Review | My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance by David A. McDonald
My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism, and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. By David A. McDonald. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. [xix, 338 p. ISBN 9780822354796. $25.95.] Bibliography, index.
Review by Chris Nickell
David McDonald’s My Voice is My Weapon engages a perennially fraught sociopolitical situation—“the Palestinian crisis”—through the underutilized entry point of song. Little has been written about Palestinian music, and even less about the topic in English (see Brinner 2009, Greenberg 2009, Massad 2005). Indeed, as McDonald identifies pointedly, when scholarship on the Palestinian situation more broadly does consider cultural production, it is frequently as an epiphenomenon of more fundamental political or economic realities (118). In My Voice is My Weapon, McDonald opts instead for a synthesis of ethnography, archival work, and historical analysis, providing the first sustained examination of the relationship between Palestinian nationalism and protest song. Although the text speaks at different times to disciplines including anthropology, folklore studies, and Middle Eastern studies, the assumed knowledge base and socio-historical background provided suggest that ethnomusicologists are McDonald’s primary audience.
The structure of the book also suits this audience. After front-ending the theory and methodologies of his study in an eloquent introduction and first chapter, McDonald devotes chapters two through five to an “ethnohistory” of the Palestinian crisis from the Mandate era through the present day, detailing crucial events and periods along with the musical styles and artists active at the time. Chapters six through eight take a more traditional ethnographic approach, featuring contemporary figures with whom McDonald spent a large part of his fieldwork: the Jordanian Palestinian activist musician Kamal Khalil and the Israeli Palestinian rap group DAM. Sprinkled throughout, McDonald provides references to a well-curated online repository of some of his ethnographic video and audio work that proves an engaging and worthwhile companion to the text.
The introduction and first chapter provide socio-historical and theoretical background, sketching the roughly tripartite scheme into which Palestinians have fallen after the creation of Israel in 1948: those living in Israel as citizens (’48 Palestinians or Israeli Palestinians), residents of occupied Gaza and the West Bank, and exiles or refugees concentrated, for McDonald’s purposes, in Jordan. In brief vignettes he introduces three characters who represent the ways in which these different groupings of Palestinians see music, belonging, and resistance: Kamal Khalil, the activist musician living in Jordan and mentioned above; Abu Hani, the master archivist living in the West Bank; and Tamer Nafar, the lead rapper of the Israeli Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, also mentioned above. McDonald takes care to locate his own subjectivity with respect to these concepts explicitly as he traces the development of his research questions in the introduction and in anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text. He makes no attempt at objectivism with regards to the conflict, sympathizing above all with his subjects, but his language renders those views salient and mostly avoids societal value judgments and individual hagiography or vilification, instead focusing any critique on state governments and other institutions at-large.
In terms of theory, McDonald draws on Peirce’s semiotics and Butler’s performativity to break down monolithic notions of music, nationalism and resistance that are often applied to the Palestinian situation popularly and in some scholarship. Smartly eschewing a reflective model of cultural production as epiphenomenon to the socio-political, he emphasizes instead the performativity of these notions that allow them to constantly refigure one another. In discussing the various modalities of functional (as opposed to stylistic) resistance through song, he arrives at an understanding that the ubiquity of the concept of resistance in Palestinian discourse has overdetermined it to the point of congelation. While he smartly uses performativity to thaw “resistance” and restore its dynamic, contingent nature, McDonald never elaborates on the object against which all his Palestinian interlocutors seem to be variously resisting: the Israeli state’s blockage of Palestinian “right to self-determination.” This nation-based loss of agency has played a dominant role in spurring much Palestinian cultural production geared toward resistance, but there is an important subset of Palestinian art that is similarly overtly political but takes different approaches to resistance, often borrowing from these dominant discourses of national loss only to refigure and at times subvert them through ambiguity, hybridity, and irony (see, for example, Habiby, Kashua, Amireh, Waked, Suleiman, and some of the musicians in Brinner 2009). These forms of politically committed art bear mentioning lest the reader come away with a totalizing view of Palestinian resistance based on the convincing evidence McDonald presents.
