The Palestinian artist reviving the forgotten sounds of the intifada

After discovering a treasure trove of Bedouin music in a shuttered Jenin cassette store, Mo’min Swaitat is re-releasing the lost songs of his youth.

Mo'min Swaitat in London, August 10, 2022. (Alice Austin)
Mo'min Swaitat in London, August 10, 2022. (Alice Austin)

Mo’min Swaitat sips a can of Coke outside London’s Barbican performing arts center. It’s an unacceptably hot day in August and Swaitat seems to be the only person coping. While everyone around him melts, he looks cool as a morning breeze in a white t-shirt by the food collective Azkadinya, dark blue jeans, and New Balance trainers.

In just a few hours, he has his residency on independent radio station NTS, which he seems excited about. It’s called Palestine Sound Archive x Majazz Project, and every month he plays a handful of the thousands of Palestinian jazz, funk, and Bedouin recordings he’s amassed, often alongside a Palestinian artist or ally. Today, his guests are Saint Levant, Bayou, and a new Lebanese-Palestinian label called Abu Recordings. “The project is so unique, people see it as more of a cultural movement than a label,” he says in a clipped London accent.

When Swaitat first discovered the collection of music that became The Majazz Tapes in early 2020, he simply planned to reissue the forgotten Bedouin Palestinian music that was the soundtrack of his youth. But the project quickly outgrew those ambitions. Today, the Majazz Project is a label, a radio show, and a community, and it will soon also be made into performance art. It is a musical planet around which Palestinian artists and allies can orbit. And at just over two years old, it’s only getting started.

Since leaving his Bedouin village outside Jenin for London in 2011 (his village is also named Swaitat, after his family), Swaitat has regularly returned to visit. So when he made the trip back in February 2020, he wasn’t expecting to stay much longer than two weeks. Needless to say, the universe had other plans.

One day, when he was wandering the quiet streets of a locked-down Jenin, he noticed the shuttered windows of Tariq Cassettes, a record label and music shop he frequented as a teen. “It was right next to my school, and the owner lives right next to my grandma in Jenin [Refugee] Camp,” Swaitat says. “So I called him to ask if I could listen to the tapes, mainly so I could hear the music of my family — I remembered that he always recorded my uncles at weddings.”

Mo'min Swaitat in London, August 10, 2022. (Alice Austin)
Mo’min Swaitat in London, August 10, 2022. (Alice Austin)

A few days later, Swaitat found himself sitting in a room crammed full of old cassettes and vinyls. He saw it as a gift from the lockdown Gods. He spent the next six months listening to an aural history of his people, diving far beyond the archives of his own family. “It had been shut down for almost 20 years, so everything was so dusty and disorganized,” Swaitat says. “But I created a listening station and sat there for hours listening to Palestinian revolutionary music, Palestinian soul, jazz, punk, and Bedouin field recordings.”

Swaitat was drawn to a tape with the word “Intifada” hand-written on it. After some investigating, he discovered that it was created by a man called Riad Awwad in 1987, and was full of music grounded in Awwad’s experiences from the beginning of the First Intifada. Awwad was killed in a car accident in 2005, but his sister told Swaitat that he would be delighted to know his music was being rediscovered.

Swaitat asked Tariq, the owner of the cassette store, if he’d sell him everything, and within a couple of days Swaitat was the proud owner of around 7,000 tapes. He lugged them back to London and immediately applied for funding from Jerwood Arts to launch a home studio. There, he began mastering and reissuing the forgotten music of his people.

‘I’m not sure how I survived being a teenage boy from Jenin’

Swaitat was born into violence and oppression in May 1989, at the height of the First Intifada. His village was enduring nightly raids by the Israeli army, so when his mother went into labor she couldn’t reach a hospital. She delivered Swaitat in her bedroom, while her brother was being treated for gunshot wounds in the room next door.

Swaitat’s early memories include seeing his neighbor get arrested, and watching Israeli special forces dress up as Muslim women to enter the local mosque and arrest an activist. Despite being the youngest of seven children in his family, no one attempted to explain the occupation to Swaitat. His parents and siblings let him come to his own conclusions, so he grew up thinking this was normal.

He only realized the absurdity of his situation when a cousin picked him up to take him to their house in Haifa and they could easily pass through the Salem checkpoint outside Jenin thanks to his Israeli license plates. When Swaitat met his extended family, whose mannerisms and dialect were identical to his own, he began to see that something serious had happened to his people, and to understand the artificiality of the divide between the two sides of his family.

Palestinian children play on an empty street during a strike in Jenin, West Bank, in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, September 11, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian children play on an empty street during a strike in Jenin, West Bank, in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, September 11, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

But amid the mayhem there was always music. During wedding season, the population of Swaitat would swell ten times in size, and that’s when his family’s band would come out to play. The band, so good they don’t need a name, is still legendary in the Palestinian Bedouin music community, and they continue to make their living through performing today.

Back then, in the mid ‘90s, Swaitat remembers feeling submerged in the psychedelic sounds of the oud, rababa, and darbuka, transfixed by the never-ending improvization over the same looping beat. “It was more like a carnival in a way,” Swaitat says. “It was a big celebration of families getting together with maybe 10 days of preparation, and all through this period there’d be music coming from the different houses.”

Swaitat got his own taste for performance while playing in the forests near his home as a kid. He would imagine he was a superhero, defeating the men in green uniforms who raided his village. When he was 13, this fantasy came to life: while running through the forest, climbing from rock to rock, he jumped into a small cave. He’s not sure who was more shocked, him or the eight plain-clothes Israeli special forces troops he found crouching there.

