With the occupation of their homeland an ongoing reality, the Palestinians in Brazil know that they have a duty to preserve and share their culture. And whether protesting against oppression, criticising the occupation government or resisting the occupation, music has unique potential for the Palestinian struggle. As such, singing is a very popular way to preserve culture and heritage, as Palestinian Brazilian singer Oula Alsaghir explained to me recently.
“I try to keep our Palestinian heritage alive on the other side of the world through our songs,” she said. “In every word I speak, in every dress I wear, in everything I do, I’m thinking about Palestine and how can I introduce Palestinian culture to Brazil. It’s my duty to be the voice and image of all Palestinian Arab women who do not have the opportunity to express themselves. This is a great honour and an enormous responsibility on my shoulders.”
Alsaghir feels responsible for preserving the singing traditions that are latent in the younger generations of Palestinians in the South American diaspora. She believes that singing traditional songs is an essential medium for the retention of cultural knowledge. “I am a Palestinian Muslim woman, and my first objective is always to present the best image about this woman. My tool to achieve this goal is singing traditional Palestinian songs. I try to let Brazilian people and others know what it means to be a Palestinian woman defender of our culture.”
Palestinian refugee Alsaghir was born in Syria, and fled to Brazil when the situation became very dangerous due to the war in the host country. She told me that her family home in Al-Yarmouk refugee camp was destroyed and the family had to leave. “I know exactly what it means to be a refugee as I have lived this experience twice. I was born as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, and am now in Brazil. The only difference was that I was born and raised in an Arab country speaking the same language and with a similar culture, but the situation is obviously different here in Brazil.”
It was in Syria that Alsaghir first stood on a stage and sang; she was just four years old. She now has her own band in Brazil, using the traditional bazuq, qanoon and riq. This was a childhood ambition. The three members of Nahawand are a Palestinian, Tunisian and a Brazilian from a Lebanese background, as well as Alsaghir.
“I have never imagined that someday I would go to the other side of the world to fulfil my dream,” she said. “I grew up in a house full of music and joy due to my father who played the lute and taught me to sing and love music from when I was little.”
Alsaghir´s songs emphasise the power of music as creative resistance against the occupation. All forms of resistance against occupation are legitimate under international law. The Palestinian people have used many in their legitimate struggle against the Israeli occupation which has robbed them of their land, their rights and their holy places.
“Singing about Palestine is the best proof that the Palestinian people have existed for centuries, and that we have a distinct history, culture, heritage and ancient civilisation. My voice and my songs are part of that struggle.”
The singer is also a member of Mundana Refugee Orchestra (Orquestra Mundana Refugi), a group of 22 musicians of various nationalities, including Brazilian. All are refugees and immigrants. It was founded by Carlinhos Antunes in 2017, which is when Alsaghir was chosen to represent the Palestinians alongside professional musicians from Brazil and around the world. “That’s why I believe that my presentation of this type of music will leave a mark or at least prompt some curiosity to know more and listen to more of my songs. It is enough for me to do this until the reality of the Palestinian cause becomes clear.”
Today, Oula Alsaghir is well known for her singing of Palestinian songs in Brazil. In her music, as in her life, she relies on her Palestinian identity and being backed by traditional instruments to keep her people’s heritage and culture alive as part of Brazilian society and beyond. She concluded our conversation by pointing out that young Palestinians have the ability to adapt, survive and make a success in any field wherever they happen to be in this world. “With our belief in our cause and our legitimate rights, we become stronger and stronger every day.”