Don’t know your anthem? Then you best not be an asylum seeker

Mohammed Al-Mustafa – refused asylum in the UK partly for not knowing his country’s anthem. Copyright: Martin Godwin/The Guardian. Sorry for stealing photos… again

The Guardian’s long followed the case of Mohammed Al-Mustafa, a 36-year-old Palestinian who’s lived in the UK for eight years.

He’s stuck in legal limbo. He applied for asylum, but the government said he was Palestinian so could go home. He tried to – twice – but there’s a problem: he can’t actually leave as he has no Palestinian papers (he left that country age 5, and both his parents died ages ago).

He’s since applied to be declared “stateless”, which would allow him to stay in the UK permanently. But to get that designation, he has to prove he’s Palestinian and apparently the government’s Home Office doesn’t believe him!

For what reasons? Bizarrely, one is the fact he couldn’t sing Palestine’s national anthem when asked. “I know the name of the anthem is al Fida’i, but I didn’t memorise the words and I told them, it’s not about words. We can’t get the country back because of the words,” Al-Mohammed told The Guardian.

What’s going to happen to Mohammed now? God knows.

But a quick note for any Home Office staff reading: although Fida’i is Palestine’s official anthem, many Palestinians consider it a political tune chosen by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. For them, the anthem would actually be this song, Mawtini:

Oh, and to whoever made the decision: what proportion of Brits actually know all the words to God Save the Queen?

Iraq: from the terraces to parliament, country prepares to sing a new anthem

Ahmed Yasin, Iraqi football’s Cristiano Ronaldo, speaks Arabic, Swedish and English. But in a few weeks, the 21-year-old midfielder may need to brush up on a few more languages. Kurdish will be a must, as will Turkmen, and probably Assyrian too.

In December, Iraq’s parliament looks set to end a fractious nine-year search for words to a new national anthem – and surprisingly they will not all be in Arabic.

The anthem is set to feature words from each of the country’s main minority languages. It is a decision that will give Iraq the world’s second-most multilingual anthem, after South Africa’s.

“If we have to learn to sing it, then of course we will,” the footballer said. “If it’s for Iraq, it’s not a problem.”

Iraq has been searching for an anthem since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American administration selected the current anthem, Mawtini (My Homeland), as a temporary measure in 2004, but MPs have repeatedly failed to agree a replacement since with splits along ethnic lines. Last year, the parliament’s culture and media committee came up with an answer, according to its chairman, Dr Ali al-Shalah.

“We decided to look for texts by the most famous poets in Iraq – people whom everyone could respect. It’s like deciding to take a bit of Shakespeare and make it the English anthem.”

Peace on the Hills of Iraq by Muhammad al-Jawahiri quickly became the frontrunner. Jawahiri is revered by Iraqis of all ethnicities for fighting corruption and social inequality as much as for his poetry. But it did not prove easy to get even agreement for that. Earlier this year, Iraq’s Kurdish politicians called for a whole verse to be in Kurdish. Kurds make up 15-20% of the population and Kurdish is an official language. Turkmen and Assyrian groups soon asked for the same.

Shalah has only just achieved a solution. “The idea is the song is in Arabic, but at the end we say ‘Long live Iraq’ in all the languages,” he says. “We can’t have a song with four verses in four languages. No one would be able to sing it. But I think it’s good to have some words. It’s a symbol that in the new Iraq we respect all cultures and that all cultures want to be part of the country.”

The first lines of Iraq’s new anthem run: “Peace be upon Iraq’s hills, its two rivers, their banks and their bends/ Peace be upon the palm trees, and the lofty mountains spreading light.”

The only barriers to approval, Shalah says, are the “one or two colleagues who are poets. They want their own poems used, but we cannot accept that.” Then all that will be needed is some music. “That will not be a problem,” Shalah adds. “In our culture we speak all the time about poets, not musicians.”

Ahmed Yasin says he is happy to wait for any change. “I actually like the song we have,” he says. “But if they want to change it, it’s no problem for us players.”

[I originally wrote this for the Guardian newspaper. Feel free to read it again there!]

The Jewish question

There’s been a lot of fuss in Israel over the last few months about their anthem, Hatikva (The Hope).
It started in February, when one of the country’s Supreme Court judges refused to sing the anthem at a swearing-in ceremony. The man, Justice Salim Joubran (that’s him looking happy in the picture), kept silent when the anthem was played, presumably because he’s an Israeli-Arab and can hardly sing lines about how his “Jewish soul…yearns”.
His silence was met with unsurprising criticism. But it also led to several calls to change the anthem so it actually means something to the 25% of Israel’s population who aren’t Jewish.
A couple of weeks ago, the magazine Forward even talked an Israeli pop star into recording a new version of the anthem with several lines changed.  If that were adopted, Salim would just have to sing about the yearnings of his “Israeli soul”.
Clearly, Hatikva’s going to stay as it is (sample YouTube reaction to Forward’s video: “F**k you you stupid leftwing scum!!!”), but the debate illustrates a wider movement to make anthems inclusive.
Take Iraq, where they’re considering a new anthem. The leading suggestion right now is apparently just to add words in Kurdish and Turkmen to the existing Arabic tune Mawtini.
Politically, great, but musically, it’s an appalling idea. Most anthems are too long as it is. Adding lines is just going to make them worse, and fewer people identify with them.
Why not just start again entirely? Israel, for one, has plenty of musicians it could ask to write a new anthem.
(No, this post wasn’t just an excuse to link to a video of transsexual pop star Dana International. Well, maybe a bit…)