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Arab musicians' songs about Gaza put spotlight on Palestinian issues

3 min

From pathos to praise of Hamas, songs written by musicians across the Middle East in response to Israel's offensive in Gaza are putting the Palestinian issue back at the forefront of Arab popular culture.

Musician, producer and singer Zeid Hamdan performs on stage, during an event where all proceeds go to families affected in Southern Lebanon, at Ked in Beirut, February 3, 2024. Reuters/Emilie Madi

From pathos to praise of Hamas, songs written by musicians across the Middle East in response to Israel's offensive in Gaza are putting the Palestinian issue back at the forefront of Arab popular culture.

The music mixes defiance, helplessness and anger over the war being waged by Israel on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip.

In Cairo, the popular Egyptian wedding singer known as Rudy takes requests for her new lyrics praising Hamas military spokesman Abu Obaida.

"Abu Obaida, O Lion-Hearted … set them all ablaze,” she belts out to a percussive beat.

In Jordan, artists from different Arab states gathered in October to record a song dreaming of a Palestinian “return” to lands occupied by Israel. It has been viewed millions of times on social media.

The rise in popularity of songs that sympathise with the Palestinians or encourage Hamas - including by artists who generally avoid politics - reflects anger over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, its occupation of Palestinian territory and U.S. and European support for its military campaign.

It also shows the support among Arab people for Hamas and for armed opposition as Israel tries to eradicate the group.

Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostage in an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies. Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been confirmed killed in Israel's military retaliation, Gaza health officials say.

The conflict has proved divisive worldwide and ignited broader cultural battles.

The annual Eurovision song contest, billed as a non-political event, has been marred by controversy over Israel's entry mentioning the Oct. 7 attack.

Vitriolic debates on U.S. university campuses have affected the careers of some staff, and students have accused each other of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

In Israel, artists have also produced songs about Oct. 7. Some reflect on the suffering of victims, others are vengeful.

One music video features a survivor of a Hamas attack on a music festival on Oct. 7. Another, produced by Israeli rapper Subliminal, shows residential blocks in Gaza being flattened by airstrikes while Israeli tanks and snipers prepare for war.

KEYS AND KUFFIYAHS

In Arab societies, a vast majority of people see the war as a Western-backed assault on Palestinian civilians.

Wedding singer Rudy said watching Israeli attacks left her feeling helpless and wanting to sing in support of Hamas.

At many weddings where she performs, attendees ask her to sing about Gaza, including her song about Abu Obaida, who became a regular feature on Arab news channels after the war began, appearing masked in videos to read out Hamas statements.

“Abu Obaida - we see him as a hero who stands up against Israel. There are children dying and he is standing up to defend them,” Rudy said.

Lebanese rapper Jaafar Touffar also raps about Abu Obaida and the Aqsa Flood - the name Hamas gave its Oct. 7 assault - and says “more is coming” to Israel.

A poll by the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar in January showed 67% of 8,000 respondents saw the Oct. 7 attack as a “legitimate resistance operation” against occupation.

Only 5% said it was an “illegitimate” attack. Three-quarters viewed the U.S. and Israel as the biggest threats to regional security and stability.

In Saudi Arabia, a poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed 96% of respondents believed Arab countries should cut all ties with Israel.

Before Oct. 7, Palestinian issues had been largely forgotten about as Gulf kingdoms normalised relations with Israel and abandoned demands for a Palestinian state.

Now such issues dominate discussions of regional politics, from social media to homes, coffee shops and the halls of power.

In a music video by Kuwaiti singer Humood Al Khuder, symbols long used by pro-Palestinian activists abound: keys to homes Palestinians lost during the establishment of Israel in 1948, the black-and-white kuffiyah headscarf, and a lost wandering cartoon refugee child called Handala.

'NEVER FORGET WHAT'S HAPPENING'

Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan said his music now focused on the war and its spillover into Lebanon, where Israel and militant group Hezbollah exchange rocket fire and airstrikes.

“I don’t perform anymore to promote myself as an artist. I am on stage to wake people up and to spread a message of urgency. I am going from fundraiser to fundraiser to protest,” he said.

Arab musicians realise their music may not change the course of the war, or influence Arab leaders.

Ghaliaa Chaker, whose song “Returning” was recorded in Jordan with 24 other Middle Eastern artists, says her aim is to keep Gaza's plight in the spotlight.

“I really hope they (Gazans) know they're in our prayers,” she said.

“That's the best we can hope for … to keep talking about it. Never forget what's happening.”

By Farah Saafan, Emilie Madi and Bushra Shakhshir

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