‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’: A history of chanting life and resistance in Palestine

(Nur Photo - AP)

Emad Moussa

The New Arab  /  February 11, 2022

Continuing their efforts to criminalize Palestinian activism in the UK, the Conservative Party’s latest diatribe has been a threat to ban Palestinian chants, claiming that they are pro-Hamas. But what is the true history of Palestinian chants?

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”: An anti-Semitic Hamas slogan that warrants police action, according to UK’s Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi. A “call to destroy Israel,” say pro-Israel groups.

But to Palestinians and their supporters, the accusations are politically motivated and unjust. The chant has existed long before Hamas was established and in fact, is as old as the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.

It is present in several Palestinian folklore and revolutionary songs and has multiple Arabic derivations, most common of which are: min el-maiyeh lel mayieh (from the water to the water – the wording of which refers to the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan).

The phrase is deeply cultural and closely related to the formation of Palestinian identity and peoplehood – it emphasizes the connection to the land, calls for decolonization, freedom, and an end to the apartheid regime in Palestine, replaced with a unitary civic state with equal rights for everyone.

But in Palestine, as the controversy around the chant indicates, it is hard to separate culture from the political sphere within which it operates. Because this sphere is over-dominant and overarching, it has produced equally dominant cultural expressions and artefacts to challenge the occurring power structure.

Especially visible among these cultural expressions is chanting.

Sociologically, chanting has a religious connotation. It refers to the iterative, sometimes melodic utterances, like in prayers, recitations, and supplications – as opposed to the more structured singing.

But in the revolutionary context, of which Palestine is a part, singing and chanting fall under the same umbrella of “musicalized cultural expressions.”

Whilst chanting is generally understood as monotonic and iterative sounds, it nevertheless amounts to singing as harmonic and tonal expressions. In other words, revolutionary singing and chanting are contextually indistinguishable, used interchangeably, and serve the same purpose: to mobilize the masses and challenge the power relations. 

This is why Palestinian chanting is not an independent form of cultural expression; rather, an intrinsic part and the output of several generations worth of musical heritage.

Information on the musical modes in Palestine prior to the First World War remains scarce. Much of what we know comes from the memoirs of Palestinian musician Wassif Jawahariyyeh (1897-1972), which covered the cultural life in Palestine between 1904 and 1917.

According to him, during the last part of the nineteenth century, Palestine was a passageway to musicians travelling between Egypt – the then hub of Arab culture – and the Levant. They held concerts in major Palestinian cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa, thus influencing the musical production in those regions.

It is also known that the establishment of Radio Jerusalem in 1936 had a significant role in fostering the musical productions, attracting musicians from Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries, who came to broadcast or record their work.

A critical turning point was the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) when the majority of Palestinians became refugees internally and in neighbouring countries in the wake of Israel’s inception. Their traditional musicalized expressions would soon take on the character of the era: despair and loss.

Since most Palestinian refugees came from rural areas, their local musical folklore would become a defining element in the post-Nakba culture. This folklore is mostly oral, its composers and writers unknown; as such, it is flexible and adaptable.

Folklore love songs and so-called anasheed al-ghazal “flirt chants,” such as the renowned ya zarif al-toul (Oh, the beautifully tall one), would be readapted, with almost no lyrical or tonal modifications, to signify the longing for the lost homeland and the inevitability of return to it. 

Indeed, the sense of loss following the Nakba was (and continues to be) incorporated in all the Palestinian cultural artefacts – including poetry, novels, and visual arts. But it is the musical expressions, possibly by virtue of their tonal and iterative nature, which were the most popular and reached the largest audience. This was helped by the availability of transistor radios beginning in the 1950s.

The establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, soon followed by Israel’s 1967 occupation of the rest of historical Palestine, transformed the sense of loss to defiance and armed resistance in the form of the fedayeen, freedom fighters. This ushered what came to be known as “Palestinian revolutionary music.”

The Al-Bara’em group (Flower Buds) was among the most prominent bands associated with the new music in the early 1970s. In the diaspora, the PLO created its own then-Lebanon-based ensemble, Al-Ashiqeen (The Lovers – a reference to the homeland and martyrdom). 

These musical expressions flourished alongside (and borrowed from) what later become a systematic platform for “the culture of resistance,” such as Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, Ghassan Kanafani’s novels, and Ismail Shammout’s paintings.

The 1987-1993 First Intifada – then the largest and most persistent Palestinian mass protest against Israel’s occupation since 1967 – resulted in the combining of folklore and revolutionary musical expressions, deploying them to represent the pair of victimhood and resistance of the era.

The increased popularity of the Islamist model of chanting, typically known as al-nasheed al-islami and which coincided with Hamas’ 1987 establishment, enriched the so-called musical expressions of resistance.

For instance, a folklore nasheed (chanting) like sabbal oyounoh mad eidoh (the one who loosened his eyes), which was originally a wedding chant, was readapted during that period to become imagery for the shaheed (martyr). The nasheed nevertheless was occasionally composed in a revolutionary tone, emphasizing sacrifice and resistance as inseparable dynamics of Palestinian national identity and the struggle against colonialism.

The same trend continues today, albeit the means of production have become more accessible to the general public thanks to social media and online tools.

It is common nowadays in demonstrations or funeral processions to hear the crowds chant revolutionary nasheeds, or melodically iterate slogans like: To Al-Quds (Jerusalem) we shall go, martyrs in the millions.”

For the Islamists, the chanting sometimes acquires a religious undertone, where the demonstrators shout: “Our loftiest goal is to die for the sake of God.” That is to say, to die for the noble goal of liberation is also to be on God’s righteous path.

But, mass mobilization is not the only goal of chanting, it is also, perhaps above all else, about self-preservation. Most Palestinians are dispossessed, stateless, and forever threatened by physical and psychological oblivion.

To chant and sing for Palestine, goes the common belief, is to connect with and preserve Palestine’s historical roots, culture, and geography. These are viewed as powerful tools to deflect Israel’s ongoing attempts to uproot Palestinians further.

As if to say, to chant is to resist, and to resist is to exist.

Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specializes in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel