This article looks at three distinguished examples of Palestinian musicianship in exile in the revolutionary period after 1967, spotlighting the geographically discrete contributions of songwriters Zeinab Shaath, George Kirmiz, and George Totari. Despite significant grassroots interest in their music in particular locations and at various moments and movements, their songs remain little known to many Palestinians, while their life journeys are subject to speculation and rumor. Analyzing the artistry of the three via problematic comparisons with the Sugar Man film phenomenon, their careers in music are situated here toward collective experiences of Palestinian resistance struggle, alongside trends of exilic radicalism and grassroots organization in Europe and North America. Seeing communication as key, the article offers concluding reflections on the revolutionary concept of al-hadaf, “the goal” or “the target” of such artistic contributions, toward understanding how the musicians saw their own roles and aesthetic values relating to questions of resistance and liberation.
In the widely acclaimed 2012 film release of Searching for Sugar Man, narratives of “intrigue and mystery” 1 abound as a group of Afrikaner music enthusiasts set about trying to rediscover 1970s US songwriter and musician Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez was thought to have died after losing his recording contract and falling into obscurity, with wild rumors circulating among listeners in South Africa, where he had become an unlikely success during the apartheid years. Found alive and well at the film’s climax by the researchers, migrant laborer Rodriguez is catapulted back onto stages and into much wider fame, evoking classic Hollywood narratives of rediscovery and individual overcoming.
The discovery of “lost” gems remains a crowd-pleaser in popular culture, with Palestine having no immunity to what can elsewhere appear as cliché. The excavation of a cultural heritage that has suffered an ongoing Nakba – stolen and locked away by Zionist looters covered by the reels of colonial violence projected onto the Palestinian people – means a piecing together of collective histories. Stories of pre-Nakba musicianship, for example, or even the pinpointing of works by musicians in supposedly more stable locations of exile are rocketed by the contradictions of colonial displacement, arising from the Zionist ethnic cleansing of the population centers of historic Palestine. The defeat of Arab forces led by Nasser’s Egypt in June 1967 and the resulting Israeli colonization of further swathes of historic Palestine was no less brutal. In these contexts, preservation and research become acts allied to resistance for liberation.
Filming in winter 2016 for the film Kofia: A Revolution Through Music (Brehony, 2021) in Gothenburg, Sweden, two world views came to mind: the industry of exhibitionist “discovery” seen in liberal Western media vs the mass impulse of Palestinian decolonization toward telling stories threatened with historic erasure. Intrinsically standing in solidarity with the latter (and wary of falling into the traps of the former), the crew were brought into deeper reflection when musicians from the Palestinian-Swedish band Kofia referred to songwriter George Totari, as “the Palestinian Sugar Man,” implying a story and a significance that had been hitherto lost to historic account. The same phrase was used in personal correspondence by musician Reem Talhami in 2020, reporting that a small team intended to produce a film on popular resistance singer George Kirmiz, the catalog of rumors on whose own journey and location dwarf those of Rodriguez.
Israeli filmmaker Roni Sela described as a “discovery” her finding in Zionist military archives of Palestinian film material looted from Beirut in the early 1980s (2018). These included The Urgent Call of Palestine, directed by artist Ismail Shammout, and featuring the singing of Palestinian songwriter Zeinab Shaath, the short film’s star. Zeinab came roughly from the same generation as the two Georges and, like both, recorded and performed for Palestine at a distance from the homeland. Many Palestinians were in the dark about their musical activities in Europe and North America, exacerbating a sense of mystery, while at the same time, local audiences in host countries came to know their work well.
Being lost and found embodies rather contradictory qualities. This discussion of the Palestinian resistance songwriters Zeinab Shaath, George Kirmiz, and George Totari leads to exploring the kinds of commitment which shaped their output. A central question involves al-hadaf – “the goal” or “the target” – a concept which took on concrete form in the works of Palestinian revolutionaries in the wake of 1967, not least with the editorship of writer and Marxist Ghassan Kanafani of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) magazine of the same name. 2
In the period of the Palestinian Revolution, or the rebirth of the national liberation movement in exile from the 1960s, the three musicians openly identified themselves with revolutionary narratives, joining Kanafani and other committed intellectuals in placing their artistry in the service of the cause. The three came into public singing as teenagers and shared similarities in some of their musical influences and tastes, in the performance spaces they sought out and were brought into, and, crucially, in relationships to poetries and poets of Palestinian resistance. Where they diverged offers interesting nuances and opportunities for deeper understandings of political culture – and arguably exhibits tactical and aesthetic differences on the route to al-hadaf – on philosophies of struggle, communication, and national self-determination in exile.
The following sections outline their journeys and contributions in order of their first recorded release, before returning to the Sugar-Man problematic, and offering thoughts on musical communication, or the goals of those committed to building an anti-imperialist musicianship.
Can’t you hear
the urgent Call of Palestine
tormented, tortured, bruised, and battered
and all her sons and daughters scattered
Can’t you hear
the sweet sad voice of Palestine
She whispers above the roar of the guns
beckoning to all her daughters and sons
Can’t you hear the agony of Palestine
Liberation banner raise it high for Palestine
let us do or die
let us heed the urgent Call of Palestine
(“The Urgent Call of Palestine,” Lalita Panjabi) 3
Having spent decades depicting Palestinian hardship and resistance through painting, Lydd-born artist Ismail Shammout (1930–2006) looked for new modes to transmit the urgency of the Palestinian struggle after 1967. Though the paintbrush would remain his mainstay, he found in film a revolutionary new mode of expression. Formed in 1967, the PLO photography unit would produce 12 films and Shammout came to lead the umbrella Department of Culture and Arts (Yaqub, 2018: 232). In songwriter Zeinab Shaath, he found the star of his first short film and a voice to match the drive of his generation to find friends for the Palestinian cause around the world.
