One of the Best Musicians in Israel Sings About the War to Liberate Palestine

Amal Murkus’ music is rarely played on the Israeli radio. ‘I pay a price for being 
a free person,’ she tells Haaretz ahead of the release of a new album

Amal Murkus. 'We, as a minority, created literature, journalism, culture.'
Amal Murkus. 'We, as a minority, created literature, journalism, culture.'Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

It was a highly productive day for Amal Murkus. In the afternoon the singer filmed herself reading a children’s book in her home in Kafr Yasif and sent it to a Tunisian organization that encourages children to read. In the evening she went to a studio in Moshav Even Menahem to be filmed singing the Palestinian folk song “Bahalilak,” which she sent to Chile, for an evening marking the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29.

Murkus took advantage of the studio session to do something else: rerecord the vocal track of a single that she released, not coincidentally, on that same Sunday, November 29.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the singing,” she said. “Nuances. I wanted to adorn it better. I wanted the opening to be energetic and slow at the same time.”

That sounds like an almost impossible performance challenge, but Murkus is an amazing singer, one of the best in Israel. Two of her albums, “Nana ya Nana” (2007) and “Baghanni” (2011) are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful to come out here in the past 15 years.

Amal Murkus. Made some of the best albums to come out from Israel in the past 15 years.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Murkus’ new song, called “Dola” is based on a poem written by Samih al-Qasim in the early 1970s. Most of his poems were written in literary Arabic. Murkus performed one in her previous album, “Fattah al Ward.” “Dola” was written in the vernacular.

That’s for a reason. The poem is based on a pun with the word “dola.” Dola means country – and in Egyptian slang, it means “those” as in “those people.” Murkus thus sings as follows: “Dola – confused me/Dola – drove me crazy/They deprived me of my land – Dola/Trampled on my honor – Dola/Told me to shut up, not to breathe/For the sake of state security.”

“Dola” when it means “those” and “Dawla” when it means “state” are written differently in Arabic. Nearly all the “dolas” in al-Qasim’s poem are written the first way: “Those people deprived me of my land/Those people trampled on my honor.” But because the two “dolas” are homophones, the Arabic-speaking listener also hears the other meaning – the state denied me, the state trampled on my honor. “Dawla” with the spelling that means “state” appears only once in the poem – in the phrases, “Told me to shut up, not to breathe/For the sake of state security.”

Murkus, who was born in 1968, is the daughter of Nimr Murkus, who was head of the Kafr Yasif local council for many years and a friend of the poet al-Qasim. She was a little girl when al-Qasim wrote the poem. “I remember the poem from then,” she says. “I saw Samih recite it at a May 1 demonstration in Kafr Yasif. He stood on the stage, reading the poem, and people were getting excited, waving their hands, wow!”

According to Murkus, “Dola” hasn’t remained in the political domain but has become a wedding hit as well. “Because of the melody,” she explains. “It’s a very rhythmic tune, in the Egyptian style.” The melody was written (under the guidance of al-Qasim) by Rajab al-Suluh, who, in addition to being an oud player, was the owner of the Haifa restaurant where the writers and editors of the newspaper Al-Ittihad used to hang out, among them Murkus’ father. “The restaurant was on Hahar Street,” she recalls. “Now it’s HaTzionut [Zionism] Boulevard.” (Actually, the name of Hahar Street was first changed to United Nations Street, in gratitude for the UN support of the founding of the State of Israel. In 1975, in response to the resolution that equated Zionism with racism, it was changed to HaTzionut Boulevard.)

Al-Qasim wanted the melody for “Dola” to be “folksy, simple, danceable and humorous. So people could laugh a bit about the situation, perhaps it would make it easier for people. During my work on the song I interviewed people who had sung it back then at a student presentation. Samih said to them during rehearsals, ‘I want the content to be political, but that a belly dancer could dance to it.’”

Renowned Israeli musician and producer Alon OlearchikCredit: Meged Gozny

Murkus’ son, Firas, a composer and qanun player who lives in the United States, is responsible for the new arrangement and production of “Dola.” “I have the feeling that this song will be very much loved,” Murkus says. “It’s very catchy. While we were filming the clip there were people and children from the village near us. I noticed that after a while all of them were singing the song, they already knew it by heart. The chorus is based on one word that repeats itself – dola-dola-dola. Maybe Israelis will think I’m singing about a doula,” she says, laughing.

