Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinian gazelle leaps to the other side

Rim Banna (1966-2018)


Palestinian singer, composer, songwriter, poet and activist Rim Banna, 51, died on 24 March in Nazareth. Her hometown, part of  historic Palestine, now lies within Israel’s 1948 borders.

In the months leading up to her death, Banna regularly updated her Facebook posts in what now reads like a diary she shared with 1.2 million followers. The lyrical posts formed an extended swan song to the power of hope, resistance and her homeland.

"I tried to make this easier for my children so I told them: don't be afraid, for this body is like a worn out shirt," she wrote on 5 March. "When I take it off, I will sneak out of the casket... and will run like a gazelle to my home. I will wait for you in the terrace, with a cup of sage tea, gazing at Jezreel Valley and I will say: this life is beautiful and death is like history, a fake chapter."

From 2009 and until her death, Banna who dedicated her life’s work to resisting the Israeli occupation, was assailed a new enemy, cancer, which she faced down with the same resistance and contempt. “Cancer is like the occupation,” she said, “and it won’t conquer me.” 

That it didn't was something Banna made clear in the interviews she gave and in her cancer awareness campaigns, stressing always that, having survived health crises in 2009 and 2015 which were a result of her breast cancer the most recent decline in her health, manifested in debilitating respiratory problems, was unlreated. 

Banna was born in December 1966 in Nazareth. At the age of 13 she was encouraged by her mother, the poet and feminist Zuhaira Sabbagh, to  begin singing the folk and religious songs and hymn-like chants (tahaleel sung by mothers to put their children to sleep) she had grown up with.  

“It never occurred to me to become a singer,” she said in a 2013 TedEx talk in Carthage, Tunisia. “I always thought of myself as growing up to be a fedai'ya (guerilla fighter).”

But her mother, who marched in protests against the occupation and didn’t mind getting into trouble herself, didn’t want her children harmed. She persuaded her daughter that singing could be a powerful form of resistance.

Banna was 19 when, in 1985, she released her first album. She then moved to Moscow were she studied singing and conducting for six years, graduating in 1991 from the High Institute of Music with highest honors.   

Returning to Nazareth with her Ukranian husband, guitarist Leonid Aleseyenko, she released a collection of traditional Palestinian songs in 1993. The goal was to preserve an important strand of oral history and popularise the songs among a new audience.  

Banna had three children with Aleseyenko all of whom were given Canaanite names.

Banna next began to search out traditional Palestinian songs, chants and texts to set to modern Palestinian and Western melodies. Her 12 albums contain many such songs, alongside settings of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfik Ziad and Samih Al-Qassem and love songs.

The one subject that dominated her work is Palestine, and its people’s struggle against occupation.

During her rise to fame in Palestine and internationally, from the 1990s till 2010, Banna was a striking figure with long, dark hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Conciously using her image to make a statement about identity she appeared wearing antique Arab silver ornaments and almost, always, a traditional, brightly embroidered Palestinian dress.

When she wasn’t wearing traditional dresses, Banna would show up to concerts and photo sessions with a kufiya effortlessly wrapped around her neck or head; her fingers stacked with silver rings and colourful stones; bracelets wrapped around her wrists.

Rim -gazelle in Arabic-  was a Palestinian citizen of Israel,  a descendant of the generation of Palestinians who witnessed Al-Nakba -the creation of Israel in 1948 and remained in their homeland as tens of thousands were exiled by Zionist gangs. Today they form one fifth of Israeli's population constantly subjected to discrimination and efforts to Israelise their identity. 

“How can I, a woman who lives under occupation and air strikes, where my people are killed, detained and turned into refugees, go on stage in a fancy dress?” she said in 2013. “How can I sing about birds and flowers?”

Banna's most popular albums include Al-Quds Everlasting released in 2003, and Mirrors of My Soul, released in 2005, and dedicated to Palestinian and Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons. She first came to international attention in 2003 when she participated with other singers from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Cuba in the Norwegian anti-war album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil.

“Rim’s voice was ethereal, clear and pure,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer based in Jerusalem and former adviser to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation). “Her work, combining traditional music with lyrics that reflected Palestine’s daily struggles, spoke to generations.”

"Artists around the world tried to co-opt her but she refused to do anything that would label her as being anything but Palestinian."

The issue of identity is important because of the label Israeli-Arab, which applies to Palestinians like Banna, as though "we have no history or culture except in relation to Israel," explains Buttu. 

In 2009, Banna would reinvent her image after being diagnosed with breast cancer as she embarked on a nine-year struggle with the disease and other health setbacks. She shaved her hair and spoke openly about her condition while campaigning for greater cancer awareness. She continued to record new albums, give concerts and become more vocal in her activism.

In 2010 Bana and Aleseyenko divorced.  

Her music became increasingly meditative, incorporating many Sufi elements. 

Banna's 2013 album Revelation of Ecstasy and Rebellion celebrates her love of Arab and Andalusian poetry. The music is framed "in modern textures that include samples and nu-jazz rhythmatic layers," in the words of Israeli journalist Eyal Hareuveni. She also collaborated with Tunisian rapper MR.KAZ on a recording of Don't Increase His Agony, an angry poem by the Iraqi Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab.

"No one sang poetry as well as she did," said Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian poet from Jerusalem studying in the U.S. "You can tell by where she places the stresses that she undrestood poetry and took time to study it before she vocalized."

In 2016 Banna’s left vocal cord was permanently damaged and she lost the voice she once described as “two-dimensional” and “thick.”

Her health declined further and she spent the next two years between hospitals and her home in Nazareth, which overlooks the Jezreel Valley. Yet she still found time to share stunning pictures of her spacious terrace lined with plants and colourful flower pots and the Palestinian embroidered accessories she made herself and sold to make a living.

Breathing became difficult and walking an ordeal. Yet she managed to “crawl” to Norway in January to record her 13th album, due to be released in April.

Hundreds attended Banna’s funeral on Saturday singing Mawtini (My Homeland), the Palestinians’ unofficial national anthem since the British mandate in the 1930s. Her uncovered casket was wrapped in the Palestinian flag, and flowers covered her as was laid to rest in the Latin cemetry wearing a traditional Palestinian dress and kufiyah.

“I tried to understand the mass panic, and my personal panic at Rim’s death,” said Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti. “It might be due to the loss of a free soul”.

“She represents generations born under Zionist occupation, which imposes Israeli nationality, the Hebrew language and geographic isolation from the rest of the Arabs." 

Banna refused the classifications that divide Palestinians into citizens of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, refugee camps, the diaspora, Christians, Muslims. "Rim saw Palestine as whole in her imagination, and herself as Palestinian."

In a live video from Norway in January, Banna spoke of her new album, telling her fans that her medical files have been transformed, through software, into musical tones. She didn’t sing, but explained that she read Arabic lines she wrote “inspired by my pains and dreams."

“The album is about resistance and the impossibility of muting our voices ... No one can silence my voice.” 

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