Book on Palestinian wedding songs recalls village life
Fadwa Yunis' collection of tunes is an ode to generations of women hailing from Wadi Ara.
On an average day in 2000, handwritten fliers appeared in the Arab villages of Ara and Arara, on either side of the Wadi Ara road. The fliers called on residents to bring old wedding photographs to the home of their neighbor, Fadwa Yunis, who was writing a book. But Fadwa Yunis, a researcher and Arara resident, was not particularly interested in the matrimonial scenes themselves. Her research focused on an element of these weddings, which was far more difficult to document and on the brink of extinction: nearly forgotten wedding songs, sung for generations by the Palestinian population of Wadi Ara. Yunis had collected the wedding photos from her neighbors to illustrate the book she was writing, to add color to her collection of matrimonial songs.
Unlike the musical culture of Jewish ethnic groups in Israel, studied at length by ethno-musicologists since the early twentieth century and supported by academic and government institutions, the culture of Palestinian folk music is disappearing as it fades from human memory. Yunis' book, "Palestinian Women's Songs," written in Arabic, breaks new and comprehensive ground. It was privately published by the author, with assistance from the Ministry of Education's Arab Culture department. The book, like the songs it documents and commemorates, remains virtually concealed.
A walking history book
"First of all, I love the songs," Fadwa Yunis says to explain her mission. "They were part of my life as a child, and I know all of the words by heart, all of the tunes, and I love to dance and rejoice and prepare feasts. But more than that, documentation gives me the sense that I am a member of a culture with roots, and that makes me stronger. Here, Jewish Israelis, from the city or the kibbutz, share a broad, common culture and everyone knows the same songs and dances and tells the same folk tales. When I studied in a Haifa teachers' college, we - Palestinians - had to compose our own children's songs, for the sake of teaching, and each of us shared what we heard from our grandmothers in our own villages. That's how it is when there is no written tradition. Even the Prophet himself did not know how to read or write."
While there are songs that everyone seems to know, like those sung by Arabic divas, Um Kulthum and Fairuz, Yunis contends that they do not speak to her on a personal level.
"Those songs, from Egypt and Lebanon, were not enough for me. Songs from all over the world talk about love, but only the songs of Wadi Ara allow me to feel the deep connection with my society, land and people," she says.
The blind village singer Badriya (1919-2000) was Fadwa Yunis' main source of inspiration.
"She was a walking history book," says Yunis, comparing Badriya to a wandering medieval minstrel who used song to disseminate news and inform others of daily matters. "She was the only woman in the village with a radio in her home and she would transform the news that she heard - about events like [Gamal] Abdel Nasser's presidency or the United Arab Republic's formation - into songs that she would sing to the simplest women who did not know what was going on. Her protest songs directed at the government and decisive opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict caused her to be detained by Israeli police on more than one occasion. `I don't see, so I sing,' she told them."
Yunis continues:"In the entire Arab world, I have never encountered such a professional wedding singer. Sure, there is a woman who sings in every village, but what was unique about Badriya was that she was booked weeks in advance and weddings were postponed if she could not perform. She usually didn't sit with the guests, but rather next to the bride's table, higher than anyone else, and she was unwilling to surrender this position. When she started singing, in her deep voice, she completely controlled the audience, and, although she was blind, a mere whisper from her would create complete silence - she was that charismatic. I realized that if I did not record her quickly and write down the songs as she sung them, the entire treasure would vanish with her when she died."
Badriya enters the recording studio
In 1994, when Badriya was 75 year old, Fadwa Yunis began recording her. "The people in the village did not understand what I was doing. They wondered why I would go to her house at night," Yunis recalls.
The CD accompanying the book presents a singer with a strong, clear voice, which defies age but is undoubtedly only a remnant of its former glory. The recording was produced by a professional team led by sound technician Bashar Shamout.
