On 25 July 2014, at the height of the Gaza War, the Palestinian singer-composer Reem Kelani performed to a packed house at Rich Mix in East London. Towards the closing of the concert, she confessed that she had felt like cancelling the concert as Israel’s military offensive intensified and the Gazan death toll escalated. But in the end, she decided that this event was cultural resistance par excellence and went on to rouse the audience with an encore of ‘Mawtini’ (‘My Homeland’), the unofficial Palestinian anthem. The atmosphere, which was already emotionally charged, became even more electric for both Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike in the audience. Those who were familiar with the song began standing up and singing along fervently.
‘The reason why I chose that anthem is that it goes back as far as the 1930s,’ Kelani recalls during our interview. ‘So, the Zionist argument that oh, well, there was no such thing as Palestine to start with – this bunch of farmers, they didn’t have a sense of national identity. No shit. So where does “Mawtini” come from?’
Clueless, I had to look it up. ‘Mawtini’ was written in the 1930s by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan, with music by Muhammad Fuliefil, as a patriotic song which then became popular throughout the Arab world. In 2004, it was adopted as the Iraqi anthem after the US-led invasion of 2003, replacing the Saddam-Hussein-era anthem ‘Ardulfurataini Watan’ (‘The Land of the Two Rivers’).