Rasta to Zion
The Palestine International Festival of Dance and Music, designed to draw attention to water shortages in the West Bank, isn’t exactly the hottest ticket on the global performance circuit. The only reason the disco band Boney M’s gig in Ramallah gained coverage was that organisers asked the band not to play one of its greatest hits, Rivers of Babylon. The lyrics, derived from the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, are words spoken by Jews lamenting their exile from Jerusalem, which is frequently referred to in the Bible as Zion:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion.
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
Any mention of Zion is a tricky matter in the Arab world, where the state of Israel is frequently disparaged as ‘the Zionist entity’. The Wachowski brothers discovered this when their film The Matrix Reloaded was banned in Egypt. The authorities claimed they objected to the portrayal of a Creator, but the real problem probably lay with the rebel stronghold in the movie being named Zion.
The Wachowskis, aware they might be labelled Zionist propagandists, had taken precautions, like putting the rebel leader Morpheus in charge of a ship called the Nebuchadnezzar. That gentleman was a king of Babylon who conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, and returned to crush a revolt a decade later. The Jews captured or driven into exile in this period constituted the first Diaspora. Nebuchadnezzar may have constructed one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it counted for little in the minds of those who composed the Bible. There, he is forever the wicked king carrying the Chosen into captivity. It is commonly held that history is written by the winners. The Old Testament appears to disprove that theory, as do a few Rajput tracts I know.
Despite the bad notices in the Holy Book, Nebuchadnezzar has attracted his share of fans down the ages, like a certain Saddam Hussein who dreamt of becoming the second ruler from what is now Iraq to conquer Jerusalem. Unlike his predecessor, however, Saddam was a mediocre general. The Nebuchadnezzar division of his Republican Guard found considerably less success in battle than the Nebuchadnezzar of the Matrix series, leave alone the army of the ancient Babylonian king.
Those who saw The Matrix Reloaded might have noticed a preponderance of dreadlocks at the dance party within the rebel camp before the crucial battle. This arguably echoes a different tradition of longing for Zion, Rastafarian rather than Jewish.
The Rastafarian faith traces its origins to the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who launched a Back to Africa movement in the early twentieth century. In one of his more fervid speeches, Garvey proclaimed, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer”. When, some years later, Ras Tafari Makonnen became Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, it was interpreted by many Jamaicans as the crowning Garvey had spoken about. In Rastafari theology, Haile Selassie, who claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, came to be regarded an incarnation of Jesus. Ethiopia was considered Zion, the land to which the African Diaspora would return from its exile in Babylon, variously seen as Jamaica or the West.
Ethiopia, the Promised Land? What were those guys smoking, you might ask. The answer is: preparations of Cannabis Indica, a plant indentured labourers from the subcontinent introduced to the Caribbean. Rastafaris believe, as do some dreadlocked sadhus, that ganja has spiritual properties. Smoking it is a sacrament.
The songs of the most famous Rastafari convert, Bob Marley, are saturated with the political and philosophical beliefs of the movement. When Marley sings Iron, Lion, Zion or Zion Train; or when he speaks in Exodus of leaving Babylon and returning to the fatherland; he’s referring to places outside Israel and Iraq, and even Asia. This is also true, as it happens, of Rivers of Babylon, originally recorded by the Rastafarian reggae group The Melodians before being covered by Boney M in a version that achieved worldwide success.
Maybe that’s what Maize Williams of Boney M should have told the organisers of the Palestine festival. It’s not Jerusalem the people in my song are remembering, it’s obviously Addis Ababa. There’s more than one Zion in the world.
There’s also, as it turns out more than one Boney M in the world. There are as many Boney Ms, in fact, as there were members in the band’s line-up in the late 1970s. After disco collapsed as precipitously as Arab defences had during the 1967 war, the group spent years in the wilderness before the nostalgic revival of the early 1990s brought them back to the limelight. Each of the four toured separately as Boney M; the only problem was, just two of the four had ever sung a word in the band’s studio records. The other two were there to dance attractively and lip sync in concerts. Maizie Williams, who rocked Ramallah a few days ago, is one of the non-singers. How would she sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Out of tune, unless helped by backing vocalists, with the volume turned low on her microphone.