Stuck in his Palestinian hometown of Jenin during lockdown, Mo’min Swaitat walked into an old music shop where thousands of dusty cassettes lined the walls. They contained decades of Palestinian music and field recordings once confiscated by the Israeli army, long since forgotten, and never meant to make it out of Palestine.
This is the story of what was on those cassettes, and Mo’min’s mission to give them a second life.
This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking by Deena Sabry, sound design and mixing by Nadeen Shaker, Alex Atack and Monzer El Hachem. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar.
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Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, this is Kerning Cultures.
[Ambient sounds of an airport loudspeaker]
DANA BALLOUT: Our story today starts at an airport in Jordan. More specifically, in a back room, where Mo’min Swaitat has been brought by a group of airport security guards.
MOMIN SWAITAT: My plane was about the go, and I’m in an investigation room. Me standing in the middle of five big luggage – they’re all full of cassettes.
DANA BALLOUT: Momin is a Palestinian music collector, actor, and playwright. And, he was traveling with 2000 cassettes packed in 5 suitcases. This will all make sense a little later.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And they asked me to take them all out, and I did take them all out.
DANA BALLOUT: And when the airport security asked him what I think is a pretty fair question – why he was traveling with thousands of cassettes stuffed into his luggage? And could he open them up so they could check? Mo’min didn’t have a choice but to say yes.
MOMIN SWAITAT: All the cassettes are open everywhere. And then the five policemen around me in Jordan in the airport looking: ‘Who still listens to this guy? Who’s that?’. You know, the’re naming the name of the cassettes that I have, you know.
It was a very surreal scene, like me in the middle of the airport with the speakers announcing: ‘The plane [is] leaving to London.’ And then the police talking to me, ‘who is this cassette? Have you listened to this one? Why do you, why are you having this one with you? Are people are still listening to cassettes? Are you sure you have no drugs inside them?’
DANA BALLOUT: They interrogated Momin for four hours until they finally gave up, and they let him go.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And yeah, I left, I arrived with those cassettes. Everything was okay. I had to pay a lot of money, obviously, because I have extra luggage. They were very heavy and all of this.
DANA BALLOUT: The thing is, what was on those cassettes was never meant to make it out of Palestine. More than 35 years ago, the Israeli army had tried to make sure no one ever heard them again.
Today, the story of what was on those tapes, and why Momin made it his personal mission to bring them back to us.
Our story today comes from producer Nadeen Shaker. Here’s Nadeen.
NADEEN SHAKER: Momin was traveling to Palestine when the pandemic hit. With everything on lockdown, he was stuck in his hometown of Jenin, unable to go back to the UK where he worked and lived.
MOMIN SWAITAT: In that time I was like just, I don’t know what to do.
NADEEN SHAKER: Momin does a bit of everything: he works in theater, is a musician and dabbles in music collection, and sometimes he directs his own films. In fact, he was with a German crew filming a documentary that was cut short because of the pandemic. Dead bored, he remembers his uncle’s neighbor, who used to own a cassette shop.
MOMIN SWAITAT: So I went to my uncle and then I asked him if he could introduce me to his neighbor.
NADEEN SHAKER: His uncle lives in Jenin refugee Camp in the West Bank.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And he said, yeah, sure. And then he just shouted out loud across the street because, you know, in the camps the streets are so small and so narrow. Like it’s a very condensed – it’s like a two kilometer square with 20,000 people. So he just shouted across the street, you know, [calls in Arabic]. The guy just opened the door of the window, and then he was like [calls in Arabic].
NADEEN SHAKER: The guy answering back from across the camp was called Tariq. Back in the day, he owned Tariq Cassettes, a record label and cassette shop that’s long since gone out of business.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And he just came down in a minute and then we start having a chat. We smoked a cigarette together and blah, blah, blah. Maybe half an hour later, my uncle disappeared, and then me and him in the middle of the street in the camp talking about this. And then he just called his son to come to bring the car keys and then to drive us to the shop. And then suddenly we’re driven down to the shop.
It’s two floors of storage, basically, the shop, full of cassettes, archival, with labels on them from which year, which genre, which country and all of this. And then I went upstairs and I started filming as soon as I was walking upstairs, it was cassettes everywhere on the floor, on the shelf everywhere. And all of those cassettes, they were archival field recorded cassettes that he did himself from the 70s.
[Montage of songs from the Intifada cassettes]
NADEEN SHAKER: Tariq would often take a microphone to all sorts of events, not really knowing why, but feeling like it was important. And he recorded all kinds of stuff.
MOMIN SWAITAT: Wedding music, Palestinian demonstrations, Palestinian revolutionary bands; they were coming and playing in festivals in Jenin and in universities and interviews with freedom fighters. As well as a large, large collection of Palestinian bedouin music, which is my family music, that he recorded himself, you know?