“The Urgent Call” arguably constituted the first Palestinian music video. Filmed in Lebanon in 1972, a 17-year-old Zeinab held her guitar and wore a black and white kuffieh (the iconic Palestinian headscarf) to a backdrop of olive trees, edited between photography of Palestine, its children, and graphics representing olives and rifles. As in the majority of her songs, Zeinab sang in English, rhythmically strumming a minor chord progression; typical of her work, there are only four chords in the song. Singing into the breeze, she makes eye-contact with the camera during the line “let us heed,” before splicing to a speech of poet and assassinated PLO figure Kamal Nasser: “we do not fight for the sake of fighting … we want the world to know that we have a cause.”
The daughter of Gaza-born Ali Rasheed and Lebanese mother Samiha, Zeinab spent her childhood in Egypt. Ali had been threatened by the British for his active support for the Palestinian Revolution, and left for Alexandria before 1948. The family were enamored with Fairuz and Umm Kulthum – and Zeinab would occasionally perform Arab covers – but the records and instruments brought back from the US by her older brother and sister proved significant: “Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ and all the songs about Vietnam came back. So it was an interesting time in music, Bob Dylan and all of that.”
After “putting music together” on the guitar, “The Urgent Call” would be Zeinab’s first composition, at the age of 16. 4 In 1970, Lalita Panjabi, the wife of older sister Mysoon’s co-worker at a radio station in Cairo, wrote the poem as “she was moved by the Palestinian issue,” and gave it to Mysoon as a gift. Zeinab remembers her sister bringing her the sheet of paper and literally locking her in her room with her guitar:
She said, here’s a song that I want you to compose and I want it done in 24 hours! And I said, “yeah right!” [laughs] Mysoon is about 14 years older than I am, so she wrestled and tickled me and put me in a room and locked it, saying: “you’re not going out until you write the song.” I was screaming and shouting but things quietened down, I put the lyrics in front of me and just started composing the music.
The English-language radio station Mysoon worked for had aired Zeinab’s first songs “and it really caught on.” Two years later, “The Urgent Call” was released on an EP produced by the PLO Cultural Arts Section in Lebanon.
Shammout’s initial attraction to Zeinab’s music came after hearing her sing at a Palestinian festival outside Beirut. Zeinab remembers enthusiastic crowd responses to her translated version of “Write Down, I’m an Arab,” Mahmoud Darwish’s epochal “Sajjil, Ana ‘Arabi”; the poem would be set to music in differing versions by Salvador Arnita, Ghazi Mikdashi, and George Kirmiz, and was recited by the al-Ashiqeen group before their song of the same name. Darwish heard Zeinab sing her arrangement several times in Lebanon, “and he was very proud of that song in English. He would always come and give me a hug.”
Among Zeinab’s first songs were “Don’t Ask Me the Impossible” (or “Letter to a Jewish Friend”) by Fawzi al-Ahmar, which she set to music in 1970, and “Take Me Back to My Country” by Iraqi communist poet Abdelwahab Bayati, in 1971. While al-Ahmar pledged to remember, Bayati promises to return:
Take me back oh God
To my country a nightingale
A nightingale on the wind of a cloud
in the light of a star
return me a lily
that flutters on the bosom
of a spring and a hill
melting in my warmth
the frost of my country
singing to the birds
Oh I’m not a dreamer
Oh God, take me back
to my country
take me back
True to the touring and performing contexts that Zeinab would enter into in the 1970s, she chose from leftist poets whose work critiqued imperialism and bourgeois Arabism as well as Zionist colonialism. Set to music in 1972, Zeinab sang “Resist,” by Gaza-born Palestinian poet and political prisoner Mo’in Bseiso:
They slapped down a paper
and a pen before my nose
In my hand they thrust
the key to my house
The paper they wanted me to blemish
said Resist … Resist
The pen they wanted me to disgrace
said Resist … Resist
Bseiso and Darwish both evoke the arduous bureaucracy of exile – containing demands to be recognized and heard. Bayati, whose activist artistry led him to perform among comrade poets in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, 5 brings together nostalgia for the land with the call for return, asserting that his call is beyond mere dreams. This echoes the observation of Tahrir Hamdi, who reads in the poetry of Darwish and Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “not an escape from reality, but actually an attempt to effect a change in reality, to bridge the gap between thought and action, to make something happen” (2014: 96).
Zeinab’s songs carried references from US folk, built around simple harmonic progressions and melodies, with her un-ornamented, American-accented voice resembling more of a Baez than a Fairuz. She explains her choice of language:
It was a very conscious decision to sing in English. I was in English schools [and] I did have a really good command of English, but really it was because I was going to a lot of lectures, reading a lot of books and thinking, “Well, people aren’t going to read a lot of books – the normal person in the streets – and nobody is going to sit and listen to a speech. But they might listen to a song and it might touch their heart.” And so they could learn more about the Palestinians through song … My brother was big on poetry as well, so we read poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Fadwa Touqan, and all of them …
I just went searching for translations, and came about a really good book. I know you’re going to ask about the book but I don’t know about it, I lost it and can’t find it, but most of the songs that I sang were of translations that were in that book, of Palestinian poets and poetry. It was kind of a goldmine.
Zeinab’s commitment to transmitting a Palestinian narrative in English found confluence with PLO strategy in the early 1970s. Kamal Nasser’s speech in the “Urgent Call” video was both in English and clearly addressed toward convincing a Western audience of Palestinian intentions, with particular attention given to distinguishing between Judaism and Zionism. Marxists including Ghassan Kanafani and Leila Khaled had used interviews in English to critique imperialism and Arab reaction, while PFLP leader George Habash sought to win over those caught in the crossfire of resistance actions through the medium of English-language address (2021: 12).
