Whenever Israeli soldiers stormed our neighbourhood in a Gaza refugee camp, we would rush to hide the few VHS tapes of the band Al-Asheqeen that we had. Being caught in possession of such revolutionary material would be enough to earn us a severe beating, arrest and a heavy fine.
This is why, when I learned that the leader of the band, the legendary Lebanese artist Hussein Munther — aka Abu Ali —passed away on Sunday, 17 September, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia.
“O world, bear witness to what has happened to us, and to Beirut; bear witness to [our] popular struggle…” sang Al-Asheqeen about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I can’t imagine that a single child of my generation did not know that song off by heart.
Munther has left behind a wealth of 300 songs, all dedicated to Palestine, and to Arab and global solidarity with the Palestinian people. He was not alone, of course. His fame and influence were part of the well-deserved popularity of Al-Asheqeen, which translates roughly as “Band of the Lovers”. The reference to love here is to the love of the homeland, to Palestine and to Palestine alone.
The band was founded in 1977. It has defined, more than any other, the relationship between Palestinians in the shatat — the diaspora — and those in occupied Palestine, with that of the homeland, with Palestine as an idea, a tangible reality, a history, a culture and much more.
The message conveyed so powerfully by the band has helped Palestinians remain strong during the most difficult of times: the Beirut siege in 1982, for example; the Sabra and Shatila Massacre in the same year; the relentless exile; the wars; the betrayal of friends; and the cruelty of enemies.
Al-Asheqeen’s lyrics, usually listened to through Munther’s thunderous voice, were penned by Palestine’s most famous poets, the likes of Ahmed Dahbour, Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Ziad, Nuh Ibrahim and Samih Al-Qasim.
A quick scan of the historical and cultural references made by the band demonstrates that Palestine, for those beloved artists, was not a place in time, driven by a single faction or an ideology; it was Palestine as an eternal truth that remains, and will remain, unchanged.
They sang for the Arab revolutionary Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam (1981); for Beirut (1982); for the shatat; for the “children of the stones” (1987); and for the Intifada. They sang for Palestine, as a woman, Zareef Al-Toul, tall and proud, beautiful, rooted in her land, legendary in her dignity and revolutionary in her resilience.
And who else could convey all of these sentiments in a framework of power and poise but Hussein Munther? Interestingly — and tellingly — he was a Lebanese artist, with a Levantine — shami — accent, but a Palestinian heart. Munther was an “Arab-Palestinian-shami-Lebanese project of the highest calibre,” wrote Arab writer Thahir Saleh on Aljazeera Net.
In fact, all of Al-Asheqeen was an Arab project, involving the late Abdullah Hourani, Hussein Nazik, Mizr Mardini, the sisters Maha and Misa’ Abu Al-Shamat, and a large number of Arab and Palestinian songwriters, performers, set designers and organisers. The pan-Arabism of Al-Asheqeen reflected a period of Arab revolutionary struggle in which the Palestinian cause didn’t belong only to Palestine, but to all Arab nations.
Most Palestinian political groups, including Fatah under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat, contributed to this historical achievement. Old videos of Al-Asheqeen performances showed the top leaderships of major Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) groups, all represented equally, sitting in the front row at the band’s concerts. Munther and Al-Asheqeen toured numerous Arab and international capitals for years, rightfully earning the title of “Voice of the Palestinian Revolution”.
Although many of those who helped form the band, many of its early members, songwriters and now Abu Ali himself, have departed this earthly life, the songs of Al-Asheqeen continue to resonate loudly in every Palestinian city, village and refugee camp. They are heard throughout Lebanon, in Syria and in many Palestinian and Arab homes the world over.
The greatest achievement of Hussein Munther and his “Band of Lovers” is that they demonstrated that revolution is not a rifle; it is the culture that gives the rifle its meaning. Moreover, they have helped cement the widespread values of resistance among Palestinians as the only way to liberate the wounded homeland.
The resistance of Al-Asheqeen and Hussein Munther is one that results from a collective and unrepented love for Palestine and her people. Abu Ali has died, but the Voice of the Palestinian Revolution lives on.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.