Monday, April 29, 2019

The musical inspiration of Siraj in Rama

Note: This article was published at Mondoweiss with an added photo of the group and one of their original songs. Here the link to the posting there: 

Forty years ago, when three colleagues and I created a public health venture we called “The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services,” we chose Rama for its home. As the organization’s director, I befriended many of Rama’s leaders including its kind-hearted mayor, Elias Qassis, and its physician son, Anwar Awad. More recently, Rama has hot-housed another public institution, this time in the field of music, a chorus-com-orchestra whose six founders called ‘Siraj’—an oil lamp—a light to the world, they must have meant.
What is it about Rama, another Palestinian village in Galilee enveloped by ancient olive fields, that inspires and nurtures public activism? Perhaps Rama only encourages our inborn communal striving for progress and excellence. Perhaps it is Rama’s famed olives, its pure mountain springs or its fresh westerly breeze that are to blame. More likely it is all the culmination of a historical process: During the Ottoman era, as another small Christian community in Palestine, Rama attracted the special attention and investment in education from European nations especially from tsarist Russia. That was followed by further partiality from the British Mandate authorities. With time, the favoritism created a mini-class of modern-day professionals: teachers, lawyers, physicians and the like. Inevitably, the centuries-long process led to communal self-reliance bordering on haughtiness and revolutionary fervor.
Now, to our current alarming reality: With apartheid already sanctioned by law in Israel, I recently returned to my hometown of Arrabeh to the rumblings of open fascism gaining further grounds in Israeli electoral politics sponsored by no other than prime minister Netanyahu. On the eve of the invasion of Arab polling stations in Israel by hundreds of rightist ‘observers’ with illegal spyware of cameras and recorders, I sought solace in a rare cultural event in the neighboring town of Sakhnin. It was a musical performance by Rama’s homegrown Siraj. The event was sponsored and promoted by a human rights activist lawyer from the Galilee Arab community of Sha’ab. A niece of mine secured tickets for my wife and me from the lawyer who is the aunt of her daughter-in-law, a typical Palestinian clan-based wheeling and dealing that I have to match some day. I came out of the two-hour performance overwhelmed. I had seen this level of professionalism, musical talent and craftsmanship before only in movies and in TV shows broadcast from Arab capitals, say Cairo or Beirut. How could this level of professional excellence and musical refinement be achieved in the absence of a sponsoring state, a national authority and a supportive ministry of culture with massive investment of funds, I wondered? 
Rai Winery and Restaurant, in Rama again, is my favorite Galilee eatery. All through summer, the afternoon breeze off the Mediterranean shore to the west fans its scenic mountainside locale. That renders its outdoor tables under an expansive carob tree the perfect choice for a leisurely feast combining Palestinian hospitality with neighboring Mount Lebanon’s rural cuisine. Rai’s mezza is further supplemented with one’s choice of Bulgarian dishes, the specialty of the proprietor gained from his college years there and his marriage to a Bulgarian college mate, and with the house’s own home-brewed arak and wine. For the past two summers, I keep finding excuses to visit the special restaurant. You can imagine my excitement when a new acquaintance sprung an invitation to Rai at me.
A day after Netanyahu won his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, I got in touch with Zuhair Ghanadri, the manager and cofounder of Siraj who is a practicing dental technician, and he suggested to meet that afternoon at Rai Winery and Restaurant. It turns out Adeeb, Rai’s proprietor, is one of Siraj’s six original founders. Rai himself, Adeeb’s firstborn, was there to wait on us. By the time we arrived, the day’s Spring burst of heat had already worn off and we enjoyed the sunset view in the warmth of the indoors from behind the glass portico. From where we sat we overlooked the expanding eastern edge of Rama physically pushing against its millennia-old olive fields. Further south we could see Wadi-Sallameh, the valley where my father once owned a field with a water-powered mill. Alas, he sold the property to cover the expenses of his and my mother’s wedding. With time, Israel’s tampering with the water table had dried the stream at source and the mill faded into a haunted ruin. Deir Hanna, Arrabeh and Sakhnin, the famed Land Day Triangle, decorated the next series of hills. Further south on the next visible mountain range, some Nazareth homes and steeples completed the magic panorama.
Yes, of course, Israel does have a ministry of culture and it does encourage and financially support community cultural initiatives, Zuhair reassured me. In fact, recent years have seen a sharp rise in the ministry’s level of financial support to our Arab communities in Israel. Except that, when you look closely at the figures, you discover that the total sum of such support to the communities of the over 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian Arabs has reached less than 3% of the total. Such miserly support mainly covers deficits that NGO’s such as Siraj incur regularly. With the advent of the Nation State Law, finally no one needs to ask the question many had raised since Israel’s establishment: Why are there discrepancies in funding levels? And why are the residential areas in Israel racially segregated in the first place? It is enough to rile one’s innards. And it is now the law; it is constitutional. 
Which brings up a related issue: With the high expenses involved in building and equipping a modern auditorium with the proper acoustics and seating arrangement and with the needed sound and lighting systems, very few Arab communities could afford such luxury. That was why, for most of its 15-year existence, and though it specializes in classic Arabic music and singing, Siraj had to rent halls for its concerts mainly in Jewish communities. Still, its self-selected nearly 100% Arab audience withstood the decade-long test of loyalty. More recently, Siraj, led by its manager, made a decision in principle: to take the group to its natural audiences across the Arab community in Israel and occasionally in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To do that it started adding its own transportable sound and lighting system to existing halls, and sometimes even to outdoor spaces, so as to perform more often in such communities.
This audacious decision met with other difficulties: For example, in the City of Umm-El-Fahim, a city with a religious Islamic mayor and administration, some conservative residents raised objections in principle to the group’s performance in their city. When the management of Siraj would not hear of cancelling, thugs started calling individual members of the group, especially women performers, and threatening them. The group and its official hosts called on the police and the ministry of culture to step in. They did, but what helped more was the city’s local government including Muslim officials who finally came out in force to protect the defiant group. That night Siraj performed for a full house, the threat and polarizing having made the best advertisement for the event.
The locally-based and culturally-rooted group consists currently of 45 Galilee musicians and singers, equally balanced between the two types of constituent artists. Samir Bishara, the scion of a multi-generational musically-gifted family, is the group’s maestro and personal inspiration to each of its members. His musical conducting skill and inborn human relations talent enable him to unite the group into a single performing body. Samir’s animated presence magically spellbinds audiences and enthuses them to join the act as the group performs their favorite classics. He not only scouts for new talent across the Galilee but also trains and charms each new member into integrating smoothly and finding his/her right place in the orchestra and choir group. Having already met the challenge of establishing Siraj and promoting an avid following for it among the home crowd, the new dream of both the conductor and the manager is to reach the beckoning potential audiences around the world. Not only are Arab crowds across the Middle East and North Africa potential audiences, but also Arab diasporas everywhere and cross-cultural adventurers are likely to be intrigued.
With the exception of the conductor most members of the group earn their living from employment in other fields ranging from technical professions to teaching. None of the singers is salaried while several musicians join small bands performing in wedding celebrations and the like. Running the group’s affairs, the duty of the mainly volunteer position of manager assisted in the last couple of years by a half-time secretary, must be overwhelming. The challenge of balancing the high public demand for performances, maintaining the group’s high standards through rehearsals and individual lessons for new members, promotional activities and scouting for new talents is quite daunting, Zuhair, the manager, says. It all adds up to a high level of volunteerism and self-reliance, singers morphing into makeup artists for each other before performances and providing their own required special outfits.
The spontaneous self-reproductive process of rising out of the ashes of the Nakba to soar at the height of professionalism in a general atmosphere inimical to Arab culture is miraculous. Yet, the group has carved a special artistic identity for itself. It has innovatively adapted some of the best performances of lead ‘Renaissance‘ Arab composers and singers from the 20th century from Mohammad Abd-El-Wahab to Um-Kalthoom to Fairuz. Siraj offers the enchantment of such divas’ performances sung on occasion by a male singer. And yet the magic is never lacking, especially with its conductor’s easy interaction with his audience who are frequently called on to join the chorus. On occasion, the group offers an original piece written and composed by its inspired conductor, witness Wenak mentioned above. In one of its performances Siraj even featured a selection from Nakba-exiled Palestinian composers at which the group sang ‘Bilady, bilady’–the Egyptian national anthem that many Palestinians have adopted as theirs–joined by its local Palestinian audience even if at a Jewish town auditorium.
Siraj can no longer hide its light. International exposure is next.

