Singer Kamilya Jubran, founding member of the iconic Palestinian band Sabreen, once famously sang, “We’ve tried resistance, we’ve tried confrontation, we’ve tried intifada, we’ve tried peace. What else is left to us?” The answer of course, that hung in the air of her breathtaking vocals, was “to sing.”
Indeed, the group, which also runs a community-based foundation, has for five decades chronicled the state of things in Palestine with their compelling blend of classical Arabic and Western sounds, poetry by Mahmoud Darwish set to music, and socially urgent lyrics. Their 1982 album, "Dukhan el Barakin" ("Smoke of the Volcanoes"), captured the mood in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with sung Darwish poems like "On Man" ("They gagged his mouth/ Bound his hands to the rock of the dead/ And said: Murderer!/ They took his food, clothes and banners/ Cast him into the condemned cell/ And said: Thief!/ They drove him away from every port/ Took his young sweetheart/ Then said: Refugee!")
Their album "Maout el Nabi" ("Death of the Prophet"), released in 1987, encapsulated the energy and anger of young protestors and revolutionaries; 1994’s "Here Come the Doves" offered hope for peace after the Oslo accord; while 2000’s "Ila Fein" ("Where To?") offered a prophetic prelude to the second intifadah.
But now, as a third intifadah looms, Palestinian artists are on the frontline in an even more visceral way. While the protests against illegal evictions in Sheikh Jarrah that sparked the current escalation often involved music and poetry, Israeli reaction was anything but non-violent. Thanks to the power of social media, which has chronicled the horrific violence in real time, even news outlets that have traditionally not covered events in Israel-Palestine are starting to take notice. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, covered the attack in Haifa on Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi, star of Hulu’s "Baghdad Central" and the critically acclaimed "Gaza Mon Amour," who was shot in the leg by Israeli police on May 9 during a demonstration against the illegal evictions. Ironically the actress also starred in Najwa Najjar’s "Eyes of a Thief" about the Silwan sniper.
As another uprising injects new life into Palestinian cultural resistance, the IDF and Israeli police seem keenly aware of its power.
Just four days after Elhadi’s injury, Israeli police arrested Walaa Sbait, the Jordanian/Palestinian lead singer of the band 47Soul, at his home in Haifa as he was livestreaming footage of Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians. Sbait, whose family was displaced from Iqrit, a Palestinian Christian village 25 kilometers northeast of Acre, was released the next day after his band and his fans posted messages on social media demanding his release. A few days later, Israeli forces ransacked Dar Jacir, an artist-run center in Bethlehem founded by Golden Lion winning artist Emily Jacir and her sister, veteran film maker Annemarie Jacir. At the same time, the Turner Prize-nominated artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan turned over his Instagram account to fellow artist Inas Halabi as she reported live from Haifa on the continued police crackdowns on protestors. Famed Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafer, who lives in the city of Lod, says he feels unsafe as police refuse to protect him and other Palestinian citizens of Israel from armed settlers.
During the first intifadah Palestinian protestors recited lines by Mahmoud Darwish. His often recited 1988 poem “Those who pass between fleeting words” drew the ire of Israelis (including PM Yitzhak Shamir) with its defiant proclamations such as “Be gone/ Rid our time of your hours, and be gone/ Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea and the sand of memory/ Take what pictures you will, so that you understand/ That which you never will: How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky.” And Moshe Dayan once likened a reading of one of Fadwa Tuqan’s poems to “facing 20 enemy commandos.” In "Martyrs Of The Intifada," Tuqan wrote of young stone-throwers: “They died standing, blazing on the road/ Shining like stars, their lips pressed to the lips of life/ They stood up in the face of death/ Then disappeared like the sun.”
Today’s Palestinian youth, while still paying homage to iconic Palestinian poets, are inspired by lyrics like 47 Soul’s “Border Control”: “This border control/ Congesting our soul/ Taking its toll on us all/ We gonna dissolve/ This Mexico Bethlehem wall/ If you hear us heed the call.”
As the Palestinian cause travels internationally via its youthful diaspora, the song appropriately features lyrics in Spanish, English, and Arabic and a musical style the band calls shamstep, a fusion of hip hop, electronica, traditional Arabic dabke dance melodies, and pop music. Sbait further unites musical and social justice movements as the co-founder of the Ministry of Dub-key project, which combines reggae music with traditional Palestinian tunes.