Not that Hebrew-speaking Israelis will have much opportunity to hear “Dola.” Murkus’ songs, political and nonpolitical, are rarely played on Hebrew radio stations, if at all.

‘You’re stupid’

In the late 1990s, when she was working on her first album, “Amal,” producer Alon Olearchik suggested that she record an Arabic cover of a popular Hebrew song. “I said ‘I don’t want to. I want to do a record that’s my identity card.’ He said, ‘You’re stupid,’” Murkus says, laughing. “I don’t regret it. I haven’t turned my art into a product. I wasn’t a sucker for the rules of the market. I don’t make any calculations when I think about what to sing. I’m a free person and I’ve paid a price for this, both in Arab society and in Israeli society.”

Shortly after its release, “Dola” was played a few times on Makan, the Arabic-language radio station of the Kan public broadcaster. Makan also played a volatile political song that she released, “Shiye Fil Harav,” but in a censored version. It’s an antiwar song written by Tawfik Zayyad ending with the words, “I give my voice to one war – the war of liberation.”

“He was referring to the liberation of Palestine, the liberation of the occupied lands,” says Murkus. She said Kan faded out the song before the explosive line. She didn’t protest the censorship. “I didn’t speak up,” she recalls. “I sometimes say, it’s better than nothing. It’s great, they played it. I understand.”

“Dola,” despite its political baggage, is less volatile and much less explicit.

“Israel is not mentioned; Palestine is not mentioned,” she says. “Everyone should ask themself, which country expropriated lands? Which country trampled on human dignity? Perhaps it’s Turkey? Perhaps it’s the British Mandate? What other occupying states are there? The United States, perhaps? The song doesn’t say. It’s a fun song, cute, humorous, light, but with a statement. It’s a cabaret-type song, like from Brecht. A satirical song. Who more than the Jewish people understand the importance of satire?”

The clip starts with Murkus and her mother, the activist Nabiha Murkus, browsing through old pictures in the study of her father, who died eight years ago. A picture of Lenin hangs there. “That’s dangerous, right?” says Murkus.

I don’t think so. But it looks anachronistic.

“Okay. That’s what there is at home. That’s how I grew up. Our house was full of Marxist symbols. My father’s study remains almost as it was. Even his last cigarettes are still there.”

Her mother is 81 and can no longer attend protests as she has done all her life. She remains active on Facebook.

Murkus sings live. She didn't perform since last July. Credit: Emil Salman

The clip shows Murkus and her mother holding an old picture showing Samih al-Qasim speaking in the square. Afterward, Murkus goes out with a group of men, women and children to the streets of Kafr Yasif, where she gives out flyers entitled, “Freedom for the nations.”

“That’s a glimpse into the story of my life,” Murkus says. “I grew up in an activist home. My art sprouted from a combination of two lines: music and art for their own sake, but also the channel of what’s happening to my people, what I want as an Arab-Palestinian woman, and also what’s happening in the world.

“As a girl I gave out flyers, went to the peace club in Kafr Yasif, folded Al-Ittihad and distributed it, traveled to the Arab village Arab al-Aramshe with the culture magazine Al-Rad. Israel paid no attention to us. In school they didn’t teach our narrative. We, as a minority, created literature, journalism, culture.”

The narrative that Murkus expresses in her art is always at odds with the Israeli narrative, but that’s not the only struggle she’s waging. For years she’s been confronting Islamic forces in Arab society, and in recent years she’s also run afoul of the Palestinian boycott movement.

It happened five years ago, when the band Not Standards, which does jazz interpretations of songs by leading Israeli musicians, contacted Murkus and offered to produce a show based on her songs. She was thrilled by the recognition of her work by the young Jewish jazz musicians. But mere weeks before the performance, a representative of the boycott movement contacted her and said that if she didn’t cancel the performance, the movement would denunciate her.

