Gaza’s Zeinab Shaath: The Urgent Call of Palestine

Zeinab Shaath performing in the mountains of Lebanon for the Ismail Shammout film The Urgent Call of Palestine, 1972. (Photo: Supplied)

By Louis Brehony

She whispers above the roars of the guns

Beckoning to all her daughters and sons

– “The Urgent Call of Palestine,” Lalita Panjabi

Zeinab Shaath performing in the mountains of Lebanon for the Ismail Shammout film The Urgent Call of Palestine, 1972.

Though she was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, songwriter Zeinab Shaath proudly describes herself as a Gazzawiyya, pointing out the Gaza origins of her family. Her father’s pre-1948 exile from Palestine shaped her upbringing and, by the re-emergence of the Palestinian Revolution in the late 1960s, a teenage Zeinab had begun writing songs dedicated to the cause. In the decade to follow, she would feature in the first short film of Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout and release her own record, before performing her unique brand of musical poetry on three continents.

This photo and music essay documents some of Zeinab’s experiences as a musician-activist and forms part of a broader research project by Louis Brehony into contributions to Palestinian resistance music.[1]

Photos were generously provided by Zeinab Shaath and Bashar Shammout.

Zeinab began songwriting after her older siblings brought a guitar back from studies in the US, where protests against the war on Vietnam were raging. Remembering their familial commitment to speaking Palestinian Arabic at home, Zeinab reveals the optimism of the times: “We always thought that we would go back and that we would return to Palestine… I wanted to contribute to the Palestinian revolution through song.”

While in Lebanon, Zeinab met Ismail Shammout and her song “The Urgent Call,” featured in his first film, which premiered in 1973. She had written the song in 1970, at 16 years old. An experienced painter and himself a Palestinian exile from Lydd, Shammout had become a leading figure in PLO cultural organizing. Zeinab would record a four-track vinyl record, released by the PLO Cultural Arts Section in 1972. Film reels of The Urgent Call were among items looted by the Zionist military during its invasion of Lebanon. (Photos: Ismail Shammout and Zeinab Shaath during filming, and Zeinab’s record cover.)

Among her first songs, and those appearing on her record, was Zeinab’s 1972 composition to the Mo’in Bseiso poem “Resist”:

They slapped down a paper

and a pen before my nose

In my hand they thrust

the key to my house

The paper they wanted me to blemish

said Resist… Resist

The pen they wanted me to disgrace

said Resist… Resist

After initially performing on Egyptian radio, Zeinab sang at Palestinian festivals in Lebanon. Among those impressed by her music was Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who “gave me a big hug” after hearing her sing “Write Down, I’m an Arab,” translating his well-known poem “I.D. Card” into English. Zeinab aimed to take the narrative of Palestinian resistance to international audiences and found popularity among others struggling against imperialism. (Photo: Zeinab interviewed in Beirut for Alif Baa magazine, 1974.)

In summer 1973, Zeinab was one of around 750,000 people from around the world to take part in the huge 10th World Youth Festival in East Berlin, then part of the socialist German Democratic Republic. During this “amazing exchange of ideas and thoughts,” Zeinab performed at huge revolutionary concerts and was part of a popular, 150-strong Palestinian delegation. Struggles to liberate Palestine and Vietnam were given central importance. Zeinab “loved the opportunity to be in that tenth World Youth Festival… I sang on stages there singing Write Down, I’m an Arab, and some other songs.” She’d also go on to perform in the Soviet Union.

Moving to study in the US in 1976, Zeinab would later have children and “turn into an activist, rather than a singer.” In the meantime, she would sing in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and other cities, at protests, charity events and Arab community gatherings. “There were many student organizations, many protests during Sabra and Shatila, commemorations, I’d be singing there. I got married in 1982 and wanted to call it quits but [my husband] encouraged me to carry on.”

She’d continue writing songs too, with supporters finding her new translations of Palestinian poetry. Though some of the recordings would be lost, the spirit of Zeinab’s contribution would be encapsulated in the liberating spirit of the poetry she loved:

Here we shall stay

A wall upon your breast

Facing starvation

Struggling with rags


Singing our songs

Swarming the streets with our wrath

Filling your dungeons with pride

– “Here We Shall Stay,” Tawfiq Zayyad

[1]    Quotes are from interviews and correspondence with Zeinab Shaath in spring 2022. Thanks are due to Issa Boulos for helping make initial contact.

– Louis Brehony is a musician, activist, researcher and educator. He is author of the book Palestinian Music in Exile: Voices of Resistance (2023), editor of Ghassan Kanafani: Selected Political Writings (2024), and director of the award-winning film Kofia: A Revolution Through Music (2021). He writes regularly on Palestine and political culture and performs internationally as a buzuq player and guitarist. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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