Although Zeinab would end up in the US, her early songwriting of Palestinian poetry in English would be transmitted to non-Anglophone listeners. She’d perform in Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq, and, like George Totari and Kofia, would be invited to take part in huge cultural events in countries supporting the Palestinian struggle. Nowhere was this truer than during her invitations to perform in socialist bloc countries, beginning with the World Youth Festival in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from July 28 to August 5, 1973 in East Berlin. Traveling from around the world, 750,000 activists took part in over 5,000 rallies, meetings, concerts, and other events, with the theme of the festival dedicated to Palestine, Vietnam, and global anti-imperialist struggles. Zeinab remembers seeing Angela Davis speak and saw the festival as “an amazing place to be”:
We were the Palestinian delegation and because of us the Israeli delegation refused to come and participate, which we thought was a victory at the time. It was a really amazing time. The songs I sung were widely heard. And we got an invitation for the Palestinian delegation to go to the Soviet Union.
The GDR socialist press carried a report of her concert at an open-air theater in Freidrichshain, which was broadcast on radio and TV. Under the title “Trag ein, ich bin ein Araber” (“Write Down, I’m an Arab”), the newspaper article carried a photo of a singing, kuffieh-wearing Zeinab, and focused on her “deliberately not choosing an Arab melody,” for her setting of the poem, nor singing it in its original language. Zeinab explained this strategy in the paper: “Everyone should understand us and understand our struggle” (GDR Press, 1973).
As if to demonstrate that there was internationalism at the heart of this linguistic commitment, non-Palestinians were drawn in as participants in celebrating Palestinian culture. Photographs showed Zeinab exuberantly smiling while dancing and singing with a group of Peruvian activists. Video footage showed the Palestinian delegation leading a multi-national circle of dabke dancers, as a small band performed melodies associated with Palestinian weddings on mijwiz 6 and brass instruments (Defa-Futurum, 1973). She’d be one of five Palestinian delegates to go on to Tbilisi and Moscow, after a reassuring phone call between the shabab and her mother. Zeinab would also be feted in Soviet newspapers and platforms, and looks back in fondness at “an amazing exchange of ideas and thoughts.”
Arriving initially in Cincinnati as a graduate student in 1967, Zeinab would perform in around half a dozen US cities: “There were many student organizations, many protests during the Sabra and Shatila massacre , for instance, commemorations … I’d be singing there.” She’d also continue to write and record new material, and her cassettes would make their way to Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. Toward the 1980s, activists and friends would send her photocopied pages of poetry whose translators remained unknown. Some of them she would use, like “Here We Shall Stay,” Taqfiq Zayyad’s ode to 1948 Palestinians. Fawaz Turki wrote directly to her in English after meeting her in Washington. Though her husband encouraged her to keep performing, Zeinab gradually moved away from music in the 1980s, toward raising children and working for 30 years in pharmacology.
The words of Turki were semi-autobiographical as Zeinab sang them to her strummed guitar:
All that was in my youth
And I have no regrets
Shouting for justice and freedom
Outside the king’s palace
(“Shouting for Justice and Freedom,” Fawaz Turki) 7
George Totari and Kofia Band
Fire, fire, fire, fire on the Zionists
Fire, fire, fire, fire on the reactionaries
Fire, fire, fire, fire on colonialism
(“Eld, Eld”/“Nar Nar”/“Fire Fire”)
Born in Nazareth in 1946, George Totari describes being without a father for his early years, with “Matta” (Matteus) one of many forced out of the city in 1948, before returning from Lebanon as a mechanic. 8 After the supposed end of military rule in 1966, the creeping state repression of 1948 Palestinians by the Zionist state gathered pace, alongside growing youth awareness of their second-class citizenship, communal poverty, and national identity. George describes an ongoing siege of Nazareth where Zionist forces would routinely target those suspected of supporting the Palestinian liberation movement, including the repeated arrest of his comrade, Tawfiq Zayyad.
Things would come to a head with the Israeli war to colonize all of historic Palestine in 1967, unleashing the military drive to “Judaize” the Galilee, which would culminate in the Land Day uprising and massacre in 1976. Like early Kofia percussionist Michel Kreitem from Jerusalem, George would describe leaving Palestine in 1967 as an escape, depicting closing walls of repression and surveillance. He’d put the experience into lyrics:
I lived in a city
By the name of Nazareth
Where I would sing
To the winds of a storm
I grew up in a prison
Under the control of Zionists
Who rule over the country
Through weapons that spew out fire
Both George and Michel would end up in Sweden, whose political atmosphere in 1967 was “more Zionist than Israel itself,” according to George; leading Swedish politicians had declined to criticize Israel during its June conquest and would welcome fascist prime minister Golda Meir in 1971 (Eriksson, 2015: 54). Gothenburg was a center of political activity, with movements against apartheid South Africa, in solidarity with Vietnam, and working-class struggles reaching a peak. The musicians describe a period of DIY artistry and leftist ideals, and it would be significant to the founding of the Kofia band (a Swedish transliteration of kuffieh) that the Palestinian musicians would find willing recruits among Swedish musicians involved in Leninist organizations and internationalist campaigning. Attending demonstrations and attracting experienced and committed musicians soon after he arrived, George describes the evolution of the group’s sound:
In the beginning I took traditional music [from Palestine and the region]. I’d write the text but the music was traditional, but then I began to make my own music.