“I told him that I’d decide for myself if I’d sing or not,” she says. “I also said to him, ‘You never called me to compliment me. Why are you calling me now?’ I understand this trap. The boycott movement tells Western artists, ‘don’t come to Israel’ and I justify that. It’s an apartheid state, an occupying state. But the Palestinian artist is in a bind. They want to perform, they wants to earn a living. In comes this great ensemble and says, ‘We’re taking your songs, with their protest lyrics, including the songs about the refugees returning.’ How could I refuse such a thing?” And she did the show.

Because of the circumstances, Murkus’ last performance was in February.

“I haven’t taken in a shekel since July,” she says. “I’m worried because I have no pension savings. It’s making me cry now,” she says. Within seconds she recovers and adds, “There’s despair, but I think despair is a privilege. There are women being murdered in the street, people living in unrecognized villages, refugees fighting for a livelihood. I of course understand why people are getting depressed, but you can’t wallow in it.”

Murkus. 'I’m worried because I have no pension savings.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

This summer she organized a group of Palestinian Israeli artists aiming specifically to support artists during the coronavirus crisis, and more broadly, to “wake up” their peers, unite them, and enhance public awareness of the difficulties they experience irrespective of the pandemic. Because songs by Palestinian musicians are not played on Israeli radio, says Murkus, superb singers are forced to sing at weddings. That’s no way to build a musical culture.

“One night I sat at home and out of frustration at the culture and arts situation I started to write slogans. One after the other,” she says. “I wrote, ‘Art is also a food basket.’ I wrote, ‘Art strengthens the immune system.’ I wrote, ‘Art is not a pandemic.’ I started a WhatsApp group. Within two days I had 300 people in the group. I started another group. I called it the Arts Protest Movement.”

Not my protest

When Jewish artists protested a government plan to cancel subsidies for culture, Murkus joined the protest by the culture minster’s home. “But then they sang [the Israeli anthem] ‘Hatikva,’ and before that one of the culture directors got up and spoke about his son who serves in the Golani Brigade. I left. I felt as if it wasn’t my protest,” she says.

She and others scheduled a demonstration in Haifa, but four days before the protest there was the explosion at the port in Beirut that killed over 200 people. “I started getting phone calls, ‘Cancel the protest, hold a memorial instead,” recalls Murkus. She refused, and added a slogan, ‘From Haifa to Beirut – Love.’

“We opened the evening with a minute of silence and a song by Fairuz. Afterward there were speeches and at the end people broke out in a debka [dance]. The moment people started holding hands a policeman said, ‘that’s not okay.’ I said to him, ‘let them, they haven’t sung since February.’”

Murkus. “Dola” is the second single from the forthcoming album. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Murkus says the protest was “an important moment,” but when she tried to keep the momentum going she encountered apathy among her fellow artists. “They weren’t ready, suddenly everyone was focused on themself,” she says, sadly.

On the creative plane, Murkus says she’s flourishing and feels very inspired. “I thank God,” she says, and then laughs. “I’m an atheist. I thank life.” She has eight new songs ready and will soon release another album. “Instead of doing the kitchen, I’m doing songs. I’m crazy. My kitchen is a disaster.”

“Dola” is the second single from the forthcoming album. The first single, “Nas” (“People”), written and composed by her son Firas, is close to jazz in spirit. It’s a complex, convoluted, contemplative song. “Sometimes I feel as if inside me there’s a rock singer that hasn’t yet emerged. Sometimes a jazz singer. A million things,” she says. She says that a documentary being made about her now makes her feel as if she’s aged. That’s also how she felt when Firas composed “Nas” in a low scale. “I told him, ‘What are you hinting, that I’ve gotten old?’ I can sing the same scales that I sang in 1995.’ But the truth is that sometimes I feel as if my voice doesn’t have the same sheen. So what? It’s like I have some gray hair, or I’ve put on some weight. It’s fine.”

“Nas” has no political dimension. It’s a song about observing people. “Firas wrote it, not me, but when I sing I imagine someone sitting in a bar in Haifa, watching the kids having fun and feeling something isn’t right. That’s how I feel about this period. There’s a rift between people. Couples don’t want to commit. Everything is temporary. People are investing in tightening their stomach, their abs, Botox, walking, nutrition, culinary arts. They won’t invest in relationships. And I think we have to invest in relationships. To talk, to embrace. It offers resilience.”

And you think this is different than in was in the past?

“Yes. This is not an era of love.”