Monday, June 25, 2007

'Ummi' by Ahmad Qaboor

Many different gifted musicians have set the words of Mahmoud Darwish's poem, 'Ummi' to music. Marcel Khalife's version may be the most famous of all, but my favourite always will be this song by Ahmad Qaboor.

'I long for my mother's bread,
And my mother's coffee,
And her touch.

Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day.
I must be worthy of my life
At the hour of my death,
Worthy of the tears of my mother.
Oh... my Mother!
Oh... my Mother!

And if I return one day:
Take me as a veil for your eyelashes;
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps;
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair,
With a thread trailing
From the hem of your dress.
I might become immortal,
Become a god
If I touch the depths of your heart.
Oh... my mother!
Oh... My mother!
I long for my mother's bread
And my mother's coffee,
And her touch.

Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day
I must be worthy of my life
At the hour of my death,
Worthy of the tears of my mother.
Oh... my mother!
Oh... my mother!

Words by Mahmoud Darwish,
Music by Ahmad Qaboor

Monday, June 18, 2007

'We Shall Return One Day'

Sung by the incomparable Fairouz, this classical aria by the Rahbani brothers continues to speak to the heart of every refugee.

Here is a liberal translation of this beautiful song:

'We shall return,'
the nightingale told me,
When upon a hill we met.
That nightingale lives on there
In our dreams.
Among the hills
And people who yearn,
There is a place for us.
O heart, how long?
How long then...
Have we been scattered by the wind?

We shall return.
Let us return!

O heart, do not drop in weariness
On the path of our return.
How it wounds our pride to know
That birds tomorrow will return
While we still remain here.

There are hills
That sleep and wake again
On our pledge.
There are people
In love with days
Filled with waiting and nostalgic songs,
And places where the eye is filled
With willows bending over the water,
While in their shade
Afternoons drink the perfume of peace.

One day
We shall return to our homes,
To drown in the warmth of hope.
We shall return
Though time passes us by
And distances grow only greater
Between us.'

Sanarjiou Yawman

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Resistance through Powerful Symbols

Palestinian Resistance to the Zionist Occupation is expressed through traditional arts as well as political acts of Resistance. Here is a powerful image of the Intifada created in the form of embroidery. The ancient Tree of Life is central. Its roots draw strength from words embodying the principles of Resistance. Doves, another very ancient symbol of Palestine, are sheltered within the tree and banners in the form of the Palestinian flag appear either to issue from or are carried in their beaks. As is the case with many political Palestinian statements in the form of visual art, the women of Palestine are acknowledged to be as vital to the Resistance as the men. The men are armed only with slingshots here, showing the realities of the Palestinian population who, with rocks and slingshots alone, defied the heavily-armed Zionist Occupation and continue steadfastly to struggle against the obliteration of the Palestinian identity and the ongoing theft of the homeland.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Qabbeh from Gaza

Here is a photograph of the qabbeh of an old thob from Gaza. Compared to the example shown below, it is far more heavily-embroidered, and actually is more typical of the style of embroidery on old traditional thobs. Colours and patterns often were chosen not so much for aesthetic purposes as for their significance. The rather austere Western custom of using a single colour combination and pattern repeatedly is not typical of Palestinian embroidery. In many cases, embroidery of a thob was an ongoing project, and additional embroidery was added through the years.

Every district of Palestine had its own unique styles of embroidery. Often a girl who travelled to another district might bring home 'foreign' patterns and ideas to embellish her own work, but for the most part, a woman's district could be identified by the thob she wore. Headgear and shawls differed from district to district as well.

Palestinian embroidery patterns

This is a photograph of a hand-embroidered 'qabbeh', a design comprised of different patterns of embroidery that is used to decorate the 'breastplate' of a traditional Palestinian 'thob' or gown. The arch or 'mihrab' clearly can be seen. The primary embroidery pattern within the frame of the qabbeh is a 'qamr' or moon pattern. The little 'amulets' that depend from the main section of the 'breastplate' are nakleh or palms.

