The Palestinian National Song A Personal Testimony
By Rima Tarazi
The history of music has been closely linked to the spoken language since time immemorial. Linguistic intonation and rhythmic patterns influenced the emergence of musical styles and genres within various countries and communities. These patterns became the basis for accompanying the human voice in expressing a variety of human emotions, tribulations and aspirations, reflected in religious invocations, poetic recitations and dramatic renditions ranging from the mundane to the sublime. The human voice, the oldest and probably the most authentic musical instrument, has, therefore, been the transmitter of these traditions across the world.
In Palestine, the distinct events that marked its modern history were strongly reflected in its musical landscape. Folk music, a great Palestinian tradition that boasts a large number of folk poets with superb improvisational talents, has been coloured by the suffering of the Palestinians and the loss of their homeland. Folk poets would improvise words to traditional tunes on the spur of the moment, depending on the occasion. “Ala Dal’ona,” for example, a traditional love ballad, became a song describing the loss of homeland and the yearning for freedom. These events, coinciding with the emergence of Arab renaissance and nationalist movements and with the exposure of Arab musicians to Western classical music, gave rise to what has become known as the national song. This was initially based on the form of the anthem which became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century and was shared by all Arabs of the region. Our generation recalls with nostalgia the times when “Nahnu Ashabab” and “Mawtini” were chanted with gusto by enthusiastic young men and women during congregations, marches, or picnics. The words reflected the aspirations of the times. The call for Arab unity and brotherhood amongst Moslems and Christians as a means of achieving independence and restoring the glory of the past featured prominently in the verses of that era.
The Lebanese Fleifel brothers, among others, stood out during the first half of the 20th century as writers of anthems that were taught in schools mainly in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. They put music to the words of the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Toukan (Mawtini), the Lebanese poet Bishara Al-Khoury (Nahnu Ashabab), the Syrian poets Omar Abu Risheh (Fi Sabeel El-Majd) and Fakhri Baroudy (Biladu El-Orbi Awtani), amongst others.
In Palestine, two outstanding musicians of that era were also writing national songs targeted for school choirs with orchestral accompaniment: Salvador Arnita and Yusef Batroni. In this brief essay, I would like to share my personal experiences with those two musicians and with others by highlighting the role of Birzeit High School, College and University with which they were heavily involved, in impacting the development of the national song in Palestine.
Arnita, my first music teacher, taught piano and choir at Birzeit High School and College between the years 1939 and 1946. His advanced musical training was reflected in his musical compositions of national songs which he wrote for choir and orchestra. During every graduation ceremony, a new song of his composition would be performed, most of which were national songs. However, I recall one very beautiful song called “The Spring” which diverted from the usual national theme. Unfortunately, no trace of this manuscript is to be found to date. During those occasions, members of the Palestine Orchestra would accompany the choir made up of members from both the Girls’ and Boys’ Schools. After the Nakba, Arnita ended up in Beirut with his wife, the renowned musicologist Yusra Jawhariyyeh, where he established and directed the music department at the American University of Beirut for many years.
In 1946, a very talented young Palestinian/Armenian musician by the name of Hanna Khatchadurian (which he changed twice later on) became music teacher at Birzeit College. He continued the tradition of Arnita and was the first to compose an anthem written by Kamal Nasir in his early days. After 1947, he was amongst those who left his homeland, settling in Europe and in Armenia where he became a prominent conductor and composer.
This musical atmosphere at Birzeit was fertile ground for nurturing budding musicians, two of whom would come to the forefront, each with his and her own style in expressing the national woes and aspirations of their people through music and song. Those two young musicians, who were joined at the College by the renowned Yusef Batroni in 1954, were to express the raging feelings of their people at the grave injustice that befell them and would embark on writing an impressive number of national songs in varying styles, to the words of renowned Palestinian and Arab poets, that would be performed by the College Choir during graduation ceremonies and at other occasions.
Batroni, who came from Damascus where he had spent the first few years after the Nakba, brought with him a trove of manuscripts of his own compositions, which he enriched by several other compositions written during his sojourn at Birzeit, for the College Choir that he directed. Amin Nasser was studying in Germany at the time, but would come home during vacations and would enrich the College with his new youthful compositions. I had just finished my university degree in Beirut after spending a year and a half studying music in France, and while I was teaching piano at the College and co-directing the choir with Batroni, I gave a great deal of my time to composing for the choir and finding my own style.
Between 1954 and 1956, Kamal Nasir was staying at his home in Birzeit and would pour his soul out in passionate verses singing praises to the beautiful lost homeland and calling on the masses to stand up for their rights He would put his poems before the three of us and we would decide amongst ourselves which to choose. His song, “Ya Akhi El-Lajea,” adapted to the music of Fleifel immediately after the Catastrophe, had already become a landmark song widely known all over Palestine. It was a call to rise and to act against injustice and to stand up against attempts at humiliating our people and bartering their rights for meagre food rations: “They offered us poison in our food / turning us into a docile and silent flock of sheep.”
This song, together with our songs written through the years and those written previously by Arnita and others for the Birzeit choirs, can be considered an honest reflection of the mood of the times and documented moments in the history of Palestine.
In 1956, I left Birzeit for Canada with my husband who was to do his neurosurgical training there. Upon my return in 1960, I continued to compose for the choir for many years. Batroni passed away in 1957 while still teaching at Birzeit and other educational institutions, including Schmidt’s College and the Women’s Training College in Ramallah, and also working for the Jordanian Broadcasting Station in Ramallah. Amin Nasser spent many years as music director at Birzeit where he continued to compose for the choir until he retired in 2004. The successive music teachers at Birzeit University, foremost amongst whom was Nadia Abboushi, taught those songs to the respective choirs, keeping the tradition alive and the memory of the lost homeland fresh in the minds of our youth.
In the aftermath of 1967, I continued to write music to the verses of renowned poets for the Birzeit Choir, but I also started writing my own lyrics and music for adults and children inspired by my personal experiences during the occupation. Those songs were sung and performed respectively by the YWCA choir and the Ina’sh El-Usra children.
Amin Nasser pursued his composing career and performed his national songs at graduation ceremonies. At a later stage he published his complete works in an impressive volume. Amongst his compositions was a cycle of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s poetry, which was performed to audiences in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt by soprano Tania Tamari Nasir.
The occupation of 1967 gave rise to a new wave of musicians dealing with the national songs in a variety of styles and forms. What became known as the ‘committed song’ became very popular and widely spread amongst the masses. The media and new technology succeeded in advancing those artistic endeavours. National songs were no longer based solely on the form of the anthem. They became a mixture of art songs, popular songs and choral works, all focusing on the tribulations ahttp://www.thisweekinpalestine.comnd aspirations of our people. To list these musicians, singers and composers would require a separate article, which I will leave up to future researchers to expound on.
Rima Tarazi is the President of the Administrative Board of the General Union of Palestinian Women in Palestine, Chairperson of the Supervisory Board of the ESNCM and one of its founders. She can be reached at
She was born on 22 March, 1932 in Jaffa, Palestine of a family originally from Birzeit, a small town north of Jerusalem, where her family established a school which later developed into what is now Birzeit University. After receiving her degree in 1949, she went to Paris and studied music (piano, with Madame Lucette Descaves and Mlle Leduc and composition at L‟Ecole Cesar Franck). Upon her return home in 1951, Tarazi taught music and other courses at Birzeit College and, in 1952went on to pursue her academic studies at the American University of Beirut, graduating in Psychology and Arabic in 1954. During her College and University years, Tarazi was very active in the student and cultural life of her university.