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Karbala in the Anthems of Hezbollah | From Khomeini to Syria

كتابةمعازف - May 31, 2018

Original Arabic article by Reda Hariri | 11/04/2017
Translated by Mariam Ali

When France’s General Gouraud announced the creation of the State of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the Shiʻi community took a dim view of this unfamiliar new identity. According to historian Mohammad Jabir Al-Safa, in his seminal book History of Jabal Amel, the Shiʻi elite preferred to be part of a Greater Syria. Kamel Beik Ass’aad invited scholars, dignitaries and thinkers to hold an Ameli Shi’a conference at the mouth of the Litani river. After deliberating the points that were put forward for discussion, they wrote and signed a unanimous resolution, summarised as follows: ‘That those convened have unanimously agreed on their allegiance to Syrian unity, and to call his Majesty King Faisal king of Syria and refuse the protection or mandate of the French.’ From History of Jabal Amel by Mohamed Jaber Al Safa, Dar El Nahar 1981, 2nd edition.

Later, when dreams of Syrian unity were curtailed with Lebanon’s gaining its independence in 1943, the Shiites’ relationship to their new identity remained ambivalent. This was reinforced by the state’s neglect of them, and their weak position in the Lebanese system. With the occupation of Palestine, the declaration of an Israeli state in 1948, and Israel’s subsequent attacks on the South, many fled to the suburbs of Beirut. Karbala The battle of Karbala took place in 680 AD, on the 10th of Muharram 68 AH in the Islamic calendar. The battle took place in the city of Karbala, present day Iraq, between a group of followers of Imam Al-Husayn and larger forces of the Ummayyad caliph of the time, Yazid I. After Al-Husayn and most of his followers were killed, the Umayyad army claimed victory. The battle marks the most important historical incident for Shi’a Muslims. Al-Husayn and his followers are considered martyrs and a symbol of sacrifice. Members of the Shiite and Alawite sects commemorate the events of the tragedy for forty days, starting in the month of Muharram. The ritual of mourning includes public processions, religious circles, chanting laments, preaching, and the striking of the chest. was absent from Shiʻi political discourse at the time. Ashura The tenth day of the month of Muharram, it marks the climax of the commemoration of Karbala. was just another religious occasion, like Ramadan or the Hajj season. Things began to change, however, with the return of the cleric al-Sayyid Musa Al Sadr from Iran in 1959, and later with that of another religious figure, al-Sayyid Muhammad Fadlallah, from Najaf in the mid-sixties. Ashura, with its political connotations of revolt against an unjust ruler, was the only religious occasion that could act as an entry point into the lived political reality.

With the success of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran in 1979, and the emergence of Hezbollah with the Israeli occupation of the South in 1982, Karbala formed the main pillar of the political, social, and, consequently, artistic discourse of the nascent organisation. Hezbollah’s artistic production is not like that of other political parties. Ayatollah Khomeini had taken a negative stance on music before the success of the revolution, so in the period leading up to its official establishment in 1985, the Party had no alternative but to resort to latmiyat. Shiʻi ritual lamentations.

The Iranian radud, Reciter of latmeyat Asakri, was the undisputed star of this first phase. Some of his lamentations still ring out at the funerals of Hezbollah fighters —

On the path of Al-Husayn we cherish martyrdom
Our allegiance to Khomeini’s leadership sworn —
Khomeini called us to bear arms
In the face of injustice
Do not leave the struggle —
O rebels on the path of Allah’s rebel [meaning Al-Husayn] Rise to the call of Ruhullah [Allah’s spirit, meaning Khomeini] Make all the land Karbala

— all lamentations reflecting one of the most important slogans of the period: “Islam is Muhammedan in being, Husayni in endurance, Khomeinian in continuation.”

Asakri’s dominance of the scene did not prevent the emergence of Lebanese reciters (though they never achieved his prominence), such as Sadeq Zuaitar and Yahia Hadraj, who were teenagers at the time.

