I was born in Palestine – Emel Mathlouthi

Tunisian singer whose music accompanied the Arab Spring sings about the Palestinian struggle.

“Emel Mathlouthi’s voice feels as if a bird’s heart was set on fire by the deepest point of the ocean, a fire that none can extinguish except the highest point of the sky. But the bird does not want its heart to stop burning, so the wind can keep collecting its golden ashes, and sprinkle them on the grey, dry, famished lips of beauty”.

(Anonymous)

Just as I was about to write an article about the Tunisian composer, musician and singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, I coincidentally read what would seem like a questionable attempt at a poetical comment on her from an anonymous long-time admirer.

After having relentlessly inquired on his identity, he finally agreed that I could quote his comment at the beginning of the article, provided the promise I wouldn’t reveal his identity, which, I eventually discovered, coincidentally coincided with mine.

Though coincidences like these always take one aback, leaving us with the feeling that fate has challenged once again our ability to grasp its most subtle intricacies, Emel Mathlouthi, on the other hand, poses no challenge whatsoever to those eager to cultivate and enrich their knowledge and love for musical artistry.

Having grown up in Tunisia during Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule, Emel Mathlouthi started writing protest songs in 2004. During the Tunisian revolution in 2011, that would result in Ben Ali’s government’s demise, Mathlouthi rose to international fame when her song “Kelmti Horra” (in English, “My word is free” ) became a national anthem for protesters demanding the democratization of the country. In 2015, Mathlouthi was invited to perform the latter song at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert.

When the Tunisian revolution started, sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in late December 2010, Mathlouthi was living in Paris, where she had moved two years earlier, having had her work banned by the Tunisian government, thus in order to cultivate, express and share her art with others. As she recently stated, in Tunisia, at the time ” there was no space for me to pursue that, of course. (…) When the revolution happened, one of my songs kind of exploded, and brought light to all the work I was doing”.

The fact that light was shed on Mathlouthi’s work is extremely fortunate since the power and weight of her ideological stance are carried by a commensurate creative weight and power.

Given her debut album, “Kelmti Horra”(2012), and her latest release, “Ensen”(2017), it would seem that at the core of Mathlouthi’s musicality lies a profound extraneousness to cultural or conceptual boundaries, and, as a response, the desire to attempt their dissolvement. Her work results therefore in a mesmerising, captivating whirlpool of different instruments,  rhythms, cultures, times, influences, and even languages.

It is the case, for instance, of Mathlouthi’s song “Naci en Palestina” (in English, “I was born in Palestine”), whose lyrics are both in Spanish and Arabic. Though Mathlouthi added the Arabic lyrics in her version of the song, and envisioned Palestine as the geographical source of its outcry, she based her rendition on a song called “Naci en Alamo“(in English, “I was born in Alamo”), featured in the film “Vengo”(2000), and performed by the artist Remedios Silva Pisa.

In turn, “Naci en Alamo” was based on a Greek Gypsy folk song, “Tragoudi Ton Gifton“(in English, “Song of the Gypsies”), also known as “Balamo”(in English, “Outsider”), originally recorded in 1990 by Greek singer-songwriter Dionysis Tsaknis. Interestingly, the very song which was inspired and dedicated to the plight of those who have no place to call their own does not seem to have one itself.

In Mathlouthi’s version, the song is inspired and dedicated to the insufferable plight of the Palestinian people amidst the insufferable conflict with Israel, of which the recent al-Aqsa crisis was but an umpteenth insufferable manifestation.

In “Naci en Palestina”, Mathlouthi tries to describe the long-suffering of a hypothetical Palestinian citizen, who, through her voice (translating from Spanish) cries: “I have no place, I have no country, I have no homeland. With my fingers I make fire, and with my heart I sing, the strings of my heart cry”.

When the Palestinian citizen then sings in Arabic, he repeats the same verses previously sung in Spanish, but these culminate with the words “my history can’t be erased”.

In a recent 2017 article, Mathlouthi has been reported stating that: “We have to still feel the pain of others. That’s the basis of us not going towards dehumanization. That’s my big point. So that’s political. I just hate the word political today more than ever because it’s so dirty. Art has to find a new definition to fight, to be associated with. I think that my art is always going to be concerned. I feel more comfortable adding [that term] to my art than adding the term political”.

Lyrics were analysed with the help of WIB contributor Magdalena Mach

[LYRICS]

NACI EN PALESTINA

no tengo lugar
y no tengo paisaje
yo menos tengo patria
con mis dedos hago el fuego
y con mi corazón te canto
las cuerdas de mi corazón lloran

nací en palestina
nací en palestina

no tengo lugar
y no tengo paisaje
yo menos tengo patria

ما عندي مكان
و ما عنديش زمان
و ما عنديش بلاد

من يديا نصنع نار
من قلبي البلار
نجرحلك وتر حزين

مولود في فلسطين
مولود في فلسطين

ما عندي مكان
و ما عنديش زمان
و ما عنديش بلاد

مولود في فلسطين
مولود في فلسطين

تاريخي عمرو ما يتمحى

I was born in Palestine – Emel Mathlouthi
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Isaac K. Wilde

Isaac is an Italian soon-to-be social work student, with a targetless passion for whatever strives to bring meaning in his life and in the life of others. His previous academic studies have involved cognitive psychology and modern literature. He is currently teaching English, writing short stories, and being publicly dispossessed of his true name by an on-going feud with shyness, hence his writing on WIB with an otherwise unnecessary pseudonym such as Isaac K. Wilde.
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