The palm is an extremely ancient symbol of life and indeed is a symbol of life, death and rebirth.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Symbolism in Domestic Arts

At the most primitive level, ancient symbolism probably represented the most basic elements of human existence and these elements were reduced to the simplest of forms. Thus, a straight line would represent the earth or land and an arch, made up of two lines ascending to meet in the middle, would represent the sky or heavens. Combined, one would have the shape of the triangle, representing the sky over the earth, or heaven above earth. The triangle might represent shelter as well, in the form of a tent or cave and later, a dwelling place made of brick, wood, stone or mud. Initially, however, the triangle was a potent symbol of the marriage or synthesis of heaven and earth. To the devout, it would symbolise the protection of heaven above and for those who dwelt on earth. Ancient Egyptian art (much later than primitive rock art certainly) showed heaven in the form of a female goddess, outstretched over Earth, in the form of a male god.

Early weaving, restricted to straight lines, reduced symbols to angular forms similar to those found in primitive rock paintings and carvings. Thus, straight lines symbolised Earth or land, the arch represented the sky or heaven, triangles represented the meeting of heaven and earth, tents, caves or other dwellings, and wavy lines represented water, either in the form of rain, of lightning or of waves. The sun was represented by an equal-armed cross, and the earth could be represented by a square, its corners symbolising the four quarters or directions.

All these symbols are seen in the traditional domestic arts of Palestine, and can be found in profusion in embroidery patterns worked on thobs (gowns), pillows and hangings.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Umfalastin: Resistance through Music

Music can provide a powerful rallying point for Resistance movements. This post reviews ''Ila Mataa?' by Rima Tarazi and Tania Tamari Nasir, a collection of songs dedicated to the Palestinian Resistance against the Zionist Occupation.

In 1986, Rima Tarazi and Tania Tamari Nasir recorded a number of extraordinarily powerful songs about Palestine. The songs were written by Rima Tarazi and sung by Tania primarily to the accompaniment of piano. Although both artists were born and raised in Palestine, the music represents a synthesis of East and West through its use of piano as well as Western operatic influence, yet firmly rooted in the realities of Palestinian culture and tradition.

Rima Tarazi evidently played and loved the piano from early childhood. Her use of the piano as accompanying instrument is a distinguishing feature of her music. The quality of the singer's voice is operatic and her musical background basically is a classical one. The choral accompaniment in some of her songs is characteristic of her compositions as well. Often listeners familiar only with Western classical music who listen to these songs without knowing their provenance mistakenly identify them as arias from Western classical opera. That does not make this music less genuinely Palestinian, but adds another element to its power, as the songs resonate with every one who appreciates classical music while maintaining their unique Palestinian roots and voice. The opera 'Ahmad al Arabi' by Marcel Khalife has the same effect. Music that transcends cultural boundaries yet remains true to its own cultural heritage possesses a potency that gives it a timeless universal quality.

I bought the cassette of 'Songs of Palestine' shortly after it was produced in the 1980s. Listening to it again and again through the years, it never has failed to move me.

In 1992, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra listened to the same cassette and wrote from Baghdad: 'I have to tell you that as I listened to the songs, I could not hold back my tears and my tears only flow whenever I come face to face with wondrous beauty! ... May this creativity be a constant source of inspiration to all of us as we reunite with our people in our Palestinian towns and villages so that this creative grief may be transformed into the creative joy we are forever awaiting...'

Now, two decades later, a CD has been produced that combines the songs on that cassette with new songs. Under the title of ''Ila Mataa?' ('Until When?') this incredible music is made available to a new generation.

One of the earliest songs, 'Song of the Bird' was written for the Society of Al Inash al Usra and dedicated and performed during the International Year of the Child in 1979.

The songs for the most part eulogise actual martyrs of Palestine. From a song for Hania, a 14 year old girl shot by the Zionists to songs dedicated to famous artists, writers and political leaders assassinated through the years, the songs remind us of the sea of blood on which the Zionist entity floats. They speak eloquently of Palestinian courage, determination and hope as well, inspiring our hearts to soar with pride and hope while allowing us to weep.

From Hania:

'I'm only a child, dear mother,
Why would they shoot me, dear mother?...

Hania, Hania, Hania,
Your injuries sing praises to the free,
They are the hymns of victory...

