Photo: Maaz Hussain/VOA

Samirah Tabassum

“Aarar naam Arkaani”: Exploring the Formation of Identity and Diasporic Consciousness in Rohingya Songs


With the constant reiteration of ‘bainda ghor’ of Arakan in the songs of the dislocated Rohingya community, a pervading sense of loss and state of confusion is invoked. This study intends to explore the formation of Rohingya identity through songs which act as a medium for providing a framework for their memory of lost ‘land.’ It offers a postcolonial reading of few Rohingya songs collected through fieldwork. Addressing their haunting sense of displacement, this is an ethnographic venture under qualitative research which explores Rohingya identity and diasporic consciousness through the reading of one of their major creative forms of expression—music. The reading of the lyrics and rendition of the Rohingya songs show how the memory and imagination of the Rohingya community blend together to form a hybrid inner-space that constructs their experience while living in the diaspora.

Keywords: Rohingya, music, identity, diasporic consciousness.

The Rohingya1 community had been living on the margin since military forces in Myanmar dislocated them from their homeland through what the UN termed as a genocide. Being prosecuted and repressed by the Myanmar’s military they are now being further forced to live at the exteriority of the society with no land or country to call their own. The landless Rohingya population has developed a diasporic identity along with a mixed feeling of nostalgia, tension, belongingness, and otherness which are reflected in their musical practices in the refugee camps of Ukhiya.2 With the major focus being the mass migration of Rohingyas to Bangladesh in August 2017, this study offers a reading of few Rohingya songs and intends to locate the formation of identity and diasporic consciousness of the Rohingya community through musical practices. In the process of becoming stateless, this native ethnic Muslim minority from Arakan3 have encountered traumatic experiences which accompanied them to the present host country—Bangladesh. These haunting pasts have been incorporated in the Rohingya songs and can be considered as epitomes for understanding their present state of mind. The Rohingya songs invoke the community’s sense of loss and ambivalence providing a framework for their memory of lost ‘land.’ The continuous shifting, state of confusion and tension of the Rohingya refugees are evident in the lyrics and renditions of their songs.

The objective of this paper is to explore the formation of Rohingya identity through their music as an expression of collective consciousness. “In the process” the paper documents few Rohingya songs as a part of Rohingya music culture. It is an ethnographic venture under qualitative research and is geographically limited to the Rohingya camps of Ukhiya visited on 30th November and 1st December 2017. The songs that have been included in this paper were recorded by the author. By incorporating Simon Frith’s concept of identity as an experience and Mark Slobin’s concept of it being an aesthetic aspect of performance, the paper explores the shaping and reshaping of identity of the Rohingyas and how they reconceptualize it under a diasporic condition.

The paper documents few Rohingya songs by the Rohingya refugees as a part of Rohingya music culture. The songs have been transcribed, and, in some places, paraphrased into English for the purpose of this study. The songs were recorded from Kutupalong4 camp of Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar on 30th November and 1st December 2017, and the lyrics have been included here. The performances were observed in the small tea stalls of the refugee camp which is the common place where the Rohingya singers usually perform.


Bangladesh ot hijrot korlam
Bainda ghor felai
Gura gura dudher jadu
Gura gura dudher jadu
Chai theikke kobor oddi
Hayre ma baap kore jhorgoin
Barmar madit feli
Bandladesh ot hijrat korlam
Bainda ghor felai5                                                      

The song (i) points out the precious belongings that the refugees had to leave behind in the land of Burma. The community recalls their ‘bainda ghor’ which can be literally translated to ‘sweet home’ and refers to their accumulated assets built by themselves which they had to leave. They were not only forced out of their home but also had to lose their beloved little kids. Kids of many households were murdered and are now lying in the graves. The lyrics express how those little eyes were looking at their parents from the grave when they were making their ‘hijrat6 to Bangladesh.


Jedin ara Kolma porilam
Edin kaferar dushmon bonilam
E kothar lai ara Ruhaingyar
Kono jagat insaf nai
Okhon harailam
Ara Ruhaingyar dukkhor halat
Khar khase jai diyum bujai
Ruhaingya muslim bhai7                    

The song (ii) reflects on the religious identity of the Rohingya people. They address themselves as ‘muslim bhai’ or Muslim brother representing their brotherhood. It appears to them that the reason behind the ‘injustice’ done is due to their accepting of Islam by reciting ‘kolma’ or the significant parts of Islamic belief mostly taken from the hadiths. They express sorrow as they have no one to talk about their endless suffering and misery. They think that their identity as Muslim made them the enemy of the ‘kafer’ —mostly an insulting term used by the Muslims to refer to the non-believer or non-Muslim. The situation leaves them with absolutely no place for getting ‘insaf’ or justice.


