Tareq S. Hajjaj
Mondoweiss / May 15, 2023
75 years after their displacement, refugees in Gaza are preserving their cultural heritage through folklore and song. These songs tell a story of resistance and longing for Palestine.
Standing in a circle, hands clapping continuously, they all join in on the verse, where one lady in the center of the circle taps the drum hanging to her side, giving them the beat and the lines. In such events, elderly women lead the show, finding a golden opportunity not only to revive the heritage they experienced in their ancestral lands before 1948, but also to pass it on to the younger generations so that it can never be forgotten.
In colorful and specular dresses, usually a few elderly women are able to drag all the young girls along with them, making them repeat the verses one time after the other, until they enjoy repeating them and have them memorized, growing eager for the older women to give them the following line.
Safia Jawad, 71, wears the distinguished dress of her original village, Isdud (renamed Ashdod by the Israeli state), covered in handmade and masterfully woven embroidery. She slowly and proficiently starts out with a low tone, reciting the lyrics:
“We came from the valley – for the girl with the desirable waist.
We came from the sea – for the girl with the waist like a flower wreath.”
“قطعنا الواد الواد الواد – ع الي خصرها مرواد
قطعنا البحر يا عمي ع الي خصرها ضُمة”
These lines date back to many years before the Nakba when the people of Palestine used to celebrate their events through song. Using only simple tools, such as their voices or instruments like the “Rababa,” they created new songs tailored for specific occasions and contexts.
Safia has memorized a long list of songs and verses for weddings, although weddings are not the only occasions for which popular songs are reserved. Every event, happy or sad, has a song that is unique to it. These songs existed in all of Palestine before the Nakba, after which this part of Palestinian heritage transformed. People who fled their homes and came to Gaza as refugees brought their heritage with them. They preserve it and revive it during every wedding and funeral, to the point that they have even tried to spread it among Gaza’s original residents. New kinds of songs have subsequently emerged.
Preserving heritage in Gaza
In Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza, Samira Ahmed, 69, and her married daughter, Sujoud, 36, sit next to each other on a couch in the guest room. Samira has trouble trying to remember all the songs she had been taught by her late mother, a Nakba survivor.
Sujoud occasionally reminds her mother of some of the songs, and when Samira forgets a certain part, her daughter finishes the line for her.
“In family events like weddings, I insist that there must be a full day for the heritage songs,” Samira says. “I get a drum and sing all the songs that I learned. Sometimes, the young girls in the event enjoy the songs and repeat them with me, and at other times they ask for modern songs,” she said.
She finds that at first, the new generations of young girls find it hard to follow the songs because they are used to modern fast ones with full musical effects — in other words, antithetical to the flow of traditional songs, which are slow and devoid of any music other than the drum.
“They aren’t just songs we repeat. They represent our pride in our culture and folklore that our grandparents raised us on,” Samira tells Mondoweiss. “As long as we revive it and make it present in our events, we will always maintain our heritage and culture. And that’s how we preserve our homeland, above everything else.”
Samira grew up loving these songs since childhood, when she would hear her mother singing them at weddings, showing a personal interest in them early on. When she would go on to start a family of her own, she passed them down to her own children. Now, her daughter Sujoud is doing the same.
In spite of this, Samira fears that this valuable part of Palestine’s history might soon be lost, as newer generations gravitate more toward fast-paced and modern music. “Hardly any young people show interest in these songs, but so long as a single Palestinian refugee is living, they will not be forgotten,” she says.
For her part, Samira tries to tell funny stories about these songs to make young people feel closer to them, like the story of one song about summoning rain.
“People would wear their clothes upside down, go out to the field, and take a metal tankard with them to knock on it and ask God for rain,” she says.
The song is as follows:
“Bring us rain, bring us rain, bring us rain, my Lord
To water our west-facing plants
Please, wet our scarves, my Lord, so that we have our fill of bread
Please, wet our threadbare clothes, my Lord.
We are poor and have nowhere to go.”
“يلا الغيث يلا الغيث يلا الغيث ياربي
نسقي زرعنا الغربي
يارب تبل الحطة خلينا نشبع فتة
يارب تبل الشرتوح واحنا فقرا وين نروح”
Before and after the Nakba
For the most part, no particular region of Palestine is exclusively known for its own specific song. Rather, certain songs would travel to many different places throughout Palestine, and then people in every place would add their own touch to it, rendering it through their own particular local accents, intonations, and modified lyrics. This is how much of Palestine’s folkloric songs have functioned
Haidar Eid, a professor at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza teaching art and literature, is also a heritage collector who documents Palestinian folklore and produces music based on traditional Palestinian songs. One example is a song about his own original village, Zarnuqa.
“Oh, if only the boat that brings me here become full of sweets
And cross the sea and take me back to Zarnuqa”
المركب الي جابتكو نتنلي نوقا – تشق فينا البحر وتروح ع زرنوقة
As a collector, Eid realized that the same song had spread to different areas of Palestine, each area adding its own touch to become particular to that region.
“There are different kinds of songs, and they are pronounced differently in the Palestinian heritage of songs. There is zajal, a poetry fit for singing in long local poems, and the mawwal, which is prolonged singing with a very long vocal voice, fit for any occasion. There are wedding songs, and there’s the tarwidah, which is four lines and starts as a mawwal, after which the song begins. And there are also songs of lamentation,” Eid explains.
