song about hope, resistance and, of course, her homeland.

"I tried to make this easier for my children so I told them: don't be afraid, for this body is like a worn out shirt," she wrote on 5 March. "When I take it off, I will sneak out of the casket... and will run like a gazelle to my home. I will wait for you in the terrace, with a cup of sage tea, gazing at Jezreel Valley and I will say: this life is beautiful and death is like history, a fake chapter."

Since 2009 and until her death, Banna who dedicated her life’s work to resisting the Israeli occupation, named cancer as an enemy, no less worthy of the same resistance and contempt. “Cancer is like the occupation,” she said, “and it won’t conquer me.”

It didn’t.

Having survived an advanced stage of breast cancer twice in 2009 then in 2015, Banna was keen to note in her interviews and cancer awareness campaigns that the recent decline in her health – respiratory failure – was unrelated. The cancer – to her synonymous with the Israeli occupation – was “under control”.

Born in December 1966 in Nazareth to Palestinian poet and leading feminist Zuhaira Sabbagh, Banna was encouraged by her mother at the age of 13 to sing some of the folk and religious songs and hymn-like chants (tahaleel and ahazeej) she grew up knowing so well. No Palestinian had done that before: tahaleel were sung by mothers to put their children to sleep.

“It never occurred to me to become a singer,” she said in a 2013 TedEx talk in Carthage, Tunisia. “I always thought of myself as growing up to be a fedai'ya (guerilla fighter).”

But her mother, who marched in protests against the occupation and didn’t mind getting into trouble herself, didn’t want to see her children harmed, so she talked her daughter into singing as a form of resistance.

Banna was 19 when she released her first album Jafra in 1985 before moving to Moscow were she studied singing and conducting for six years, graduating in 1991 from the High Institute of Music with highest honors.

She returned to Nazareth with her Ukranian husband, guitarist Leonid Aleseyenko, and in 1993 launched a collection of children’s songs from Palestinian folklore with the objective of preserving oral history and making these songs popular with the young. With Aleseyenko she had three children, to whom she gave Canaanite names.

By then Banna was on a mission to dig out traditional Palestinian songs, chants and texts, and reintroduce them with modern music, or contemporary tones varying from Palestinian to Western melodies. Her 12 albums are a reflection of that trend, but not limited to it. There are also love songs and poetry including work by such famous poets as Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfik Ziad and Samih Al-Qassem.

The one subject that dominated her work is Palestine and its people’s struggle against occupation.

Banna’s image was another identity statement. During her rise to fame in Palestine and internationally from the mid 1990s till 2010, her striking appearance – she was famous for her long, dark curls and kohl-painted eyes – were flattered by stunning vintage Arab silver accessories and, always, the traditional Palestinian embroidered dress with bright colours.

When she wasn’t wearing the traditional dress, Banna would still show up to concerts and photo sessions wearing a Palestinian statement of sorts. The kufiya effortlessly wrapped around her neck, or head; her fingers stacked with silver rings and colourful stones; bracelets wrapped around her wrist formed an art gallery of their own.

Rim, which means gazelle in Arabic, was a Palestinian citizen of Israel- a descendant of the generation of Palestinians who witnessed Al-Nakba or the creation of Israel in 1948 and remained in their homeland as tens of thousands were exiled by Zionist gangs. Today they form one fifth of Israeli's population but suffer from discrimination and efforts to "Israelite" their identity.

“How can I, a woman who lives under occupation and air strikes, where my people are killed, detained and become refugees, go on stage in a fancy dress?” she said in 2013, “how can I sing about birds and flowers?”

Banna's most popular albums to date are Al-Quds Everlasting in 2003 Mirrors of My Soul, released in 2005, which was dedicated to Palestinian and Arab prisoners of war in Israeli prisons. Her claim to international fame began in 2003 when she participated with other singers from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Cuba in the Norwegian anti-war album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil.

“Rim’s voice was ethereal, clear and pure,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer based in Jerusalem and former adviser to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation). “Her poetry and music spoke to generations as she combined traditional music with lyrics that reflected Palestine’s daily struggles.”

"Artists around the world tried to co-opt her but she remained firm in refusing to do anything that would label her as being anything but Palestinian." The issue of identity is important because of the label "Israeli-Arab", which applies to Palestinians like Banna, as though "we have no history or culture except in relation to Israel," said Buttu.

In 2009, Banna would reinvent her image after being diagnosed with breast cancer as she embarked on a nine-year struggle with the disease and other health setbacks. She shaved her hair and spoke openly about her condition while campaigning for cancer awareness, and she continued to record new albums, give concerts and become more vocal in her activism. She and her husband divorced in 2010.

The tone of her songs would become more placid and meditative, if not philosophical with sufi undertones.

Her 2013 album Revelation of Ecstasy and Rebellion celebrates her infatuation with contemporary Arab and Andalusian poetry. The music is framed "in modern textures that include samples and nu-jazz rhythmatic layers," in the words of Israeli journalist Eyal Hareuveni. She sings Don't Increase His Agony, an angry poem by the Iraqi Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab in collaboration with Tunisian rapper MR.KAZ.

"No one sang poetry as we as she did," said Muhammed Al-Kurd, a Palestinian poet from Jerusalem studying in the U.S. "You can tell, by where she places emphasis when singing that she understood poetry and took time to study it before she vocalized it."

In 2016 Banna’s left vocal cord was permanently damaged and she lost her voice, which she once described as “two-dimensional” and “thick.”

Her health declined further and she spent the next two years between hospitals and her cosy house in Nazareth, which overlooks the famous Jezreel Valley. When she had time, she shared stunning pictures of her spacious terrace lined with plants and colourful flower pots and the Palestinian embroidered accessories she made herself and sold as a source of living.

Breathing became difficult and walking an ordeal. Yet she managed to “crawl” to Norway in January to record her 13th album, which will be released in April.

Hundreds showed up to Banna’s funeral on Saturday singing Mawtini (My Homeland), which is the Palestinians’ unofficial national anthem since the British mandate in the 1930s. Her uncovered casket was wrapped in the Palestinian flag, and flowers covered her as was laid to rest in a traditional Palestinian dress and a kufiyah wrapped around her neck.

“I tried to understand the mass panic, and my personal panic at Rim’s death,” said Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, “which might be due to the loss of a free soul”.

“She represents generations born under Zionist occupation, which imposed the Israeli nationality, the Hebrew language and geographic isolation from the rest of the Arabs," he said.

Banna did not relate to classifications that divided Palestinians: citizens of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, refugee camps, the diaspora, Christians, Muslims. "Rim saw Palestine as whole in her imagination and herself as Palestinian."

In a live video from Norway in January, Banna told her fans that her medical files have been transformed, through certain software, to musical tones. She didn’t sing, but explained that she read Arabic lines she wrote “inspired by my pains and dreams.

“The album is about resistance and the impossibility of muting our voices.

“No one can silence my voice,” she said with a smile.

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