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Don’t Let Palestinian Music Be Destroyed

In Jenin, a treasured record collection containing everything from Palestinian disco to revolutionary folk songs is under threat from bulldozers and bombs — and needs your help.

Born into a family of legendary Bedouin musicians, the Palestinian actor, DJ and filmmaker Mo’min Swaitat is also a son of Jenin, the most northerly West Bank city that has faced some of the most brutal Israeli military operations in recent years — including the 2002 invasion, bombing and massacre of a refugee camp during the Second Intifada, which began when Mo’min was eleven. 

The cumulative impact of unrelentingly brutal violence on each generation of Jenin’s youth, their families and their futures was captured in Arna’s Children, the 2004 documentary directed by Mo’min’s mentor Juliano Mer Khamis. The film focused on children who, like Mo’min, were part of the Freedom Theatre, located inside the same camp. Juliano took over and ran the theatre until his 2011 assassination; Mo’min had thrown him his car keys seconds before he was shot. Reeling from the loss of his friend, he took Juliano’s suggestion that he apply to study mime in London to heart, eventually building a diverse performance career there.

Credit: @1lluminations

Sounds of Resistance

In March 2020, Mo’min travelled back to Palestine with the intention of recording with a German film crew. But the pandemic had other plans. Unexpectedly stranded back in Jenin and surrounded once again by the sights and sounds of home after nearly a decade away, Mo’min roamed the streets he grew up on. ‘It was hard, bittersweet, healing and nostalgic,’ he recalls. One day, strolling past a long-shuttered music shop, he was flooded with memories of queuing up after school to buy five-shekel tapes from its owner, Tariq. He wondered if Tariq, his grandmother’s neighbour, could be persuaded to let him inside to see the stock.

What Tariq would agree to show — and most importantly play — Mo’min would alter his life trajectory, sending him on a journey to recover, restore and (re)introduce the world to a massive treasure chest of largely forgotten Palestinian music locked inside one tiny shop in Jenin Camp, one that would soon see him adding record label boss and archivist to his multi-hyphenate roles.

Scraping away thick layers of dust, Mo’min dived into this cornucopia of lost recordings and forgotten cassettes. As well as poems and political recordings, he found Palestinian wedding music made by members of his own family, field recordings, improvised spoken word put to electronic beats, and thousands of hours of Palestinian pop, funk, jazz and soul from across the Levant and the wider Arabic-speaking world, as well as Iraqi- and Yemeni-Jewish music.

Credit: @1lluminations

Mesmerised, Mo’min bought a huge chunk of Tariq’s stock on the spot, and the  Majazz Project and Palestinian Sound Archive and were born. Spoilt for choice, Mo’min focussed in particular on tapes produced during the first and second Intifada for both their personally nostalgic and nationally historic value. These would have been the tapes most of interest to the Israeli military, who seized, destroyed or removed from distribution countless releases during this period. 

The first album digitised and released on vinyl by Majazz Project, Riad and Hanan Awwad’s The Intifada 1987, is one such record. It’s a series of protest synth-pop tunes written and recorded about and during the first Intifada by Riad, an engineer and amateur musician from Jerusalem’s Old City, with his sister Hanan and their friend, the seminal Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. It’s an unlikely sound — a riot of bouncing and melodious protest poetry often using homemade instruments, fusing electro with disco beats that are replete with a warbled late ‘80s synth charm. Cafes that played it were raided and every copy was either seized or destroyed, making the single blank yellow C90 Mo’min found at Tariq’s, with ‘The Intifada’ scrawled in Biro, unthinkably rare and precious.

Credit: @1lluminations

Looting and destruction remain core tactics in the occupation’s attempts to control and limit Palestinian cultural life. Israeli state and military archives where almost all copies of seized music like The Intifada 1987 remain locked away and off-limits to Palestinians, keeping the material cultures of past resistance unheard, while, as Mo’min also says, arts and music spaces are targeted and shuttered in (failed) attempts to curtail the next generation from expressing their future.

Credit: @1lluminations

Other music found in Tariq’s shop that Mo’min would go on to release include the stunning Palestinian Black Panthers’ Mixtape, comprised of field recordings of young resistance fighters who sang about their martyred friends whilst training in the forests outside Jenin. A grassroots culture of songs-as-tribute, news and storytelling continues in Palestine, but today these tunes are more likely to be forwarded around via WhatsApp and YouTube rather than cassette tape. When a prisoner is due to be liberated, extended epics with hyperlocal references are composed in his honour and blasted from every taxi in anticipation, just as a young local martyr’s resistance story will be immortalised, their song heard everywhere for weeks as a collective musical mourning. 

Mo’min describes Majazz Project as both record label and research platform. He’s chosen to work collaboratively to find, credit, and properly consult with the original recording artists and their families, aware of his responsibility as a Palestinian to root these releases in their context of resistance, mindful of the extractive approach of other reissue labels run by European enthusiasts who fiend for rarities to bring to market with little regard for their origins, often selling the songs in a way which divorce them from their political intent.

Israel’s July 2023 incursion into Jenin Camp killed twelve people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. The martyr’s cemetery in Jenin is already so full that an overspill area with more dug graves has been created to prepare for yet more inevitable impending loss. In a cursed echo of what Mo’min and his generation lived through twenty-one years earlier, July’s attack — named ‘Operation Home and Garden’ — also deployed aerial bombardment on West Bank territory for the first time since 2006. 

Credit: @1lluminations

Tariq’s shop is mere steps from where IDF bulldozers bombed houses and tore up nearby roads, and Mo’min recently heard that in the wake of the latest attack, he is planning to sell up. ‘He cannot store the archival collection in Jenin Camp, as he’s worried that another assault on Jenin … could mean the entire archive being destroyed overnight if the building is bombed or bulldozed.’ Now, the man who purchased around 7000 cassettes and has spent the last three years working through them faces an even bigger challenge: ensuring safe storage and long-term security for the entire collection.

Like many aspects of survival in Jenin, the options for saving this incredible trove of sound for future generations are fraught, time-pressurised and difficult. Access routes in and out of the West Bank are tightly controlled and limited, with both people and objects subject to arbitrary seizures. But Mo’min is determined that with the help of donations and a solid plan, this potent archive will not be lost. 

As he surmises in his crowdfunding appeal to help save Tariq’s tapes and precious music on them yet to be heard by today’s ears: ‘This is my appeal to you. Help play a part in keeping our beautiful musical heritage — in all its diversity — alive and making it accessible to people all over the world who can be inspired by these albums and the stories of the bands, poets and musicians who created them.’