Playlist: 10 must-hear Palestinian songs

Guest contribution by Jumana Al-Qawasmi

Earlier on Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, I wrote about the importance of engaging with the Palestinian [national or personal] narrative when looking at the broad context of resistance. It is one thing to be well-read in the history of the Palestinian struggle. But it is another thing entirely if the narrative of loss completely dominates the Palestinian identity.

Personally, I love my Palestinian heritage not because it is something that has been taken from me. Rather, my Palestinian heritage is a source of joy and positivity. Music is one way I ensure that my identity remains one of hope and productivity, not of loss and mourning.

So I’ll attempt to give a diverse sampling in this short list of Palestinian songs. This is not meant to be a list entirely comprised of Palestinian artists either; the Palestinian struggle has always been intertwined with the narratives of other countries. Thus, it would seem disingenuous to discount the artistic support of musicians from neighboring countries. I also mean to deviate from the canonized Palestinian playlist; you will not, unfortunately, see Mohammad Assaf, famed dabke instrumentals, or well-known hip-hop tracks (Assaf: if you’re reading this, I still love you). Instead, you will get a list of hopefully new and interesting music to add to your library.

(Note: Most scholars and laymen do not actually know the sources and purposes for older Palestinian folk songs. The Nakba and post-Nakba resistance has largely clouded and changed the original contexts of many songs. One of the later examples will clarify this point.)

Here are ten amazing Palestinian pieces:

1. “Habbat Il-Nar” (“The Fire Blew”) – Firqat Al-‘Ashiqeen

Firqat Al-‘Ashiqeen, or “Band of Lovers”, began in the 1980s and was famed for its nationalistic songs. Their harder-edged songs reflected the rising dissent that eventually gave birth to the First Intifada. Firqat Al-‘Ashiqeen’s “Habbat Il-Nar” may be my favorite version of this song because of the video’s juxtaposition of political and artistic images of resistance.

2. “Yumma Mweil Al-Hawa” (“Oh Mama, the Breeze Bends”) – Nai Barghouti

This cover of the famous “Yumma Mweil Il-Hawa” is so simple and sweet. Barghouti, an accomplished 16-year-old flutist and composer based in Ramallah, embellishes on this classic with her own flute playing. The origins of this song are unknown.

Extra: Marcel Khalife, the renowned Lebanese oud player who collaborated often with the poet Mahmoud Darwish, also covered this song.

3. “Sual” (“A Question”) – Basel Zayed

Zayed is a Palestinian musician and composer based in Jerusalem. His pieces tend to combine elements of Arab music and Western jazz. This instrumental version of “Sual” exemplifies this style (and, inexplicably, sounds like a musical representation of Jerusalem’s diverse character). A colleague of mine here in Chicago actually attended the same music conservatory with Zayed; it is sometimes surprising to see how far Palestinians manage to travel.

4. “Ya Tal’een ‘Al-Jabal” (“Oh You Climbing the Hill”) – Rim Banna

Here, Banna sings a cover of the old folk song “Ya Tal’een ‘Al-Jabal”. In a talk show interview, Banna explains that Palestinian women sang this outside of jails to warn their imprisoned men of an impending breakout. She states that the repeated “L” sound helped disguise the intent of the song, presumably because it sounded like celebratory ululations. This is one example, however, of a song with a disputed historical background; does this song only date back to times of resistance or does it have an older history (and different meaning)?

5. “Ya Leil Ma Atwalak” (“Oh Never Ending Night”) – Rim Banna

One can never have enough of Rim Banna. This piece, entitled “Ya Leil Ma Atwalak”, was covered for the Lullabies from the Axis of Evil album and is an excellent example of tarab. Tarab has no satisfactory English translation, but essentially indicates a kind of music that elicits a strong visceral reaction in its listeners. One sees this with all kinds of Arabic music, not only Palestinian.

6. “Ana Ismi Sha’ab Filasteen” (“My Name is Palestine’s People”) – George Qurmouz

George Qurmouz’s music is another prime example of pre-Intifada Palestinian music. Songs like “Ana Ismi Sha’ab Filasteen” were reportedly very popular on Jerusalem radio in the 1980s. These days, Qurmouz’s cassettes are pretty rare finds, especially in light of his sudden and premature disappearance from the music sphere.

