The Protest Song the IDF Tried to Silence

More than 40 years after the master copy was seized by Israeli forces, Zeinab Shaath’s “The Urgent Call of Palestine” will be reissued on March 26.

Iman Husain

Newly discovered, the resistance music of Zeinab Shaath could be heard, in the ’70s and ’80s, at Palestinian festivals in Lebanon, on Egyptian radio stations and at protests throughout the United States. Photo courtesy of Bandcamp

Amid the violence and destruction of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli forces in Beirut occupied the research center of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Before demolishing the building — including multiple bombing attempts that severely damaged the building and led to its eventual closure—the Israeli forces stole boxes of precious archival materials: manuscripts, microfilms, thousands of books. Among the haul was an original black-and-white music video for The Urgent Call of Palestine.”

The four-minute film, shot on 8-millimeter in the mountains of Lebanon in 1972 by the Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout features then-teenage Egyptian-born Palestinian singer Zeinab Shaath. Thin-browed and effortlessly captivating, Shaath strums her guitar with a keffiyeh around her neck, perched on a rock and dappled in sunlight filtered through surrounding olive trees. Shaath’s imploring voice cuts through the Mediterranean air: Can’t you hear the urgent call of Palestine? Palestine — tormented, tortured, bruised and battered, and all her sons and daughters scattered.”

A remarkable example of Palestinian protest music in exile, The Urgent Call of Palestine” was the title track of an EP of four songs produced by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1970s. Each song is composed by Shaath and entirely in English. Now, more than 50 years after Shaath’s urgent voice first appealed to the world — and decades after the master of the accompanying music video was stolen, left to collect dust in an Israeli military archive — the EP will be reissued March 26 on Bandcamp through the joint effort of two archival record labels: the U.S.-based Discostan and the Palestinian-led Majazz Project.

Shaath’s imploring voice cuts through the Mediterranean air: “Can’t you hear the urgent call of Palestine? Palestine—tormented, tortured, bruised and battered, and all her sons and daughters scattered.”

Born in Egypt in 1954, Zeinab Shaath was the first member of her family born outside of Palestine. Her father, a Palestinian educator, moved his family to Egypt in 1947 after accepting a job in Alexandria. The Shaaths left their house behind, but they brought along the key for when they would return. Shortly after the Shaaths moved, however, the Nakba erupted; the founding of Israel expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes between 1947 and 1949, forcing them into displacement and denying their right to return.

Shaath grew up dreaming of finding her own way to contribute to the Palestinian cause. Her love for Palestine was fostered through the stories she heard from her family and their deep ties to the diasporic Palestinian community. Every week, for example, her father visited the Egypt-Palestine border to receive newly arrived Palestinian families, helping them secure food and shelter. Meanwhile, her mother (who was Lebanese) helped raise money for the refugees. And inside the Shaath family home, only Palestinian Arabic — not the local Egyptian dialect — was spoken.

It was a struggle to feel that you really belonged,” Shaath says. Unlike her older siblings who had gone off to the United States to study, she didn’t yet feel old enough to participate in political debates or forge her own voice as a writer. But your heart is with our people. We didn’t choose not to be in Palestine. There was always the longing. There was always the struggle for the injustices that were happening there.”

But Shaath did have a proclivity for music-making. She played the piano and made up silly songs. When her older sister, Mysoon, brought home a guitar and a selection of records from the United States in the 1960s — including Vietnam-era protest records by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — Shaath was enamored. It just kind of painted my interest in my music,” she says, because it meshed the activism that we lived with in our home with music.”

Artist Zeinab Shaath performs at the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin during the summer of 1973. Photo courtesy of Bandcamp

The 1960s, in both the United States and Palestine, were colored by burgeoning resistance movements. The anti-war movement was in full swing as Americans decried the atrocities of the U.S.-waged war in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement magnified the harrowing realities of racial oppression. In Palestine, budding armed resistance groups expanded as Israel continued its campaigns in the region. Tensions heightened during the 1967 War, during which Israel absorbed and occupied the remaining parts of historic Palestine after attacking the bordering nations of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The culture of resistance defies borders, and the anti-war spirit of Baez and Dylan’s iconic folkish sound would find new resolve through Shaath’s composition of The Urgent Call of Palestine.” Shaath composed the song when she was just 16, after Mysoon handed her a poem of the same title written by a coworker’s wife, Lalita Panjabi.

The songwriter’s sister locked her in her bedroom with a guitar and a challenge: to put the words to music within 24 hours. Sung in Shaath’s warbling style over a simple chord progression, the poem — already a rallying cry for resistance — transformed into a protest song. It was really a melodic and very meaningful poem,” Shaath says. I read it maybe two, three times, and I really got into it. And I started composing it out of nowhere.”

The Urgent Call of Palestine” took off when Mysoon, who worked at an Egyptian English-language radio station, played it on air. Listeners flooded the station with replay requests. Soon, Shaath was performing at demonstrations and cultural events across the region, including at Palestinian festivals in Lebanon. In attendance at one such festival was Ismail Shammout, a famed exiled Palestinian painter and friend of Shaath’s older brother. Shammout, founding director of the Artistic Culture Section of the PLO, recognized a unique opportunity in Shaath’s music — to widely disseminate a protest song about Palestinian liberation that could be heard by the Western world. He envisioned a film to accompany the music.

"We don’t need to reeducate people who already know the history; we need to send the word out. And so English is the way to do it.”

