‘Borders don’t make sense’: A musician’s tribute to a Levantine memory

Haya Zaatry speaks with +972 about how her great-grandmother inspired her new album, the challenges of promoting diversity in an oppressed society, and the importance of Palestinian women creating their own art.

The first time Palestinian singer and musician Haya Zaatry sang about borders and promises, her lyrics were captivating, and her voice mesmerizing. The theme of her song, “Borders and Promises,” was all too familiar for many Palestinians living in Israel, yet also hard to grasp: two lovers separated by borders in the relatively small Levant, one in Israel and one in Syria or Lebanon.   

“So far no matter how close

The same sea and shore

The same air and wind

Not exactly the same cage

But the same wounded bird.”

Almost a decade has passed since then, and Zaatry has not stopped singing about the geopolitical absurdities that define the reality for millions of Palestinians and Arabs across the Levant.

A self-taught musician and an architect, Zaatry’s smooth vocals flicker between the alluring tones of Souad Massi and the ingenuity of Joni Mitchell. Her style stems from wistful acoustic folk blending seamlessly with Arabic musical inflections, imbibed in the cities that nurtured her: Nazareth, where she was born, and Haifa, where she has lived for almost a decade.

Zaatry’s brave lyrics and unique tunes continue with her latest album, “Rahawan,” which dropped last spring, and which she wrote and composed herself. The album is named after her great-grandmother, Nazira Rahawan, who was born in Damascus in 1890, moved to Haifa, settled in Nazareth, and died in the 1970s.

Zaatry accidentally came across Rahawan’s Palestinian passport when, after her great-aunt died, she was helping the family put away Rahawan’s belongings. Zaatry was shocked: it was her first time holding an official document that had “Palestine” on it, and it felt like holding a “treasure.”

“I was fascinated by this woman, her character, and her ability to freely pass between Damascus and here, and how that is very far from our reality today,” she told +972. “It drew me to deal with the idea of passage with such liquidity, in all its meaning and breaching of borders, whether actual or intellectual.”

The music in “Rahawan” fills the gap between Zaatry’s reality and her great-grandmother’s, and is a tribute to Arab women of the region, especially Palestinians. Zaatry sings about the women who were once able to move freely within the Levant, as well as to her late grandmother whom she was close to, and to Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love.

“What is beautiful about Nazira, my grandmother Bassima, and my family is that it is a matriarchal [unit] where these women had a vital status in our lives,” Zaatry said.

“I cannot recall at which stage in my life I realized that we live in an abnormal and nonorganic situation,” she continued. “We are extracted from our context despite having our shared culture, communication, love, and family ties. Borders do not make sense, especially when enforced violently and meant to always erase the identity [of Palestinians] systematically.”

Since writing her song “Borders and Promises” in 2015, though, Zaatry “started to see this land more widely, because I gained more knowledge and grew older, so I started to see things differently. I understood that [our] natural environment is the Levant, and all the irrational, political, violent divisions confine us to a certain place, limit our freedom of movement, and affect our identity.”

‘A process of becoming’

Zaatry’s artistic career has shown clear progression since she first began singing while strumming her guitar. Her appeal was drawn through her beautiful lyrics and her identity as an independent, young Palestinian woman writing her own courageous songs, coupled with her unique style and fluent playing of the guitar.

Haya Zaatry. (César Cid)
Haya Zaatry. (César Cid)

“It was a process of becoming,” Zaatry said. “Talking about myself within my society and how I feel being part of such a society, my identity and how it is perceived.”

Zaatry began her musical career with the much-lauded “Manakir” (“Nail Varnish”) on the seminal “Ghanni 3an Ta3rif” album, produced by a group of influential Palestinian artists eight years ago. The song was recently featured on the Netflix show “AlRawabi School For Girls.”

Zaatry quickly embedded herself within the local grassroots community by co-founding Eljam, a non-profit project that worked to empower the Palestinian underground music scene from 2016 to 2020. Her melodies and lyrics take listeners on deep emotional voyages, inviting them to the most intimate corners of her colorful Levantine soul, while thoughtfully challenging the boundaries of social, political, and gender matters within her local environment.

Feeding into Zaatry’s music is her own academic research, completed during her Masters at the Technion Institute, in which she focused on the question of reviving Palestinian urbanity in Haifa, exploring the concepts of city, place, culture, and identity. “The background readings I had to do to complete my research opened my eyes and made me understand what we feel all the time,” she said.

During the pandemic, Zaatry also took courses organized by alQaws, a civil society organization working for sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society, exposing her to a marginalized community that opened her to new worlds she was not familiar with before.

“I come from a world that focuses on spaces and objects and our understanding of both,” she said, signaling her career in architecture and urban planning. “It is impossible to ignore borders when coming from that background and to ignore house demolitions and what building is built where. That process of becoming developed throughout time and made me see the reality with these components.”