Our little ones, our dear ones, beloved ones,
Your blood shall always light our troubled earth,
It shall bring forth our renewed birth.'

The invasion of 1967 was followed by the Zionist invasion of Lebanon... The First Intifada was followed by the Second. We have witnessed another invasion of Lebanon by the Zionists and Palestine remains under Occupation even now.

Knowing this, a song dedicated to Al Quds must find an echo in the soul of every Palestinian:

Because I was born Palestinian,
Because my roots are deeply imprinted in history,
Because I was born Arab and in Jerusalem have lived since the dawn of time,
I die every day.

Al Quds has always been ours.
In our hearts it lives and will never die.
Every alley and every home bears my name,
My dreams and memories ae engraved in its walls,
Reminding us all Al Quds is Arab, it shall never die.

Because I dream of light and right,
Because I refuse to be a false witness and suppress the truth,
Because I am steadfast, as solid as a rock,
I die every day...

Al Quds is Arab,
Al Quds will never die.'

Nor will the spirit and actions of Resistance die.

Songs like these may carry with them the sorrow of loss but at the same time they bear the scent of the oranges and thyme of Palestine and the hope of a future that will not be denied. Steadfastness and memory are the twin pillars that support the strength of the Palestinian people. The identity of Palestine cannot be destroyed by bullet or bulldozer, by force or intimidation, by foreign declarations or by false propaganda. Palestine endures.

I urge every one to experience the magnificent talents of Rima Tarazi and Tania Tamari Nasir for themselves. The CD is available from the Palestine Online Store. No doubt other sources exist as well, but a link to the Palestine Online Store can be found in the Links section of this page.

N.B. If any one wishes to send me links to other sites that advance the cause of Palestine by offering items from Palestine, please feel free to do so.

Umfalastin: Resistance through Music

Friday, January 12, 2007

Contemporary Palestinian Art

Art strives to represent every aspect not only of human existence but of human aspirations. The Palestinian identity is not restricted to the history of Palestine. Were it so, the Palestinian people would have been destroyed by a century of ethnic cleansing and dispossession. Instead, the Palestinian identity only has been strengthened by adversity and the vision of a victorious future is one of the means through which the next generation can endure whatever trials they must, in the same way that the Palestinian people have weathered the trials of the past hundred years.

'Victory Dance' by Ismail Shammout depicts the very soul of Palestine. In a traditional thob, she holds the flag of Palestine aloft, and her proud courage and transcendent beauty call out to the Palestinian people, leading them through the horrors of past and present life under Zionist Occupation to a future where Victory has been achieved.

Explore the art of Ismail Shammout through the links found at the right of this page. 'Victory Dance' is one of the most beloved icons of Palestinian Resistance. A copy of this print can be obtained through the Palestine Online Store.

The traditional 'thob', a potent expression of identity for the women of Palestine, featured in many of Ismail Shammout's works. In fact, he utilised many traditional ancient symbols of Palestine, including the pomegranite and the dove. I wrote a version of the old Palestinian folktale of 'Hab Rumman' a few years ago. I hope to add it to this site at some point. Meanwhile, please take a few moments to explore Ismail Shammout's website and browse his 'exhibitions'.

Unfortunately, the link to biographical information about Ismail Shammout also serves as his obituary. His death occurred last summer. Although we have lost an artist of great talent and vision, he has left his people a magnificent legacy that enshrines the past as well as creating a light to lead us towards the future.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Turban of Truth, an old folktale

Clothing has served more than one purpose since the dawn of time. On the one hand, it provides concealment and protection from the elements. On the other hand, it acts as a statement of identity.

Palestine is one of the earliest centres of civilisation and its textile arts offer rich and vibrant testimony to this fact. As part of the Fertile Crescent, it always served both as a trade route as well as a destination for pilgrims of different religions. Even in ancient Canaan, the mountains and valleys of Palestine possessed sites that were sacred to the gods and which featured in many ancient myths and tales.

