Palestinian notes for a new Ireland: Reem Kelani’s Sprinting Gazelle

Emigration and exile: songs from Palestine and their relevance to Celtic Tiger Ireland.

As I write this, RTÉ are looking back at the twenty years that have seen Ireland move from economic devastation and large-scale emigration to economic boom. The question on many people’s minds is that of immigration. A society which saw emigration as a fact of life and an inherent part of its culture is having to adjust very quickly to the fact that it is now a desirable destination for emigrants from countries enduring the kind of devastation we suffered in the past. It is entirely to be expected that tensions and difficulties should arise as our self-image is transformed. Our political parties, whatever their hue, evoke the past only in cursory or ritualistic fashion. The absence of real political/historical memory seriously affects the decisions we make as a society.

We are also living in a transformed cultural world. Emigration, family heart-break, sea-separated lovers, the loving evocation of a homeplace that might rarely if ever be seen again, the intimate naming of hills and streams and townlands: such motifs were woven into our traditional music and oral culture. But if you were born in 1983, say, and are now making your first CD, what are you singing when you sing of emigration and separation? You are singing history, you are (if you really care for the music) projecting yourself into the experience of parents, aunts and uncles, and of earlier generations. If you do not connect, you may sing sweetly or competently, but there will be an emptiness at the heart of the song.

Rather than argue over the merits and demerits of various Irish singers and groups, or wonder if a choice has to be made between Ryanair and slow air, let’s take a detour into someone else’s songs of longing. Will the Sprinting Gazelle have anything to say to the Celtic Tiger? Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora by Reem Kelani is less a collection of favourite songs than a personal engagement with, and reimagination of, a people’s experience and musical culture. It is significant for a number of reasons.

This is not the place to enter into discussion of the rights and wrongs of modern Palestinian history. Manchester-born singer Reem Kelani probably has strong views on the subject, but her purpose on this CD is not to accuse, to name enemies or to articulate political demands. In our media, we are used to seeing Palestinians as either the victims of Israeli political/military oppression or as enraged or irrational terrorists bringing death and destruction to Israeli civilians. In either case, there is necessarily a thinning of human experience. Reem Kelani’s journey into Palestinian music and poetry restores a frequently caricatured people to humanity.

The first song, ‘As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow’, is traditional, but here it is sung in a style that pays tribute to the chanting that Kelani heard in a Greek Orthodox church in Nazareth during a childhood visit. The second track, ‘The Cameleer Tormented my Heart’, pays tribute to Bedouin tradition. The third is a lullaby. Beginning with another departure (‘Our loved ones have left home,/gone away without saying goodbye/…’), it concludes on a note of tender longing as it dissolves into a repeated chorus (‘Do tell our loved ones who have moved away,/ That for anyone hardship never lasts forever./ Never lasts forever../Never lasts forever…’). Variations on loss, the sub-title Kelani has put to Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Mawwaal’, could describe the next few songs. The second last song, to a poem by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, strikes a note of subdued anger and resolution. The last track, interweaving two songs, is about praise, building, growth against the odds.

For those who live in exile, song itself can be a kind of home. Reem Kelani is clearly attuned to the whole range of poetic and musical expression within Palestinian culture, be it in Nazareth, in the Lebanese refugee camps or elsewhere. She has the range and the power of voice to fully communicate that material. What is also significant is that her relationship with the material is honest. Kelani does not offer us a simulacrum of the music of her parents or grandparents. She engages deeply with her heritage, but does not hide the fact that, as a product of exile, her musical culture is a mixed one. (Incidentally, she thus demonstrates in another context that Irish debate around traditional/modern or purist/innovator polarities is misguided.) The accompaniment to the lullaby referred to earlier is provided by piano, clarinet, double bass, riqq (a kind of tambourine) and drums. ‘Yafa!’, a poem written in traditional qasidah form by Mahmoud Salim al-Hout, sets the voice of Reem Kelani against the distinctive piano improvisations of Zoe Rahman.

Whether you listen to it for the yearning intensity of the singing, for the dignity and history it offers Palestine in exile, or for the dialogue with our own history and culture which it can stimulate, Reem Kelani’s Sprinting Gazelle will prove rewarding.

Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora by Reem Kelani is avalable on Fuse Records (CFCDO48) (


Published on 1 July 2006

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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