© IBI World Limited
‘I am a terrorist without bombs and I have only one weapon, my music’. This is sung by Rim Banna, who for decades represented the spirit of revenge of the women of Palestine. Died of cancer at just over 50 years of age, she is one of those losses that leave a wound forever. A free voice, capable of moving the whole world without the propaganda of the multinational music industry. A difficult voice to love, for us Westerners, accustomed to ditties in meaningless English and female myths that focus almost exclusively on sexuality and image.
That is why, for us Europeans, Rim Banna is a discovery, a wonderful multifaceted figure, humble, disinterested in success – a white fly, like the one sung with infinite tenderness by Claudio Lolli in what was his masterpiece album. Rim died on 24 March 2018, after a life spent fighting for the Palestinian people, and after nine years of war against a cursed breast cancer, faced with dignity and an all-female energy: ‘I am resisting two cancers: that of the occupation and the one inside my body. It has invaded my body like the occupation has invaded our land’. Inconceivable sentences, because it is a taboo subject for Arab women.
She continued to sing, with her hair shaved, until 2016, but her retirement has imprinted her even more strongly in the Palestinian soul, because her despair, from the stage, becomes that of a population that no longer has any real hope of freedom, independence, well-being, against the violence of Israeli military colonisation. This metaphor of hers, that of the militarisation of the advance of cancer, is sharper than ever, and politicians have taken it from her and transposed it into everyday debate.
At her funeral, in her native Nazareth, thousands of men and women sang the unofficial hymn of Palestine, ‘Mawtini, My Homeland’ written by the poet Ibrahim Tuqan – one of the songs often sung by Rim, a Christian woman who united everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religious belief. Daughter of the poet Zouhaira Sabbagh, in a difficult and very poor childhood she developed the conviction that she had to do something to help her people. That something as a little girl on the dirt roads of Nazareth turned into 13 albums, the most famous of which are Dumu’ek ya Ummi (Tears of My Mother, 1986), Al Helm (The Dream, 1993) and Maraya Al Ruh (Mirrors of the Soul, 2005), in which the dominant theme is the pressing demand for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Of course: her music is famous in the Arab capitals, from Amman to Baghdad, from Beirut to Damascus, linked to the fact that she gave a melody and a song to the great Middle Eastern poets: Tawfik Zayyad , Samih Alqassem , Mahmoud Darwish and her mother , which is still moving today, and was recounted in the film ‘Al-Sabbar’. She was awarded the title of ‘Ambassador of Peace’ by Italy and honoured with the highest award in Palestine, she is one of the promoters of the Mariam Foundation, the first Arab foundation against cancer. But all this belongs to the years when she was already an icon, known throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Rim, on stage, wearing traditional Palestinian clothing
Her artistic career began at the age of ten, at The Land’s Day Festivals, as the voice of a folk group at the Nazareth volunteer camps in the late 1980s. These are political volunteer camps that gather Palestinians from all over Palestine, an alternative to the Israeli government’s policies of discrimination and oppression. She studied singing in Moscow, at the Gnesins Higher Institute of Music. She specialised in modern singing and choir conducting, under the guidance of the famous composer Vladimir Karaboka. She graduated in 1991, and during that time produced two live albums: Jafra in 1985 and Your Tears, Mother in 1986. From then on, the Middle East discovered her and fell in love with her.
In 1991, she married Ukrainian musician Leonid Alexeienko, whom she had met while studying in Moscow. A marriage that lasted 19 years, but whose daughters grew up with their mother until the divorce, due to irreconcilable cultural differences. Because Rim does not want an international stage, he returns to Nazareth, and composes combining Arab musical traditions with the sounds of western pop. She writes several soundtracks for Arab films, for television programmes, and is also an actress, often wearing traditionally embroidered clothes, and a keffiyeh on her shoulders, a symbol of Palestinian independence, her hands and arms covered with large antique silver jewellery.
Then she was discovered by a group of Scandinavian musicians, and together with them she entered the world of electronic music, such as the collective project called Checkpoint 303, with which she produced the album ‘The Iqrit Files’. When, in 2015, doctors announced that her vocal cords were partially paralysed and she would not be able to sing again, Checkpoint 303 transformed the data from digital medical scans and Rim portraits into sounds, on which she recited her poems, continuing to work until January 2018, two months before her death, when she produced, together with jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, the album ‘Voice of Resistance’.
Thanks to her Scandinavian colleagues, in 2003 the European folk scene discovered her and extolled her, when she sang together with Norwegian jazz singer Kari Bremnes on the anti-war album ‘Lullabies from the Axis of Evil’, a musical message to US President Bush against the invasions of Palestine, Iraq and Iran, defined by the American president as ‘the axis of evil’. Her voice is haunting, emotive, and unafraid of kitsch: she wants to talk about the everyday life of the West Bank’s unfortunate people whose lives are characterised by violence and repression, and Rim Banna’s lyrics are rooted in Palestine’s colonial history and a recapitulation of an aesthetic of protest and resistance.
Oh root of my roots, I will surely return, so wait for me. Wait for me in the cracks of the rocks and thorns. In the olive blossoms, in the colour of butterflies. And in the echoes and shadows in the mud of winter. And in the dust of summer on the tracks of the gazelle. And in the wings of every bird. The thorns of the storm are in my path. And the call of the earth is victorious in my veins. I am returning, so keep my voice, my scent and my form for me, oh flowers
Rim Banna’s concerts are simple, without effects, sometimes without lights or amplification, because he sings wherever there are Palestinians suffering or an audience willing to share their pain, with great humility and modesty. So that nothing is lost, he also records many songs for children, so important for Palestinian families in the diaspora. In three albums, she has revived traditional lullabies and, through them, entered every home and every child’s memory – in this way, much more than the violence in the streets, she has helped to give an identity to at least three generations of children in Gaza and Ramallah, and has ensured that the political prisoners and martyrs, sung on the album ‘The mirrors of my soul’, are not forgotten.
In more recent works she has gone further, singing about the injustices of Palestinians who live in camps and have nothing, or of the mother who explains to her son why she has not seen her relatives for forty years. Her songs ‘Fares Odeh’ and ‘Sarah’ (the song dedicated to the 84th martyr of the intifada – a one-and-a-half year-old girl killed in 2000 by an Israeli sniper) are very hard, difficult to listen to as if they were just pieces of music. With her husband Leonid she constructs modern arrangements, but the lyrics are about Palestinian apartheid, soldiers with machine guns at checkpoints, curfews and fear. Where they forbid her to sing, she performs with dedicated webcasts. During the early days of the intifada in 2000, Rim Banna performed open-air concerts while helicopters bombed the occupied territories.
She explains: ‘Part of our work is to collect traditional Palestinian texts without melodies. So that the lyrics are not lost, we try to compose melodies for them – modern, but inspired by traditional music’. It is surprising, when reading her lyrics, that there is not a single word of hatred. She says: ‘Oriental singing techniques are mostly ornamental with strong, piercing tones, while my voice is two-dimensional, thicker. I try to write songs that suit my voice. I want to create something new in every aspect. And this includes bringing people everywhere closer to the music and soul of the Palestinians’.
To travel, Rim Banna needs an Israeli passport, so every time she leaves her country, she has to go through long bureaucratic waits, a thousand questions, searches. She has twice been banned from entering Egypt: the last time in June 2015, when the regime’s security services stopped her on her arrival at Cairo airport. The accusation is that she is close to the Arab Spring, hence to anti-monarchist movements or the Muslim Brotherhood. A nonsense, since she fights against the attempts of cultural expropriation of the Palestinian people, and is in any case of Christian religion – even if, from a historical point of view, the movement founded over a century ago by Tal’at Harb and Hassan Al-Banna, has always been very close to the Vatican.
The butterfly will carry you to the back of a cloud. The gazelle will lead you to the hollow of the sycamore. The smell of bread and milk will carry you like a martyr to your mother’s lap. The star said to him: Take me home. Take me to my bed. Sleep has climbed over my limbs. And is in my head. The invading boy turned to his shadow. In a mother’s heart is hidden her children, and her grief is in a mother’s womb and her heart. A grieving woman has a heart made of milk and glass. A grieving father has a heart of tears that lights a lamp
Today, as a century ago, the Zionists and the Arab monarchies and regimes are allies, and Palestine is one of the victims of this new Middle Eastern coalition. And the Zionist strategy with regard to Palestine has not changed: according to this theory, in the land occupied by Israel there were no peoples with an identity of their own, but only a few nomads without a homeland and without collective political aspirations – propaganda was essential to promote the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, and to consider the nomads not as the legitimate inhabitants of Palestine, but even as ‘refugees’. Paradoxically, much of what Israel calls Israeli culture, is Palestinian and Arab culture; from food, to music, to fashion and everything else, the ‘Israeli brand’ is essentially a Palestinian Arab brand, stolen and renamed.
Says Rim: ‘My city is in the middle of a big valley, yet I feel like I live on an island around which Israel continues to build huge apartment blocks and residential centres. These surround Nazareth as if they were the walls of a prison”. This is why, during her lifetime, Rim Banna did not seek contact with Palestinians living in Israel, but focused on strengthening the culture, consciousness and collective memory of her own people. She is remembered for being one of the first artists to call for a cultural boycott of Israel: ‘I do not understand the hypocrisy of artists, whose works encourage resistance and call for liberation, but agree to perform in an occupying country’.
Rim Banna does not want the Palestinian identity to be understood only as a political message, but above all as a message of love: ‘with the ashes of my body, fill a bottle with gas and burning material so that it becomes a molotov cocktail in the hands of a resistance fighter, so that it hits the enemies of love’. A metaphor, to be sure, that seems to glorify violence. An understandable rage, if you spend your entire life as a hostage of an invading army that kills, arrests and tortures indiscriminately, and regularly drives your relatives from their lands so that new settlements can be built there for the invaders.
