Leonard Cohen in Ramallah?

Leonard Cohen might not be Michael Jackson, but he has a devoted, even passionate, following in various parts of the world.   Israel is one of those places.

The occupied Palestinian territory is not.

Yet, an announcement has been made that Leonard Cohen will perform in Ramallah in late September — a day after he performs on 24 September in Israel’s Ramat Gan stadium near Tel Aviv, with a seating capacity of 50,000.

Leonard Cohen’s appearance in Ramallah was, in fact, added as an afterthought, in response to the boycott calls for him to avoid performing in Israel.

Instead of cancelling the Israeli show, it was apparently thought that adding a Palestinian one might add some “balance”. But, it might be too late for that.  The situation is too polarized.

Now, both performances — part of Leonard Cohen’s multi-city and nearly year-long World Tour 09, with more mileage and events than Michael Jackson’s 50-concert revival in London — are in question, due to a small but growing international campaign to boycott Israel.

For Palestinians, it would be better if Leonard Cohen didn’t perform in Israel at all, and would only come to Ramallah (or Gaza).  But that’s more on the level of political symbolism, because Leonard Cohen is not at all well known among Palestinians.

Consideration was given to hosting the Leonard Cohen Palestinian concert in the 9,000-seat Feisal Husseini football stadium (upgraded to international standards with EU funding) in ar-Ram, right next to a particularly in-your-face section of The Wall which runs right down the middle of what used to be the main street between Jerusalem and Ramallah.  But, it was apparently then decided that it would be better to have the concert in Ramallah’s Cultural Palace (built with Japanese funding), a smaller and enclosed venue, right next to the hilltop where Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried (and where he gave his final performance on 1 July 2008).

After initial planning, a Palestinian opposition emerged, with objections to hosting Leonard Cohen in Ramallah (that is, if he still intends to perform in Israel).  Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier this year has only intensified the moral outrage on the Palestinian side.

The search for a solution has been put in the hands of Qaddura Fares, one of a group identified as “Young” Fatah leaders, and head of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, “If there were peace”, there would be no problem, Fares indicated in an interview in his Ramallah office last week —  but, he said, “there is no atmosphere for peace” right now.

Qaddura Fares said that his suggestion was that Leonard Cohen should come if he would agree to sing for the release of Palestinian prisoners (there are over 11,000 of them, including several hundred children) — and for the release of the Israeli soldier who is believed to be still held captive somewhere in Gaza, Corporal Gilad Shalit.  “Yes, why not?”, Qaddura Fares said, and smiled.  “All of them are prisoners, and they have the right to be free”.

He indicated that Leonard Cohen’s agents/promoters have “accepted the idea”.  There is also a proposal, he said, that Amnesty International should somehow be involved. There are still a lot of problems, Qaddura Fares noted.  “A lot of intellectuals and artists have refused to come to Israel because of the boycott call.  And so, for the Boycott Forum, we would be making an obstacle for their progress if Leonard Cohen comes to Tel Aviv and Ramallah”.

He said that “if Leonard Cohen comes “just for summer, and for love, maybe it would be a mistake.  But, Israel has been dealing with out prisoners as if they were killers and terrorists, and if Leonard Cohen comes to sing for their release, then maybe it will recognize that they are freedom fighters.  Maybe if he comes for such a sensitive issue, it will be useful for Palestinians and for Israelis”.

Qaddura Fares noted that a group of Palestinian intellectuals asked to meet him to discuss the issue, and he agreed.  “They tried to convince me it’s a mistake to bring Leonard Cohen.  They promised they would bring famous singers who would visit only Palestine and not Israel”. Why hadn’t these Palestinian intellectuals brought these singers before?  Qaddura Fares replied that he had asked them the same question.  He recounted that he told them: “Every Monday I go to the Red Cross and sit with the mothers and wives of the prisoners — between 20 and 50 women come every week.  But never did I see these intellectuals there.  And, I said to them, “What’s the problem if we invite Leonard Cohen.  We can continue our discussion”.

But, Qaddoura Fares said, he would leave the decision up to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club — and that he wanted “a collective decision”, meaning near unanimity, or at least no opposition.  Then, he said, “I can organize Fatah and other groups to support the invitation”.

The decision is imminent, Qaddoura Fares said.

Leonard Cohen’s romantic and ironic love songs might not be not for the socially conservative, either in Israel or in Palestine. But, for his fans, they often hit straight into the heart of human relationships.