Chapters two through five intersperse description of regional historical events with discussion of the most prominent activist musicians and protest songs of the time. The first half of chapter two features Nuh Ibrahim, the prototypical Palestinian singer-songwriter of the British Mandate era prior to 1948, along with the folkloric forms on which he drew. McDonald provides historical background to the political events of 1947-48 leading to the creation of Israel before moving on to discuss artistic responses to these events, known as “al-nakba” (“the catastrophe,” in Arabic). Chapter three, focusing on the period between the Six Days War of 1967 and the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, broadens the scope of artists considered, dwelling in particular on the roles of the great Egyptian musical satirist Sheikh Imam and the Palestinian group al-cAshiqin. In chapter four, McDonald pulls out three streams from Palestinian song that emerged in conjunction with the first intifada in the late 1980s, characterized by folk, religious, and hybridized Western influences, before turning to the radical reorientation of resistance in the post-Oslo Accords music of the mid 1990s. The final chapter of McDonald’s “ethnohistory” chronicles the attempted musical revivals during the al-Aqsa intifada beginning in 2000 and the emergence of a new, conservative strand of protest song among the exilic community in Jordan.
These chapters stand out from other histories of Palestine not just for McDonald’s careful attention to the changing notions of resistance and the view of song and nationalism as mutually constitutive. The frequent foregrounding of his own subjectivity reminds us that his perspective is informed by ethnographic work that did not leave his subjects’ communities untouched. For example, in uncovering the historical origin of a famous resistance song “Min sijn cAkka” (“From Akka prison”) and explaining it to his Palestinian interlocutors, he changed their perceptions of the song. McDonald also takes care to distinguish between different subjectivities and cultural production of Palestinians living as refugees abroad, under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and as citizens of Israel, as he laid out in the introduction. In describing musical styles appearing in these different times and places, however, he often resorts to two loaded adjectives: indigenous and cosmopolitan. Within ethnomusicological and anthropological literature, the term “indigenous” has been problematized (see, for instance, Faudree 2013, Forte 2010) and when used without qualification for the Palestinian situation becomes even more troublesome in light of the global crossroads status of historical Palestine. While cosmopolitanism has been discussed in ethnomusicology (see Turino 2000), the word has taken on so many meanings in the broader humanities that it no longer remains salient as an unqualified signifier (see, for example, Nussbaum 1994, Bhabha 1996, Appiah 2006, Robbins 2007). Repeated usage in various contexts brings more clarity to McDonald’s intended meaning of these terms, but he might have included a frank discussion of them in the otherwise thorough introduction.
Having laid the sociopolitical and musical groundwork in the first part, McDonald opens up ethnographic spaces surrounding two key figures in chapters six through eight. First, he offers the story of Kamal Khalil’s musical activism in Jordan, tracing his career from tortured detainee to government poster-child, his music steadily providing a communal prescription for performing the committed Palestinian suffering in exile even as that prescription becomes less relevant to the current generation. Weaving together large block quotes, relevant Jordanian politics and social history, and musical examples, McDonald gives a compelling account of an individual’s lived experiences of the larger discourses of music and resistance he discusses in the first part of the book. The final chapter shifts focus to the Israeli Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, drawing on field notes and interviews, as well as some critical theory, to show both the initial novelty of this African-American cultural form for Palestinian audiences in the Occupied Territories and the hints that this form of resistance, too, is becoming overdetermined, though this time from the outside. The rich ethnography of these last three chapters proves even more rewarding because of the careful setup of the first half of the book introducing broader historical context that need only be recalled briefly here. Yet at some point, especially given his emphasis on the performativity of resistance and nationalism, McDonald might have done well to raise the possibility that his interviewees were at times consciously performing in the traditional sense, as is of course their vocational nature. Such a reminder would not undercut the importance of his interviews; on the contrary it would only bolster his claim that resistance and nationalism are performed.
Quibbles aside, McDonald has given us a well researched and thoughtfully written book that, as he humbly affirms in his epilogue “lay[s] a foundation for further ethnographic inquiry into the lives and experiences of those tremendous musicians absent from this text” (286). As a foundation it is indeed a solid one, with ample room for further research by McDonald himself and fellow scholars in the field. Beyond its foundational status of Palestinian ethnomusicology, though, McDonald’s text also links up powerfully with and contributes to important work being done on Palestine in other academic fields, as well as with anthropologies and ethnomusicologies of violence. With My Voice Is My Weapon, McDonald has shown Palestinian resistance music to be a rich site of inquiry, where, despite his strong initial contribution, there is much work left to be done.
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Chris Nickell is a PhD student in the Department of Music at New York University.