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Interview with Phil Monsour: Music, BDS, and decolonizing Australia

Jan. 29, 2014 2:51 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 4, 2014 5:36 P.M.)
Frank Barat is an activist based in Belgium and is one of the former coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He recently conducted an interview with Phil Monsour for "The Wall has Ears: Conversations for Palestine."

Phil Monsour is an Australian musician and activist and is founding member of Artists Against Apartheid-Australia.

It's great to have you on, really. One of the main ideas of The Wall has Ears is to bring the art and the political together. You fit perfectly then. You told me that the first time you went to the Middle East was in 2010, when you visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Were you an activist before, or was this trip the starting point?

It was the starting point of a very strong commitment to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. I had been to Lebanon before to visit my extended family there. I just did not make contact at the time with the Palestinians and the Palestinian struggle in the country.

On that trip in 2010 I also visited the Occupied Territories and tried to get to Gaza, which proved impossible. I think it was probably more a consolidation of my interest in particularly the right of return of the Palestinian People and the broader issues we associate with the Middle East as well.

So you've got Arabic blood yourself?

Yes, I have got quite a large family in Lebanon, that I have visited on occasions. My parents emigrated to Australia from Lebanon. I was born here.

Do you consider yourself an activist or an artist first?

It's a mix. I guess I am sort of committed to a tradition where there is no distinction between artists and activists. There are artists who give their voice to movements, but I believe that I am a part of it.

That informs what you do as an artist, affects the work that you create, the places where you put your work forward. There are artistic traditions where the artists are virtually organizers and political actors as well. That's where I am coming from.

Who do you want to reach with your music?

Initially the goal was to present the stories of the Middle East, the stories of Palestine to a public that does not know all that much. So we started doing concerts around themes. Presenting images, music and stories relating to the struggle to people who knew nothing about the actual dynamics of what's going on on the ground in Palestine and the broader geopolitical issues of the Middle East.

It was quite exciting to take these stories to people that knew nothing about these issues and certainly had not heard the language of Israeli apartheid, which was not in the lexicon here. To show them images of the wall, of what a checkpoint experience was like. I did document my trip and used those images to accompany the songs.

I can't really think of a time when the apartheid wall has been on screen in Australia. So people don't even know it's there. So doing this, showing this to them was an interesting process.

Also, using the music helped bring people together around the issue. Push them to move forward in creating a more active solidarity movement. This was really the goal of the project. It still is today.

What response do you get. How are your concerts received?

It's actually quite interesting because people generally are really sympathetic. When you show them these images, share these stories, and sing these songs, they respond positively.

By the same token, it’s very hard to get what I do into a mainstream environment. That's always very difficult as an independent artist anyway. We sent the "Ghost of Deir Yassin" video, which was filmed in a refugee camp, to a number of television stations that broadcast a lot of fairly low quality productions, but it did not get played.

I think they don't know what to do with music that is with a story like that. So we get independent radio, public radio. Attempting to find the spaces for those stories and images in that sort of environment requires steady work.

A lot of people do not know this well, but Australia is a very important player when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Over the last few years, it has always sided with the US when it came to the topic.

Could this be explained by the fact that Australia, like Israel and the USA, is also a settler colonial state? Do you think the leadership recognizes itself in Israel practices? That they think, "Hey, we've done it and it was right, so if they're also doing it, it must be right too?"

I think clearly, if you look at the politics that support the Zionist project in Israel, all these settler colonial states tend to stick together. I think that's true.

There are unique things in Australia's support for Israel. I don't know how much of the history people have looked into but in the early period of the United Nations, Australia was a key player in helping establish the State of Israel.

The foreign minister of the country played quite a significant role. It's still going on today. Recently the foreign minister of Australia made statements that very few governments around the world are prepared to come out with. A statement in support of the settlements project in the occupied territories. But she did. It sets Australia aside.

That said, Australia did play quite a decent role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. A significant movement developed here in the country.

As usual, there is a huge difference between government practices and civil society. In a way, the only difference between the two country is that Australia nearly finished the job with the aboriginals while Israel did not manage to do this, in 48 or 67.