Zuaitar’s latmeya ‘Amil ya ‘Amil, Ayna Jawād (Amel O Amel, Where is Jawad) tells of the martyr Samir Matout (Jawad) who was killed in 1986. In it he uses a number of symbols, from the opening phrase in which he pleads to Jabal Amel (the historic name of the area before its annexation to Greater Lebanon) — with all the connotations that this carries — to invoking Karbala in ‘Where is the lion of Al-Husayn, symbol of redemption?’ all the way to the conflict with Israel in ‘Who since Jawad has risen up against Shamir?’ and finally emphasising that Matout was on Khomeini’s path —‘Who since Jawad has walked Ruhullah’s path?’

The beginning was thus marked by a complete absence of musical instruments of any kind, coupled with the dominance of Karbala and its symbols — drawing a parallel between it and the fight against Israel — and a constant emphasis on the commitment to Khomeini’s Iranian revolution. Use of the latter’s vocabulary, which at first was only timidly included, increased during the second phase, starting in 1984.

The victory of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the outbreak of war with Iraq the following year softened Khomeini’s position on music. Radio and television began broadcasting music that conformed to religious regulations. Revolutionary anthems had become necessary to mobilize and motivate people to fight in the war, which lasted until 1988. In Lebanon, Hezbollah followed suit, and scout bands began to appear, playing military march-like music. The keyboard was nearly the only instrument used, along with a chorus that repeated the words, set to a fixed melody.

The anthems first appeared in 1984 with the band al-Wilaya, songs such as Yā Juyūsh al-Ḥaqq (O Armies of Truth), Imḍi wa Dammir (Go Forth and Destroy), and Lā Lan Narkaʿ (No We Will Not Bow, video below). They overflowed with the language of the Iranian revolution:

We are Husaynis; we will not bow
We are Husaynis; we will not be surrender
Start a revolution
Start it in the line of fire
Destroy the occupation’s idols
For freedom’s sake

They also focused on the issue of Jerusalem, which was central to Iranian discourse:

O armies of truth, march

Toward the imprisoned Jerusalem

And of course there were the constant reminders of the Party’s ties to Khomeini:

Prepare your forces

Do not fear

Tell Khomeini

Our lives are yours


Khomeini’s army has today become

Rebels against injustice we march

Our path in the footsteps of our Imam

Over time, various bands appeared — groups like al-Israa, Al-Fajr, and Al-ʿAhd — who, although they recorded under various labels, did not change the content. This phase did not differ greatly from the earlier one; the radud was replaced by a chorus, and the rhythm of chest-beating by a repeated melodic phrase on the keyboard, maintaining the form of a metered poem.

In the first half of the nineties, anthems retained their lengthy form, but wind and percussion instruments were introduced. Khomeini’s death led to a decline in the use of Iranian revolutionary terminology in Hezbollah’s anthems, and to the fading of the focus on the Party’s association with it, although Karbala and its symbols endured. The most prominent transformation was in the production of songs that addressed the individual rather than the group—albeit the individual as an ideal, such as the martyr or his mother, rather than as a person. This gave the music of this phase a more human character, as it began, for the first time, to address loss and departure. The chorus, composed of the children of the martyred, addresses the absent father:

You did not return in the morning
You did not wake me
Or hug and kiss me —

And recalls memories of him:

When asked about my vocation
I say resistance, like my father

Of course, Karbala is also invoked, in the person of ‘Abbas, the brother of Al-Husayn:

Amputated in the treacherous ambush
Our free and fearless ‘Abbas

Karbala also makes in appearance in another anthem, Ummāh Inni Rāḥil (Mother I’m Leaving) by the group Al-Israa. Here, the martyr, ‘the departed for Al-Husayn’, forbids his mother from crying and asks her to follow the example of Husayn’s mother Fatimah and of his sister Zaynab:

Martyr’s mother, have patience
Find solace with the Virgin
Repeat with Zaynab dear God
Accept our martyr and grant us victory

Toward the second half of the decade, with the Party’s resilience during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 and its intermittent victories against Israel, the presence of Karbala began to decline. The music takes on a more zealous tone, in line with the shift to colloquial dialect and shorter anthems. In the wake of the liberation of the South in 2000, composers from outside Hezbollah were used for the first time. Among them were Ziad Butrus and ‘Abdu Mundhir, who helped refine the melodies and introduced new instruments, such as violins. The change was felt in post-liberation productions filled with joy and pride, and in the continuing decline of classical fusha Arabic in favour of the colloquial, due perhaps to the Party’s desire to give its victory a nationalistic flavour.

