They called me Lady Intifada.
Draped in a Keffiyeh, the symbol of Palestinian resistance, Amal Murkus reflects on her life as a Palestinian Arab living in what is now called Israel. When in May 2021, Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, 300 people were left injured and several hundred casualties followed as bombings by Israel continued until the declaration of ceasefire on 21st May. “We already knew if there was to be a change, there would be a war”, says Amal, “and I was afraid for my son and daughter as a mother.”
Renowned singer and actress Amal Murkus has been making music ever since she was a teenager. Her first album ‘Amal’ came out in 1998, followed by ‘Shauq’ in 2004, ‘Na’na Ya Na’na’ in 2007, ‘Baghani’ in 2012 and ‘Fattah Al Ward’ in 2015. She has also released several singles and collaborations, with her latest songs ‘Dola’ and ‘Nas’ out April this year. Her music is heavily influenced by Palestinian and Arab poetry and culture, earning her an international repute. Amal’s songs also frequently employ strong political undertones. One of her most popular songs, Che Guevara, from the album Fattah Al Ward, sung with a magnetic passion, and written by son Firas Zreik, who is also a composer, a song writer, and a kanun player, goes like this:
To all children of the rocks
Who suffered bitterly
Fear not their fire
Fear not their wall
Revolt like Che Guevara
Culture and Censorship: I do not have the privileges of an Israeli Singer
Amal Murkus was born in Kafr Yasif village of Galilee in north-western Palestine in 1968 (now Israel). At a very young age, Amal realised the antagonism between her identity and the state she was living under. In an exclusive interview with Feminism In India over Google Meet, Amal reminisced with a delicate pensiveness, as she said, “I was talking Arabic, singing Arabic, eating Arabic. But when I moved out of my village, I started to hear the Hebrew language, which was the language of the majority.”
Born to Nimer Murkus, a Palestinian leader, author and educator, and Nabeeha Murkus, a human rights activist and a feminist leader, Amal’s life was intertwined with politics from an early age. When her father was fired from his job for his Palestinian identity and activism, Amal began noticing the discrimination that permeated though all spheres of her being. “I was raised in demonstrations as a child. When I was 7-years-old, I participated in Land Day and Worker’s Day gatherings with my parents. I also started to sing at these demonstrations.” By the 1980s, her participation and singing started gaining attention and she was invited for interviews on Israeli Television. “But I was always made to speak in Hebrew, which is not my language. And I didn’t know enough Hebrew, I was just a child. So I started defending my right to speak Arabic as a Palestinian.”
Discrimination against Palestinians in Israel takes many forms: suppression of their cultural identity being the most frequent one. By the First Intifada of 1987, Amal Murkus was already well versed in poetry from around Germany, Egypt, Lebanon, India, Chile and other parts of the world, and was studying music and theater in an Israeli college. “I was doing singing lessons, drama and theater all in Hebrew. I was stuck between two worlds: the Palestinian culture that was very important to me and the Israeli culture I was surrounded by at my college.” Her political activism increased monumentally in college, which was not well received by her Israeli peers. “People called me Lady Intifada. And the Israeli students started coming dressed in their military uniforms. It was one of the most painful times of my life.
“I was living with Israeli communists in college, especially since no one else would house Palestenian students. One day there was a demonstration by fascists outside our apartment against the lady who was housing me. They called her a communist pig. I wanted to go to this demonstration and defend her. But the head of my college said no. He said that I must stay in college and study because when I become a successful Palestinian artist I will be able to anger more fascists.”
A significant event in Murkus’ life, this was when she realised she wanted to write music for her people.
“My music is about the memory of my people,” she adds proudly, “I wanted to stay close to my roots and heritage.” However, bold expressions of protest in an oppressive society come with consequences. “We were doing a play in Nazareth, and in the middle of rehearsals we were informed that we could not continue with the play. After negotiations with a lawyer, a compromise was decided on- we could sing but not act. In protest, two actresses went on stage with tape on their mouths. That was my first experience with censorship.”
In another instance, Murkus’ project which was supposed to be broadcasted on Cultural Education TV and was already one year into production, was cancelled by the Ministry of Education of Israel. “There is certainly a racist and discriminatory atmosphere in Israel. A lot of Israeli artists quit after this. I don’t earn like an Israeli singer. I don’t have the privilege of an Israeli singer.”