For Shaath, working with the PLO to produce a music video and an EP allowed her to find her niche within the movement, just as she had hoped. She refused to take any of the profits from the recording, instead giving them entirely to the PLO. I wanted to contribute,” Shaath says. I didn’t have money, so this was my donation.”

Her use of English, she realized, was key. Shaath composed three additional songs for the EP using English translations of poems that animated Palestinian resistance. Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Identity Card,” for example, became the lyrics for Shaath’s song I Am an Arab,” which also appears on the record. Darwish, who was accustomed to hearing his poetry sung in Arabic, was delighted by Shaath’s English version: Write down: I’m an Arab! I am a name without a title, steadfast in this frenzied world.”

Everybody knows, in the Arab world, about the Palestinian story,” Shaath says. We need to educate people on the outside. We don’t need to reeducate people who already know the history; we need
to send the word out. And so English is the way to do it.”

Zeinab Shaath (right) joins the throng of 750,000 people who gathered from around the world for the 1973 World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin. Photo courtesy of Bandcamp

While traveling with her resistance music, Shaath found herself catapulted into an international leftist revolutionary movement. In 1973, she performed at the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students as part of the Palestinian delegation — which included Yasser Arafat (then-chairman of the PLO) and Angela Davis (a featured speaker). More than 750,000 people traveled to what was then East Berlin, joining in solidarity against war and imperialism worldwide. On large event stages and in streets teeming with young people, Shaath sang. Afterward, Shaath was one of five Palestinian delegates invited to perform in Moscow and Tbilisi.

It was the most amazing, vibrant time to be able to talk to people from anywhere,” Shaath recalls. It was about activism, liberation and freedom.”

While traveling with her resistance music, Shaath found herself catapulted into an international leftist revolutionary movement.

Shaath recorded more music, in Arabic and English, in the following decades. She moved to the United States to attend university, fell in love and started a family, and pursued a career in pharmacology. When she left Egypt, she brought a copy of the EP and the film — though she admits she wasn’t sure how best to preserve it, which caused some damage — while the original (its most valuable form) had been stowed in the PLO’s cultural archives in Beirut for safekeeping before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

For years, Shaath believed the original film had been burned by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1983, during the destruction of the PLO research center. But, in 2017,she was contacted by Israeli researcher and curator Rona Sela, who had discovered” the film within Israel’s military archives and had worked tirelessly to declassify it. Even Sela, however, was not granted access to the original. She had to work with a digital copy, which remained stamped with IDF insignia.

Shammout and Shaath’s film is just one drop in the ocean of cultural objects that have been stashed by the IDF. Though the Palestinian cultural materials stored within the colonial archive are preserved, access to the materials is entirely controlled by the colonial power — and strategically kept out of the hands of the indigenous people to whom it rightfully belongs. This practice contributes to the erasure of Palestinian cultural history and perpetuates the false narrative that, preceding the Israeli state, Palestine was a land without people for a people without a land,” Shaath says.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

An alternative means to preserve The Urgent Call of Palestine” would arrive in 2021, after Arshia Haq, DJ and founder of the music collective Discostan — a record label specializing in the Southwest Asia and North Africa region — saw a fellow record collector posted the iconic vinyl. Haq was immediately pulled in” by Shaath’s voice and enlisted the help of her Discostan collaborator, Jeremy Loudenback, to scour the internet in hopes of finding Shaath to ask about reissuing the music.

I thought if they revive my record, that’s really cultural preservation, as far as how Palestinian cultural music and music of different kinds of eras tells the story of the diaspora and the suffering under occupation,” Shaath says. All your history can be reflected through music.”

With Shaath on board, Haq and Loudenback joined with Mo’min Swaitat, a Palestinian artist and archivist who founded Majazz Project, a Palestinian research platform and archival record label. They used copies of the film and EP that were available in the Shaath and Shammout family archives for remastering, operating entirely outside of colonial collections. Though The Urgent Call of Palestine” had faced erasure by Israeli forces and ultimately receded from the popular imagination, it had lived on in the hearts of those who had known it.

It has always been there,” Shaath says. It’s just that somebody gave it a new life.”

“I thought if they revive my record, that’s really cultural preservation, as far as how Palestinian cultural music and music of different kinds of eras tells the story of the diaspora and the suffering under occupation,” Shaath says. “All your history can be reflected through music.”

When the project to reissue The Urgent Call of Palestine” first began, no one could have foreseen the unprecedented scale of atrocities against Palestinians that would be committed by Israel after October 7. As this story went to press, more than 30,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel’s genocidal campaign, many of Shaath’s family members among them. And, just as Shaath once did, the Palestinians on the ground who have broadcasted the genocide of their people have made their appeals in English.

For Shaath, the new resonance that her songs have taken on in the current moment makes their revival all the more imperative — Can’t you hear the urgent call of Palestine? There’s a genocide out there!” But their acute relevance in and of itself is haunting and heartbreaking.

When I did this 50 years ago, things were not as bad as they are today,” Shaath says. And it just makes me very sad and emotional that those songs are still being played, and nothing has happened. Nothing has gotten better. As a matter of fact, it got worse for my people.”

Half a century ago, Shaath sang a song that called out to the world. Her resolute and defiant voice remains a glowing beacon, guiding us along the path to liberation: Liberation banner, hold it high for Palestine. Let us do or die.” She hopes that, this time, the world won’t look away.

Iman Husain is a writer, artist and fact-checker based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a former In These Times intern and a current intern at The Nation.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.