This new linguistic permissiveness, the introduction of musical instruments, and melodic changes gave songs like al-Wilaya’s Watanī Ṣāmid (My Nation Stands Strong), from 2005, a greater reach.

On this album and its title track, Lebanon appears perhaps for the first time as a homeland and an identity:

My homeland is victory
The crown of pride
The flag that bears this cedar

The anthem Libnani Ana Libnani (Lebanese, I am Lebanese) represents the Party’s most direct attempt to prove its commitment to a Lebanese identity:

Lebanese, Im Lebanese
My homeland runs in my veins
The cedar on the flag remains
The first and second verse

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri the same year was the primary motivation for Hezbollah’s push to express its Lebanese identity, which had been nearly absent from its artistic discourse up until then. Because of its association with the Syrian regime, the primary suspect in the assassination, the Party was pressured to foreground its Lebanese identity, which —thanks to its ideological and military ties to Iran— had always been in question. In calling for the 2005 demonstration, Hezbollah for the first time involved itself in Lebanese internal affairs in a way that was clear and tangible.

From that point on, the Party’s anthems would be Lebanised, dominated by the cedars and mountains, the sea and the rocks — particularly after the July 2006 war and the Party’s success in resisting the 33-day Israeli aggression. This resistance was referred to by the head of Al Jazeera’s Beirut office, Ghassan Bin Jeddu, as ‘a half victory for Hezbollah, a half defeat for Israel’. The Party, meanwhile, described it as a ‘divine victory’. During the celebrations held in September of the same year, they released the anthem Nasrik Hazz al-Dini (Your Victory Shook the World), which gave credit for the victory to Lebanon:

Your victory shook the world
Your people never bow
O Lebanon your land
Is protected by blood
Homeland, don’t fear
No price is too high
Your sword in the battlefield
Will be forever raised

That same year, when the March 8 Alliance called for a general strike to demand the removal of Fouad Siniora’s government, the Party released a number of lyrically and melodically mediocre anthems with the aim of mobilizing for the strike. Now, the anthems were beyond Lebanised, going so far as to embrace Lebanese clichés about national unity and Islamic-Christian tolerance, influenced by the memorandum of understanding signed in February 2006 between the Party and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement:

Under the Lebanese flag
Muslims and Christians stand
Let the square swell
With all the Lebanese

Other releases during this period were more akin to football chants:

Beirut is free free!
America, get out!
With our blood and soul
We defend you o Lebanon!

During and after this phase, Karbala and its symbolism remained completely absent. On May 7, 2008, Hezbollah took up arms in response to two decisions by the Siniora government: the dismantling of Hezbollah’s communications network and the dismissal of Beirut International Airport’s security chief — such was the extent of the Party’s immersion in Lebanese internal conflicts, which left no place for Karbala.

Even the July war, with its estimated 1200 casualties and the Party’s military advantage, did not bring them to evoke Karbala. Given — as mentioned above — the Party’s need at that time to affirm its Lebanese identity, the absence of the Iranian revolution and its symbols from its musical productions was understandable. This phase and what came after it gave us (with some exceptions) the worst of the Party’s musical output — and that despite improved resources, religious permissiveness in allowing most musical instruments, and the inclusion of non-party composers. Perhaps the one exception is the funerary operetta composed by ‘Abdu Mundhir for the funeral ceremony of the military leader ‘Imad Mughniya (Hajj Radwan), who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

The period following the 2000 liberation was characterized by various features, principally a quantitative leap in musical output, in addition to the wide recognition and popularity achieved by some reciters, such as Al-Husayn Zu’aitar and Ali Al-Attar, among party supporters. This was no doubt facilitated by the transition to colloquial dialect, making anthems more profitable than ever before, with the financial rewards for bands and independent reciters increasing significantly. In an interview I conducted for Shabab Al-Safir, Ahmed Hamdani, one of the Party’s long-time music producers, told me, “After 2000, the competition between bands shifted from competition over quality to competition over money and fame, leading to many conflicts.”