“There were suddenly all these lights in my face, and they told me to get on the ground,” Swaitat recalls. “One of them was really angry and kept pointing his gun in my face saying he was going to shoot me, and another one kept telling him to stop.” They kept Swaitat there for a few hours to make sure he was alone, and then let him go. It was 2002 and the Second Intifada was in full swing, but the Israeli army had not yet reoccupied the city of Jenin. Had it been a few months later, Swaitat is not sure he would have been so lucky.

Indeed, a few months later, Swaitat opened his front door to find a tank outside, so massive that it blocked out the sun. He points to the concrete bridge over the Barbican’s green pond: “It was about the same height as that, like 3 meters high,” he says, taking a drag of his roll-up. “Honestly, I’m not sure how I survived being a teenage boy from Jenin during the Second Intifada.”

Israeli forces invade Jenin as part of "Operation Defensive Shield" during the Second Intifada, April, 2009. (GPO)
Israeli forces invade Jenin as part of “Operation Defensive Shield” during the Second Intifada, April, 2009. (GPO)

From Jenin Freedom Theater to Shakespeare’s Globe

Swaitat came to recognize the sounds of Israeli artillery as they approached. He knew what kind of helicopter was flying overhead and what type of tank was rolling down his street. Because his village was on the outskirts of Jenin, the Israeli army would use it to prepare to invade the camp. It was not long before Swaitat started using the tanks as a bus service, hopping on the back to hitch a lift into town.

On Friday nights, Jenin’s teenagers would try to replicate normality. The young men would put on their best clothes, dab on their favorite aftershave, comb their hair, and blast electronic music as they drove through the labyrinthine streets of Jenin. Then they’d find a stronghold and get ready to fight the invading Israeli army.

Meanwhile, Zakaria Zubeidi, Jonathan Stanczak, and Juliano Mer-Khamis had just opened the Freedom Theater in the center of Jenin Refugee Camp. “We are not trying to heal their violence,” Mer-Khamis said. “We try to challenge it into more productive ways.”

When Swaitat was 18, he went through a grueling three-day audition process to get accepted into the theater. “We had talks and discussions, I performed monologues and scenes, and then I passed and joined the school.” Swaitat spent the next four years as one of Mer-Khamis’ star students, performing adaptations of Animal Farm, Waiting For Godot, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland locally and internationally. Swaitat’s artistry was fully intertwined with the imagination of Mer-Khamis, right up until the afternoon of April 4, 2011.

Juliano Mer-Khamis leads a workshop in the Jenin Freedom Theater, occupied West Bank, January 28, 2007. (Keren Manor/Activestills)
Juliano Mer-Khamis leads a workshop in the Jenin Freedom Theater, occupied West Bank, January 28, 2007. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

“I remember he came into the office and said he was going to pick up his son, and asked me to throw him his keys,” Swaitat says. “So I dropped the keys down to him and he went to his car, and a few seconds later we heard the gunshots.”

Juliano Mer-Khamis’ mother was Jewish, and his father was a Christian Palestinian from Nazareth. He described himself as 100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish, but both communities treated him like an outsider. He opened the Freedom Theater to give Jenin’s youth an opportunity to live, rather than die, as martyrs.

It is generally assumed he was assassinated by a Palestinian from Jenin, although an investigation was never launched; Mer-Khamis was vocal about gender oppression, religious dogma, and freedom of speech, which made him a target for defenders of tradition. Many in the camp, however, believe he was assassinated by Israel.

Just before his death, Mer-Khamis helped Swaitat apply for a scholarship at LISPA (London International School of Performing Arts), and when he was accepted, Swaitat was happy to leave Jenin along with the rest of the cast. “We all left after Juliano died,” Swaitat says. “It would’ve been very controversial to continue — it wasn’t safe and there was no investigation to find out who did it.”

So Swaitat moved to London in 2011 to study clowning and mime at LISPA. He was dazed with grief, but uplifted by the knowledge he was fulfilling Mer-Khamis’ ambitions for him. Since then, Swaitat has directed and starred in dozens of shows, including his Sundance-selected solo show Alien Land and Theatre Témoin’s outdoor puppetry show Routes, and led a physical theater programme for new refugees in Shakespeare’s Globe which gave birth to Fragments, a performance that draws on music and movement rooted in participants’ home cultures.

In 2019, he directed and starred in I Have Met the Enemy (And The Enemy is Us), a play about a British soldier who served in Afghanistan for 10 years. The screenplay is based on their parallel experiences either side of military occupation, and their shared love for techno. A few months after Swaitat wrapped up production, just as he was wondering what his next project might be, he discovered the tapes.

Graffiti on the walls of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, occupied West Bank. (Yuval Abraham)
Graffiti on the walls of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, occupied West Bank. (Yuval Abraham)

The Majazz Project’s first release was Awwad’s The Intifada 1987, followed by Palestinian Bedouin Tape Archive by his uncle Atef Swaitat. In April of this year, Swaitat teamed up with Abu Recordings to release The Remaining Voice: Tribute for Juliano Mer Khamis, a four-track hip-hop EP that samples Mer-Khamis’ political commentary to mark 11 years since his assassination.

The latest release is an album by Al Fajer Group, a Palestinian band in Kuwait rooted in acoustic oud, guitar and percussion, who performed patriotic Palestinian songs in support of the liberation struggle. The music on Al Fajer (The Dawn) was written in 1988, at the beginning of the First Intifada, but the band members were forced to disband due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and were therefore unable to release it — until now.

Behind every release lies a story steeped in resistance, and Swaitat understands his chance discovery has turned into something much bigger than him. “I think music is one of the ways to keep our culture alive, so younger generations can understand what has happened,” Swaitat says. “The Majazz Tapes gives Palestinian artistry new life and brings it to new spaces, and shares the stories of these artists before they’re forgotten.”