Leonard Cohen does not even appeal to everyone in Israel, but the progressive “extremists” are delirious about his planned arrival. Luckily for them — in case his whole foray to the region in September is cancelled — some of Leonard Cohen’s most fervent Israeli fans flew to Berlin last weekend to catch his concert there, as well. One told me afterwards that it was marvellous, like a “ritual, she said – which she explained as something like a rite with a deeply spiritual component. She travelled with her daughter, and said that Leonard Cohen’s relationship with the audience was intense and moving. And they were not the only Israelis who made the trip — she said she saw a core of Israelis she recognized in the Berlin audience.

Had Qaddoura Fares ever listened to Leonard Cohen?  “To be perfectly frank, I don’t listen to foreign music”, he replied.  He prefers renowned Arab artists, like Egypt’s late Um Kalthoum, and Abdel Halim Hafez, as well as the Lebanese singer Fairouz. “When we were in jail”, he said, “for 14 years, the one thing we insisted on was hearing Um Kalthoum for an hour each evening, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm.  There was a speaker in every cell.  And, until now, Israel Radio’s Arabic Service maintains broadcasting this programming”. Qadddoura Fares added that  “music should play a positive role, and everything should be organized to support a vision of peace”.

From his lengthy time as a political prisoner in Israeli jails, Qaddoura Fares mastered the Hebrew language.  He listens to Israeli radio and television.  And, he said that he has been provoked by Israeli commentary he has heard recelenly asking “Why should Leonard Cohen go to Ramallah?  What do Palestinians know of Leonard Cohen?”.  He said that “somehow this is a racist expression” — and noted wryly that it has the contrary effect, making him actively want to bring Leonard Cohen to a Palestinian audience,

The artistic and cultural boycott against Israel began to take shape a year ago, in July 2008.

“I signed the document calling for the boycott of Israel, But we have to check every case and see if it’s useful to us or not”, Qaddura Fares said, “and if it’s useful for [our] people [for Leonard Cohen to come to Ramallah], why not?”.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is a poet who began singing his compositions in a voice and a style that has sometimes been compared to Bob Dylan’s. Both were born to Eastern European Jewish parents, but Leonard Cohen (Canadian) had a more traditional Jewish education, and more European influences as well.  Bob Dylan is a bit younger at 68, but started singing earlier.  Leonard Cohen will be 75 on 21 September — and the event will apparently be celebrated in Barcelona, Spain on 20 September —  just before he arrives in Tel Aviv.  Bob Dylan had a post-divorce period in which he explored “born again” Christianity for a couple of years, then he reverted to his largely-secular  Jewish roots. Leonard Cohen is said to have continuously observed Shabbat, even while studying Buddhism, though he also has a fascination for full-blown Catholicism (and for the Native American Princess Pocahantas, apparently after seeing her image sculpted in stone over the entrance to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City).

Leonard Cohen performed in Israel in 1973, after volunteering to help during the October Mid-east war.  Dylan performed in Israel in 1987, but “was poorly received”, according to one report.

While Bob Dylan sang about “The”Blowing in the Wind” and Masters of War” during the Viet Nam war era, Leonard Cohen sings about “The Partisan” fighting Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Following protests after an announcement last year that Dylan would give a concert in Israel in June, the event was cancelled. Leonard Cohen’s performances in Tel Aviv and Ramallah are still up in the air.

Leonard Cohen photo by Eija Arjatsalo

From his songs


They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin


It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows


If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I’ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man

If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I’ll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver
Climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can


(in English and in French)

When they poured across the border, I was cautioned to surrender.
This I could not do.
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often,
I’ve lost my wife and children.
But I’ve many friends
and some of them are with me.

An old woman gave us shelter,
kept us hidden in the garret,
then the soldiers came.
She died without a whisper.

There were three of us this morning
I’m the only one this evening
but I must go on.
The frontiers are my prison.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing.
Freedom soon will come.
Then we’ll come from the shadows.
(Men will come from the shadows.)

Les Allemands etaient chez moi, (The Germans were at my home)
ils me dirent, “resigne toi,” (They said, “resign yourself, accept it”)
mais je n’ai pas peur. (But I am not afraid)
J’ai repris mon arme. (I took up my weapon.)

J’ai changé cent fois de nom, (I have changed names a hundred times)
j’ai perdu femme et enfants (I have lost my wife and children)
mais j’ai tant d’amis; (But I have so many friends)
j’ai la France entiere. (I have all of France)

Un vieil homme dans un grenier (An old man…)
pour la nuit nous a cache’. (Hid us in an attic for the night)
Les Allemands l’ont pris. (The Germans took  him)
Il est mort sans surprise. (He died without surprise.)
[Alternative: Il est mort sans suplices. (He died without begging to be spared.)]

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through these graves the wind is blowing.
Freedom soon will come.
Then we’ll come from the shadows.
(Men will come from the shadows.)

Leonard Cohen singing The Partisan in a live performance:

The Partisan soundtrack from the album with WWII photos:


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