Nakba Memory Revival, a book review

Nakba Memory Revival
Citation Information: Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, Volume 18 Issue 1, Page 121-126, ISSN 2054-1988 Available Online Apr 2019
Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha (eds) An Oral History of The Palestinian Nakba (London: Zed Books, Kindle edition, 2018). Pp. 315. Hardback. ISBN-13: 978–1–7869–9349–6
To start with, let me absolve myself of professionally judging the contributors to this valuable book: An Oral History of The Palestinian Nakba. I am neither a historian nor a social scientist. At the turn of the millennium, when I switched occupations from public health and medicine to writing, the jump seemed too wide. Yet, I rarely write free from my medical knowledge and clinical acumen.
Genocide's Body Politics
This was the case as I read this volume. Especially the earlier parts, including the chapter entitled ‘What bodies remember: sensory experience as historical counterpoint in the Nakba archives’, sounded to me like another case study from Dr Bessel van der Kolk's best-selling psychiatry opus on trauma and how to deal with its aftereffects, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma(2014)2. The current Nakba case study is a collective one of a whole people rather than of an individual patient. In his pioneering work, van der Kolk goes on to demystify the use of movement therapy to counter the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of trauma sufferers showing up at his office, be they survivors of childhood sexual abuse or American veterans of the Vietnam War. When I raised my objection to the focus on war veterans instead of war victims, especially the children among them, my colleague explained that funding considerations impose certain limitations on research priorities in the field. That sounded like another direct link to the case of the Palestinian Nakba: Across-the-board collusion to enforce memoricide.
The current compendium of Palestinian Nakba oral narratives and the in-depth analysis the authors/collectors accord them are sure to evoke support and approval from Palestinian readers who can access them. What is hoped-for, one can presume from the authors' repeated statements, is that the impact of the rich scientific analysis they offer will lead the Palestinian public everywhere to accept and promote the art and science of oral history, whether as participating narrators or expert collectors of such testimonies. Thus, the authors are gaining, or perhaps hijacking, the permission to narrate that Edward Said had advocated for the Palestinians. In the process they attempt to render their joint task ‘a site of hope, liberation and decolonisation’. All along, the reader senses the uphill struggle of these efforts.
Take for example the following twist of logic, typical of its author: The book quotes Benny Morris blaming the Palestinians for their Nakba while softening the fall of his statement on the conscience of the readers by calling the Nakba ‘the Palestinian exodus’. That evokes the subconscious positivity of the legendary escape of Jews from their slavery in Egypt and their eventual arrival to ‘their promised land’, no other than Palestine itself. And if the Nakba is an exodus, you may well expect us to pen down our Aggadah in the present volume. Kafka would be proud.
In his introductory contribution, Nur Masalha opines: ‘However, the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, their ongoing plight and trauma, have brought me to the conclusion that there is a need to nurture and establish an interdisciplinary subfield to be called Nakba Studies. This subfield would bring in historians, both literary and theorist, and scholars of trauma studies. It would continue documentation and expression of the embattled popular and cultural memories of Palestine as a liberating scholarly and ethical imperative’. Likewise, Rosemary Sayigh advocates ‘an anti-colonial feminism as the feminist methodology appropriate for analysing, understanding and acting on the context of indigenousness and settler colonialism’.
These two suggestions and the many other lofty ideas in this volume elevate it to an academic yet practical level, one of engagement and challenge to others in the field. At the same time, it is another testimony to the Palestinians' ‘heritage, suffering, resistance and endurance’, which recalls a short vide on Facebook3 in which several young Gazan amputees, including the slingshot-swinging child leader of the group, join a traditional Palestinian line dance, jumping in the air and raising their walking sticks to the sky in rhythm to the music. If that doesn't qualify as Dance Movement Therapy, advocated by my colleague, Dr. van der Kolk, I do not know what does. Perhaps such defiant responses are the reason Israeli snipers oftentimes shoot to kill and not only to maim Palestinian youth.
The Need to Popularise the Academic
The book has three levels of discourse in descending order of comprehensibility to the general Palestinian public and hence of significance in achieving the goal the authors set for their project: Oral testimonies by Nakba witnesses and their descendants, comments about and interpretation of such oral accounts with particular emphasis on feminist content and analysis, and the academic discourse that lays the theoretical background to the field as a whole. Throughout the book, there is a sense of mission: To popularise and sell the important field of oral/aural history to the Palestinian public and to the world as the ultimate target audience.
