For decades the music band Al-asheqeen has provided a soundtrack to life in the Palestinian territories; their songs are heard at weddings, funerals, and in daily living.
The band, which was created in Damascus by Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, has become a symbol of national heritage and a bastion of Palestinian cultural and religious tradition. But until last month, the group had never set foot on Palestinian land.
Under the auspices of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the group of 33 singers and dancers performed in ten concerts across the West Bank’s major cities and towns, including Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Hebron and Abu Dis.
In a semi-circular amphitheatre in Abu Dis, the Jerusalem neighborhood that leans against the West Bank side of the separation barrier, the band performed for a diverse and passionate crowd.
"They are the Beatles of Palestine!" a man in the audience shouted during the show.
An elderly woman donning traditional Palestinian garments swayed, her eyes closed, lost in the music reminiscent of times past. Teenagers sung the lyrics earnestly, drawing the air from the bottom of their lungs and waving the Palestinian flag high overhead. A three-year-old stood next to his mother clasping his hands together, mouthing the words.
“I have been in the United States for 30 years, but I know all the songs,” says a middle-aged man named Ahmed.
Following a medley of upbeat tunes the mood darkens and the rhythm slows. The song ‘From Akka Prison’ speaks of three Palestinians who were hung during the 1933 British Mandate period. Each man wants to be killed first so as not to have to see his friends die.
This is one of the darker songs of the band, which has historically been associated with Palestinian political resistance. Their songs often invoke a spirit of revolution, speaking of the 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees following the 1948 creation of the State of Israel.
“Despite the sadness of this song, we always listen to it, we often play this in our weddings” says Nasser Abu Khadder, a Political Science professor at Al-Quds University. “It brings us together.”
The music, explains Khadder, combines classical religious beats with nationalist feeling. The lyrics incorporate the words of famous Palestinian poets including Mahmoud Darwish.
Much of the music and dances are rooted in Palestinian folklore. In front of the stage, Palestinian women dancers move in traditional steps, their garments swirling around them.
Their dresses glint deep velvet purple and emblazoned on them are olive trees, almonds and flowers. The hand stitched Palestinian tapestry on each dress can take over one month to create.
The costume changes reflect territory’s regions and their inhabitants. “We have different areas of Palestine,” says Khadder. “Each region has its own dress code; the northern dress has lighter colors, while the south is made of darker shades and heavier material. And each area inside that is divided between Bedouins, villagers and city dwellers”.
Al-ashekqeen were founded in 1977 in Damascus by the prominent composer Hussein Nazek and lyricist Ahmad Dahbour. They soon became ‘Arafat’s band’, the musical accompaniment to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader Yasser Arafat. But the deteriorating political situation and internal divisions led to the band’s separation and the group disappeared for nearly 25 years.
Today’s Al-asheqeen has changed its tracks. Only one of the original members of the group remains – Age Abu Ali. Today’s band consists largely of Palestinians residing in London, and their tone is decidedly moderate.
Singer and songwriter Nizzar al-Issa used to play at human rights groups’ events including for the London based Jews for Justice for Palestinians. “We are working on making a new look,” says al-Issa. “We want to transfer the message to the world that we look for peace.”
Mohammed Diab, from Safed refugee camp in Syria, has been singing with Al-Ashekeen since he was 18 years old. “We are not advocating violence in our songs,” says Diab. “I love life, and my people love life, and we have to resist to stay alive”.
Al-Issa insists that today’s ‘resistance’ comes in a call for peace. “Your weapon is your tongue,” he says “use it the right way; to achieve peace.”
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