Palestine is a fairly small area geographically and yet it contains a wealth of different traditions. From region to region, village to village and tribe to tribe, individual cultural identity was strong and well-defined. Often the clothing that a person wore identified him/her instantly in terms of tribe, village or region. Even now, in the era of mass production, instant media as well as internet exchange of ideas and visual symbols, certain styles instantly are recognisable as being from Gaza, Hebron or Bethlehem. (So much for the Zionist claim that Palestine was a barren wasteland devoid of people before they descended upon it like a plague of locusts!)

In terms of textiles and embroidery, Palestine both has been influenced by and has influenced cultures as distant as Scandinavia, Russia and China. Some patterns and symbols are universal in nature, but there is a clear historical line of communication between Palestine and the Northern peoples from as far back in history as the 1st century. The Roman Empire in its conquest of the world brought warriors from Gaul to the Arab Nation. Arab scholars as well as merchants traveled north as well, and were familiar with the northern outposts of trade both in Europe and in Russia.

A few centuries later, Viking hordes of silver and gold were buried, and contained as many silver and gold coins from the Arab Empire as treasures from any other part of the world.

Some writers have seen the appearance of symbols common both to Scandinavia and to Palestine as evidence of European influence, but the influence traveled in both directions.

In the east, the 'Silk Road' offered a conduit for an exchange of symbols as well as goods. Religious myths and theories never existed in isolation. Early history shows that people often would travel vast distances and sometimes even abandon their own homelands permanently in order to pursue rumours of a new seer or prophet. This is by no means a phenomenon that is known only in contemporary society.

Furthermore, some symbols appear to be truly universal and there are many patterns found in the Americas in Mayan textiles and art that are found both in ancient Sumer and on bedouin thobs of the 20th century from the Sinai. One can see the same patterns in traditional embroidery from Cambodia. Certain symbols cannot be claimed exclusively by one culture or heritage.

Artists who express native culture act as carriers as well. When they see something that appeals to them or are convinced of the potency of a symbol from another culture, they often will 'borrow', use it or even incorporate it into their work. The textile arts illustrate this again and again.

Although symbolism in textiles can be considered universal to some extent, traditional Palestinian clothing exhibits its own unique identity and a use of these symbols that is wholly Palestinian.

I hope to be able to explore all the traditional symbols found in Palestinian embroidery on this site.

As well as being a symbol of identity, clothing always has been linked to status and human vanity fuels much that is done in the way of fashion.

As I am fond of folktales and myth, I hope to be able to weave symbols in embroidery with ancient tales both to amuse and to illustrate the enduring nature of Palestinian culture and traditions.

An old folktale, similar to that of the 'Emperor's New Clothes', illustrates the way in which vanity and social status can be manipulated by fashion. This is not a distinctively Palestinian tale, by the way but there are other tales I hope to share that are.

The Turban of Truth

There was in ancient times a great Sultan. One day, a scoundrel presented himself at court to declare: 'My lord, I request permission to weave a turban for you that has no equal in this world. This turban can distinguish between one who is born in virtuous wedlock from one who is born in sin and shame. Only one who is born from wedded parents will be able to see the turban. To all others, it will be invisible.'

The ruler eagerly commissioned the creation of this extraordinary turban and awaited its completion impatiently. At length, the man returned to court with a parcel, and bore it with great pomp and circumstance to the ruler.

The entire court watched with bated breath as he carefully unfolded the paper to display the treasure within. Having done so, he looked expectantly at the ruler to gauge his response.

The ruler saw nothing but a sheet of paper. His immediate reaction was the thought: 'Oh, how unfortunate am I! My entire life and position is based upon a lie. I am a creature born of sin and shame! This marvelous turban will be my own undoing!'

He realised then, however, that he was the only one who knew that the turban was invisible to him. Cleverly, he exclaimed, 'What wondrous beauty you have created here! This turban indeed is beyond price. Its exquisite beauty alone makes it one of the greatest treasures in my realm. How much more valuable it is for its power to separate the virtuous from those who were conceived in shame!'

The scoundrel, delighted by the success of his ruse, declared, 'Oh master of masters, will you not allow me the supreme honour of placing this turban upon your majestic head? Will you not order that a cap be brought so that you can wear this treasure as it was intended to be worn?'