In this war of invasion, there is no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Women, the elderly, children, they are all targets of the Israeli army. The same happens with the missiles fired by Palestinian militias, or the bomb attacks in the streets of Israel. The situation of women in Palestine is dramatic, because they are victims of a strongly patriarchal society, which considers them the property of men and perpetrates all kinds of violence on them; at the same time, they are victims of militarisation and occupation: Palestine is a kind of open-air prison, whose borders are militarily controlled by Israel; as if that were not enough, because of the invasion and the patriarchal attitude of society, they are the real driving forces of the Palestinian economy. It is only thanks to women like Rim Banna that for some time now, a process of renewing the political debate with an emphasis on women’s rights has been in sight.
God has become a refugee Lord, so confiscate the mosque carpet. And sell the church, for it is his property, and sell the muezzin at a black auction. Put out the faded stars, for they will light the path of the wandering wayfarer. Even our orphans whose father is absent, then confiscate our orphans, Lord. Do not apologise to those who say you are unjust, do not be angry with those who say you are the aggressor. I also freed the sick women the day after I gave Abraham the field of Muhammad. It is you who killed the spring, when anger trembles and revolution does not subside. It is you who undermined my gardens with your hands and blew up the season of their blushing almonds. And I made the representatives worship them while I am a slave crying for a slave. And you wanted me to be a slave to be bought and sold, and you wanted me to be desperate, to live without a worm. Do not fret over these words without a mouth, do not be alarmed by these words without a hand. If I clutched your loaf in my hand, I would see my blood running down my hands. God has become a refugee Lord, so confiscate the carpet of the mosque. And sell the church, for it is his property, and sell the muezzin at a black auction. Put out the faded stars, for they will light the path of the wandering wayfarer. Even our orphans whose father is absent, then confiscate our orphans, Lord
Even in Gaza and the West Bank, the principle of freedom must become a common language, without gender differences – and in this sense Palestinian women are not alone, but part of a wave that includes the protests of the Israeli Woman in Black , the Argentinean Plaza de Mayo mothers, the South African Black Sash, or the extraordinary example of the Syrian territory of Rojava, today in fact an independent Kurdish territory, conquered and defended by the militias of the Kurdish Women’s Defence Unit and governed by a matriarchy. An example that is very much present in Rim Banna’s political and social consciousness, as the poignant interviews collected by Al Jazeera in the documentary chronicling her life show.
Rim Banna’s struggle was not in vain. Behind her, she leaves other women, cultural and political icons of an outraged and raped country: Reem Kelani , Kamilya Jubran and Shadia Mansour reaffirm Palestinian identity and culture all over the world with the sole weapons of words and music, and are today the soul of Palestinian awareness and the right of this people to independence and freedom.
But there is a part of this artist’s message that is useful and necessary for Western culture, and that comes just now that she is gone. As Pope Wojtyla sadly predicted, the 21st century is a time of war, of religious, social and cultural oppression, of economic misery, of hunger. In this tragedy, we are all brothers and sisters – I mean those of us who are aware that we are, in Palestine, as everywhere in the world, crushed by occupying troops and massive cultural propaganda, which regards education as a negative value, freedom as selfishness, awareness and responsibility as dangers. In this bleak world with an even bleaker future, we need the only truly great liberating force that still exists: the love of women’s lives, and their voices that shatter the night of reason.
Rim during chemotherapy years: her eyes and smile immense
 تحاصرني مرايا الرّوح
وأنا أرحل مني إليه
إلى أفق الأقحوان
فوق عوسج الجدران
وتعبر بي منّي إليه
أيا انفلات الحنين
فأنا الرمق الأخير
في صمت الحنايا
ويمتدّ منّي إليه
 ريم بنا – فارس عودة
ستحملك الفراشة إلى ظهر غيمة
ستجري بك الغزالة إلى جوف جميزة
ستحملك رائحة الخبز والحليب شهيداً إلى حضن أمك
قالت له النجمة خذني إلى صحن داري
خذني إلى فراش نومي
لقد تسلق النعاس أطرافي
وتربع في جوف رأسي
خاطب الفتى الغزي ظله
في قلب الأم مخابئ لأطفالها وحزنها في حضن الأم وقلبها
للمرأة الثكلى قلب من حليب وزجاج
للأب المفجوع قلب من دمع يضيء به السراج
 الله أصبح لاجئاً يا سيّدي، صادر إذن حتّى بساط المسجد وبع الكنيسة فهي من أملاكه، وبع المؤذّن في المزاد الأسود واطفئ ذبالات النجوم فإنّها ستضيء درب التائه المتشرّد حتّى يتامانا أبوهم غائب، صادر يتامانا إذن يا سيّدي لا تعتذر مَن قال أنّك ظالم، لا تنفعل مَن قال أنّك معتدي حرّرت حتّى السائمات غداة أن عطيت أبراهام حقل محمد أنت الذي قتل الربيع فبيدري غضب يهزّ وثورة لم تخمد أنت الذي لغمت يداك حدائقي ونسفت موسم لوزها المتوّرد وجبلت نوّاباً لنعبدهم وهم مستعبد يبكي على مستعبد وأردتني عبداً يباع ويشترى، وأردتني يأساً يعيش بلا دَدِ لا تنفعل هذا الكلام بلا فم، لا تنذعر هذا الكلام بلا يد أنا لو عصرت رغيف خبزك في يدي، لرأيت منه دمي يسيل على يدي