George’s use of the Swedish term ballader (“ballads,” or folk songs) to describe the songs hints at a crossover, with musicians like guitarist and long-term member Mats Lundalv having interest in “both Swedish and international folk musics.” He’d retune his guitar, a 12-string acoustic, with double courses found on the oud and buzuq, “to avoid the typical major and minor chords.” Based around melodies coming from George and his oud, the music was largely non-harmonic. Flutist Bengt Carlsson admits, “We imitated Arabic music, to some extent. When I played the flute I tried to make it sound Arabic, you know, like a mawwal 9 … I’m not sure if I succeeded, but we tried, all of us.”
A typical example of the group’s playing and of George’s writing of new texts to existing music came with “Baladi ya Baladi,” based on a song by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish to poetry by Mohammed Younes al-Qadi. It had since become a generically patriotic number, appearing in Egyptian films in the 1950s, and having become part of Arab regional folk repertoire. 10 This time, it would be set to poetry demanding the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes, with Swedes joining in the Arabic refrain. Similarly, the widely-known Syrian folksong “al-Bulbul” (“The Nightingale”), best known through the voice of Sabah Fakhri, is medlied to Swedish lyrics revealing its infusion with a message of resistance:
Narrative, language, and musical form were inseparable in the development of the Kofia sound, with discipline on the part of the musicians in making sure that the message spoke plainly and directly. Driven by George’s lyrics, the band made sloganeering an art form, as indicated in the enduring popularity of “Demonstrationssången” (“Song of Demonstration”), known by its Swedish hook “Leve Palestina och krossa sionismen”, or “Free Palestine and crush Zionism.” Based around repetitive melodic patterns manipulating minor seconds, playable on Western instruments, its stanzas called for the land to be liberated through socialism. The song would be the subject of government censure over 40 years after its composition, under the guise of combating antisemitism (Brehony, 2020a).
Songs on the debut “Palestine My Land” album supported armed Palestinian resistance (“Eld, Eld”/“Nar Nar”/“Fire! Fire!”) and hailed the jabha (“the front”) 11 involved in armed resistance (“En son av folklets revolution”/“Ana Ibn al-Thawra al-Sh’biyya”/“I’m a Son of the People’s Revolution”). Voicing demands and slogans, and performing narratives of events often went hand in hand within individual songs, as shown in the example of “Daughter of Palestine” (“Palestinas Dotter”/“Ibnat Falastin”) in 1976:
They have killed our comrades
And imprisoned our friends
Our loved ones are under house arrest
And they have kidnapped my beloved
They took our brave women by force
And killed our children
No, no, no, no
We will not submit
“Every song is a story,” said Michel, while Bengt explains that the group aimed at “eyewitness accounts” of Palestinian experiences closer to the homeland. Translating this into music revealed no easy separation of art from the slogans from those subject to colonialism on the ground. The exhortation “we will not submit” (lan narka’) also appeared in the drawings of Naji al-Ali, coming directly from the language of protest, and was written on the placards of women protesting during the intifada a decade after the Kofia recording (Abrahams, 1994).
In “Daughter of Palestine”, the first verse was performed in Swedish by Carina, with all joining in the chorus. The second verse is sung by George in Arabic, the language of the second chorus where, in an action that came to define Kofia performances, lyrics in both languages were learned by band and audience. Attesting to the participatory nature of the group’s concerts, the album version came from an energetic concert at the Sprangkullen, a center of DIY and leftist musicianship in Gothenburg.
Kofia earned international renown in leftist circles, with the group invited to perform at socialist events in Baader Meinhoff-era West Berlin, and at a concert alongside Chilean and other international protest singers in Tehran, on the one-year anniversary of the Iranian revolution (Brehony, 2020b). As well as expressing solidarity with Palestine, such invitations related to the internationalism of Kofia songs such as George’s setting to music of “Iran Mitt Land”/“Iran Baladi”(“Iran My Land”) by Iranian communist Ashraf Degani, and “Stupad Kampe”/“Ya Shahid al-Darb” (“Oh fallen fighter”), which supported resistance to the Omani dictatorship of Sultan Qabous.
Kofia albums, three vinyls and a cassette, released between 1976 and 1988, would relate to varying degrees with events on the ground in Palestine, attacking “Zionists and Arab reactionaries” after the Tel al-Za’atar massacre of 1976 (“Tel-e-Zaatar”); narrating the horrors of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon (“Södra Libanon”/“South Lebanon” and “Bomba inte mer”/“La Tiqtilu al-Atfal”/“Stop killing the children,” 1984); and a longing to be back in Palestine as the intifada erupted in 1988 (“Eshtana”/“I’ve missed her”). Kofia would evolve away from known traditional melodies, toward their own melodic repertoire and musical innovations; members would come and go but longstanding member Mats was pioneering in his approach to Arab music-inspired 12-string and electric guitar.
A key influence on George Totari and Kofia in the years after his 1967 arrival in Sweden from Palestine had been Ghassan Kanafani, both in the socialist realism of his storytelling and in his contribution to the PFLP journal al-Hadaf, which had an international circulation. The songwriter reports, “I got to know his work intimately in al-Hadaf magazine. Of course, I was influenced strongly by what I read and interacted with.” Totari admits to goals based primarily on exile conditions: “We wrote these songs to teach the Swedes about the Palestinian struggle.” Learning was part of the activity of the group and its wider periphery, relating to language, political events, and the musical engagement of the attending crowd in participatory concerts. Singing in Swedish and Arabic denoted inclusivity, attempting to tether the Palestinian struggle to local and international movements against imperialism.
