It was the early days of the first intifada. Hundreds of masked Palestinian youths in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank were hurling rocks at Israeli army forces. But at the same time, there was nonviolent resistance happening in the form of cultural protest – musical activism that called for young people to guard Jerusalem and Palestinian lands. Most of this protest music was silenced and made to disappear. To this day some is still hidden in the army’s secret archives.
But now, 35 years after those events, Palestinian actor and filmmaker Mo’min Swaitat is uncovering the intifada songs of musician Riad Awwad, who released a tape in 1987 entitled “Intifada." He has recreated two of Awwad’s songs in the Majaz Project, which went live in early January with the goal of renewing the cultural protest around the world. In April, the entire album will be available for purchase.
Swaitat, 32, was born in Jenin and now lives in London. A year ago, he came to Jenin with a production crew to begin researching a documentary film about the actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was murdered by a masked gunman in 2011 not far from the theater he ran. “But the plans didn’t work out, and because of the lockdown I stayed in Jenin for eight months. It was an opportunity to recreate my childhood memories,” he said in an interview two weeks ago with the France24 television network. “I started searching the family archives for cassettes I remembered from the 1980s. I also got in touch with the owner of the music shop that was in Jenin and has since closed. And then I found a tape called ‘Intifada.’ That was the only thing that was written on it.”
Swaitat made the short film “Stones in Hand,” which shows the life of a Palestinian living in exile. It came out about six months ago. He made use of Palestinian music that he’d found for the film’s soundtrack. “I listened to 10,000 tapes over eight months – lots of synth stuff and funk and disco, wedding music, revolutionary tracks,” he told the Guardian recently. “I even found recordings made by my uncle, who was in a Bedouin wedding band. One of the most special finds was this bright yellow tape with no information on it except a sticker with the hand-written word ‘intifada.’”
Swaitat began searching for every scrap of information he could find about the musician behind the tape. He said he was “captivated by the poetic lyrics describing a lost homeland and the struggle for freedom.” One time, he left the tape rolling to the very end and heard the musician himself say: “I am Riad Awwad. I want to thank my sisters Alia, Hanan and Nariman for their help in creating the album, as well as Mahmoud Darwish (the Palestinian national poet) for writing the lyrics to one of the songs.”
The challenge now for Swaitat was to locate Awwad so he could hear him tell his life story. He was able to find his sister, Hanan Awwad, a well-known 70-year-old Palestinian poet who lives in Ramallah. Hanan Awwad was once the director of Yasser Arafat’s office and his adviser on cultural affairs. She told Swaitat that Riad had died in a car accident in 2005. “My brother was a very talented musician. He was very moved by the intifada and the week it began [in 1987] he gathered us as a family in the living room in Jerusalem and asked us to help him ‘sing the song of the intifada’,” she told The Guardian. “He had a unique style and he made music about identity, which resonated with our people a lot. If you went down Salah al-Din Street in the old city, everyone was playing it.”
Awwad went on to describe how “as the intifada grew increasingly bloody, [Riad] ended up paying a high price for his art. Israeli forces confiscated most of the 3,000 tapes he had made from music shops, as well as cafes and businesses playing them, over fears the lyrics – some of which mention Molotov cocktails and throwing stones – would incite people to violence.” He was eventually released after several months. “He was never actually charged with anything, which was very common in the intifada,” said Hanan. “They asked him a lot about why he made the music, what he wanted to do with it.”
R., a 63-year-old Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem recalls how Palestinians were careful about listening to music of the type created by Awwad during the intifada. “My parents wouldn’t let us play tapes of Palestinian protest music. Anyone who listened to this music was arrested by the army.”
‘A political and cultural tool’
Evidently, the military authorities had good reason to be concerned about this music. The music Awwad made awakened Palestinian youth and urged them to rise up. They turned to his lyrics and those of Mahmoud Darwish in their fight against the occupation.
In his book, “My Voice is My Weapon,” David A. McDonald presents an ethno-musical analysis of Palestinian songs during the first and second intifadas. He shows how Palestinians in Israel, in exile and in the West Bank resisted the occupation using music. He describes Palestinian music as a political and cultural tool that goes into the formation of Palestinian identity, as well as a means of resisting the occupation.
Dr. Rona Sela of Tel Aviv University, a scholar of visual history and creator of the 2017 documentary “Looted and Hidden – Palestinian Archives in Israel,” talks about what she calls “the process of erasure of Palestinian culture and existence by the Zionist colonialist mechanism.” This erasure takes places in two stages, she says. The first stage is the looting of archives – collections of photographs, films, books, documents, heritage objects and music from Palestinian culture. She says this looting was done systematically. Military intelligence dispatched troops to exact addresses and all the seized collections were brought to the archives of the Zionist sovereign.
In the second stage, Sela says, “The sovereign developed methods to control and police the archives. She says Israel did so by “preventing access to the materials, preventing exposure, placing these archives under rigid laws and censorship rules that have lasted many years, preventing publication, mainly by Palestinians or scholars who are critical of the colonial apparatus, and sometimes throwing away the materials.”
Some Palestinians have tried to come up with a strategy to fight back. For example, Fawaz Salameh, director of the Palestinian Archive, discussed during a 2018 interview on the Falastin channel the importance of reclaiming all the cultural materials that the Israeli occupation forces took. “The Palestinian cultural materials were taken and we have no way to assess what is in the Israeli military archive. We’ve been able to recover a tiny portion of the cultural materials from archives around the world, but most of the material is not in our possession. We demand that whatever is in the archive of the Israeli occupation be returned to the Palestinian people.”
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Sela says that that the confiscation of Awwad’s songs echoes what happened in Beirut in the 1980s, when the Israeli army confiscated films from Palestinian propaganda and cultural institutions. “In the archives, I discovered that they took in Lebanon the films in which the singer Zeinab Shaath sings the songs of poets Mahmoud Darwish and Muin Bseiso, among other things. Both were made to disappear in the Zionist archive.”
It took Sela 11 years to open the archive. She says that the intifada tape that Swaitat found and the films that were confiscated in Lebanon reflect Palestinian cultural activism that occurred in parallel. “Both expressed protest against purges and refugeehood, or against occupation and oppression,” she says. “The films and the songs that were taken in Beirut and the tapes that were confiscated in the West Bank and East Jerusalem convey the same spirit of activism and are made of the same stuff.”
Nabil Azar, a Palestinian playwright and musician from the village of Rama, tells of the Palestinian culture that developed between the time of the first intifada and the Oslo Accords. “This was a critical period for anyone who was involved in music, art and cinema,” he recalls. “I formed a Palestinian band called Yu’ad and we performed in Cairo, Ramallah, Nazareth and other cities. As musicians, we felt the need to give expression to the Palestinian voice and to preserve the national identity. The same kind of thing happened in Lebanon, with the songs of Marcel Khalife and Ahmad Kaabour.”
Sela adds: “It was a proud folk culture – the voice of the people that was manifested in film or musically. The handling of that type of material was intended to suppress a popular protest that had tremendous importance to the Palestinian nation, and was meant to suppress the Palestinian people’s cultural activism.”
Swaitat says the Majaz Project is a way to give new expression to the suppressed voice and to resist the Zionist propaganda. “The realization that there is propaganda that ignores the Palestinian voice is what causes Palestinian young people to make their voices heard, to create, to speak out,” he said in the France24 interview. “There is propaganda against Palestinians here and we are trying to recount events from our point of view. It’s not right to only let one narrative be heard – That’s not equal. The world needs to be open to young Palestinians, too.”