One can even hear whispers of Darwish in lines like this from Dabke System:
"Hold on look what we created/ Refugee overseas still I’m a Native/ Call back the kids to remain/ Don’t question the land she tells you her name."
Or in songs like, "Machina"
"Come back if you left for one more man back in the building, here we go building.
Sold out by the left, right when you left, why you’re not filming?
No way they can monitor all of the side reels
Here we go live here
Tunneling over the wall
It’s a readable map when you look for our names"
While there is a growing international audience for Palestinian culture, connections between Palestinian artists in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza remain difficult due to Israeli restrictions on movement. But a new art school in Gaza has transcended these borders. The Dar al-Kalima Training Centre located a few hundred meters away from the high-rise building detonated by the IDF in Gaza’s Remal district on May 11, was founded by a Palestinian priest from Bethlehem, Mitri Raheb.
The art school began as a satellite program to Dar al-Kalima College, an institution founded in Bethlehem by Raheb in 1995, in an old Ottoman-era building that was restored and converted from a former church crypt.
“I went for a visit in 2018,” Raheb recounts from his home in Bethlehem, “and after I left, 200 young Gazan artists had befriended me on Facebook. Everyone asked me to start an art college in Gaza.”
By 2019, the Dar al-Kalima satellite program had begun in a corner of Gaza’s French Cultural Center and soon, an old house in the center of Gaza was acquired and refurbished with the help of students, volunteers, and funding from Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a Chicago-based NGO that assists both colleges.
“The house was in bad shape,” Raheb recalls, “but we saw its potential and it had a beautiful garden, which was important for us as we needed space to exhibit sculptures.”
Soon offices and studios were built, and the school opened on March 7 — just in time for the global pandemic. But even as new variants ravaged Gaza’s fragile health care system and refugee camps, many workshops and exhibitions of photography, videography, painting, and sculpture took place (with social distancing) as well as concerts and radio broadcasts of traditional and popular Palestinian music. Although Gaza is predominantly Muslim, there are still around 1,000 Christians living there, but the school is open to everyone.
Ongoing aerial bombardment has halted classes for now, but plans are in the works for a new program, based on one initiated by Raheb in Beirut last August, to showcase the work of young artists and sell their work internationally. While getting anything in and out of Gaza is challenging, as the blockade by land, sea, and air imposed by Israel and Egypt when Hamas took control in 2007 prohibits many “dual use” items that could have a military purpose, there are ways to get art out of the Gaza Strip.
“Wood-carvings are not allowed,” notes Raheb, “but paintings, embroidery, and some traditional textile arts are ok.”
The college is still fundraising to subsidize tuition fees for Gazan students who are unable to pay. The students, in turn, run community-based workshops, often in refugee camps, for younger children. “The camps are overcrowded,” notes Raheb, “and the children, they need color in their lives.” To that end, students at the college ran a program to “beautify schools” in Gaza last year, but says Raheb, “many have since been demolished by bombing.”
Beyond helping expose young Gazan artists to the outside world and helping them to earn their livelihoods by selling their work abroad, the college’s goal, says Raheb, is to provide a venue for “art as therapy and as a way to express a dynamic Gazan identity that transcends politics. Making art is a way for Gazans to represent their own reality and tell their own stories.”
While it is still not safe enough to return to the school, the only accredited Fine Arts Academy in Gaza, Raheb says, “We have to continue making art, it’s very important. We can’t let destruction have the last word.” Still, the danger is palpable. “One of the teachers at the school,” relates Raheb, “had to evacuate his apartment" — close to the 13-story residential building destroyed by the IDF on May 11 — "in 20 minutes. Last night was a terrible one."
He told me that his kids were crying all night and the bombing “felt like an earthquake.”
In spite of this, students are literally transmuting destruction into a creative force by collecting broken glass to make stained glass art in the shape of doves.
Gazan artist Mohammed Mussallam, who now lives in exile in Canada, says he would “love to teach at the school,” and that “it’s been my dream to visit the West Bank for 20 years” since he graduated from Al Najah University in Nablus. But he’s waiting on his Canadian passport before he can return to either place in his homeland.