By the fourth Kofia album, however, released after the outbreak of the 1987 intifada in Palestine, the songs offered a sense of hunger to contribute to the struggle on the ground in Palestine. With new material sung entirely in Arabic, “Palestine Lives” (incidentally the first Kofia album to feature an English title) evoked earlier benedictions to Nazareth and Galilee, and the beauty of the homeland:
Love and art
Your beauty, Yafa
The lighthouse on the beach swaying and seducing
Gaza, oh mother of kindness
Gaza, oh mother of childhood
Give me your hand, give me your hand
We’ll go to ‘Akka, we’ll go to Haifa
The album sleeve used an iconic Sliman Mansour painting of a kuffieh-adorned dove breaking the bars of a prison, in an album George dedicated to the “memory of the fallen leaders of the Palestinian Revolution and the heroic Palestinian people.” The years to follow would see a winding down of the project: “people had jobs, families, lives,” and George had to leave the oud behind following arthritic issues. With a shifting balance of forces internationally and European leftist scenes in retreat, it was clear that the movement that had sustained Kofia as a social phenomenon of the 1970s and early 1980s was no more.
Yet “Palestine Lives” was to be no swansong. Alone among the Palestinian musicians featured in this article, George Totari continues to write and perform, and at the time of writing, a new incarnation of Kofia have released a fifth album, “I Write Your Name …,” a mere 34 years after their fourth.
Palestinians living in areas of mass displacement in the 1980s remember George Kirmiz as a “phenomenon” in the refugee camps and student cities, whose duplicated cassettes spread like wildfire. Songs like “Ana Ismi Sha’b Falastini” (“My Name is the Palestinian People”) and “Sabran sabran” (the chorus to “Sarab,” or “Mirage”) were among his most popular and, cropping up in Cairo, Amman, and Damascus, also proved a hit among exiled students. Using simply arranged guitar and piano as the backbone of resistance songs, most songs were set to the words of well-known Palestinian and Arab poets. What arguably made them a success were the “hooks,” where simple rhythms backed up resistance-based lyrics:
Imprison, blow up, and kill all my loved ones
Burn my house, burn my crops, and burn all of the books
It is impossible to quench the thirst of the thirsty
On flows your mirage
Patience, their fangs will not triumph over my child’s smile
Patience, my mother
Patience, my sister
Patience and endure
(“Sarab,” Tawfiq Zayyad)
For the vast majority who listened to his music, Kirmiz was a faceless, selfless figure in popular culture. As “Ana Ismi Sha’b Falastini” – also the name of Kirmiz’s 1981 debut album – suggested, the revolutionary artist could melt into the masses, shedding individualism, and unifying the self with collective interest. The song imagined the singer’s origins through a list of colonized, occupied cities, from Tiberius to al-Quds ‘Arabiyya, or Arab Jerusalem.
Kirmiz’s debut album was reproduced with no fewer than three different covers (Figure 4). And then, by the decade’s closure, and three more cassettes later, Kirmiz vanished, and his song production halted. Rumors abounded. Ahmad Jamil ‘Azam voices the common rumor that the musician may not have been Palestinian at all (2017). For, Muhannad Abu Ghosh, no one would ever know Kirmiz’s identity, “in which closed room” he sang “in fear of Shin Bet,” “how his tapes were recorded and distributed on the doorsteps,” or “how a guerrilla named George Kirmiz disappeared” (Abu Ghosh, 2014).
Speculation around Kirmiz’s possible guerrilla involvement found encouragement in his poetic choices, where the fight for return was depicted graphically through imagery of the mountains, cities and a hunger to recover the land from its colonizing force:
I, cloud of my life, am the hills of Galilee,
I am the bosom of Haifa
And the forehead of Jaffa.
So do not whisper: it is impossible.
Can you not hear my child’s approaching footsteps
At the threshold of your soul?
Can you not see the veins of my brow
Striving to kiss your lips?
(“Ila Sahaba”/“To a Cloud,” poetry by Rashid Hussain) 12
Oh my Jerusalem, my beautiful
By my notebook, my pen
And the fire of my rife
I will break the cage
(“Arduna Jamila”/“Our Beautiful Land”)
Is there anything that can kill determination
in a resisting people?
My homeland, though they may forget
has witnessed a thousand conquerors
And they melted
as the thawing of snow!
(“Ayyu Shay’in Yaqtulu al-Israr”/“Is there anything that can kill determination”)
Musically, Kirmiz’s work lent itself to rumors of his non-Palestinian identity. The piano was center-stage on both the “Ana Ismi” album and the 1985 cassette dedicated to Palestinian and Arab political prisoners, “Min Ansar Ila ‘Asqalan” (“From Ansar to Asqalan”). The latter featured no prominent guitar – Kirmiz’s first instrument. He’d pursue similar vocal techniques to Marcel Khalife’s and increasingly featured the oud, following basic maqam frameworks.
Though archive photographs offer a partial insight into Kirmiz’s involvement in the Palestinian band al-Baraem prior to his leaving Palestine in the late 1970s, 13 his journey and career have remained clouded until very recently (Boulos and Brehony, 2022). There is much research to be published on Kirmiz’s time in Palestine, which involved his internment at the hands of the Zionist state in the 1970s. 14 This surely expedited his leaving, as it did for fellow Jerusalemite musician Mustafa al-Kurd. Here, we focus on his work in the US and political relationships furthered by his music. Kirmiz would break off contact with his al-Baraem bandmates and leave Palestine in 1976. Yet this was where his musical journey would begin in earnest. Here, he would write and record a set of songs that would have a long-distance influence and reach into the homes of oppressed Palestinians.
