The Urgent Call of Palestine An Interview with Zeinab Shaath By Rona Sela
First published on February 8th, 2018
The dialogue is based on an interview that took place on May 19th, 2017 and on further correspondence
The Urgent Call of Palestine (1973)
Director: Ismail Shammout, Cultural Arts Section
Words: Lalita Panjabi
Music and singer: Zeinab Shaath
R: I am a curator and visual history researcher, exposing and researching for many years Palestinian archives and images that were seized by Jewish and Israeli military organization over the 20th century or looted by individuals. I am tracing the plunder, but mainly the way these archives are controlled and managed by an Israeli colonial administration – censorship, access limitations, discrimination between researchers who tell the Zionist narrative to those criticizing it, distorted language to describe the seized indigenous material and more. During my research, I discovered the archive of the Cultural Arts Section (CAS) of the PLO that was active in Beirut from late 1960s to early 1980s and was managed by Ismail Shammout. The whole archive was taken as booty by the Israeli army (IDF) in September 1982. The material was transferred to the Israel Defense Forces Archive (IDFA) and was classified for many years, used only for Zionist goals. I had a long battle to declassify the material and I revealed mainly photographs, films and footage, among them Ismail Shammout' s films. One of the films is The Urgent Call of Palestine that you composed and performed and which I included in my film "Looted and Hidden". I was impressed by your performance in The Urgent Call of Palestine. I saw it many times and I was caught by its lyric and your striking voice and presentation. I realized that you were a star in the 1970s and that you contributed to the Palestinian revolutionary movement. I am grateful for this interview as I tried to reach you for a very long period.
Z: Thank you Rona. Yes, Shammout did only one film for me which was The Urgent Call and he also made a 45 rpm (revolutions per minutes) record of four of my songs. They were probably my first four songs. I started composing since I was 16. The Urgent Call was the first song I actually composed. At that time, I used to sing a lot at home on my guitar. Lalita Panjabi, an Indian woman living in Egypt at the time, wrote this poem. She gave it as a gift to my sister Mysoon Shaath, who at that time, had a radio show in English about music and arts. My sister brought that poem home and she gave it to me because she knew I would try to put it to music. I liked the poem very much as it sparked some strong feelings in me and in two days, I came up with The Urgent Call. My sister made me sing it on the radio station in Cairo so that's how it became famous. After the success of the song, I thought: 'This is a great way for people to hear about the Palestinian cause, I can do that, this is the best way I can help'. This encouraged me to make more songs in English to reach people outside the Arab World so they can understand what Palestinians are going through. It was my way to help my cause. After searching, I found a book with English translations of poems written by famous Palestinian poets. So, I started taking them and composing my own music from those songs and I sang them with my guitar. I composed poems for Mahmoud Darwish, Fawzi El Asmar, Moeen Bsaiso, Fawaz Turki, and more. I composed most of my songs between the ages of 16 to maybe 24.
R: Zeinab, as I told you, I found The Urgent Call of Palestine, your film, your song, at IDFA
Z: No kidding. The 8-millimeter? Why is it in their archives?
R: The IDF plundered it with the whole archive of the Cultural Arts Section of the PLO. I don’t know what they actually have, I didn’t see the film itself (the 8 millimeters). It was classified until lately and after a long struggle to declassify the seized materials taken as booty from Beirut, they gave me access to digital files. From what I know, they transformed the 8-millimeter to video and the videos to digital files. So, its three generations. People tell me, it's valuable that they preserved it. I don’t agree with this statement. It's a colonizer's argument. When Israel entered west Beirut, the Palestinian were allowed to leave with only a personal bag and fire arm. How can they keep, take and preserve their archives in these conditions?
Z: So, they have a copy of it?
R: Yes, they have the original, I assume thy have the master. It's among a huge amount of other Palestinian materials that were plundered. Can you please tell me about your life and your musical career?
Z: I was born in Alexandria, Egypt and I lived until I was 22 years old in Egypt. My father was a Palestinian, Ali Rashid Shaath. He was a principal in Al-Amriyyeh boys’ school in Yaffa. In the late 30s and early 40s my father was involved in resisting the British Mandate and the massive immigration into Palestine. When he was a principal, he encouraged the students to go out to demonstrate. The British authorities were very upset with him, and they were threatening him that if he doesn’t stop all the demonstrations going out of the school, they will arrest and imprison him. I was not born at that time. My two brothers and two sisters – I 'm sure you know that Nabil Shaath is my oldest brother - were born in Palestine. At the same time, my father received a great offer from Abdul Hameed Shoman, the founder of the Arab Bank, to come and work for him and open an Arab Bank branch in Alexandria, Egypt. Since my father was worried about his current job and the safety of his family, he decided that maybe he can go work in Egypt for a while until things cooled down and then he would go back to Palestine. He accepted the job offer and took the family and went to Alexandria in 1947. Then the Nakba happened and he was unable to come back. I was the only one who was born outside Palestine. My father had a successful career with the Arab Bank until he retired and died in 1967 in Alexandria Egypt. After high school graduation, I went to Cairo University and studied Chemistry and Zoology. I was always a foreigner in Egypt even though I was born there. I was never given the citizenship. Since my father was stuck outside of Palestine, he was worried that the Palestinian "laissez-passer" will cause us problems living in Egypt and would limit our travelling. So, he requested passports from the Syrian government and we all were given Syrian passports. I have never been to Syria, but I was considered Syrian in Egypt. We had to renew my visa every year in Egypt from the day I was born until I left to the United States of America when I was 22. I left to the US just to get my graduate degree and I changed my profession to pharmacology. This is where I met my husband, Richard Schwen, whom I have been married to for 35 years and had three beautiful children with.