Ruhaingya bhai shuino ni
Inqilab koriba ni
Mog bormar lai jihad kori
Shonar arkan chaiba ni
Nijer jayga nijer jomi
Bainda ghor faili
Bangladesh or hijrat korlam
Mogor jala ni
Durai durai guli kore
Kafer bhai
Kode gele mora o bhai
Shanti pai8                                                      

This song (iii) can be identified as an expression of collective consciousness of the Rohingyas. Addressing each other as brothers, the song calls the Rohingyas to fight (jihad) for their land—Burma; referred by the term ‘shonar arkan’ in the song. The song begins with a call for ‘inqilab which can be translated as ‘revolution’ for their dearest ‘golden land’ or ‘shonar arkan’. It progresses to express the massive firing that they had encountered and leaves a question on their peaceful living.


Shonar arkan chari arar
hoyi gelo amgo shorbonash
Kutupalong er pahar hati khori boshobash9                                      

The song (iv) begins with addressing Arakan as ‘shonar arkan’ which can be translated as ‘golden arkan’ or ‘beloved arkan’. Having to leave their beloved land has caused great misery in the lives of the Rohingyas. The song talks about their present status of sufferings as they have no other options but to live by cutting the jungles and hills of ‘Kutupalong’ where they are staying as refugees.

The documented songs reveal the memory and imagination of the Rohingya community. These songs were mostly performed by the local Rohingya singers in small public gatherings like during teatimes at the tea stalls of the camp. With their limited access to musical instruments, some singers sang without any instrument and some used mandolin as the principal musical instrument. The vocalists were often accompanied by someone playing a mandira (an instrument that consists of a pair of small brass bowls where sound is produced by striking one bowl against another to keep tempo and rhythm) and someone on a dhol (a drum-like instrument where sound is produced through a variety of hand strokes) made out of an aluminum bowl. The Rohingyas (mostly male) of the camp were seen to form the majority of the crowd of audience with some kids being accompanied by their fathers at the tea stall in leisure time. The engaging performance reflects the idea that the community still holds on to the haunting experiences of the past but longs for returning home as well. Their memory and imagination blend together to create a hybrid inner-space while living in a diaspora.

The role of music in the formation, shaping, and reshaping of identity is vital. The vulnerable diasporic situation in the case of Rohingyas contributes more to the possibility of this shaping and reshaping of identity. While conducting the fieldwork, the Rohingya singers of the refugee camps were seen to address their community to hold on to the Muslim brotherhood and express their urge to return to their motherland through songs. Being closely inter-related, music bears the trace of identity of an individual which might include the reading of culture, nationality, experience, ethnicity, etc. However, the fundamental meanings of music do not necessarily limit itself in musical works only but they are also evident in actions of the people. Among the many purposes served by music, preserving a culture—that is, to stabilize a cultural belonging can be viewed as one of the primary functions. Standing as one of the many creative forms of expression like theatre, art, dance, and literature, music is a form that tends to change with the passage of time or displacement. Changes can be observed in terms of lyrics or rendition of song which simultaneously depict the changes in culture or identity formation. Musical elements might be rejected or newly absorbed while performing music in a new cultural context. The creation of a renewed sense of identity in a diasporic situation involves a process of resettlement which is highly influenced by the integration of music and culture.

In case of the refugees, the communities are often deprived of their usual means of musical expression which might have occurred because of being separated from the local musicians of their land or from their traditional musical instruments, or due to a lack of opportunity in the host country. It was observed during the fieldwork that the Rohingya singers of the camps used old musical instruments that seemed to be repaired multiple times. But it did not create any hindrance to the performances and rather demonstrated their passion for musical practices. At times, music in the refugee camps plays a therapeutic role, helping to maintain a sense of normality and stability besides preserving and shaping identity where identity can be considered as “particular kind of experience, or a way of dealing with a particular kind of experience” (Frith 1996, 110).  As such, music may have a special meaning for them. It can therefore be termed as a social process that strengthens the identity and cohesion of a group. This function is achieved in various ways. In the Rohingya camp, it was observed that, at times the crowd would sing along with the lead singer especially when there were repetitions of any particular line in a song. Musical practices in the new host country become an important medium for maintaining contact with the culture of the home country representing the culture of the homeland. In the case of displaced communities, there also arises the issue of making a place for themselves besides holding on to their original or individual beliefs. It simultaneously allows the marginalized people to find a scope for public expression and contributes to the construction of an individual self and community in a broader sense.