Reading this book brought me face to face with the shortcomings I opened with. From the start I realised that the high price tag targets libraries and learning institutions, not the casual reader. Then, as I surveyed the table of contents, I knew I would be reaching for the dictionary frequently. It seems to this humble reader that much of the material covered in this book is of the essence in convincing our public of the wisdom and need for widening the popular base for the art and science of oral history production, the seeming basic premise of the book. And yet, at several points in the discussion, especially when addressing the wider field of oral history and not only as it applies to the Nakba, it falls short on speaking to the non-academician and non-specialist. I, myself, survived but emerged with an urge to preach to the good authors and the publisher: The subject matter, the analysis and the intellectual debate are all superb. The volume has much information that would benefit our public and not only academicians. Oral history is promoted throughout the volume, as an ‘important methodology of decolonising hegemonic history’. Many of the narrators reinforce this statement in their oral accounts even though they lack the academic skill to articulate the principle. One aspect of countering the coloniser's efforts is to let the subjects willing to make their voices heard comprehend and appreciate the effects, practical and theoretical, of their speaking out and sharing their memories with supportive researchers. It is the researcher's duty to facilitate this and to demystify their scientific discourse, to reciprocate to their source persons by offering a simplified version of the analysis and discourse to which they subject their accounts. The book, to my mind, fails to fulfil this calling. That is why a special effort should be made to ‘popularise’ it, both stylistically and pricewise. It would be helpful if a wider section of our public could benefit from such a treasure in an easily accessible presentation, perhaps even in Arabic. From what I read in the last part about the Tamer Institute, perhaps it has the experience, skilled staff and contacts to make a go of the needed ‘popularisation’ attempt.
Food, Fields and Nostalgic Memories
The theme of the ongoing Nakba for its sufferers, whether in parts of historical Palestine, in refugee camps across the Middle East or in the wider diaspora, is revisited repeatedly by most contributing authors in this volume. The Nakba's primary 1948 ‘big bang’ continues to reverberate in the memory and the daily lives of all Palestinians. Several narrators address the live sensorial memories, the physicality of their remembered trauma decades after the events, another connection to van der Kolk's PTSD analysis.
The authors also point out that the severance of the Palestinians' connection to their land is a form of genocide since it has erased a major part of the identity of the agrarian majority of Palestinians. Comprehending this essential principle should suffice to cement a solid connection to other colonised indigenous nations still struggling to resist their genocide at the hands of settler colonialists. This is particularly true in the case of women who are closer to the land, as is duly observed in the book. One aspect of this genocidal process seems to receive less attention than it deserves, severing the cultural, especially the culinary, connection of indigenous women to their land. Palestinians draw much sustenance directly from the land and its natural treasures, the traditional foods we forage for from the fields and the wilderness, whether greens and wild herbs gathered in spring and eaten fresh or cooked, or wild fruits in the summer, cactus fruits being a lead delicacy and wild carob a close second. To this day, in my home town, Arrabeh of Galilee, tales abound about the older generations' expert palates, expert enough to pin down the specific field from which a wild fruit, a cucumber or a dish of okra came. Perhaps a hungry child's open access, say to wild summer fruits, without the competition of others during the one main meal of the day, must add a sense of satiety and a measure of flavor to the memory.
The Dead and the Living: Deir Yassin, Saffourieh and ‘Eylout
In an atypically poetic gesture, historian Nur Masalha overshoots his target and crosses linguistically from the horrific to the beguiling oration of beauty and awe: ‘The irony of Yad va-Shem and Deir Yassin’, he declares ‘is breathtaking’. I can hear him screaming. He then goes on to inform us briefly of the infamous premeditated massacre and of the no less deliberate, continuing and overwhelming memoricide. The stupendous weight of the holocaust and its entire ‘industry’ is brought to bear on effacing the memory of the qualitatively no less horrific Deir Yassin massacre.