This was one of the factors that led the Party to establish the Lebanese Association for the Arts — also known as Rissalat— in 2006. Another reason was the need to organise and control the artistic activities of affiliated bands and institutions as Hezbollah’s regional role and involvement in the Lebanese political arena grew. Only through the Association were the bands linked to the Party’s organizational structure; However, this did not prevent the emergence of many musicians who, though under the Party’s umbrella, were not necessarily official affiliates.

In 2011, with the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Party came out in support of Arab popular movements, however its stance on Syria remained ambiguous at first; after initially calling for dialogue between the regime and its opponents, it ultimately turned a blind eye —in a famous speech by party leader Hassan Nasrallah— to the Syrian Army’s attack on Homs. Hezbollah eventually declared its support for the Syrian regime, and,  in 2013, entered the conflict as an official combatant.

With this came the reappearance of Karbala in the Party’s political discourse. The first narrative justified its involvement in the Syrian conflict by declaring it a necessary measure for defending the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab (sister of Al-Husayn) in Damascus. This was enough to convince Hezbollah’s supporters of the necessity of a war which was soon linked in the popular imagination to Karbala. This was heightened by the symbolism of the land on which these events were taking place: Syria, witness to the Umayyad Caliphate, where the captured Al-Husayn women were taken after Karbala. Further, the extreme violence of the war, embodied by the beheadings by Islamist extremists of their opponents, served as a reminder to the Shia community of Al-Husayn’s beheading at the hands of Shamar Ben Dhi Al-Jawshan. The party’s narrative developed over time to include ‘standing against conspiracy’ and ‘securing the transport of arms’.

What is striking here is that the constant presence of Syria and, by extension, Karbala in the Party’s political discourse for over four years was not at all reflected in its anthems. The only official Syria-themed anthem released by the group Al-Wilaya takes its title from a phrase in a Nasrallah speech — ‘where we must be, we shall be’ — and makes no mention of Daesh, terrorism, or any of the usual terminology, limiting itself to one line quoting Nasrallah: ‘If the fight with these Takfiri terrorists requires me and all of Hezbollah to go to Syria, then we shall go to Syria.’

The party avoided any mention of the Syrian war in its anthems, much as it had avoided producing anthems linked to its war with its one-time rival and now ally, the Amal movement. On the one hand, the war with Amal was not only absent from the anthems but also from the political discourse, despite many fighters’ having fallen in the conflict, which continued intermittently throughout the late 1980s. On the other hand, the conflict lives on to this day in the hearts and minds of Amal supporters, who relive annually the memory of their fallen leaders through videos of the movement’s president and head of parliament, Nabih Barri, and latmiyat released during that period.

The Party’s not wanting to remind its supporters of this ‘war between brothers,’ as it was referred to, is due to its having been an internal war among Lebanese Shiites; to have relived it through memorialization would only have lead to further fractures within the sect, ostensibly unified since 2005.

A rummage through the archives in search of newspapers from the time will reveal repeated confirmations by Hezbollah’s leadership — as well as Amal’s — that the war had not only been necessary, but that it had been forced upon them. Similarly, in the case of Syria today, the Party — from its General Secretary down to its representatives and constituents — frequently and repeatedly stresses the importance and inevitability of its war there, presenting political, military, and moral justifications. It completely avoids, however, rooting it in the hearts and minds of its supporters through art. Possible explanations for this apparent contradiction might be the Party’s desire to ward off accusations of sectarianism — although this has already happened — or to frame the conflict as being secondary to its main struggle, the liberation of Palestine, which forms the focal point of its discourse.

In any case, this purposeful distancing has been of little use. The ease of composing and recording music nowadays and the intensification of the conflict — and with it the deaths of many fighters from the Party and from other Shi’a groups  — have given rise to many anthems and latmiyat that narrate the war and tell of the fighters and their victories. The performers are usually reciters and chanters who, though they are not official Party affiliates, nevertheless support it, as do their listeners. The most prominent among them is Ali Barakat, with his big hit Iḥsim Naṣrak fī Yabrūd (Clinch Your Victory in Yabroud), the circulation of which Hassan Nasrallah himself is reported to have ordered stopped. Funnily enough, Barakat responded by releasing several anthems in the same poetic metre, with Yabroud, Qalmun, and Arsal as their respective themes. At the moment, Barakat is one of the most prolific reciters among the ranks of the Party’s supporters; not a month goes by without his uploading a new anthem to his YouTube channel, from Jahhiz Kafanak wal Tabūt (Prepare Your Shroud and Coffin) to Qawim Qawim Ya Mighwār, Shaʿil Kul Al-Sāḥa Nār (Resist, Resist O Brave One, Set the Place on Fire, video below). In truth, Barakat’s songs cannot even really be considered anthems; they are poorly written colloquial texts set to melodies with the rhythm of chest-beating, and an electric chorus.

