Marcel Khalife made a triumphant return to Seattle tonight to open the U.S. leg of his North American tour. 800 people gathered to hear him at Town Hall. The audience was mostly members of the local Arab American community though there were many world and Arab music lovers like myself as well.
It appears that we almost didn’t get to hear him. Earlier in the day, he’d been delayed for three hours by U.S. Customs in crossing from Canada into the States. Tonight, before performing Mahmoud Darwish’s Passport, he dedicated the song to the Customs agent responsible for his delay and recited these lyrics:
Everyone’s heart is my citizenship
So drop this passport off of me!
It appears this may’ve been part of the U.S. government’s attempt to prevent foreign musicians and academics with allegedly controversial views from entering the country. I’ve noted some of these efforts regarding Tariq Ramadan and Nalini Ghuman. If there was political motivation to his harassment then it might’ve been warranted (depending on your point of view) considering that he dedicated one of the songs to “those suffering under the Palestinian Occupation, and those suffering in Iraq and Lebanon.” He also noted his friendship for the American people and that this didn’t include the policies of its government.
The second half of Khalife’s concert was especially poignant and vibrant filled as it was with the songs of Mahmoud Darwish, Khalife’s most important lyrical collaborator. During the songs I Walk and O Fishermen, Haila, Haila, the audience knew the songs so well that Khalife stopped performing and encouraged people to sing the words together. It was more than merely basking in the admiration of his audience. It was a testament to the power of the music for these individuals. It clearly was both a balm to the wounded Arab soul and a stimulant meant to stiffen resistance to oppression.
Haila Haila was the final song and brought down the house. Its lyrics refer allegorically to fishermen “pulling together” toward freedom. The last verse makes cryptic mention of a “southern voice:”
I hear a southern voice, a southern voice,
I hear it and tear apart this reel of treason
O fisherman, Haila, Haila.
Not being an expert on Lebanese history or Khalife’s music I’m guessing the “southern voice” either refers to the South Lebanon Army, the Christian puppet force supported by Israel until it withdrew from the country in 2000. Or perhaps it refers to Israel itself. At any rate, dancers in the crowd began doing a debka and several audience members ran on stage to wrap Khalife and his son, Rami in Palestinian keffiyehs. Clearly, they viewed it as a song celebrating Palestinian resistance to Israel.
Interestingly, the elder Khalife left the stage still draped in his keffiyeh while Rami removed his. I don’t know whether this had any significance but it did stand out in comparison to his father’s behavior.
Read Banning Eyre’s interview with Khalife.