Here, at the mercy of time,
on these foothills at sunset
near ripped-up orchards stripped of their shadows,
we do what prisoners do,
we do what the unemployed do:
we cultivate hope.
— Mahmoud Darwish
Pain can, surprisingly, bring out the best in people.
I felt a cocktail of mixed emotions: helplessness, horror, pain, loneliness, alienation, melancholy and resilience.
Being an activist at that moment didn’t help me stop a US-made Israeli F16 from targeting Khuzaa, or another US-made weaponized vehicle from shelling the houses of Beit Hanoun. I felt like the long and dark nights were in cahoots with apartheid Israel — they were both against me.
Local radio stations were constantly reporting breaking news, their reporters at the scenes of different massacres. My heart and mind struggled to absorb all the news at once. But this was news mixed with flesh and blood — that of my friends, my nieces, my nephews, my students, my colleagues, my own flesh and blood.
So I started singing.
“Take out the only weapon you have on this dark night and fight back while tears are rolling down your cheeks! You know that they are cheering on the other side of the barbed wires! They are having barbecues and drinking beer when a bomb falls on our children’s heads!”
“Shujaiya! Shujaiya! Shujaiya!”
“Khuzaa! Khuzaa! Khuzaa!”
Soaked with tears
In my hand was my weapon — a tiny mobile phone close to my mouth, my beard soaked with tears. Then the first child — a song — was born, a child baptized in blood. Hence the title, “Love in the Time of Genocide,” which I gave to the late Egyptian poet Abdel Rahim Mansour’s lyrics, written to commemorate the Denshawai massacre in Egypt committed by British soldiers in 1906 (listen).
Between contractions and pain
We will be reborn
Between contractions and pain
Wisdom will be born
The song of freedom will be born
All that has gone and passed
Is still being born in your eyes
I didn’t know exactly why I started singing that song into my mobile phone. But some comrades heard it and the idea of turning it into a video materialized as part of their collective efforts to support the resilience of Palestinians in Gaza.
Friends and colleagues were surprised to learn that I am a singer as well as an academic. Academics in the Arab world are known for being strict and uptight, especially in Gaza. As a dedicated boycott, divestment and sanctions activist, a leading organizer with the One Democratic State group and an academic, I was happy to shatter this stereotype.
But who gives a damn about stereotypes? Are we not opposed to most conventional generalizations? Are we not supposed to shake that seemingly fixed world of preconceived ideas?
But more importantly, since Gaza victims are at the receiving end of a racist war machine — intent on killing as many children and women as they can get away with because they are not born to mothers from a different ethno-religious group — every possible tool should be used to narrate their lives and tragic deaths.
The great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said would have nodded in agreement.
No studio, no microphone, no speakers, no band. I had nothing but a mobile phone, a laptop and songs already sung in different contexts by famous singers. Here is the challenge I set for myself: how do I give a Palestinian context to these songs?
Then, the tragic story of Salem Shamaly erupted, the young man whose cold-blooded murder by an Israeli sniper, as he searched for his family, was caught on video. Another poem by the wonderful late poet Salah Jahin, performed by so many well-known singers, summarized the tragedy, the Gaza metaphor.
A sniper decides to play a game, assured by his leaders and a complicit international community, that he can do as he likes and easily get away with it. So why not aim at a young man trying to find his family members under the rubble of their house in Shujaiya during a ceasefire declared by apartheid Israel?
Didn’t they launch three massive wars on Gaza, and the so-called international community blamed “both sides,” and called on both the oppressors and the oppressed to show “self-restraint”? Hasn’t Israel been imposing a deadly, medieval siege since 2006, causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people without a single concrete step taken by official bodies of the international community to put an end to it?
Salem then can be shot dead in broad daylight without an eye blinking in regret.
Hence, I sang the poem “Lifeboat” by Salah Jahin (listen):
The Sea of life is full that drowned in life,
I screamed, and death entered my throat and filled it:
“Life Boat, Oh, People! LIFEBOAT!”
I screamed. They said: “There is nothing, but only love is a lifeboat!
I can, I will sing more.
