Stories of Music in Occupation Jails: “Blessed Are Those Who Stand Firm”

I was moved by a letter written by Hassan Karaja, an activist for youth and social rights, who was imprisoned and has now been released. It was written from Ofer Prison, where many have been buried alive, and sent to Ma3azef (an online magazine that specializes in music, and in particular music from the Arab World) on the 23rd of August 2017. The article is entitled, “Oh God, the things I long to listen to!”

 

“Dear friends in Ma3azef: Greetings laced with resistance and defiance; and respect to your own persistence in the midst of this raging turmoil that seeks to destroy everything beautiful and spread ugliness in the world. Blessed are those who stand firm.”

 

The letter evoked memories from years ago that resurface every time anyone talks about the inhumane conditions suffered by those detained in Israeli occupation prisons, about their isolation from the world, about all the ways in which they are deprived of their most basic rights, and about all the methods they use to resist this oppression.

And how the absence of music becomes yet another one of the myriad ways in which those detainees are tortured!

“In the circumstances under which we exist, the methods of torture and deprivation are countless! And one of these ways is to be deprived of music or the songs we want to listen to — the type, amount, and circumstances.”

And how listening to music and songs becomes a source of joy and sorrow, all at once!

“When Thamina would tell me that Ma3azef mentioned me, in connection with a particular song, this would make me happy and also upset me. I was happy for the support, but sad that I was deprived of music, that I couldn’t listen to that song. When she’d say that I was mentioned, that she’d heard a particular song or music in reference to me and her, I would feel happy and at the same time bewildered: what is that song? What does it sound like — the melody, the musical arrangement? How can I know without having listened to it?”

*****

Hassan Karaja’s letter took me back to the farthest reaches of the past: to 1969, to be precise, where the songs that formed on the lips of the young girls inside Nablus Central Prison helped give them motivation and the strength to go on.

We didn’t have a radio at the time, or a smartphone, but we made up for all that with our memory and our instinctive musical sense. The songs of the Palestinian resistance were, at the time, fresh in our memory. We used them to bridge the gaps between the girls, who had been arrested for their involvement with different political groups: “In the name of God, in the name of Fatah, in the name of the Popular Front, in the name of blood, in the name of the wound that bleeds freedom, in your name, Palestine, I declare it to the millions, a storm, a lightning strike, a storm!”

We were a group of young girls between the ages of 15 and 27. We had with us Mother Isam Abdul Hadi, who was no older than 40, and whose presence among us girls was a source of security and reassurance that the dawn is coming: “After every night, a dawn of glory will prevail.”

We would surround her to listen and talk and learn. From her we learned the songs the revolutionaries had been singing since the thirties — what she could remember of those — as well as songs about the beauty of Palestine, songs that called for resistance and endurance and commitment to principles:

“Oh, land of bliss! You are everything we wish for! You are ours forever! We are here, O land of bliss. Our Palestine. O daughter of the good. You will find us in the battle, safe. We’re Arabs, we will not waver or succumb. O land of bliss, O land of bliss.”

*****

We used the music as a secret code that connected us. When a new detainee would arrive at the prison, we would sing: “Welcome, welcome, to our loved ones! Welcome, welcome, you’ve honored us with your presence…” and we would say her name, so that all the different sections of jail would know that a new detainee had arrived. We would create codes by changing the lyrics of famous songs to fit the message we wanted to convey. For example, we changed the lyrics of a famous song by Sabah, to convey a message to a new arrival, or for one of the prisoners to send a message to her friends after returning from interrogation. We would sing songs that would encourage resistance in the face of interrogation, and especially in the face of Balila, the Israeli intelligence agent who was interrogating us at the time:

“To al-Maskoubiyyeh (the Russian Compound) to al-Maskoubiyyeh, Balila took me, and didn’t come back to see me. Oh the whip that gleams, forever gleaming, in my head! Oh my aching, wounded body!”

And I’ll never forget the news delivered by one of the prison wardens, Rani, who wanted to provoke us because we were all singing together and didn’t obey her orders for silence: “You’re singing while Sawsan’s house is being demolished!” But just before gloom overtook our faces, the voice of Sawsan al-Shannar rose, followed by our voices:

“I stand firm, I stand firm, in my country’s land. Even if they strip away my sustenance, I stand firm. Even if they kill my children, I stand firm. Even if they destroy my home, O my home, in the shadow of your walls I stand firm, I stand firm, I stand firm.”

And then Siham El-Wazni’s voice echoed:

“Oh freedom fighter, may your bullets strike their target. O freedom fighter, reunite loved ones. Your blood is Arab: Palestinian. Your home is mine: Palestinian. O freedom fighter, O freedom fighter.”

And as each day faded, our longing to see our friends and families and loved ones would intensify, and Randa al-Nabulsi would sing these lines from a Fairouz song:

“Another day is gone, we’ve been far from our homes for another day, and the day that we’ll return is one day closer. Another day is gone, another day is gone…”

*

I return to Hassan Karaja’s letter and read it many times, contemplating the life of those who are deprived of freedom and music, after more than half a century has passed. I find that the situation is no better now, even if new forms of media have entered their lives in prison:

“The radios are in terrible condition. We buy them for 25 dollars, even though their real price outside prison is 4 dollars. They stop working quickly and often, and the number of radios they allow us is very, very limited. The sources of music in prison — radios, televisions, CD players — vary from prison to prison, and, apart from the radios, are always subject to the control and regulation of the prison administration.

The available TV stations at the moment are MBC Drama, Hebrew TV 3, National Geographic, and al-Arabia. The CD players are in terrible shape, and the CDs we’re allowed to buy are very, very limited. The only things that enter prison are very old albums or pop music. They’re also very expensive, and there’s no explanation for why they fall apart so quickly.”

*****

Hassan Karaja ends his letter to Ma3azef with a wish that they will continue in their artistic journey: “I hope you’ll continue planting music in the world, until the season comes to harvest this joy…

The time of freedom inches closer, the day I will be able to see Thamina without restrictions, and Kenza and Saray too. I will embrace life with freedom. I am so full of eagerness for that—nothing more.”

 

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