The Palestinian-Israeli singer challenging everyone’s misconceptions

Call her a traitor, call her a normalizer — Palestinian-Israeli singer Amal Murkus has heard it all. Now as she gets ready to release her brilliant new album, the avowed Marxist and feminist is speaking out against the racism of the Israeli mainstream as well as Palestinian attempts to silence her.

Amal Murkus.
Amal Murkus.

When I came home after my interview with Amal Murkus in a Jerusalem cafe, I turned off the engine and remained in my car with my eyes closed for an hour until the sounds of her new album “Fatah al-Ward” (“The Roses Bloomed”) came to an end.

This is Murkus’ fifth album. Even after listening to her previous album, “Barani,” it is difficult not to make use of superlatives; Markus’ voice is simply gorgeous, which coupled with her melodies makes her album one of the best and most beautiful of the past year.

“Fatah al-Ward” includes 10 songs, which together make up a kind of journey. Among them one finds a version of famed Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet’s “Ajmal al-Bahr” (“The Most Beautiful Sea”), which was composed by Murkus’ son Firas; a song that Firas wrote about Che Guevara (“When he was five or six, Firas as certain that Che Guevara was a Palestinian leader,” says Murkus about her song); two Egyptian songs with tinges of swing and waltz; and a touching, almost-erotic love song by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Wait for Her,” set to the music of Mahran Mur’ab.

The album also includes the song “Sawt al-Mara” (“Voice of a Woman”), whose words were written by Murkus and whose music was composed by Nissim Dakwar, who composed additional songs on the album. “When the biggest divas of the Arab world such as Fairuz and Umm Kulthum sang, no one told them that it was forbidden, but this is what I am told today, in the 21st century, and they even cancelled my concerts in Umm al-Fahm and Taybe. I am here to say that a woman’s voice is a revolution! A woman’s voice is like a red glowing ember. I’m not saying this only because I am a communist, but because an ember contains unrealized potential — this is the situation among many women, such as my mother, who realized her dreams through her daughters, not through herself.

‘Keber al-Alb,’ the first single from Murkus’ new album:

“‘Fatah al-Ward'” is a Palestinian folk motif,” says Murkus. “In every Palestinian wedding, the women sing ‘the flowers bloomed on the bride’s dress, the flowers bloomed on the groom’s suit.’ This is because the Palestinian people are connected to their land, and not only in the national sense, but rather as a people who live the seasons of the year, who live the land.

“This album was recorded in my home studio, in an house built 250 years ago in Kafr Yasif. This was done intentionally as a way to connect to the local population. The first thing I did before recording was to plant flowers. There were dozens of dried up plants, so I brought cyclamens and daffodils, and when the flowers the bloomed the songs came into being.”

This is a very optimistic name in a less than optimistic time.

“Yes, this is intentional. The full name of the song ‘Fatah al-Ward,’ written by Tawfik Ziyad and composed by Firas Rubi, is ‘Before They Came.’ You might say that this is about the time before the Israelis came to Palestine, before Da’esh came to the Middle East, before the Nazis came to Germany, etc. The song goes: “The flowers bloomed on my windowsill, the grapevine became entangled, and my home was washed over by a ray of sunshine, and I dream of bread for every person.” I come from a Marxist-communist ideology that says that every person deserves bread.

“And all of a sudden the song ends, and there is a short qanun solo, and then it continues: “The flowers, the grapevine, the dreams, the sun, were all there before they arrived. They arrived on a blood soaked tank.’ The song ends, but not before I go back to roses blooming. To hope.”

The last time I saw Murkus perform was during the demonstration against the demolition of the unrecognized village of Dahmash, where she performed Marcel Khalife’s “Asfur Tel Min A-Shubak,” about a bird that appears on the windowsill and asks for shelter. Khalife is known for dedicating the song to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as Arab prisoners worldwide. On the face of it, it is a simple children’s song — but the political context is clear to all.

Murkus performs “Asfur Tel Min A-Shubak”:

Murkus also performed in an event in Nazareth commemorating the events of October 2000, and is involved in the struggle in the unrecognized village of Al-Arakib, which is periodically re-demolished and the re-built by its Bedouin residents. I ask her about the transition from appearing on the Israeli version of Sesame Street and the duet “Shalom-Salam” with famed Israeli singer Alon Oleartchik to what appears to be a move toward centering her Palestinian identity, including her 2007 album “Nana Ya Nana,” which includes new versions of classic Palestinian folk songs.

“This was the media’s choice. The moment I worked with Alon Oleartchik the media became very interested, but now I work with Jewish musicians in my own ensemble and no one is talking about it, because I don’t make a big deal of it.”

Alon Oleartchik and Amal Murkus sing ‘Shalom-Salam’:

“My work with Jewish musicians goes back to my first album, ‘Amal,’ which included songs about Palestinian prisoners, freedom, and the homeland. That group eventually split because not a single record company wanted us. They had problems with the fact that I was willing to perform in Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth in difficult conditions, and I refuse to perform for Jews alone. I also refused to take money from Jewish-Arab foundations, and told my musicians that I will not live and die in the service of coexistence. It’s just not right. I have the right, first and foremost as an artist. This isn’t an issue of my Palestinian identity. It is simply who I am.