However, it is to be noted that the function of music is not limited to the construction of identity or sense of belongingness but also in constructing an experience as Frith (1996, 109). argues that:

In examining the aesthetics of popular music, then, I want to reverse the usual academic and critical argument: the issue is not how a particular piece of music or a performance reflects the people, but how it produces them, how it creates and constructs an experience—a musical experience, an aesthetic experience—that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity. The aesthetic, to put this another way, describes the quality of an experience (not the quality of an object); it means experiencing ourselves (not just the world) in a different way. My argument here, in short, rests on two premises: first, that identity is mobile, a process not a thing, a becoming not a being; second, that our experience of music - of music making and music listening - is best understood as an experience of this self-in-process. Music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.

The experience of identity is the “aesthetic rather than organizational/contextual aspects of performance” that “betray a continuity between the social, the group, and the individual” (Slobin 1993, 42). If music or a musical performance can generate a sense od identity by means of expressing/constructing experience, these songs are a reflection of the Rohingya’s experience of the challenges of diaspora and their new diasporic identity.

In this context, the study of lyrics and rendition is very important to trace the formation of identity and diasporic consciousness while revealing their collective sentiments. Having to cut the hills and jungles in order to fit to live in the new land of Kutupalong as mentioned in song (iv) creates and constructs an experience- a musical experience, an aesthetic experience. The words like ‘shonar arkan’, ‘bainda ghor’, ‘hijrat’, ‘muslim’, ‘jihad’, ‘inqilab,’ etc. have been repeatedly used in the Rohingya songs. The use of these words in the lyrics expresses the community’s sense of loss, diasporic consciousness, identity, etc. The two most dominant identities that can be identified through their songs are the community’s identity as Muslim and as Rohingya or Arkaani (Arakanese). The reiteration of Islamic dictions such as ‘hijrat’, ‘jihad,’ ‘inqilab’ in the Rohingya songs reflects a strong pro-Islamist sense. At times, the lyrics of the songs hold the capacity to evoke emotion and provide a way to ease loss through its relationship with memory. Besides, the study of rendition of few of the Rohingya songs reveals the community’s urge for returning to their homeland. However, they still hold on to the traumatic experiences and also call for a fight to regain their land.

Dispersion, be it voluntary or forceful, leaves an urge for returning to one’s original homeland. The longing for homeland persists when it is a forceful movement—which is also the same in case of the Rohingya population. The displacement of the Rohingyas has given birth to diasporic consciousness among these refugees as a part of their ongoing shifting in the process of identity formation. The study of the lyrics and rendition of the Rohingya songs depicts the influence of diaspora in their lives reflecting on the experience of dislocated people who live in a sense of loss and with a nostalgic feeling. It directly refers to the concept of ‘home’ and to the particular class of immigrant who because of being unable to go back has to live in the ‘home’ of adaptation. Because of belonging to the diaspora, the Rohingyas experience a tension—physically being in one place but mentally being somewhere else. This tension can be traced when the singer in song (i) repeatedly mentions ‘bainda ghor’ that they were forced to leave. They are mentally stuck with the memory of their dead children or beloveds who lie in the graves of ‘Burma.’ The Rohingya songs involve the memory and connection of the community with their home culture.

The Rohingya singers living in the refugee camps of Ukhiya were seen to gather together at local tea stalls in their leisure to perform music. The integration of music into their current living situation can be characterized as a subversive approach towards transforming the atmosphere of alienation into one of acceptance, belonging, and familiarity. This refugee community share the same haunting experience and accepts music as a common ground to recall their homeland while expressing their diasporic consciousness and identity. They are aware of the fact that they have no other options but to live among the hills and jungles of Kutupalong as we find in song (iv) ‘Kutupalong er pahar hati khori boshobash’ but cannot stop expressing their urge for returning to Arakan. It was observed that some Rohingya singers promptly invent new lyrics and tones representing their ongoing shift in case of identity formation. As a constitutive part of culture, music can change with the changing situation of a community. These new lyrics form the basis for continuous construction and renegotiation of their identity.

Fig. 1. Photography by Samirah Tabassum/ Author; “Lyrics written by a Rohingya singer”, 1 December-1, 2017, Kutupalong

The lyric in this photo (Fig. 1) was written by a Rohingya singer. It incorporates the restless feeling ‘fet furedde’ which can be interpreted as the singer’s ‘heart-aching’ for his homeland. In the song, the singer mentions ‘sogor fani’ meaning teardrops. They constantly negotiate with their tormenting situation which does not allow them to sleep in peace as the word ‘gum nodore’ can be literally translated to ‘cannot put myself to sleep’.

The music of the displaced Rohingya community indicates how identity is maintained and transformed in a diasporic situation where diaspora itself “leads a double life” (Slobin 2003, 288). He further argues that diaspora  

merely marks the existence of an identified population that feels that it is away from its homeland, however imagined, however distant in time and space. The subtler meanings of "diaspora" acknowledge that this involves more than just demographics. Some sort of consciousness of a separation, a gap, a disjuncture must be present for the term to move beyond a formalization of census data. (Slobin 2003, 288)

The consciousness of separation that can be traced in the Rohingya songs reveals that it is not limited to any statistical characteristics. The community’s sense of separation or disconnection creates the urge to seek refuge in the musical practices. As such it can be said in the context of the Rohingyas that “music itself becomes a kind of homeland to the musician's compounded sense of diaspora” (Slobin 2003, 294).

The new lyrics tend to rise the new conception of self which can be termed as hybrid self that rejects singular identity while adopting a fluid context-dependent identity. For example, in the lyric (Figure 1), the singer does not reject the reality rather is aware of the fact that he needs to adopt to the present situation though he cannot but long for his lost land. The new identity is still in the making as the singer wanders what he will do to find his lost land if the sweet smell Arakan strikes his nose. In an interview essay titled “The Third Space,” Bhabha (1994, 211) writes:

But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the “third space” which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom.

Similar rise of hybridity can be traced in the Rohingyas through their speech, gesture and songs propagating a new conception of new identity which is multiple, overlapping, context-sensitive and still in confusion.

The present paper explores the diasporic consciousness and formation of identity through songs as a medium for expressions of collective thoughts of the Rohingyas. The reading of Rohingya songs depicts how memory and imagination of the Rohingya community blend together to construct a hybrid inner-space. The continuous shifting, state of confusion, and tension of the Rohingya refugees can be traced through the study of Rohingya songs. The invention of new lyrics in addition to the older ones allow the Rohingya singers to express their present state while living in the diaspora. The hybrid inner-space is thus a result of the newly formed diasporic consciousness which plays a vital role in the formation of their identity. This study initiates a number of issues which are not discussed elaborately but have potential to be explored. For example, a comparative study between Rohingya songs and other Refugee songs can be done. The presence of hybridity and diasporic consciousness might bring changes in the original genre of Rohingya songs. The lyrical and musical properties conceal the possibility of creating a new genre of music itself. To examine the possibility, additional explorations are needed for creating a scope of further research on how the diasporic experience of Rohingya community and their musical practices contribute to the creation of their collective consciousness.


1. Rohingya: The Indo-Aryan ethnic minority who had been living in Arakan. This essay relies on the Rohingya population that was forced to migrate to Bangladesh and is now living in the refugee camps of Ukhiya.

2. Ukhiya: An Upazila of Cox's Bazar District in the Division of Chittagong, Bangladesh. It hosts the major refugee camps including Kutupalong and Balukhali.

3. Arakan: The historic coastal region in Southeast Asia also known as Rakhine state. The Rohingya community considers Arakan to be their homeland and identifies themselves as Arakanese or Rakhine.

4. Kutupalong: It is a refugee camp in Ukhiya. The songs that are used in this paper were collected from Kutupalong camp.

5. Syed Ahmed, singer, “Bangladesh ot hijrot korlam,” by Anonymous, Kutupalong Rohingya camp, Ukhiya, November 30, 2017.

6. Hijrat: The English translation for ‘hijrat’ is migration. It has a special religious connotation for the believers of Islam. The Rohingya people prefers using the term to refer to their physical movement from Arakan to Bangladesh.

7. Anonymous, singer, “Jedin ara Kolma porilam,” by Anonymous, Kutupalong Rohingya Camp, Ukhiya, November 30, 2017.

8. Mohammad Alam, singer, “Ruhaingya bhai shuino ni,” by Anonymous, Kutupalong Rohingya Camp, November 30, 2017.

9. Osman Goni, singer, “Shonar arkan chari arar,” by Anonymous, Kutupalong Rohingya Camp, Ukhiya, December 1, 2017.


Ashcroft, Bill, et al. Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2003.

Ashcroft, Bill et al. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi. “The Third Space,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1994)

Frith, Simon. “Music and Identity”, Questions of Cultural Identity, 1996, 3,

Slobin, Mark. Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West, Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 1993.

Slobin, Mark. “The destiny of 'diaspora' in ethnomusicology”. In Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert & Richard Middleton (eds.), The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2003.

About the Author

Samirah Tabassum is pursuing a Master’s degree in Literatures in English and Cultural Studies at the Department of English, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. She has completed her Bachelors from the same department in 2018. Over the last two years she has presented papers at international conferences both in her home country and abroad. Her areas of interest and research include postcolonialism, comparative literature and cultural studies. She loves traveling to new places and conducting fieldworks in-betweens adds to the spirit of her adventurous trip tales. With her passion for exploration she does not mind being a broke traveller with a never-ending bucket list.

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