Original pressings of Kirmiz’s debut album actually contained his full address, in the migrant melting pot of Yspilanti, Michigan, suggesting that the artist had welcomed contact during his first years in the US. A close listening to a clean version of the 1981 vinyl release allows for other observations and interpretations. George performed nearly all of the vocal and instrumental parts on the album – double-tracked vocals with occasional harmonies (typically thirds), acoustic guitars, Arab tabla, and drums. Yet the piano of an M. Abdein presented the songs on a silver platter, with arpeggiated introductions underpinned by cymbal rolls and guitar melodies. During a digitalization process which accompanied research for this article, studio expert Ben Tyreman commented on Kirmiz’s probable use of a 12-string guitar for simple melodic lines and chorus effects applied to vocals in some songs. 15
There had clearly been some musical and conceptual development since Kirmiz’s time in Palestine. But there was a continuation, initially at least, with some of what he had heard in Jerusalem. The vocal introduction to “Ana Ismi Sha’b Filastini,” for example, echoed the work of al-Kurd both melodically and lyrically. 16 Hinting at Kirmiz’s internationalist credentials, sleeve notes stated that the song was co-written by an unnamed “Belgian struggler.” 17
Speaking to Kirmiz’s own experience, the Ahmad Fu’ad Nagm poem “‘Anwan al-Beit” (“Address of the House”) was dedicated to political prisoners under regional incarceration. With driving guitar and propulsive 4/4 rhythm (iqa’ baladi), the song was produced, unlike “Hiya wal-Ard,” quickly and roughly, continuing the simplicity of the title track and “Sarab,” both of which found enthusiastic reception in Palestinian refugee camps. Copying and distributing the tapes was relatively easily done during a period when Palestinians studied in the States and traveled backward and forth, and a single cassette could light a match that would spread rapidly.
Kirmiz’s sound evolved intensely over a short period – he released four albums from 1981–1985 alongside involvement in exile activism; 1982’s “Tariq al-Ard” (“The Way to the Land”) album continued his evolution as a resistance songwriter. “Al-Waylu Lakum” was an example of a tahdid, or threat upon the oppressor, where Kirmiz sang, “woe upon you, should the era of fire pass you by,” and promoted decolonization by armed means. “Yalla ya ‘Ushaq al-Ard” (“Let’s Go, Oh Lovers of the Land”) extolled the physical labor of liberating its colonized soil. The cover of this album and the next depicted the land, here with simply drawn stalks of wheat, and then with cacti, symbolizing steadfast determination to remain. Like the vinyl stickers of Kirmiz’s first release, the original artwork gave the impression of home production and design by hand.
Rami Rasheed, then a student activist and contemporary of Kirmiz, remembers the musician as a notable performer of the June 1983 national conference of Palestinian students in Chicago: “it was said that he was a supporter or a follower of the PFLP,” 18 while the buying of an oud for Kirmiz by DFLP supporters did not result in him joining. 19 Palestinian student conferences brought attendees from other exile locations, including freed political prisoners, such as Salah al-Ta’amari, who had been freed from Ansar prison in Lebanon and attended in 1985, the year of Kirmiz’s album “Min Ansar Ila ‘Asqalan” (“From Ansar to Asqalan”), dedicated to the cause of political prisoners.
On March 17, 1984, Kirmiz performed at a Palestinian Land Day event at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, hosted by the Organization of Palestinian Students (OPS), with around 200 attending (Hardesty, 1984). In The University Echo, a bearded Kirmiz is pictured onstage before a Palestinian flag, singing and playing a frame drum, while audience members smile and listen. OPS President Marwan Mougrabhi told the paper that the event aimed to counter the negative media view of Palestinians as terrorists and assert that “our roots buried deep in the land of Palestine will pull us back.” In what was clearly a productive year for Kirmiz, an advertisement in the American Muslim Journal showed that the “Palestinian folk singer” also performed in Chicago on August 10 at an event entitled the “Second Annual Commemoration for the Victims of Sabra-Shatila Massacre and Untold Story of Ansar Prison Camp,” alongside guest speakers and discussions (Trompf, 1990: 387).
While Kirmiz proved a draw for Palestinian exiles, there is evidence that his artistic and political activity also sought to draw support for Palestine and resistance culture beyond Arabic-speaking gatherings. Working in his brother’s shoe repair shop during the day, Kirmiz was intensely productive in local scenes. He and his band engaged in a 15-city US concert tour in 1984; a April 13, 1984 Ann Arbor News article, entitled “Not just another pretty navel” names Kirmiz’s percussionist Bob Cranmer, who also performed for bellydancers (Di Liscia, 1984). Heralded as “Ann Arbor’s own George Kirmiz,” the musician is named in the Michigan Daily as a singing guitar and oud player, accompanied by “a quintet playing mostly Arabic instruments” at a March 2, 1984, concert at Michigan Union Ballroom (Advertisement, 1984).
Kirmiz also appears in Michigan’s local student paper on February 14, 1985, as a letter-writing reader, praising an anti-war cartoon depicting then Zionist army chief Ariel Sharon as the face of a tank flattening a Lebanese family in their street (Kirmiz, 1984). Responding to “pathetic” pro-Israel letters which had sought to paint the invasion positively, Kirmiz exposed the “double-speak” of Sharon, pointing out that the continual retreat of the invaders reflected the strength of Lebanese resistance. He writes with encouragement that “we Americans are becoming more familiar with the complexities of the Middle East.”
Kirmiz’s networking in activist circles in North America is further highlighted in two contrasting examples, highlighting his work’s attractiveness for differing reasons to revolutionary and liberalizing tendencies. First, a 1983 song “Al-Tariq” (“The Road”) appeared in Broadside song magazine (Ritter, 1985: 17), in a collection of Middle Eastern, Israeli and Jewish songs with lyric translations and music transcriptions. Zeinab Shaath’s “Write Down, I’m an Arab” was also printed, alongside rather dubious material by US pacifists, including choruses of “My Israel, My Palestine” (9). Kirmiz’s lyrics speak clearly to resistance and sumud:
My people have taken a vow
to stay on the road of sacrifice
For the sake of the land
and of the martyrs.