Could you actually tell us more about Australia's indigenous people, the Aboriginals? Is there a movement supporting them and their rights in the country?

The movement has ebbs and flows. We've got "Invasion Day" weekend coming up ("Australia Day" in mainstream language). There are protests across the country. There is an emerging solidarity movement.

The unique thing in Australia is that there has never been a treaty or a settlement. Sovereignty in this country has never been ceded to the colonial government. I don't know if that changes the future on how this will unfold.

A lot of the practices remind us of apartheid in the way the aboriginal people are treated. It's not as concentrated as it was in South Africa or in Palestine currently, but there are definitely elements of that sort of racism and legal and political discrimination. Anyway, the movement has ups and downs. It's a long struggle.

I actually lived in Australia for around six months in 2000. My idea of Australia before I arrive was sandy beaches, barbecues and really relaxed and cool people that surf all day. Once I scratched a bit upon the surface, I found this society to be extremely racist. I was shocked by the comments I heard about Aboriginals. ... What are your views on this?

I think that history is important. The foundation of this country is racist. It's not only the treatment of the aboriginals. The treatment of refugees trying to migrate to Australia is also very racist. It's a great shame and an embarrassment for a lot of us that spend their energy and their time fighting racism.

The current climate is becoming even more jingoistic and nationalist. It's being embraced by a lot of young people as well. The flag waving, the flag wearing. Australians tend to wear their flags on every piece of clothing I can imagine. We have to ride this wave out I think.

The flag waving thing is very interesting. Once again, it mostly happens in former settler colonial states. Look at Israel, Australia, the USA. On the other hand, if you're waving a flag in France, you are called a racist and a nationalist.

It's almost a search for your identity. A superficial attempt to construct an identity and then celebrate it. That comes out in this flag waving and nationalist hysteria.

You support the call for Boycott issued by Palestinian civil society in 2005 and have taken part in many BDS actions around Australia. Could you give us an overview about the state of the movement? Is it growing in your opinion?

It's definitely growing. The exciting thing is that the BDS strategy has become more and more central to the solidarity work people do. We are a bit isolated here you know. People in Europe do travel to Palestine often, during the summer. ... Here the experience is different.

People are getting less on the ground experience. Despite saying that, there has definitely been a shift recently. The trip that I was on in 2010 was organized by an organization that I have been doing fundraising for for quite a while, Union Aid Abroad. They have started taking union activist and delegates to Palestine and that shifted a little bit the solidarity work in the trade unions.

It also led to a number of moves on local councils from people that had been on those trips, where they will boycott motions put through the councils. On the ground, in terms of grassroots activism, we had our first real national meeting in 2010 and there has been grassroots street activity now for around three years. It's still going strong in some cities.

There is a definite growth and a development of analysis and understanding and moving towards solidarity that's built around the boycott strategy. But the interesting thing has also been the backlash, which has been quite powerful and strong. Murdoch control the media here and the flagship newspaper in the country in some weeks might run three or four anti-BDS stories and opinion pieces targeting some of the politicians I have talked about, trade unions, academics that have respected the boycott call.

That's a challenge for people here. I do think we will get through it but it does put a lot of pressure on your ability to organize and mobilize. But we are moving. As always I'd like us to be more cohesive, I'd like for more people to travel to Palestine. There is another study tour this year. Those people come back and do commit quite a lot of their energy to active solidarity.

What are your news at the moment? Are you working on a new album?

Yes. I am fairly excited about a musical project I'm working on. We are about 80 percent through the recording of the album. It's a collaboration with an oud player in Australia called Mohamed Youssef. We have recorded about eight songs.

It's something I have been wanting to do for a long time. To start exploring a fusion between some Middle Eastern instruments and Western musical influences that I grew up with. That's a very exciting project. We should have finished it in the next couple of months. The idea is also to come to Europe and tour.

I'm really into the nature of the music in terms of what we have been talking about, the activism and the music and the stories. It's hard to sell but it has really given me a direction. A reason to do it. To keep going. Keep those stories out there for those willing to listen.
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