The mechanism and process of the systematic erasure of Palestine's memory is well documented in Noga Kadman's book, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (2015).4 As leftist and academic as Kadman tries to be, she falls morally short on some major points, seeming to prove Israel's success in its erasure attempts of Palestine from Israeli, and perhaps from the world's consciousness. Her book opens with a most appropriate epitaph by Amos Kenan, another Israeli leftist literary figure. In her text, Kadman covers both Deir Yassin and al-Dawayma massacres. Yet nowhere does she mention that Amos Kenan took part in both. It is akin to the current glossing over by most Israelis in their eulogies of Uri Avnery of his participation in the Deir Yassin war crime. The mental aggression of memoricide is widespread in Israel. But I have never heard of anyone before grasping the essence of its cruelty as breathtaking.
Then there is the example of Amina Qablawi Nasrallah's personal memories about her family's saga admixed with her grandmother's account of her life of resistance. It illustrates the futility of Israel's systematic memoricide practices. I had a hard time appending my notes in the margins as I read her contribution because of the tears I shed. Now, donning my MD hat, I know this to be the elderly's emotional lability. The account spoke to me in a direct, personal and intensely emotional way. It reminded me of the life story of my late friend, Palestine's village poet, Taha Mohammad Ali. Unable to gain permission to erect a memorial for him in his demolished hometown of Saffourieh, fellow refugee youth pasted his photo on a pile of old masonry stones, remnants of demolished homes, a true memorial to a loyal son and avid lover. Nasrallah's account has many other reality connections for me. It is the oral exposé of what underlies the iconic image of the Palestinian old woman farmer facing the blade of the bulldozer while protecting and holding on to her olive tree for dear life. The back-and-forth personal account informs the reader in much deeper and more eloquent ways than any detached academic discourse using specialised terminology. Again and again, I read in this account much more than its simple words say: There is the casual, comment-less exposure of our experience and understanding of Israel's democracy, marketed to the world as our due compensation for the loss of our land: Speaking of a local collaborator, she quotes her grandmother, the uncontested heroine of the account, as saying simply ‘He was also made a member of the Israeli Parliament’. Then there is the reality of Apartheid in practice: A native family living on its land in a caravan nearly seven decades after the Nakba while vindictive Zionist settlers splurge in plush homes of Tsepori, the new all-Jewish Saffourieh.
But nothing is harder to forget than the image of little Yosra, the diligent schoolchild, walking to school in a neighboring village, being robbed of a lettuce she had carried from her family's field for her teacher, the classic polished apple gesture. Or young Amina herself as a pupil, having walked miles on a rainy morning to the bus stop on the road to Nazareth, being left there by the bus driver who recognised her as Arab. What could a little girl do but walk back, sit under a fig tree in the yard and cry for her father, the perfect Palestinian father, loyal son and family man, murdered by another Tsipori settler.
And there is the powerful image of the mother from ‘Eylout, the site of another of the Nakba's many massacres, ‘bussing’ her two barefoot children daily back and forth on donkey back across the mountain to Nazareth for them to attend a nuns' school, receive a meal and learn metalwork and piano: The little girl survived to tell us that ‘[I sat] for the piano exam and then I sat for Brevet’.
God have mercy! How do Zionists plan to deal with such prodigies?!
1 Author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2008) and Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor's Tales of life in Galilee (Washington DC: Just World Books, 2015)
2 (London: Penguin Books).
4 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).
The Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies (formerly Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal) was founded in 2002 as a fully refereed international journal. It publishes new, stimulating and provocative ideas on Palestine, Israel and the wider Middle East, paying particular attention to issues that have a contemporary relevance and a wider public interest. The journal draws upon expertise from virtually all relevant disciplines: history, politics, culture, literature, archaeology, geography, economics, religion, linguistics, biblical studies, sociology and anthropology.
The journal deals with a wide range of topics: ‘two nations’ and ‘three faiths’; conflicting Israeli and Palestinian perspectives; social and economic conditions; religion and politics in the Middle East; Palestine in history and today; ecumenism, and interfaith relations; modernisation and postmodernism; religious revivalisms and fundamentalisms; Zionism, Neo-Zionism, Christian Zionism, anti-Zionism and Post-Zionism; theologies of liberation in Palestine and Israel; colonialism, imperialism, settler-colonialism, post-colonialism and decolonisation; ‘History from below’ and Subaltern studies; ‘One-state’ and Two States’ solutions in Palestine and Israel; Crusader studies, Genocide studies and Holocaust studies. Conventionally these diversified discourses are kept apart. This multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary journal brings them together.