R: The Urgent Call was filmed in Lebanon. When did you travel to Beirut/Lebanon?
Z: First of all, my mother was Lebanese. So, we used to go to Lebanon every summer to see my mom's family, the Tannir Family. They were from Beirut, a lovely family. They are the singers in my family. That's where I got my musical talent and my voice. They all played instruments and sang beautifully. Whenever we got together in Lebanon, we had the most amazing musical sessions, singing, harmonizing, playing musical instruments, and enjoying wonderful evenings. In the 70s, my brother moved to Beirut where he was a professor at the American University in Beirut, and we used to stay with him.
R: How did you meet Ismail Shammout?
Z: He was a friend of my brother in Beirut. He heard me sing in a Palestinian festival in the mountains, not in Beirut. So, he was very interested and asked if I would like to make a film for one of my songs. He worked with the PLO films at that time. So, he was really excited to do that and I was excited too. I was very humbled and excited that a big artist like Ismail Shammout was interested in my songs. He was an amazing painter. I was extremely flattered to be filmed by him. We filmed the song in one day in 1972. Shammout took me to a part of a mountain in Lebanon and he filmed it there. I think he filmed one more song but I think this is the one that they used.
R: Another song that you sang and composed?
Z: Yes, I think they recorded one more. I believe it was Write Down I am an Arab by Mahmoud Darwish. But I think they chose The Urgent Call and that's the one that they made. In addition, they produced a record with my songs, four songs that I mentioned above: The Urgent Call of Palestine, Write Down I am an Arab by Mahmoud Darwish, Resist by Moeen Bsaiso, and Take Me Back to Palestine by Abdel Wahab al-Bayati. In 1973, I went to the 10th world youth festival in Berlin and I sang many of my songs and from there I was invited to sing my songs in Russia (Moscow and Tiblisi). I was 19 years old. That year, I had many interviews by Arab newspapers and magazines in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq and numerous media coverage. I was invited to sing in Bagdad. The Iraqi television station recorded four of my songs which they played for years on their TV channels. One of the songs was not my compositions, but most of them were of my composition. Some of them were in Arabic and some in English. A year later I sang in a play called Al-Ard, The Land, in Cairo, it was a wonderful play. The songs for the play were composed by an Egyptian composer called Adly Fakhry. Three of the songs from that play became very famous and became part of my repertoire. Several professional recordings of my songs were made (once in Beirut and once in Washington DC) and the cassettes were made to sell in fundraisers. One of my cassettes was recently converted professionally into a CD by my niece as a gift to me. When I came to the US in 1976 for graduate school, I sang in many US cities - I sang in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and more. I also made four new songs in the US. Then life took me away from singing. I got married, had kids, worked full time, and did volunteer work. So I stopped singing to raise my children.
R: You miss it?
Z: I don’t know if I miss it. I am proud of it though. I feel fortune that I was able to do it. I feel that I made a difference because people were able to understand the Palestinian story better through my songs than from a speech. I was able to do my share with what talent that God has given me. And looking back at it, I am very proud that I did it.
R: Do you remember details about the filming of The Urgent Call?
Z: It was probably done in the summer of 1972 because it took them a while to edit the film and release it. It was released in 1973. It was in the summer because the summer was the only time that we went to Beirut, because I was in college at the time. It was a long time ago… I do have some articles, mostly in Arabic. I was on a cover of magazines a couple of times singing with my guitar. It was really a big deal at that time, in the Arab world, for a girl to be singing with a guitar. It was not a musical instrument that people were used to in the Arab World. My inspiration was Joan Baez in the US who sang war protest songs in the 60s. My style, my travels, and the content of my songs caught the attention of audiences and the media not only in the Arab World but also in Russia, Europe and the United States.
R: Do you remember if it was shown in festivals?
Z: It was shown in many places and sometimes they invited me. I think in Paris in 1975 they invited me to sing after the screening. The PLO cultural office was the one in charge of its showings.
The Urgent Call of Palestine Lyrics: Lalita Panjabi
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 roars of the guns Beckoning to all her daughters and suns Can't you hear The agony of Palestine Liberation banner, raise it high for Palestine Let us do or die Let us hear the urgent call of Palestine
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