One of the most popular songs in Gaza’s refugee camps is about a lover who laments and cries over his beloved in one line and repeats it in the next with the same rhythm:
“I enter a grove and look at a pear – Oh my eye, oh my soul.
I found my beloved with a shawl above her head – Oh my eye, oh my soul
How lucky is the person gets to kiss that shawl – Oh my eye, oh my soul”
خشيت بستان وبتفرج ع نجاصة – عيني يا ليلاه روحي يا ليلاه
لقيت محبوبي ومنديله ع راسه – عيني يا ليلاه روحي يا ليلاه
يا بخت من قلب المنديل ولا باسه – عيني يا ليلاه روحي يا ليلاه
Women in Gaza sing these lines in the same tone for more than 20 lines, as the main singer says the first part, while the rest of the guests reiterate the second. The lines are said in the local language of Palestinians who have lived on their lands for hundreds of years, before the Israelis took them and killed or expelled them by force.
Resistance and longing for Palestine
After the Nakba, people’s lives changed, and so did their heritage. And as music has shifted to reflect the circumstances of the people of a specific region, it has also shifted to reflect epochal changes in the Palestinian people’s struggle and way of life. After the Nakba, many of these songs started to show the nature of the Palestinian struggle after the rupture of 1948 — including nostalgia for their homes and lands and their right of return. The songs that Palestinian refugees in Gaza started to spread after they fled their homes and discovered that they would be settling in Gaza for an unknown period of time would extoll the virtues of heroism, sacrifice, and resistance.
Haidar Eid confirms this: “After the Nakba, the Palestinian songs became about resistance and the right of return.”
“After the occupation, and in 1967, the second Israeli war that led to occupying the rest of Palestine, the resistance songs spread widely in Palestine. The longing for Palestine produced more and more songs,” he said.
One of the first songs that spread in Gaza after the Nakba is about a resistance fighter who proposes to a young girl. The song is said on behalf of the girl who asks her family to accept him, even if he has nothing to offer. In the song, the girl says:
“Mother, give me to the fighter even with nothing – He enters the occupied land holding his machine gun.
Mother, give me to the fighter even with one bracelet – He enters the occupied land and every neighborhood.
Mother, give me to the fighter even with two pennies – He enters the occupied land with his Kalashnikov.
يما اعطيني الفدائي لو ببلاش – خش الأرض المحتلة في إيده رشاش
يما أعطيني الفدائي لو باسوارة – خش الأرض المحتلة حارة حارة
يما أعطيني الفدائي لو بقرشين – خش الأرض المحتلة في إيده كلاشين
In all the songs, the rhythm is the same.
“MOTHER, GIVE TO THE FIGHTER, EVEN WITH TWO PENNIES”
Yet what is perhaps the most well-known Palestinian song is “Ya Zarif al-Tul,” which has spread across all of historic Palestine and Palestinian communities in the diaspora. The song predates the Nakba and spread during the British Mandate period. Originally sung to refer to an unnamed “tall and handsome” Palestinian man (zarif al-tul) who successfully resisted attacks by Zionist forces against a village, the song would morph and take on different meanings in the decades following the Nakba.
The story tells of a Palestinian who was unanimously regarded by the inhabitants of an unnamed Palestinian village as of good character, even though he was a stranger to the village but would work as a carpenter in exchange for wages. Then, when a Zionist militia raided the village one day, he bought five rifles with his money and distributed them among the young men of the village, successfully repelling the attack. When the Zionist militia returned for revenge, a large battle occurred in which zarif al-tul was supposedly martyred.
An article by Khalil al-Ali explains how the legend of zarif al-tul then evolved:
“When the people of the village collected the bodies of the martyrs, they did not find zarif al-tul among them, and he was not among the living, seemingly gone. The villagers unanimously agreed that he fought fiercely and killed more than 20 people from the [Zionist] militias, while rescuing some village youth. As the days passed, zarif al-tul became the song of the village: ‘ya zarif al-tul, where have you gone…our country’s heart is filled with wounds. Ya zarif al-tul, hear me tell you: you are leaving your country, yet Palestine is better for you.’”
This song would then become the line with which many are familiar today:
“Ya zarif al-tul, hear me tell you
You’re leaving for foreign lands, yet your country is better for you.
I fear that you will leave, ya zarif, and find another home
That you will meet others and forget me.”
“YA ZARIF AL-TUL”
Over the years, the historical meaning of the song has been largely forgotten, and many today understand it merely as a song emphasizing the importance of one’s home and country, especially in light of the displacement resulting from the Nakba.
Yet what the song of zarif al-tul tells us is the story of resistance to displacement and oppression. Al-Ali explains this well:
“The tale goes that, in the years after [the supposed death of the unnamed Palestinian man], he was sighted amongst the Palestinian revolutionaries [resisting Zionist forces] in Yaffa [in 1948]. And many people swore that they saw him beside Jamal Abdul Nasser in Port Said, and others saw him in Gaza, and others still said that he was in Beirut before the 1982 [Israeli] invasion…until it became clear that zarif al-tul is every Palestinian resistance fighter, and the song continues to be repeated to this day, with different words from one version to the other.”
This history of resistance is older than the Nakba and has survived.
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union