Art in an oppressive reality

Last month, Zaatry felt compelled to cancel a scheduled concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah due to Israel’s siege on the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, and the deadly military incursions and battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the occupied territories. She said that it was hard to even think about performing while such violent events were happening.

“I had a wide range of emotions about it,” she explained. “At first, I felt that it was normal [to cancel] because this is our reality, which in itself is a tragedy because we shouldn’t feel like this is normal. [Yet] I tried to look at myself from a wider angle, and to think of musicians who are not living here, and how absurd it would be for them to cancel a concert because of violence here, and how absurd it would be to live under colonial occupation in the first place.”

Haya Zaatry performing at Fattoush, Haifa. (Maria Zreik)
Haya Zaatry performing at Fattoush, Haifa. (Heba Khutaba)

This was not the first time Zaatry has had to cancel a show. Indeed, these are the dilemmas that she and other Palestinian artists constantly have to face when trying to balance between planning concerts and celebrating their work on the one hand, and experiencing and navigating the oppressive contexts in which they reside alongside other Palestinians.

“Is now a good time to announce my new album’s tour, or is now not a good time?” she posed as one frequent question local artists often grapple with. “The whole time there is this thinking about how to place ourselves in the middle of the given situation, as part of our people living under the same reality of occupation.”

In addition to Israeli control, in recent months, several artists had to cancel their shows in the West Bank and Jerusalem after facing threats from some Palestinian groups opposing certain artists’ identities and lyrics about sexuality or religion. In August, Palestinian pop artist Bashar Murad, an openly gay singer who has been performing locally for more than two years without backlash, canceled his concert in Ramallah after “thugs” attacked the venue where he was performing.

When asked about these attacks from within the community, Zaatry said that it was very hard to witness. “Personally, it is very frustrating,” she said. “Let’s take me for an example: most of my desire to become an artist was to add diversity to my society, to add something new, to talk about our situation, and to build a safe space through the songs I write for people to connect with, ask questions, and face whatever they are facing. It becomes excruciating when there are violent reactions from the same place you are trying to give to.”

Notwithstanding these social prejudices, Zaatary stressed that it is “very important to clarify that the backlash we are facing is a direct result of colonial occupation, and part of a ‘natural’ process which happens when we are living in this reality.”

Zaatry believes that such Palestinian backlash started intensifying after the events of May 2021, when a mass Palestinian uprising, a campaign of Israeli repression, and a brutal war consumed the country. She described it as a process of action and reaction: “Every time there are attempts to erase our Palestinian identity, some groups [in society] will hold tighter to that identity in a rigid way, while reacting violently to those Palestinians who do not fit into the groups’ definition of identity.”

Palestinian children light candles during a protest near destroyed buildings in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, May 25, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian children light candles during a protest near destroyed buildings in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, May 25, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

When asked how Palestinians can overcome such internal violence against each other, Zaatry replied that trying to come up with solutions keeps her awake at night. “We must continue doing what we do best and not give in to voices that try to suppress us, which I stand against in all their forms,” she said. “Practically speaking, we need more work through NGOs and researchers to come together and raise awareness around how to tackle this and look at the big picture.”

‘Women’s voices always bring something new’

In the face of these multiple threats, Zaatry believes that it is vital for Palestinians, in particular women, to assert themselves in all fields of life. “Women’s voices always bring something new,” she said. “When I give an architecture workshop, I always say that no man will ever understand what a woman feels when walking in a certain area or street alone at night. We experience the spaces, the politics, and everything differently and sensitively, which is important to talk about and listen to, and no one else can describe it but us.”

Zaatry found that there was a great deal of support and encouragement among Palestinian indie female artists for each other, and a feeling of building a vibrant space that can make them feel they are not alone or working in a vacuum. “I think, as in life, in music the female voice always brings new things,” she said. “Our experience in the world and the music industry is very different from the male experience, and so it is equally important for people to talk and hear about.”

In the same vein, Zaatry praised the self-reliant approach of many Palestinian women in creating and delivering their art even amid the lack of local resources. “Independence allows freedom in what you can say, apart from your own self-censorship, which makes you question if you can sing about one topic or the other,” she said. “This kind of independence allows such content to exist — the content that touches us, talks about us, and looks like us.”

That freedom and sense of self are felt and reflected in Zaatry’s album. The opening song, itself titled “Rahawan,” is based on the style of Palestinian folk music and accompanied by an electronic guitar. The second song, ”Alouli” (“They Told Me”), addresses the social values that a patriarchal and oppressive society tries to impose on women in the context of a colonial reality — an experience that resonates among many Palestinian and Arab women.

In “Plumeria,” one can hear the rustling sound of bracelets — those of Zaatry’s late grandmother, traditional jewelry called mabareem, which the singer inherited. It is a beautiful, fitting tribute to Zaatry’s childhood memory, and one which honors the matriarchs who inspire her to this day.