"There were recordings of her singing at weddings, but not a single professional recording," Yunis says. "We took Badriya to the studio, explained the objective, and she consented. I promised her that when we finished the disc, we would invite all of the village nobility to a feast and play it, and that really made her happy."
Yunis decided that some of the songs on the disc would be arranged in a contemporary style and commissioned musician and oud player Teisar Hadad to arrange the songs for an ensemble of instruments and vocals.
"When the work was complete, Teisar phoned me, but the mosque speakers interrupted our conversation," Yunis says. "I told him that I would get back to him and then realized that the speakers were announcing her death. She died suddenly of cardiac arrest in the home for elderly in Tira where she lived. So we had the party, to celebrate the publication of the book and the disc, with 700 guests, singers from the village, and Teisar's band, without her."
Fadwa Yunis' 360-page book presents the entire process of an Arab wedding in songs reflecting different stages of the festivities. Songs are accompanied by Badriya's explanations, as recorded by Yunis. The book is available at the University of Haifa and in libraries in Arab villages and cities. It includes engagement songs, songs sung as guests march from the home of the groom to the home of the bride, songs sung to the bride during the women-only henna night, and songs chanted during the sahara night before the wedding. Some songs carry readers along the bride's journey from her parents' home to the home of the groom, in the dakhleh or wedding ceremony, while others describe the young couple's attire and the delectable dishes that are served to guests.
Songs sing of the bride's modesty as she dances before her groom who watches impassively. "He's a man. It is forbidden for him to show any emotion!" Yunis laughs.
The disc also includes Yunis' favorites, the musamra songs, sung on the sahara night by two competing groups of women, while the bride changes into garments that are red, then blue, and finally white.
There also sad songs of exile, like those sung by Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent. "Many Palestinian songs are sad, especially those composed in 1948, which are characterized by sorrow and longing for exiled members of the family who will no longer be seen. And that is in addition to traditional lamentations by friends and siblings who weep for the bride leaving them to move to another home," says Yunis.
Teisar Hadad's transcriptions of the songs complete the book, with notes that appear alongside lyrics and explanations documenting the melodies. Do women still sing these songs?
"Yes, in our weddings, in Ara and Arara, we have never abandoned these folk songs and the 50 to 70-year-old women know every word and melody," Yunis says. "But young women barely know them."
Women's songs are also vanishing because of the role of women in Arab society.
"Women were always present even in defiance of religion," says Yunis. "Sometimes, I feel like quoting all the verses from the Koran that express equality between men and women. There is no contradiction between feminism and Islam: All of the rights of women are preserved, including the right to have her own business, her own money, and her own property, and her husband is not allowed to interfere. But this is not implemented in real life. There are those who make decisions based on their own opinions and they misinterpret and even forbid the use of music and instruments in the context of religious ceremony. And that is a misunderstanding. And who are these interpreters? Men. So we have to rewrite our history, because they have concealed the role of women."
It will rain tomorrow
Yunis cites wedding tapestries as an example of equality. Lovely, colorful tapestries, embroidered by Ramallah women in the traditional, Palestinian style, decorate the cover of her book.
"Here, all ages are represented in the wedding and they are together," says Yunis. "This is a response to all those who think that there is separation of men and women in Arab society. I didn't choose this for the cover only because it is beautiful, but because I wanted to express the fact that the book represents the culture of the Palestinian people and its continuity."
In addition to wedding songs, Yunis' book includes hajj songs of the pilgrimage to Mecca, songs sung at the circumcision of boys, and ancient songs, which Badriya sang to draw rain to cleanse the air.
"I still remember how we would march in a procession and sing these songs during drought years," Yunis recalls. "And how people would sprinkle water on the marchers from hilltops and porches to make it appear as though rain were really falling. We were filled with joy by this game and believed that it would rain the next day. That simple faith is missing from modern life - that assumption that what is coming will be good. There is a lack of time to sit together in the morning, to drink a cup of coffee in peace, and just to be together, and there is a lack of time to just gaze at nature."