Apart from Barakat, recent years have seen the appearance of a new generation of reciters, some of whom, like Hadi Faour, are young boys. In an anthem titled Kafriya and Al-Fou’a, the reciter directs threats at the Al-Nusra Front and its leader Abu Muhammad Al-Julani:

Listen, Julani
Hussein is my address
Nusra Front
You’ll end up in a ditch

In another anthem, called Wantaṣarat Zaynab (Zaynab is Victorious), Hassan Awwad and Mohamed Safieddine sing :

Syria will no longer be
A haven for villains
Al-Husayn’s voice will not fail
As long as it calls within us

These anthems and others like them are based on poetry, written partially in classical Arabic, invoking Al-Husayn and his sister Zaynab in the context of the ongoing conflict against the extremist Islamist opposition led by the Al-Nusra Front and Daesh, to rousing, electronically produced  melodies that can be crafted with little effort. The simplicity and speed of producing such anthems have found them a market beyond the battlefield. They receive a lot of popular attention and are widely shared. Faour’s anthem for example, mentioned above, has nearly three million views on YouTube.

Another market niche has appeared as a result of this evolution of the recording and production process: marthiyat. A search on YouTube for ‘martyr’s marthiya yields hundreds of results, all elegies for Hezbollah fighters who were killed in Syria. Ali Barakat is one of the pioneers of this type of elegy in terms of lyrics, melody, and recitation. Other famous reciters of this genre are Husayn Jaafar and Muhammad Jaafar Ghandour.

These recordings usually feature similar lyrics and melodies. One sub-genre focuses on the fighter’s personal life, his virtues, and the grief over his loss. Another narrates his prowess in battle, portraying him as a follower of Al-Husayn and defender of his sister Zaynab. Most such elegies are produced at the request of relatives or friends of the fighter wanting to preserve his memory. The professional reciters charge varying fees (sometimes none) for writing, composing, and singing marthiyat.

The spread of marthiyat cannot be solely linked to technology. The Party’s reluctance to memorialize its fighters in this way also plays a primary role. This reluctance is not limited to rank-and-file soldiers but extends to field commanders who have died in Syria as well. The most prominent among them was Mustafa Badreddine (Dhulfiqar). This vacuum left by the Party needed others to fill it. In the past, anthems like Akhi Sawfa Tabkī ʿalayka Al-ʿOyūn (Brother, We Will Cry For You) (from the words of Sayyid Qutb) or Ummāh Inni Rāḥil (Mother I’m Leaving, video below), both performed by Al-Israa, filled the role of lamenting martyrs and consoling their loved ones, even if they were not individually dedicated. The sheer number of fighters killed in Syria — roughly equivalent to the sum total of Hezbollah fighters killed throughout all the years of war with Israel — is also an undeniable factor in the rise of these elegies, with each family wishing to guard their fallen son’s memory against oblivion and preserve his image as a unique individual.

The anthem’s transformations are nothing but a reflection of the transformations undergone by the Party itself from the 1980s until today: its evolution from an unwelcome minority to a majority leading and shaping the community, and that is in turn shaped by that community’s manners and way of life. Karbala was present at the start of Hezbollah’s journey in the early 1980s. Its presence diminished at times, but has re-emerged today in a different form. The community’s view of itself has changed. They are no longer the weak and oppressed, fighting to avenge aggressions inflicted on them, but are the powerful who fight to achieve the victory they have grown accustomed to in recent years. Yet this has not dislodged Al-Husayn’s martyrdom from their minds: they are still Al-Husayn; it is Yazid who is every-changing.