Palestinian-Egyptian choir singer Mahmoud Sameh recounts the difficulties of commemorating his people's expulsion from Palestine under the current political climate in Egypt.
The political situation for Palestinians in Egypt, especially regarding public demonstrations, has been difficult for a very long time. Under the guise of Egyptian "national security", much pressure has been put on us.
The first thing I remember of the Palestinians taking part in demonstrations was just after the revolution. Since 2004, Egypt had enforced a law that an Egyptian mother, when married to someone of a foreign nationality, can give her Egyptian nationality to her children. This law applied to all Egyptian mothers who were married to a man from any nationality – except Palestinians. After the revolution, a strong campaign to include Palestinians was successful in April 2011. This was the first time the Palestinians entered the Egyptian streets.
But for a long time, it has been difficult for Palestinians to make any kind of "interference" in the political life of Egypt. Even during the revolution, most Palestinians were afraid to identify as Palestinians. For example, on Nakba Day (the annual commemoration of the establishment of the State of Israel and the on-going mass expulsion of Palestinians) in 2011, we entered Tahrir Square and sang songs – although we were all still scared and ran home following the event! And I still vividly remember when Palestinian poet Tamim El-Barghouthi was expelled from Egypt because of his participation in a protest against the US invasion of Iraq.
Art as resistance
Our choir was put together in 1987 by the Palestinian Women's Union to gather and organise Palestinians in Egypt, and to represent their situation, their love for their country, and their desire to return. There are many tools for this – not just weapons. Art and singing are also ways for us to fight. We have travelled to many parts of Egypt to sing, and taken part in multiple concerts at the Lawyers Syndicate, the Cairo Opera House, the American University in Cairo and the Sawy Cultural Wheel, to sing to the people that Palestine still belongs to Palestinians.
I had visited Palestine with this choir in 1998, when we participated in the International Palestinian Festival at Birzeit University in Ramallah. This was my first visit to my homeland, and the first time I saw my mother's family and home. The feeling of our group was that of a bird set free. Upon our arrival, all twenty of us were crying. During this visit, I attended my first political demonstration.
After we came back to Egypt, I did not stop attending demonstrations! That was the beginning. I insisted upon my return from Palestine to speak to all my Egyptian friends about my homeland. Many Egyptians have been misled, believing for example that Palestinians had sold their lands to Israel. In fact, only about five per cent of Palestinian land was sold to Zionists, of which only two per cent was owned by Palestinians inhabiting the land – and sold under threat – while absentee owners owned the other three per cent. Most Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and their country.
As a student in Egypt, I insisted on adding a Palestinian song to our school's morning announcements during the Intifada, at a time when many people in Egypt were being cautious about the subject. However, everyone welcomed the song, called Ma Fii Khuf: Al-Hajjar Beyedhum Saar Kalashnikov (There is no fear: The stones in their hands became their rifles). When we performed this song during our visit to Palestine, it was replayed on Palestinian radio, and became a popular protest anthem for Palestinians during the Intifada.
During the Intifada, Palestinians in Egypt and Egyptians were focused very much on the Palestinian cause. Our choir reached forty members, as many Palestinians in Egypt became more interested in doing something to represent their nation.
Palestinians in Egypt today: A "national security" issue
Today, the public does not seem to care as much about Palestine, which worries us. The number of Palestinians that are active has dropped. The Cultural Committee of the Palestinian Women's Union, which originally started the choir, is not as active. We are lacking people who are interested in coming together, as was the case during the Intifada.
Under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, there was some sort of relationship between the Hamas government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. When the army took control of the country on 30 June and pushed the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, Hamas was widely believed to support the Muslim Brotherhood against the army. The army and the news media exploited this to justify the army's closing of the Rafah Crossing with Gaza. Following these events, many Egyptians took a hostile view toward Palestinians.
Since the Sadat regime, the primary problem for Palestinians in Egypt – from demonstrations to marriage to work – was the regime. But now we are also facing hostility from the public. There has always been negative propaganda about Palestine, but the public still seemed to support our cause. Nowadays, we are afraid to even mention being Palestinian. Before it was controversial; but now it can be perceived as treason or affiliation with terrorism.
The situation today in Egypt is not stable, as demonstrators are killed every Friday [during anti-coup demonstrations by supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood leadership]. Some of us are afraid to stay in downtown Cairo past 12am, due to the military checkpoints. Our legal situation in Egypt at the moment is not strong.
From the Egyptian point of view, anyone who is protesting against the regime – for any reason – is accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood member; and if they are arrested, they can even be sentenced to death in mass executions. The group is considered illegal by the state. There are media reports suggesting that Egyptians should call the police on their neighbours if they suspect them of belonging to the Brotherhood – and on several cases, non-members have been arrested due to false complaints from spiteful neighbours.
As such, even Egyptian revolutionaries are unable to protest or take action in the streets – let alone Palestinians in Egypt. So the only way we can commemorate the Nakba is an indoor celebration, authorised by the Palestinian embassy in Egypt. The street atmosphere is not safe for anyone – especially us. Any other refugee population in Egypt is dealt with as a "refugee case". Palestinians are considered a "national security" issue.
Commemorating the Nakba
Our ceremony to commemorate the Nakba was organised behind closed doors by the Palestinian Women's Union. We ordained the hall with promises to return to our respective cities – Nablus, Ramallah, and the like. Each committee in the union made opening remarks, while children posted drawings on the wall. The choir sang three Palestinian songs: Mawtani (My Nation), Ya Yumma (My Mother), and ironically, Fal Tasma (Everyone Listen). The ceremony was a small reminder to everyone of our passion for our homeland, and that we will surely return.
But we could not go to the streets. The police, knowing that our event was taking place, showed up at the doors – to ensure that everything was "under control" from a security point of view, and that we would not enter the streets and raise our voices. Friends of mine had discussed the idea of having a silent vigil in Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo. We made plans, including a Facebook event, to meet there. But we were frightened of being arrested. We had to discuss how many of us could even attend the event according to new Egyptian protest/gathering laws, which label more than ten unpermitted demonstrators a "threat" and subject to arrest. It was simply not feasible for most of us to attend.
One day, I hope to see Palestine free. I want to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque. I want to climb the hills in Jerusalem and feel the spirit of the city. And I wish all Arab countries would stand with our cause – especially Egypt. Palestinians need everyone to support their cause. But this regime wants the people to forget about us.
This article was first published by www.munzalak.com, an initiative that promotes the voices of refugees of all nationalities in Egypt. Amith Gupta assisted in the composition.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.