I wanted to try to record every possible event, pulse, or emotion, be it individual or collective. My role models have always been revolutionary singers and writers, holding their ouds or guitars or pens, defending the downtrodden, the subaltern. I think of Che Guevara, Edward Said, Steve Biko, Ghassan Kanafani, Rosa Luxemburg, Marcel Khalife, Ahmet Kaya, Sheikh Imam, Fairuz and, to some extent, Abelhalim Hafez.
Horror of Khuzaa
When Israel declared another ceasefire, I went to Khuzaa. Nothing can describe the absolute horror. I walked on the rubble of a house under which there were the corpses of martyrs. It was so surreal.
I saw a dove there and I was sure I heard it reciting poetry:
Once upon a time, there was a martyr,
His blood is still flooding in my veins;
And his lullabies have dissolved in my voice!
We, in Gaza, are the subaltern.
But we are no longer passive victims; we are very stubborn in our resistance. Our resistance is bearing fruit; we are leading an unprecedented campaign to isolate apartheid Israel until it complies with international law. But we know, as Nelson Mandela put it, the walk to freedom is long (listen):
Extend your steps,
The walk to freedom is still long,
But we have no other alternative,
And every step on the road is a lantern.
And a “new day” (Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi) is inevitable in spite of “the flood” (Salah Jahin). And “if the sun sinks” (Ahmed Fouad Negm), then we will “swear by the skies and the soil” (el-Abnudi) to fulfill our “duty” (Ayman Bakri) to reserve the blood of “the martyr” (my own words) and “with all the love in our hearts; love of humanity and our homeland; with all the smiles on the lips of our children; we’ll come back holding the wounds of the past; promising to bring back the eye of the sun” (Mohsen El-Khayyat).
(Most of these songs were written by poets known for their progressive ideological background in the 1960s and ’70s, especially in the Nasserite era when anti-imperialism and progressive nationalism were the norm in the postcolonial world, including the Arab region.)
But we also fall in love. We have our romantic moments when the flame of love keeps burning day and night. We imagine ourselves becoming a “melody on the lips of the beloved” (Mamoun El Shennawy), and when the beloved, young wife is targeted by an Israeli drone, the only child left “reminds me of her” because he “takes after her” (Kawthar Mustapha).
So many deaths lead to some spirituality, a sense of “disappointment” with the world, “guilt, “self-critique,” “atonement” and an “appeal for forgiveness” (Jamal Mahjoub). But we are not immune to criticism; don’t we have a horrific “political rift” (Abdel Rahim Mansour) between Fatah and Hamas, a rift in which brothers kill each other, and we “get lost.”
Long walk to freedom
My own mother, who together with my father passed away in 2005, was a refugee who longed for Kanafani’s “Land of Sad Oranges.” Like two-thirds of the Palestinians in Gazan, refugees who are entitled to their right of return, she kept talking about it until she died:
How many seasons and years have gone by,
Lemon trees have withered,
Where are you?!
Without you, I am neither sane, nor insane!
I am worn out!
(Abdel Rahim Mansour)
In spite of the seemingly sad, dominant tone of the collection of these songs, it opens with a revolutionary song that was on the lips of every average Arab in the 1960s, an oath to never let the sun disappear, and ends with a promise to extend our steps in our long walk to freedom.
The poet Mahmoud Darwish sums it up:
Here, under siege, life serves time —
a time between remembering its beginning,
and forgetting its end.
Ideally speaking, I hope that this will be a fresh examination of the ravages of occupation, apartheid and genocidal blockade, as well as a reflection of the range of human emotions under these circumstances, from fierce resistance and commitment to freedom to love and romance.
Hence the title given to this collection: Gaza Blues: Hymns of Love, Death and Resistance.
Haidar Eid is an independent political commentator from the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
The album Gaza Blues: Hymns of Love, Death and Resistance is available to purchase through Indiepush.com. Hard copies are available to purchase by contacting adie_mormech AT hotmail DOT com.
Listen to a sample of the album via the media player above.
The songs are dedicated to the courage and resistance of the Palestinian people on the journey to justice and freedom. All proceeds from sales of the song will be donated towards the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.