So I find all of these things, and then there was a shelf, like maybe about roughly about 5 or 600 cassettes. They written on it: ‘the first Intifada.’
And then there, I was like, oh, wow: like flipping one cassette, one by one. And then seeing all of this names [listing band names in Arabic], all of names of Palestinian bands that I never heard of.
I started listening, listening to this stuff. And like every morning, waking up and listening and listening. So it was eight months, you know, it was the lockdown and it was a long time.
I’d never heard this music before in my life.. This is something to do with my heritage and culture I haven’t heard before, I haven’t seen. And I got really fascinated about it. And then I was like: You know what, I’m going to leave everything. I’m just going to take those stuff.
NADEEN SHAKER: What Momin had discovered in Tariq’s shop were 12,000 cassette tapes and recordings that have been stacked away and untouched for almost two decades, the entire time Tariq’s shop had been shuttered. Roughly half of them were tapes recorded in the 70s til the 90s, some during the First Palestinian Intifada. He struck a deal with Tariq, and bought the entire lot.
Then he took some of the tapes with him back to London, where he went through them at his own pace.
MOMIN SWAITAT: By that time, I was also wanted to go back to London. So I started to get ready to leave basically. I brought luggage and like maybe five or six of them because I had a lot of cassettes and I’m not going to leave any cassette behind, like no way.
NADEEN SHAKER: Three months after getting back to the UK , he picked up this bright-yellow cassette tape. It was plain and has no artwork on it, just a dirty sticker and scribbled in blue pen is the word Al-Intifada in Arabic. He played the first track on the tape, a song called “I am from Jerusalem”.
[Song: I Am From Jerusalem]
MOMIN SWAITAT: It was disco, and it was revolutionary in the same time. It was like singing that he is from Jerusalem. And what he’s facing in Jerusalem, in a very fast tempo disco.
And toward the very, very, very end, like really very end, which was a lot like a long cut and there was nothing happening and it was like, oh, this is maybe it’s finished. That’s it? I know I was just waiting there for like almost a minute and there was nothing happening. And then suddenly in the very, very end, Riad Awaad did the shout out basically, you know, for the band. ‘Those songs were written and composed by Riad Awaad; some of the songs was written by Mahmoud Darwish and by Hanan Awaad’. And then he shout out to his other two sister in the band.
NADEEN SHAKER: Before this, he didn’t know who had performed these songs. So this shout out buried at the end of one of the recordings was his first time hearing the artist’s name: Riad Awwad.
MOMIN SWAITAT: This is the time when I left the studio and started going for a long walk and, and making a long phone call with the band.
NADEEN SHAKER: Of all the people named in the credits, including the renowned writer Mahmoud Darwish, only oner person was still alive or accessible.
HANAN AWAAD: And [all of] a sudden, I have this call from Momin. He said, are you Hanan? What is the relation between you and Riad?
NADEEN SHAKER: This is Hanan Awaad. She’s many things but mainly a poet and writer – and the sister of Riad Awwad.
HANAN AWAAD: I told Momin, you are doing what I am trying to do, and thank you. I said, you saved me because I was looking for the right person to have this project.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And we start talking and immediately she said, like listen, I was seeing those cassette everyday for the last 30 years and not knowing what I want to do with those cassettes. And, I got in touch with a few people that at least they could digitize it for me, so I could hear it again. And she said, at least, at least I want to hear it again one more time.
NADEEN SHAKER: Then Hanan began to tell him the full story of how the album came to be. We’ll be back with that, after the break.
NEWSREEL: We want exactly what the Israeli people enjoy: Democracy, freedom and independence.
NADEEN SHAKER: In 1987, the first Intifada was in full swing in Palestine,
NEWSREEL: An uprising in which so far, more that 70 Palestinians have died, and many hundreds more have been injured.
NADEEN SHAKER: Protesting Israeli occupation and oppression.
NEWSREEL: The Israeli government being formed has promised to crush the uprising.
NADEEN SHAKER: The Intifada touched every Palestinian, including musicians like Riad.
MOMIN SWAITAT: When the first Intifada broke out first, in 1987, the first thing Riad did; he went to his room and he set it up: A studio, and he started composing and writing songs. He’s an electric engineer and he have managed to hand-make some of the equipment that was recorded.
HANAN AWAAD: After 12, he comes home and comes to his machines, you know, to the equipments of music and so on, then he writes. Whenever he finishes a song, he comes to me first then we read it and see how he fits to the Intifada.
[Song: I Am Palestinian]
HANAN AWAAD: Most of his words are really human, very human, very real and very nice images, and metaphoric. You can feel the land, you can feel the refugee camps, you can feel the scream of the mother. You can feel the scream of the child. You can feel the identity. He touched all these and made a path: where are we going in the end? You can feel that through his songs. It is a story. A complete and comprehensive story of the Intifada.
