The Rain Songs That Made Me
By Bint Mbareh
Time flows in all directions and water flows through me.
Once upon a time, I thought I was conducting field research in my home country, Palestine, on rain-summoning rituals and songs. Thus began an unwitting path into understanding the life of Seedna al-Khadr (as), or Prophet Khidr or St George. It changed my understanding of how things like water and time flow.
I went out and asked old women in Palestinian villages, who were in their processes of becoming ancestors like Khadr, what they did when there was too little rain for crops to grow. The answers came in descriptive formats: “We took over the streets of the villages, unwound our clothes, asked the women in their homes to drench us with what water they had left.” The aunties described a festive experience, with children and women in the village forming a parade, acknowledging the way in which their fates were inextricably intertwined and chanting lines to bring the rain.
More important than the descriptions, and after much coaxing and convincing, they sang to me. I came from the big city next door, I dressed like I had been living abroad, my accent was new and ugly – of course they would not sing to this stranger. To convince them, I used my own voice and sang what I knew with them – the only way I knew how to convince someone I was not alien. Until now, their soundwaves act as a soothing balm. I ask my ears if I could have them to myself, to own them, for a few moments – if I could take their attention away from the passing trains, sirens and motors, and escort them to a flow of story and song coming from an ancestor’s musings.
One of the first aunties I asked about drought and rain asked me if I knew who Seedna al-Khadr was. I answered that I had heard of him in passing. Gesturing excitedly with her hands, and with few teeth to speak of shining through her grin, she exclaimed he lives up there! “When we ask for rain, we ask him,” she said. “When we were younger and Septembers came and offered us nothing but dust and a smothering heat, we gathered ourselves – 30 or 40 women – and we sang to ask him for rain.”
Oh Khadr, we begin this chant in your name
Oh Khadr, no rain comes here without your grace
Oh Khadr, our dearest neighbour
You who fill our pots with water
"If she is a close neighbour with Khadr, she can ask him for rain, and if she is honest in her request, he will oblige with abundance."
This same aunty made the claim that Khadr had named the village and that, in turn, the shrine was named in his honour. She urged me to visit it right after I met her, declaring that it was the reason behind so many of the miracles she had witnessed with her own eyes. The most mundane of these miracles is that the shrine would mark the beginning and end of each rain-summoning ceremony, and that if they were honest – if they said it with their chest – it would rain after, each time. I listen to these voice recordings regularly and I remember that I am no longer in her village, the village that is named after him, but I also remember how her voice flows.
Fluidity and flow snuck their way into my very serious, very solemn, very determined research. I was researching water where there was none, so it made its way into every conversation, until soon enough it condensed from words to songs to clouds to droplets to wasted little streams. I thought it would be difficult to shake up my modern, secular worldview while learning about theirs. I did not anticipate learning how to manifest an abundant water that flows into my body and out of the sky above us. I did not expect that I would be asked to become this fluid in my worldview, urged to learn my ancestors and their power, and lured into a currently flowing river of song and rain.
This is the first way in which my research is about water: instead of researching the facts of the historical and ongoing theft of Palestinian water resources, I learned that my relationship with the information (do I believe that rain songs can have an impact on the current meteorological reality?) changed the information (rain songs are not an historical artefact, they are a current tool to build sovereignty over water resources). It changed the songs from “rain summoning songs that were sung by Palestinian women in the early twentieth century” into “rain songs I sing and write – as a tool of resisting the theft of Palestinian water.” As stipulated by Seedna Khadr, this was my first lesson, and it led me to believe that learning about water would have to resemble water; to access a real understanding of water, I must imitate it in my thoughts – think of all my lessons as fluid and fickle.
I learned that for water to flow again in the dry waterways that used to be streams, I cannot ask for rain as a researcher. Instead, I need to ask as a believer. When I trusted that this was the case, I asked for rain in five cities, and each of them obliged. It could have been my imagination and it could have been the season, but it may well have been the voice making a resolution to humble itself and listen as much as it sang. If I allowed my voice to resemble water, then I allowed it to flow into places unseen by me, and to be heard by those far away from me.
I asked for rain with guidance from living ancestresses who showed me my haughtiness. I was taught that flowing like water is better than learning about it for my master's thesis. They crossed time and space to prove this to me. First, we sang in their living rooms and I recorded, with their permission, their confirmations that they had seen these songs in effect. Then I listened and listened (in London, Berlin, Amman) until I learned that I can only listen if I sing. So I sang and I sang until I found that I had new friends in their voices, and I carried them around with me. They now flow with me everywhere I go. I sing them to others as an introductory sound.
Water and sound have many things in common: they transcend time and space, and those who are friends with both, take on their qualities. I sang like them to transmit them into the hearts of my loved ones and transmit myself into the peace that they offered me.
This education of mine – learning that the women I work with flow through and beyond time and space like the water they control – came with a heavy pricetag. As I wrote this piece, I learned that the aunty who educated me on Seedna Khadr passed into another world where she can meet him in the flesh. In the process, she banned me from mourning her passing. Instead, she reminded me that she has lent me her voice so that I can learn to be a river like her. She lent me her voice so that I sing with her, and so our voices, united, resonate across time, space, and the worlds we cannot see or touch. Physical death, to her, is another bend in the river that she is becoming. If I could be a current swimming near her waterbed, I too can take death in my stride, and befriend it as just another bend in my own topography.
I took each of the songs that Aunty Ni’meh, Umm Sufyan and Hajeh Nijmeh gave me and I learned them to sing them. For me, this learning feels as if I am amplifying voices into the future, singing songs that do not know time, that flow in all directions, and that bring water to this earth, a learning that does the same: bursts in all directions, challenging everything standing in its way.