7. “Fi Sukoot Il-Leil” (“In the Hush of Night”) – Sabreen

Founded in the early 1980s, Sabreen (along with Firqat Al-‘Ashiqeen) is one of the most influential Palestinian groups to date. Their compositions sought to develop and transcend traditional Palestinian music, often incorporating both Western and Arabic musical stylings into their songs. Sabreen still exists today and functions as a non-profit association for Palestinian culture. Sabreen’s “Fi Sukoot Il-Leil” is one excellent example of their work.

8. “‘Ala Hathihi Al-Ard” (“On This Land”) – Le Trio Joubran

Le Trio Joubran, a contemporary oud trio based both in France and Palestine, is yet another example of exceptional Palestinian talent. Included in an album dedicated entirely to Mahmoud Darwish’s work, we have “‘Ala Hathihi Al-Ard”. Darwish reads one of his most famous poems with Joubran accompaniment.

Extra: For another song sampling Darwish’s poetry, George Qurmouz sets “Sajjil Ana ‘Arabi” (“Record, I’m an Arab”) to music.

9. “Ya Oud” (“Oh Oud”) – Amal Murkus

Amal Murkus, a Palestinian musician based in Israel, began her career in the late 1990s. Her music is distinctive because it borrows across traditional and contemporary forms of Arab music. Some of you may recognize her hook in DAM’s latest song, “If I Could Go Back”. This acapella version of “Ya Oud” is another example of tarab.

10. “Tahliyyeh Jaliliyya” (“Galilean Lullaby”) – Reem Kelani

Reem Kelani, a Palestinian born in England and raised in Kuwait, is another folk Palestinian singer. Her performances are enthralling; Kelani invests fully both in the piece she sings and in her audience. Here, she sings “Tahliyyeh Jaliliyya”, an evocative Palestinian children’s lullaby she has arranged to music. Can you just appreciate Kelani’s vocal range and amazing control?

Bonus: Palestinian National Anthem, “Mawtini” (“My Homeland”)

But what playlist of Palestinian music could possibly be complete without including the Palestinian anthem? I am sure some would like to argue that “Fida’i” (“My Redemption”) should be listed here; indeed, the Palestinian Authority adopted “Fida’i” as its national anthem in 1996. Yet, I prefer “Mawtini” much more; the lyrics and composition are beautiful, especially in simplified performances. Written in the early 1930s, “Mawtini” was held to be the unofficial Palestinian national anthem for a few decades. The popularity of this song even extended to neighboring countries and was taken to be a song in support of the Palestinian struggle. Sadly, it was replaced by “Fida’i” in the West Bank in 1996. Since 2004, “Mawtini” has been the Iraqi national anthem.

[A very happy] Extra: I stumbled across this amazing cover of Mohamad Qamar’s “Hiyaati” a few months ago. I include this solely because the musician, Ahmad Muin, is Palestinian. But you can’t help but beam as he ecstatically strums his flamenco guitar on Gaza’s gorgeous beach.

Jumana Al-Qawasmi

Jumana Al-Qawasmi is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago. She authors the personal blog {re}narrativize.


There are 5 comments

  1. wordofthewiss

    I think you are missing many that should at least get an honorable mention.

    – “Halalalalaya” I don’t know who sings it but Amal Kawash, a superb Palestinian vocalist, sings a beautiful rendition of it. ” Halalalalaya. My eye on Palestinians. All the carvans have returned, where have the time taken me?”

    Amal sings “Yumma mweil al hawa”:

    *Also a funny breakup song by Amal, not with Palestinian content but great nonetheless “Wadee Tariq” – Emergent Situation:


    Several by Ahmad Qabbour:

    – “Laje” – Refugee. The national anthem of the diaspora if I may say, about the Right of Return. The lyrics describe a beautiful setting on its own and the fact that he has children singing with him in the chorus gives the song an amazing depth.
    “The rising sun makes us warmer, the setting sun burns, and I don’t know any sun, except that of songs. I do not know the sun of Palestine, nor the sun rise of Yafa, I’m sitting here drawing a picture of a sun, trying to shake life into it, to wake it up and call it mine! I’m a refugee, going and coming into camps. On the map my country is drawing, I don’t know it. I read on it the letters of my name. Allah. Allah on Ramallah, on Beireh and Imm El Fahm. May God bless my family and people in Haifa and Beit Lahm. The ones who sung before me and the ones who will sing after me, all have lived like me, they lived the Right of Return. I dream to returning to my country. Adorn my body on hilltops, I dream of flying kites. Is it too much for me to be in a room that has a window, a balcony and birds? Oh Mar Elias help us, we grew up on justice, we grew up on blessed Jerusalem.” He then ends it with a very nostalgic “Wein a ramallah” ..