The Sultan quickly commanded his retainers to bring a cap to the weaver and it was done. The cap having been positioned on the Sultan's illustrious head, the scoundrel then proceeded to wind the invisible marvel round it, deftly and rapidly moving his fingers and hands to create the impression of great skill, completing his efforts with a final flourish.

'Ah,' he breathed, 'It is magnificent. May God be praised! I have been given the greatest honour of all in being allowed to present the highest lord of the land with the greatest treasure in the world! I thank you, great master, for allowing me to serve you in this fashion!'

The Sultan, seeing nothing but the unadorned cap when he gazed into the looking glass, nonetheless assumed a pose of great dignity and pride. 'What do you think of my new turban, o my people?' he asked.

His distinguished advisors were the first to respond. 'It is a great work of art!' exclaimed one. 'It is magnificent!' exclaimed another. The third, more honest than his peers, simply murmured, 'O wise ruler, surely its value cannot exceed the appreciation you show to it.'

The common people, bewildered by this performance, nonetheless were motivated to show themselves as sophisticated and virtuous as their social superiors. Furthermore, they were deeply envious of those who could prove their virtue and legitimacy by describing the beauties of this incredible turban they themselves could not see. They therefore roared with approval, believing that a show of great enthusiasm would be the best way to conceal their lack of vision.

The Sultan acknowledged the admiration of his subjects graciously, while inwardly seething with rage and helpless betrayal over the dishonourable conduct of his parents, who evidently had been individuals without any honour and who yet had managed to conceal his illegitimate status not only from him but from the entire world.

He paraded up and down, to all outward appearances pleased with his extraordinary new turban, while his mind and soul became increasingly tormented. When at length he retired to his private chambers, he could think of nothing beyond the shame that he would be forced to conceal for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, two of his retainers were discussing the events of the day as they walked towards their appointed quarters.

'Abed, you are my best friend and closer to me than a brother. I cannot keep this to myself forever, as it threatens to destroy my sanity. I must trust you with my secret.'

'What secret is that, brother?'

'Tell me first, did not our fathers grow up together in the same village and did they not marry women who were sisters? Who but your father would know more about my own parents than any one else?' asked Hamid.

'What is it that you wish to know?'

'I must question him on a matter that is vital to my future and my honour,' Hamed declared.

'You can tell me. I swear no word of this will pass my lips.'

'I believed always that my mother, like yours, is a virtuous woman. Our fathers are known throughout the region as men of great honour and integrity.'

'Yes. I always believed the same to be true.'

'But ---'

Abed stopped abruptly and faced his friend. 'But what?'

'I cannot speak of this.'

'You must!' Abed replied with some fervour. 'You have my vow: I will take whatever you tell me to my grave.'

At this, Hamed began to weep.

'There is nothing more terrible, my friend, than to discover that the entire basis of your life is a lie. That is what I have discovered today!'

'How so?' asked Abed, although by now he had guessed the subject of his friend's distress.

'I am a man born in shame!'

'What?!' cried Abed, 'Surely that cannot be!'

'It is so,' Hamed responded. 'For I could not see the exquisite turban that our Sultan now wears. If I had been born of an honourable union, that turban would not have been invisible to me!'

Oh, my dearest brother!' Abed exclaimed, 'Can it be so?! I too could not see even a glimmer of that turban!'

The Sultan, overhearing this discourse, realised the had been the victim of a clever ruse.

'How could I have been so lacking in the trust my parents deserve! How could I have been hoodwinked by a stranger into doubting not only the honour of my family but the very evidence of my own eyes?' the Sultan admonished himself.

Not being able to remove a turban that did not exist from his head, he had to content himself by flinging the cap across the room. 'That scoundrel was able to defraud me because I was too proud to admit that I could not see something I thought was obvious to every one else! If I had been honest in the first place, my actions could not have persuaded my entire court to behave as fools! The responsibility, like that ridiculous turban, was on my head alone!'

As if he had overheard the Sultan's musings, however, Abed remarked, 'If neither of us had been honest enough to tell the truth, this dreadful deception might have poisoned all our lives forever. Surely there is a lesson or two in this. We should not be too proud or too afraid of the opinions of others to speak the truth and we should have more faith in our own vision!'