Mourners carry the coffin of Reem Banna draped in the Palestinian flag during her funeral. Image Credit: Supplied

Damascus: Thousands poured on to the streets of Nazareth on Saturday to bid farewell to world-famous Palestinian singer and composer Reem Banna, 51, who died after a nine-year battle with breast cancer on Saturday.

Her coffin was escorted shoulder-high to the Orthodox Church of Nazareth, draped in the Palestinian flag.

She is survived by her three children, brother, and mother.

Born in the town of Nazareth in the central Galilee in December 1966, Banna studied at a Baptist School in her native city and began singing at popular Palestinian functions at an early age, earning wide acclaim, which prompted her to major at the Higher Conservatory of Music in Moscow.

This is where she met her future husband, Ukrainian musician Leonid Alexeyenko.

They got married in 1991 and divorced nine years later.

Her career started in the 1990s, when she specialised in Palestinian music, nationalist songs, and children’s lullabies, all based on Palestinian folk culture.

She released 13 albums in total, the most famous of which are Dumu’ek ya Ummi (Tears of My Mother) in 1986, Al Helm (The Dream) in 1993, and Maraya Al Ruh (Mirrors of the Soul) in 2005. Most of her songs were hits in Arab capitals like Amman, Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus.

In 1995, Reem Banna came out with the popular album Qamar Abu Layla (Moon of Abu Layla), with children’s music that became an overnight hit in Palestine.

Her songs were particularly popular with Palestinian youth, especially in the diaspora and in Israeli jails, earning her the title, ‘Voice of the Palestinian cause.’ In 2001, Banna released ‘Wahduha Tabka Al Quds’ (Only Jerusalem Remains) followed by ‘Sarkha Min Al Quds’ (A Scream from Jerusalem) in 2010.

Banna’s music was sober and serious, always reflecting the pain of the Palestinian people.

Speaking to the Qantara website in 2006, she described her work, saying it consists of “collecting traditional Palestinian texts without melodies.

So that the texts do not get lost, we try to compose melodies for them that are modern yet inspired by traditional Palestinian music.”

Much of Palestine’s folk culture was preserved through Banna’s work, and she sang to the words of prominent Palestinian poets like Tawfik Zayyad, Samih Al Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, and also her mother, who too was a poet.

Banna stopped singing due to her illness in 2016, and shared her pain with her fans. “My voice that you knew has stopped singing now my dears, and it might remain like this forever.”

Since her death was announced, eulogies have poured in from all over the Arab world. Within Palestine, she was immediately mourned by the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, which came out with an official statement saying: “With her passing, Palestine has lost a great artist who dedicated herself to raising the Palestinian voice and make it heard across the world.”

Palestinian culture minister Ehab Bsisso added: “I will not say that Reem Banna has left us but that this dear Palestinian sister chose to fly at dawn on this day, along with angels, in the skies of this country.”

Legendary Lebanese singer and musician Marcel Khalifa sought to draw solace with a simple message: “Reem Banna; thank you!”

Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Knesset’s Joint (Arab) List, described Reem Banna as “one of the pillars of progressive Palestinian poetry”.

Prominent Palestinian actress Raeda Taha spoke to Gulf News about Banna’s passing, saying: “People travel to another world but the legacy of Reem remains; they are timeless.”

Syrian actor Maher Salibi paid tribute thus: “Despite her pain over the people of Palestine and their plight, and the people of Syria and their plight, and her own pains from the illness that eroded her body, her smile remained demanding freedom. Her voice remains.”

Veteran Lebanese television host Gisele Khoury said that Banna was “a lesson in courage”. Palestinian actress Shokran Mortaga also paid homage. “Farewell Reem Banna; farewell Khayta [or sister in traditional Palestinian dialect].

The family’s announcement of Banna’s death read: “She passed with a completion of her national duties towards her Palestinian people and all the people facing injustices.”

Three weeks before her death, Banna bid goodbye in her own special way: “Life is beautiful and death is like history, a fake episode.”