    “Nabad Al Dafaa” – The Pulse of the West Bank. “In the West Bank I had 5 children. The youngest recites poetry, the middle one is called Guevara, and the eldest is a revolutionary in the West Bank. Let the world know my orphaned children, they planted the fields rest roses, and with their arms they harvested the goods. My children, my wife and I, I shout, we shout: Let my country sleep free, let my occupier leave. Lina, a child who dropped, yet her body remained singing to the crucified angry body, for Jerusalem, Yafa and Areeha, for the standing trees in Gaza, for the flooding waters of the River Jordan, for the angry body on the Bank. The pulse of the bank don’t quiet down, declare it a revolution! Break the chains and make your body the bridge of return. Let my country sleep free, let my occupier leave”.

    “Erhal” – Leave: “Leave, they told me, soldiers who came from afar. They entered my house, killed my child, raped my wife and told me to leave. They dug in my face a cave, they stepped on my body, they planted in my heart a bullet, they set up for me a tent. I said I will remain a giant, a wound hugging my grave and I knocked the door of my nation by my nation was sleeping, and I stayed all alone while my nation were dreaming, and told me to leave. This is my country, and know that the young, from the nation of dreams owns the final saying. From the prisons of night, the morning will be disarmed, and a storm will emerge.”

    Shadi Zuqtan a rising artist from this decade, with content surrounding the current Palestinian situation. His music is worth of a post on its own. Below are three of my favorite.

    “11,000 mahal faadi” – 11,000 empty places talks about the Palestinian prisoners. He starts the song by mentioning random places: queues at the bank, the falafel shop, rush hours, weddings, demonstrations, barber shops though there is someone missing even if everyone is present. He goes on describing the turmoil of taxi driver who isn’t permitted to visit his prisoner son, and a woman who has 5 prisoner sons who spend her days washing her kids clothes so when they are released they find their clothes clean, and she would hang their clothes to dry assorted in the color of the Palestinian flag.

    – “Fi Balad Lal Ajaar” – A Country for Rent, talks about the different sanctions of the Palestinian struggle that are stuck fighting each other. A country available for rent, a house with furniture from debris, overlooking the revolution and has a view of degradation. A scene where he desires to be collected by a Jewish patrol (instead of an unknown Palestinian one). An ambulance calling for 60 years. A key waiting for a door. A country stuck in a news report.

    “Fi Balad” – There is a Country talks about a country that is increasing in size although the world is become smaller where he asks the country not to forget him.

    He has several romantic songs:
    “Bashoofek fil Balad” – I see you in town, the becomes pretty when you are in it, I don’t see anyone else, except Yafa and the sea that is in your eyes.

    “Mojeeha” – The Swing.

    An after thought:

    Also by Ahmad Qabbour but here sung by May Nasr. “Ya sitti Layki Layki”. Can be applied to any war torn country. Initially song for the Lebanese Civil War.
    “Oh Grandma, look around you, there are bombs all around you. Tell them to throw them far, to the front and not near you.
    Oh Grandma, the best of all women, I will scatter on your feet jasmine. Tell them to forget you for a while, tell them to have pity, but don’t extend to them your arms.
    Oh grandma, the whole neighborhood cried, but they did not have mercy. Tell them where is Mahmoud, tell them why you are wearing black, and why is there a tear in your eye.”

    An after afterthought:
    “Ya raye7 sawb blaadi” – Oh you who is traveling towards my country, for Ahmad Qaabour where he sings to the person heading towards Palestine via the south of Lebanon, or at least that’s my interpretation of the song and many may disagree, (you know they say “no two people ever read the same book” and the same may apply songs). The words in themselves are enough to make one tear. This chorus is: “Oh you who is traveling towards my country, please send with you my regards, Inform my wife and kids that the doves are missing them, ask my mother if it is still forbidden to dream and tell her that her days are on my mind and they are the dearest days to me” …

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