In a second example of how his music was received, Kirmiz sent his set of four cassettes to the Voice of Palestine radio station in Canada in 1988. Its organizer Hanna Kawas remembers that, from its inception in 1987, “revolutionary music and songs had been an essential part of the show.” 20 Predictably, the station was attacked by Zionists, including on regional front pages. Kirmiz’s cassettes were played “so many times” that they were worn out, though Kawas kept hold of them.
The two examples above suggest that Kirmiz’s US activism involved musical and narrative transmission to a cross-section of listeners. The Kirmiz heard in Palestinian refugee camps and student metropoles of colonized Palestine, in near-exile, and by anti-imperialist activists like Kawwas, could only ever be heard as the music of struggle. Abu Ghosh rightly situates Kirmiz’s “disappearance” within the context of the intifada and its repression (2014). But while the dawn of Oslo’s great betrayal had not yet broken, here was a language of resistance.
Problems with Sugar Man
References to the Searching for Sugar Man film were made in passing by interlocutors during this research, more often than not carrying benign and rather complementary meanings toward the musicians in question. Problems come with a more general application of the concept of discovery to lost passages in the history of Palestinian music, impacted by the consequences of colonial underdevelopment and the continued national oppression of the Palestinian people. That both the audience and those attributed with “finding” Sugar Man came from a settler-colonial society in South Africa – albeit an apparently liberal section – sits most incongruously with the Palestinian situation; for there to be a Palestinian “Sugar Man” would require the impossible other of an Israeli current to “find” them and enable, rather than suppress, their cultural expression.
The propelling of Rodriguez to fame through the making and aftermath of the Sugar Man film was a “rags to riches” story par excellence, where a team of researchers and filmmakers saw the artistic greatness of their idol as unbefitting of the life of an anonymous laborer in a working-class community of the US. Here was the catapulting of one-off members of the poor to stardom: the “known trick” of a “token scene,” as Coup rapper Boots Riley once observed. 21 Wrote Marx and Engels of bourgeois society, “capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (1986 : 49).
We may find the individualistic heroism of Western film and media incomparable to the conscious affiliation of one with all in the national liberation movement. Heroism, writes Meari on Palestinian political prisoners, consists here not of “individual heroes but a series; they embody others and others embody them” (2014). Though the contributions of the musicians and poets referenced in this article are distinct, speaking to a diversity of experience in conditions of Palestinian exile – and to the multiculturalism of pre-Nakba Palestine – there are common themes and goals. It should be highlighted that filaments of anonymity, present to varying degrees in the lives and works of the three musicians, set them apart from the bourgeois individualism of the “token scene” of detached Sugar Men.
The first Kofia album sleeve anonymized the musicians. To George Totari, “we were doing our duty … our names were not important.” Here, as in the arguments made through the artistry of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, the individual is collectivized into the “nahnu,” the we of a committed revolutionary cadre (2012: 103). Among the countless revolutionaries to have contributed under anonymity include Engels, Luxemburg, and Kanafani. In locations of exile, the musicians organized and performed openly, were well-known to members of a wider movement and, more often than not, did not hide their identities. However, dialectics of anonymization weaved through their work, from the unknowns of lyric translators to leaving album sleeves free of musicians’ names.
For listeners in Palestine, Kirmiz was anonymous, and has remained so decades after his songs were recorded, yet his place of residency was known to US cassette-buyers. Anonymity sometimes happened in rather accidental ways. Out of the control of musicians once the dissemination of their recordings was in flow, cassette distribution into Palestine and around exile circuits sometimes led to the confusion of artists; some listeners thought Kirmiz was a Kofia band member, or attributed his songs to Marcel Khalife. Or, in the experience of Zeinab, a set of recordings she donated to the Palestine Information Center in Washington DC was reproduced anonymously and distributed in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine – “people found them in music shops in Jerusalem … So somebody made money out of it.” Grassroots production has the potential to either serve the masses, or fill the pockets of opportunists.
A key Sugar-Man narrative is a rescuing of musical heritage from anonymity, with acts of being “lost” and “found” exhibiting notions of other and self, and carrying deeper socio-historic meanings. In the Palestinian case, cultural anonymization in conditions of ongoing dispossession is suggestive of double meanings. On the part of the collective “self” in the process of revolutionary becoming, 22 anonymization combats individualism and aids security of comradeship from outside threat, yet carried out at gunpoint by the oppressing “other,” it threatens outright erasure. Examples of the latter include the looting of Ismail Shammout’s “Urgent Call” among items stolen by the Zionist invaders of Beirut in 1982, fattening colonialist military archives replete with the artifacts of centuries of social memory. Disappearing heritages of vulnerable media such as cassettes furthers the Zionist cause of disappearing indigenous expression.
Yet it matters who does the “finding,” where and how it takes place, and what interests are represented through the process. For Sela, the act of locating materials by Shammout and others in the Zionist military archive amounted to “discovery.” Elsewhere, in her Israeli Lottery-funded Made Public project, the aims were to “restore” items “discovered” in “military archives in Israel” to the “Israeli and Palestinian public sphere” (Sela, 2009). How such cultural artifacts are “restored” is a case in point. Like other video examples circulated by Sela, the version of The Urgent Call is stamped, “I.D.D. & Defense Establishment Archives.” An era characterized by the redefined yet close relationship between culture and imperialism gives rise to “disquieting forms of domination,” writes Said (1994, 331).