Still, like so many Palestinians artists, he continues his cultural resistance to occupation in the diaspora. “Living in exile,” he says, “I feel even more connected to my identity and I feel a greater responsibility to create art about Palestine.”
To that end he has had a rather prolific exile. A recent project exhibited as part of a group show in Montreal, The Heart of the World Map, features Palestinian passport papers superimposed on canvas. In this moving work, Mussallam expresses a reality shared by many stateless compatriots through original Palestinian passports marked with stamps indicating “entry” as well as “denial to entry” reflecting the restriction of movement that Palestinians face across international borders.
The artist plays with the idea of “identity” and the tensions between its definitions: on the one hand, a liberating mode of communication with the outside world, while on the other, a source of discrimination that prevents Palestinians from traveling freely, both locally and internationally.
“I want this work to highlight and reject such an unjust reality,” says Mussallam. “Palestine, which is at the heart of the map, deserves a peaceful and stable future and natural communication with the outside world.”
In many ways, the work is a visual response to Darwish’s poem "Passport"
"True masters! Honorable prophets!
Don't ask the trees about their names.
Don't ask the wadis about their mothers.
From my forehead gushes the sword of light
And from my fingers flow rivers.
The heart of every man is my nationality;
So rid me of this passport."
Mussallam was even inspired by the pandemic, working with local artisans in Gaza to produce a version of his 2015 design for kafiyeh-inspired masks for Gazan hospitals. He transformed them into wearable pieces of art that support local craftspeople while also offering protection from both viruses and loss of identity.
A recent work, "Covid-1948," an installation of rocks on ground asphalt, with the number 48 painted in blood red, further explores the connection between the virus and Palestinian identity. Says Mussallam of the work, “Sooner or later, the world will recover from this epidemic, but the Palestinians were infected with the occupation virus since 1948, although its incubation began in 1917 with the ill-fated Balfour Declaration.”
From his new home in Ontario, Mussallam relates, “Palestine and its soil are an extension of the Palestinian spirit wherever he is, as Mahmoud Darwish described it in his poems about exile.”
Indeed, it is hard to not notice the powerful influence of Palestine’s de facto poet laureate, from hip hop to contemporary art work, to the students at the Gaza art school who made him a central figure in their inaugural mural. It might be timely to revisit Darwish works like “Bitaqat hawiyya" ("Identity Card"), a poem that managed to infuriate right-wing Israelis even when it was broadcast on the Israeli radio station Galei Tzahal in 2016, some eight years after his death.
I am an Arab
Robbed of my ancestors’ vineyards
And of the land cultivated
By me and all my children.
Nothing is left for us and my grandchildren
Except these rocks…
Will your government take them too, as reported?
Write at the top of page one:
I do not hate people,
I do not assault anyone,
But…if I get hungry,
I eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware…beware…of my hunger,
And of my anger."
It might also be timely to note Darwish’s criticism of Hamas, originally supported by Israel as a foil to the secular Palestinian nationalism his poems embodied.
In 2005, when a music and dance festival was banned in the West Bank village of Qalqilya by the Hamas-led municipality on the grounds it was “forbidden by Islam,” Darwish warned that "There are Taliban-type elements in our society, and this is a very dangerous sign."
And at a 2007 festival in Haifa held in his honor, he expressed dismay at Hamas seizing power in Gaza, saying, "We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag (of Hamas) do away with the four-color flag (of Palestine)."
In these dark days as Gazans reel from the latest bombings and the effects of a 14-year blockade, as the West Bank and East Jerusalem remain occupied, and as Hamas — now considered relatively moderate compared to some armed Islamist groups that have sprung up in the last two decades — is too often conflated with Palestinian identity, cultural resistance seems more important than ever.
“I believe that diamonds are made under pressure,” says Mitri Raheb, as the students at his art college in Gaza continue to gather broken glass to make stained glass art of angels and doves, and as efforts continue to rebuild Gaza’s only theater, bombed by the Israelis in 2018. “There is so much pressure now in Palestine, but there are so many diamonds.”
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics for two decades. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of ancient and sacred sites in Iraq. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Mustafa Hassona/Andalou Agency via Getty Images