Despite continued and frequent battles with censorship, Amal continues to strongly believe in the power of music. “I think music gives people morale. It gives you strength. You can cry with this. You can scream with this. You can protest with this. And no censorship can stop music. Art will always have victory over censorship,” after a short pause she continues, “always, always, always.”
Class and Gender: Women’s voice is the revolution
With early influences by revolutionaries like Che Guevara from Latin America and Marxists like Angela Davis, Amal Murkus identifies herself as a feminist and a Marxist. Raised in a working class family with 5 other sisters, Amal recounts how her parents taught her the importance of economic emancipation. “We were poor and my mom worked as a farmer and raised six daughters. If she was from a different time, she would have achieved so much. And my father always told us about the importance of economic independence.
“The Israeli capitalist regime, and capitalist regimes everywhere have put women in a very bad situation. They sell the woman as a sexual being, you know with her body, her hair, her everything. It’s like everything can be bought and sold. And I sing a lot about women. The Palestinian and Arab world is not free because the women are not free.” Her song ‘Women’s Voice‘ convey these sentiments with a poetic charm:
Her voice is a cinder
A scarlet Rose
Her head held high
Her voice shall cry: Revolt
“I believe in women’s voice, I think women’s voice is the revolution” she continues, “and the women in Gaza are really suffering. They suffer from the occupation, they suffer from the religious atmosphere, and they suffer from poverty.”
Amal points out an interesting interjection between women’s rights and the strong religious opposition it faces. “In the last 15 years, I had to cancel a lot of my concerts because of religion. They say it is forbidden for women to sing. But if I was doing something like a belly dance, I know they won’t ban me. They don’t want me because I have a very clear agenda of supporting women’s struggle.“
Thus, in addition to censorship by Israel, Amal has also experienced calls for ban from religious organisations. On multiple occasions, Amal was prohibited from performing after organisers and concert hall owners were intimidated by threats from religious organisations.
From domestic violence to the poverty of refugees, patriarchy intersects with economy, class, and colonialism to create further disparity for women. Amal calls patriarchy and capitalism a militant society with rampant violence and economic distress. “The communist parties in Israel have always housed and supported singers and artists of Palestinian origins. Of course they made mistakes but I will always respect them for this. Nobody is listening to the poor people, and there are a lot of poor people.”
Amal believes Palestine is in the process of giving birth to a new generation of women: “Women who are more independent, women who are individuals. But as the conflict becomes more difficult, the men are finding it challenging to come to terms with this new wave of thinking.
“For the last 10 years, this one woman’s organisation has been constantly under attack from the political Islamic organisations. They troll them on Facebook. We are tired. And when we go for women’s rights demonstrations, the next day we find out another woman has been killed because of domestic violence. And you know it’s day after day after day...”, her voice trails off.
The Al Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah attacks, and the events that followed, have impacted the lives of every Palestinian. “This caught me in a period where I wanted to release new music, new projects. But my friends in Gaza were being attacked, and my daughter was in Tel Aviv. I was afraid for my friends all around Palestine. We were all afraid. It was like we were standing on top of a volcano. We didn’t sleep. I was crying a lot. But it felt like this time was different,” with a contemplative sigh she continues, “yes, this time was different.
“They always talk about coexistence and peace and that’s okay, I want peace. But this is not a symmetric conflict. The Palestinian people are under occupation, and there is a tight regime that has become more and more racist and discriminatory against my people. It’s not easy at all… Israeli citizens must pay attention and they must protest against this tight regime. The majority has the power for change. My enemies are not the Jewish people. My enemy is the government and the ruling regime,” Amal asserts.
Amal Murkus’ music is birthed in conflict and continues to remain an accurate reflection and voice for the same. She is currently working on a show that will feature new music from her. She has also released two new singles this year. “The Israeli government is afraid of songs, and of native voices,” she remarks with a smile, “and I’m trying to climb a mountain, and if I can’t reach it I will try to climb it in a different way.”
Amal Murkus’ music is available on all streaming platforms.
All images as provided by Amal Murkus.