NADEEN SHAKER: A week into the Intifada, Riad was so swept up by the uprising that he decided to gather his family – that included Hanan (who would contribute some writing), and his two other sisters Alia and Nariman, they would become the backup chorus singers. Together, they recorded this 11-song album and Riad then single-handedly distributed it.
MOMIN SWAITAT: And then one week after, he printed 3000 tapes in his room. Because he had a duplication machine where he can print tape in his room. He recorded the whole tape in the first week of the first Intifada. He was day and night just in his room, after they finished recording, just him printing, printing, printing, putting this sticker label, writing on a handwriting and called it: ‘Al-Intifada’ and going down to the Al Shohada street, in the old city of Jerusalem. And just distributing this cassette to shops, not only like cassette shops, but also other shops.
NADEEN SHAKER: What Riad was doing was sort of creating a soundtrack to a revolution. Copying these tapes and handing them out to shops was the only way to get the music out there.
MOMIN SWAITAT: So they put it in their cassette player and they will play it. And, you know, like the famous track was in that time, she told me it’s called Al- Intifada,
[Music: Intifada! Intifada!]
HANAN AWAAD: And one day I went to Jerusalem to the main street of Jerusalem: Salah El-Din street. And there was a music shop there and the songs of my brother, all the street listened to it. And in that time, the young people, they gathered. They did close the street and they don’t want to allow the police cars to come. And they listened to the music and stand up saying Palestine, Palestine, long-live Palestine. I was there.
Then as a sudden, the soldier moved from the other side. And they came and they and they entered the shop and confiscated all the cassettes. When it was confiscated, he made more copies after that.
NADEEN SHAKER: The Israeli forces kept confiscating the tapes wherever they could find them. And then one day, they eventually arrested Riad.
HANAN AWAAD: And he was in prison for a few months and he was really tortured.
NADEEN SHAKER: Riad spent several months in jail where he was held without charge, and the Israeli police confiscated all 3000 of his cassettes. The vast majority of the cassettes remain in the Israeli military archives to this day. One possible way Riad’s tape has survived was by someone copying it and riping off the artwork – if it had any – so it can pass unseen at Israeli checkpoints, and travel to other cities into the hands of more people. Another version is that someone like Tariq could’ve just made a copy or kept a copy in his shop. But until moment had found the Intifada album, no archivist he asked had heard about it or known about Riad at all. Anyway, after Riad was released, he made another album with another band but that was it and then he started a music school for children in Palestine.
MOMIN SWAITAT: He was teaching kids in in the early 80s, late 70s in Jerusalem and in refugee camps around the West Bank. Once a week, he would be traveling and I’m going and teaching those kids, music, oud, piano and guitar. And then sadly, the last things I have learned about the tragic way he passed away.
HANAN AWAAD: He got in a car accident and, you know, we lost him. And it was a disaster for the family. This was in 2005. When I lost Riad, I lost too many things in this world. I feel the world has changed. It was a very difficult experience for all the family.
MOMIN SWAITAT: My whole perspective completely have changed on what I wanted to do, you know, like in this project. It became completely from just listening to them, or just collecting music to more responsibility of: I need to share this music otherwise nobody going to do. It should be reissued.
It wasn’t just a yellow tape I’m just listening to, by myself and my studio in London. It was like all of this massive, dimensional story behind it that drove me so much to continue and to establish a label, specifically highlighting, Palestinian and music and create the home for Palestinian vintage music. We’re giving a new life for it now.
NADEEN SHAKER: Thirty five years after Riad recorded the album, Hanan hopes her brother’s timeless music finally finds a new place in the world.
HANAN AWAAD: You don’t believe if I tell you that every two, three days, especially after midnight, when I come to my soul and, you know, imagine and remember, I put it. I put the cassette every everyday. He is deep in my heart, and all the hearts of the family. And this cassette, when it appears, it gives me some kind – with the sadness – some kind of happiness in my inside that there’s something realized and achieved.
NADEEN SHAKER: Momin thought long and hard about how to release the Intifada album, but in the end he decided to establish his own label where he thought the music would be most appreciated and called it the Majazz Project. The Majazz Project would serve as an online platform dedicated to restoring and preserving Palestinian musical heritage. Under the label, he plans to digitize and reissue other cassette tapes from his collection and build a true archive of forgotten Palestinian music.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design and mixing by Nadeen Shaker, Alex Atack and Monzer El Hachem. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar.
A huge thanks to Mo’min Swaitat, who dedicated so many hours of his time to this episode, and to Hanan Awaad.
We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Take care, stay safe. Bye.