Book Review: Palestinian musical heritage that defies Israeli occupation

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 21 Apr 2024

Al-Moussiqa Walgheina’ fi Felestine Qabl 1948 Wabaadaha (Music and Songs in Palestine Before and After 1948) is a book that is thoroughly about art as it is fully about politics.

Al-Moussiqa walgheina  fi felestine qabl 1948 wabaadaha
Al-Moussiqa walgheina fi felestine qabl 1948 wabaadaha cover.


Before 1948, Palestinian families with radios gathered to listen to songs on Radio Jerusalem, established in 1936, or the Near East Broadcasting Station, established in 1941. After 15 May 1948, the Palestinian Nakba compromised the entire Palestinian musical tradition as Israeli forces took over historic Palestine.

Whatever was saved from the archives of both radio stations was taken overseas along with broadcasters, singers, and musicians who fled to nearby countries including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

According to a book co-authored by the three prominent musical brothers Elias, Selim, and Victor Sehab, the fleeing singers, musicians, and broadcasters saved evidence of Palestinian culture prior to the Nakba and allowed it to evolve and take on wider influence in the neighbouring countries.

In over 200, Elias, Selim and Victor, who are, respectfully, a professor of musical commentary, a conductor, and a professor of Palestinian and Lebanese music, jointly share their recollection of the history of Palestinian music and singing, both folk and classic, before and after the Nakba.

According to the book, which was published in 2021 by the Beirut-based Arab Foundation for Studies and Publishing, the bulk of this musical heritage is folk songs, and dance, given the fact that the classic part of this heritage was still in the early phases of its formation.

The book offers detailed and lengthy descriptions of these songs and dances that are associated with specific areas of historic Palestine and with specific social occasions, including weddings and harvests. Through these descriptions, the Sehab brothers explain the central nature of Palestinian music “as a connecting space for art of Al-Mashreq countries, and the Gulf states further right, with Egypt and Al-Maghreb further west.”

This centrality, the authors argue, is representative of the very centrality of historic Palestine which was in essence the rationale for its choice as a base for the creation of Israel in 1948.

This association of music/songs and politics is a thread that cannot be missed throughout the book – not only in how it defies the false Israeli narrative that Palestine was “a land without a people” but also in depicting the close Arab association with the Palestinian Cause in the decades that followed the Nakba, and the subsequent Naksa (1967 War) when Israel occupied all of historic Palestine. Many songs produced in several Arab countries, especially Egypt, were from Palestinian artists who found refuge and fame after exile.

While the book is about the history and tradition of Palestinian music and songs, it is also an impressive piece of social history as it offers a profile of Palestinian society and its norms in the years before 1948. It highlights the association that many Arab artists, including Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Asmahan, Farid Al-Atrache and Fayrouz had with Palestine. It also reflects on the life and art of Palestinian refugees in cities like Beirut, Amman, and Cairo.

Overall, this book is a cultural account of Palestine as it was and is still remembered. In this sense, it is an act of defiance against the close to eight decades of Israeli attempts to eradicate Palestinian history. It is also a reminder that the story of Palestine is much bigger and much older than the accounts of the Palestinian Authority or the recent horrific Israeli war on Gaza.

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