For Bashar Shammout, the research of Sela at least gave evidence to the claims of his father on the Beirut theft. At the same time, Bashar admits:
I’m not comfortable with the whole issue. The Israelis are presenting themselves as the source of knowledge about Palestinian history. They are trying to present themselves as if they know more about the Palestinian issue than we do. 23
Despite appearances – and disproportionate attention given to the “discoveries” of Israeli researchers – the “Urgent Call” was not rescued from the Zionist archive. The film featuring Zeinab Shaath already existed in a clean, unstamped version in the Shammout family archive and was re-released by Bashar and supporters of Palestinian film in Europe, premiering at Sheffield Hallam University in June 2018.
A degree of self-othering takes place within the drive to “discover” by the colonized. The allure of a seemingly distant memory of collective experience tends to ascribe figures and movements to historic fixity, however relevant the lessons and contribution may be. But there is a clear difference between Palestinians seeking to uncover passages of their lost musical heritage and “liberal” Israeli voices claiming discovery while crediting the colonizing forces with ownership. What appears, in the work of Israeli “archivists,” as the expression of a voyeuristic, colonialist mentality stands in starkness to works of solidarity, intended clearly to provide the oppressed with tools to piece together their stolen history. Ramamurthy and Kelemen, who worked with Bashar on the restoration project, saw promoting the Palestinian archive as part of mounting a direct challenge to a hegemonic status quo (2020: 22).
Al-Jazeera filmmaker Bashar Hamdan had ambitions in 2020 to produce a film entitled The Search for George Kirmiz, but soon gave up on the idea, remarking that, “It just wasn’t possible.” 24 Kirmiz, for one, forcefully avoids the Sugar-Man cliché, refusing to be “found” or to “speak” beyond the voice found on his recordings. Though music curators had claimed to have his agreement to produce a film about him 25 – news that had reached Reem Talhami and others in Palestine – the claim appears to have been fabricated. 26 Speaking to a family member in 2021, I was informed that around a dozen would-be interviewers had been in touch and were being knocked back. Yet, hinting at an ongoing connection to Kirmiz’s revolutionary heritage, he did in fact speak to Palestine-based researchers about his time in Zionist imprisonment for an archive project yet to be released. 27 The collective histories enveloped in political prisoner experiences – narrated by all three songwriters – operate on another plane to individualist stardom.
Conclusions: The Target in Palestinian Musicianship
Though the Palestinian Revolution signifies a moment in history (c1965–1982) with its own language and cultural artifacts, it would be wrong to consign its narrative to a foregone moment or otherness to be curated by compromised social forces. This suggestion is evidenced by the ongoing relevance found by Palestinian youth in several of its most important tenets, including the right of return, armed struggle, and a commitment to decolonizing the whole of historic Palestine. 28 For Ghassan Kanafani, a truly liberated entity was intimately connected to forging a committed people to embody the cause of Palestine (1968). The concept of “the target,” al-hadaf, takes on broad forms in his work, connoting the social transformation fought for by the PFLP, and is linked in his writing to developing political theory “linked to revolutionary practice” (Kanafani, 2015: 180).
For Palestinian activists of both revolutionary and bourgeois trends, communication was key to developing international networks of solidarity or negotiating international loci of power. Language (primarily English) was utilized to present mediated messages beyond Arab centers, in a context where the Palestinian movement was led and fought in exile. The three musicians were of this generation and movement. For a young Zeinab, composing English translations of radical Palestinian poetry was a means of reaching out beyond forms that she saw as more restrictive in their reach. It made her stand out in Arab milieus, furthered support from the socialist bloc, and, later, brought her songs to North American listeners.
Language – and we may broaden this definition from the linguistic to the musical – constituted a conscious mode of transmission, as Zeinab explains. Though the PLO officialized a policy of reaching out to the West, 29 Zeinab did not simply fall in line with this policy, but her music would continue to be associated with the PLO. In Sweden, Totari’s Kofia band offered a contrasting experience. Working outside of Fatah/PLO-dominated channels, Palestinians in the group found inspiration in al-Hadaf magazine and socialism. Commitment to bilingualism aimed directly to transmit Palestinian narratives to European listeners, constituting a form of communal education. In Michigan, Kirmiz wrote to the local press to garner support for the cause, while his songs flowed back to Palestine.
Musically, the three offered unique aesthetic arguments on how Palestine should be presented, and all were primarily self-taught as musicians and songwriters. Artistic professionality is a concern of Palestinian cultural commentators. One listener and activist quipped that, for one of the artists, “unfortunately their only talent is that they are Palestinian.” Musically speaking, all were guilty of moments of vocal nashaz (being out of tune), and of unrefined string technique, but there is something of a misnomer in elevating one musician above the other in technical terms. More important could be the question of another kind of “talent”: for furthering the goal of building the Palestinian resistance movement through song.
Totari admitted that his musical education “came in the street,” while Kirmiz had been performing for barely a decade after his learning guitar from fellow amateurs in al-Baraem before recording as a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter. The comments above on talent are suggestive of the high demands on artistic contributors to the Palestinian cause made by activists, intellectuals, and fellow performers. Highly committed musicians often object to the directness of sloganizing, yet there is no doubting the enthusiasm at the grassroots for such clearly politicized contributions. Totari and Kirmiz both utilized poetry alongside music containing clearer demands, which continue to coexist and coalesce in left-nationalist and high-art sound worlds.
A key talent of all three musicians came in their successful navigation of the collective scenes in which they were involved. Such interactions brought their contrasting visions of al-hadaf into light, and consign Sugar-Man-styled individualism to irrelevance. Their strategies of socio-musical and poetic communication sometimes galvanized audiences and listeners with powerful effect. The musicians’ heyday came before the fall of the Soviet Union, Oslo, cultural NGOization, and a deepening crisis for the Palestinian movement. Listening again brings echoes of an unfinished revolution.