“Many years have passed, I have matured and developed musically and as a singer, but the subject matter of the last album was generally very similar to that of the first album. Not everyone has bread, there is war, the conflict is only growing. The content is similar, as is my optimism.”

Fatah al-Ward is entirely a product of Murkus’ own private investment; she self-produced the album without any help from record companies. This stems partially from the crisis among record companies today, as well as the difficulty of figuring out how to sell her.

“They don’t know where to place me. How will we categorize her? What is she? She won’t be Chava Albertstein, Yehudit Ravitz, or Ninet, and she doesn’t want to be. When I met Rita she told me, ‘Wow, you need to sing in the Arab world.’ I looked at her and asked why. Of course I wish to sing in the Arab world, but in the moment that she heard me singing in Arabic, she knew that I didn’t belong here. This is ignorance and racism. Perhaps I manage to piss people off because I didn’t choose to be an artist seeking commercial success. It was important for me to build a Palestinian cultural-musical scene that was severed in 1948.

Your fans are mostly Palestinians inside Israel?

“Not only, but yes, they are the main audience. Most of my shows are for this crowd, even though a decent number of Hebrew-speakers come to my concerts. Recently, however, I performed in a club in Tel Aviv and I participated in an additional musical project, which was followed by a large campaign on Facebook that accused me of normalization. Me! A citizen of the State of Israel! They wrote that I am a traitor, that I work with the Foreign Ministry, and that I took part in the international jazz festival here. They marked me as a traitor in such a dangerous time, at a time when violence is raging out of control on the streets. I released a statement denying all these lies and announced that I will sing and perform wherever I like. Music is art, and art can exist only in a place called freedom.”

The aggressive campaign against Murkus reached Radio A-Shams — the most popular Arabic-language radio station in the country — where she hosts a popular show on culture and art. Following the accusations against her, she was summoned for a meeting with the owners of the station, who decided to take her show out of rotation. Ironically, this took place around the time that Murkus took part in a campaign by Israeli NGO Sikkuy against the dismissals of Palestinian citizens for expressing their political opinions.

“After I told the manager of the station what was happening, he put my show on hold and told me that I was “drawing fire.” I had no doubt that the campaign against me in the midst of the violence and bloodletting was meant to silence me. I don’t call for coexistence. This is not the precise word. But I do believe in working toward dialogue. Along with my struggle for the freedom of the Palestinian people and the end of the occupation and oppression, I do not ignore the Israelis among whom I live. Do we have another way?

“We live in a place where leaders incite and are driven by hatred. Where our leaders are capitalist pigs that exploit the people and profit off death, profit off Palestinian victims and the victims of the Holocaust. They are nourished by war and death. It’s a shame that the majority of the Israeli public doesn’t know what direction they are leading us in. It’s a shame that these things are done in its name. And I know that there are many people who want to speak out but are afraid. And there is ignorance that is only made stronger by the media.

Would you record a song like “Shalom-Salam” today?

“Less so. I recorded many songs. This was one gesture. Today I think that the responsibility is on Jewish artists. Although their livelihood would be threatened by doing so, I still expect to see more brave statements being made by that side. During the First Intifada we saw bravery by artists such as Si Heyman and Nurit Galron. Today we see less of that. And on the other hand there is censorship in Palestinian society, from the Islamic Movement and other groups that see themselves as the sole spokespeople on the Palestinian issue. I want to sing everywhere and be everywhere.”

Do you have fans in the West Bank and Gaza?

Of course, I performed in Ramallah not long ago, and I am planning a show in Bethlehem. My dream is to perform in Gaza and Beirut — but first of all in Gaza. We must not forget Gaza, which is under blockade and whose population has been suffering from dire poverty following the last war.

Despite embracing and expressing her Palestinian identity in her music — and perhaps because of this — Murkus resists any attempt to define her as a “national singer.”

“I am artist before anything else. A woman. A human with a vision. I’ll tell you something funny: I was interviewed yesterday in a local Arabic station alongside two other Arab artists from Haifa. I was presented as ‘Palestinian singer Amal Murkus.’ When I said to them, ‘wait, wait. You aren’t Palestinians? Wisam isn’t Palestinian? Haitham isn’t Palestinian?’ It was embarrassing and funny. Imagine Chava Alberstein being presented as “the Jewish singer Chava Alberstein.” I brought to their attention that we are all Palestinians.”

These days Murkus is touring behind her new album, which hasn’t yet reached record stores, but can be purchased at her concerts, at Cafe Yaffa in Jaffa and Haifa’s Fatoush restaurant. The album will eventually be released digitally as well.

The album also includes the song “The White Chair,” written by Murkus’ friend and poet Nida Abu Akal Mansour, and composed by Louie Khalif, which pays tribute to the white chair Murkus’ father used to sit on in the garden. Every time Murkus mentions her father, Nimer Murkus, one of the leaders of the communist movement in Israel, and who served as the head of the Kafr Yasif council, her eyes are filled with tears. “A few days after my father passed away, I went down to the garden, to the place where we sat and talked every day, and the sear was empty. The song talks about the land. My father was an avid farmer, he planted 100 olive trees in nine years. In his find days, when he had already gone blind, he put a lot of effort into cultivating the land, as if he were preparing for his death. After he died the trees bore fruit once again. Perhaps that’s the origin of my name, Amal, ‘hope.’ I carry that hope with me.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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