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’Biktub Ismak Ya Biladi

'Yes, we told them, we do know what it means'

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’Biktub Ismak Ya Biladi, ‘al shams ilma bit(a)gheeb
La mali wala wlaadi, ‘Ala Hubik mafe Habib.

I will write your name oh my country, above the sun that never sets.
Not my children nor my wealth, above your love there is no love.

I first heard this song at a demonstration in Nabi Saleh in the West Bank, Palestine, in 2012. I was in the village to participate in a demonstration with my choir and, as is their tradition of resistance, at midday, following Friday prayers, the community gathered outside the mosque and began to walk down the road to their well.

An illegal Israeli settlement has taken over use of the well, and now the Israeli military won’t allow the villagers to access their water source. This community is well-versed in nonviolence, and as the demonstration progressed (all ages of Palestinians walking towards the well, singing and chanting), the Israeli army responded with tear gas, with a water cannon spraying what smelt like slurry, and with rubber (read: rubber-coated metal) bullets fired at the people of Nabi Saleh and my choir and me.

After a brief ‘retreat’, the community gathered together again, reasserting their right to access their water well. The young women led us down the road again, and they sang ‘’Biktub ismak ya biladi...’ as we sang them ‘Freedom is coming…’ in exchange. The song was, for them, an assertion of their connection with the land that they live upon, and of their right to exist.

When I’m teaching this song to groups of non-Arabic speakers, I always explain that for Palestinians (and for the millions of Syrians who also sing this song) the relationship with land runs at a deeper level than we might be used to experiencing or acknowledging. This song is an expression of that bigger experience.

Biladi is sometimes translated as ‘country’, sometimes ‘nation’, leading us to read it in the context of the nation-state system, but its meaning is much more than that. It really means ‘land’, as in ‘earth’, as in the earth we dig and grow trees and fruits on, the rock the wells are dug down into, and the sea and the sky as well. And it means all of these things as they relate to us, as we exist in relationship to the earth, the land that we live upon. And all of these things are bound together through our shared cultural expression as well, so it’s a really simple yet complex expression of a people’s right to exist. And for Palestinians, occupied now by Israel, but occupied by the British empire before them, and the Ottoman empire before that, asserting this right to exist as Palestinians is crucial. And song and dance are fundamental expressions of that identity.

During the same trip in 2012, we visited a kindergarten run by an amazing woman called Zleikha in the old city of Hebron who supports the local children to experience life as children despite the everyday violence surrounding them. Zleikha focuses on creative expression to help the children process some of their ongoing trauma and to acknowledge the grown-up realities. These two- to four-year-olds sang ’Biktub ismak ya biladi… while dressed up to support the Palestinian prisoners.

Every Palestinian is affected by Israel’s arbitrary arrests of mostly men and young boys. By singing this song the children were able to acknowledge that reality with each other, as well as asserting their right to exist, to be Palestinians, and to be proud of being Palestinians.

When we returned earlier this year, my choir had learnt ‘Biktub’ to sing in concerts and on demonstrations. The response from everyone we met was amazing. Whether it was singing in performances – in a village concert in Qusra, singing with children in the Nablus refugee camps, or whether it was singing more informally in a hotel lobby, a friend’s living room or in a taxi, everyone we met was delighted for us to share their song with them. After their initial moment of shock, perhaps taking a moment to adjust to our imperfect pronunciation of such a familiar song, adults and children alike clapped and danced along with great energy.

And they all asked us the same thing: ‘Do you know what it means?’ Yes, we told them, we do know what it means, and we sing it in solidarity with you. We see you, we hear you, and we acknowledge your right to exist.

In a world dominated by the English language and by Western culture, it can become radically important to learn languages and songs from other traditions, acknowledging everyone’s right to cultural existence.