Nazareth’s Liwan Features Palestinian Singer Haya Zaatry

The oth­er day I was invit­ed by the Bris­tol Pales­tin­ian Film Fes­ti­val to see a short series of films, includ­ing Liwan, a doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Doris Hakim, and co-pro­duced with Adam New­by, tak­ing place in Nazareth — the largest and most pop­u­lat­ed Pales­tin­ian city in Israel.

It is, for a change, a very uplift­ing Pales­tin­ian sto­ry, fol­low­ing the co-founders of the café, includ­ing Sal­ly Azzam, who lives part of the year in Bris­tol and was present for a Q&A, and Sami Jabali, and Silke Wan­ner, who is orig­i­nal­ly from Germany.

Begin­ning in 2016, the founders of Liwan faced dis­cour­age­ment and even phys­i­cal threats, but they kept try­ing and final­ly opened their place in the old city of Nazareth. For sev­er­al years now, Liwan has host­ed events such as book read­ings, lec­tures, con­certs, games, craft sales…And lit­er­al­ly brought back to life a neigh­bor­hood that for decades was con­sid­ered as decay­ing and labeled by the Israeli police as dangerous.

Soon, the café con­tributed as well to a revival of the whole local souq, with a few oth­er shops open­ing recent­ly, inspired by their resilience.

The film tells this sto­ry very movingly.

The screen­ing event I attend­ed was part of a pro­gram titled “Rebel Music” at Bris­tol’s St. George music venue. And my favorite scene in Liwan was when Pales­tin­ian singer-song­writer Haya Zaa­try sang her new song at the venue, titled “Tab­u­la Rasa.” See­ing this lit­tle cul­tur­al cen­ter full of hap­py music enthu­si­asts lis­ten­ing to a live event was mes­mer­iz­ing. The Pales­tin­ian music scene has obvi­ous­ly faced chal­lenges and obsta­cles, and many of its famous artists have left to live abroad and pro­duce music in Lebanon, Tunisia France or the UK.

“Pales­tini­ans are a minor­i­ty inside the state of Israel, and their cul­ture has been delib­er­ate­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized by the Israeli state,” the founders of Liwan wrote on their crowd­fund­ing page. “Con­se­quent­ly, anoth­er major goal for Liwan is to sup­port and pro­mote local Pales­tin­ian cul­ture, by host­ing con­certs by local Pales­tin­ian musi­cians, poet­ry read­ings, art exhi­bi­tions, show­ings of films, and act­ing as a meet­ing point for tours vis­it­ing Pales­tin­ian heritage.”

I asked Sal­ly about the impor­tance of music in a space like Liwan, for her and her co-founders, and she shared this inter­est­ing story:

When the venue was hard­ly ready to open, and they were still paint­ing the walls, a famous pianist from Nazareth was film­ing a doc­u­men­tary about his music jour­ney in the city and walked in. He had come to talk to Sal­ly and Silke and, moved by their project, offered to per­form at Liwan the week he was in town. Because the venue had no fur­ni­ture yet and no piano, he decid­ed to ask his child­hood school to give them the piano he used to learn music. The school agreed and brought the piano to Liwan…on a don­key! Hear­ing the prospects of the open­ing with this con­cert, to help, local artists also gave paint­ings to dec­o­rate the place quick­er than expected.

And so the pianist did per­form at Liwan before leav­ing Pales­tine. He filmed the scene of his child­hood piano trav­el­ing on the back of a don­key, and this became the open­ing scene of his documentary…

The fact that the cul­tur­al venue also con­tributed to encour­age an emerg­ing music scene spoke direct­ly to my heart, as a music lover and music writer, fas­ci­nat­ed by song­writ­ers. I want­ed to know more.

Haya Zaa­try is from Nazareth. She was born there on Octo­ber 23, 1991, and moved at the age of 18 to Haifa to study archi­tec­ture and town plan­ning. She formed a few bands with friends, the lat­est being Ottor, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in sev­er­al polit­i­cal-social aware­ness projects and concerts.

“‘Tab­u­la Rasa’ is actu­al­ly going to be released on my debut album in a cou­ple of months,” Haya told me via social media. “So it hasn’t been released yet.”

But you’ll soon be able to hear it when we pre­view it here in The Markaz Review.

Her oth­er song “Bal­a­di,” sung with her band Ottor, became the theme song for the film; you can hear it in the trail­er above and here in the full record­ing, filmed in their stu­dio in Nazareth.

The song is the first sin­gle from her com­ing debut album, “Rahawan.” Haya and her musi­cians launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for it in Novem­ber 2021, and were sup­port­ed by more than 250 back­ers. “Thanks to you, we have reached our first goal, and we can now pro­duce and release the album!” wrote Haya on her Face­book page.

First, their song “Ishtar” is actu­al­ly going live on the mag­i­cal date of 2.22.22.

The song “Qaluli” / “Alouli” was released ear­ly Decem­ber via Youtube:

It was also launched on the inter­na­tion­al Paris-based Ara­bic-speak­ing radio مونت كارلو الدولية / Monte Car­lo Doualiya. You can lis­ten to it here, along with an inter­view with the singer — in Arabic.

Coin­ci­dent­ly, when look­ing for record­ings shared by Haya, the first one I found was a cov­er ver­sion of “Teardrop,” the icon­ic song by the Bris­tol-based band Mas­sive Attack that I spent years writ­ing about, because they’ve been such pow­er­ful activists and have sup­port­ed Pales­tin­ian artists since the late 1990s.

Music sure­ly has the pow­er to help us trav­el beyond bor­ders, to inspire us, to incite resis­tance and to bring peo­ple together.

It was ulti­mate­ly so reas­sur­ing to learn that Liwan sur­vived the threats, the pan­dem­ic, lock­downs and clo­sures, and is still open and running.

Let’s wrap up with more music, with this live ses­sion post­ed in Jan­u­ary in which Haya sings two of her own songs ‘Man­akir — مناكير’ and ‘Bor­ders & Promis­es — حدود ووعود’.

Originally published at https://themarkaz.org on February 21, 2022.

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Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics

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Melissa Chemam

Melissa Chemam

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics