The past is never past. When I was choosing songs for my Italian class this Fall, I had no idea that one of them, “Bella Ciao” had become a global phenomenon. A colleague told me that “Bella Ciao” was the theme song for Money Heist, Netflix’s most viewed non-English program. As I looked into the way Money Heist (Casa de Papel in Spanish) had used “Bella Ciao,” I discovered another appropriation: since 2009 the Kurds have adopted “Bella Ciao” as a partisan song. As the Kurds in Northern Syria face President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military assault, “Bella Ciao” is a fitting soundtrack of their resistance and fight for self-governance.
Both the Kurds and the creators of Money Heist draw on the history of “Bella Ciao” as a song of resistance, one for a revolutionary cause, the other for entertainment. In one episode, the Professor, the mastermind behind the scheme to rob Spain’s Royal Mint of two billion euros, sings the song with his half-brother Berlin. “Bella Ciao” also accompanies the climactic ending to the heist in which Berlin sacrifices himself to save the other robbers. The use of the “Bella Ciao” song in Money Heist is effective but superficial.
The original Italian song’s social roots run deep. In its first version, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, the singer is a poor female laborer working in rice fields under brutal conditions in Northern Italy. Swarmed by mosquitoes, hunched over for long hours, and guarded by cane-wielding overseers, she laments her lost youth and longs for freedom from her miserable life. In this version, the phrase “bella ciao” refers to the laborer’s dream of liberation.
I was stunned to learn that “Bella Ciao” has permeated Kurdish culture for ten years. In 2009, the Kurdish filmmaker Ehsan Fattahian made a YouTube video which he dedicated to Kurdish people and all others seeking freedom before he was killed. Fattahian describes “Bella Ciao” as an “emotional” song with a historical background. He refers to the second and more famous version of “Bella Ciao,” in which the singer is a partisan who awakes one morning to find himself before a German invader. Having died a partisan, he imagines the invader burying his corpse in the mountains where a flower will bloom. Passersby will see the blossom as “the flower of the partisan who died for liberty.” “Bella Ciao” here refers to a beautiful death.
Fattahian notes that the Italian partisans were normal people who risked their lives to free their country from a fascist regime and the Nazis. The cultural leap to another class of oppressors—Turks, Syrians, or Iranians—is easy. The song’s elemental quality lends itself to adaptation and transmission: an invader kills a partisan who hopes for remembrance and a beautiful death.
Kurdish children learn “Bella Ciao” at a young age, along with traditional Kurdish songs. The line “O partigiano portami via” are words which resonate especially. “Bella Ciao” recalls a youth who participated in a sit-in at the Glençler Meydana; it “gives you a positive energy, it gives you courage.”
In 2014 the singer Chia Madani cemented the idea of resistance further when he released a melodic version of “Bella Ciao” in Kurdish with a video backdrop of Kurdish men and women fighting together. Perhaps the most poignant versions are the ones sung by Kurdish women against images of other young women performing military exercises. The Kurds have assimilated this Italian import and given the song’s partisan message a new force. All these videos feature young Kurdish fighters, seemingly ordinary men and women—in steep rugged terrain. The mountainous backdrop furnishes another link to “Bella Ciao,” whose partisan died in the mountains. The mountains of Northern Syria are the only refuge for Kurdish partisans.
This spring the song’s Kurdish and Italian histories merged uncannily. After becoming interested in the Rojava Revolution, Lorenzo Orsetti, a Florentine cook, waiter and sommelier, became a revolutionary. He joined the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). Orsetti was killed by ISIS during the battle of Baghuz in March 2019 when his group was ambushed. Attendees at the funeral services for Orsetti sang “Bella Ciao” in Italian and Kurdish.
Music lingers and links. Platforms like YouTube facilitate the mobility of influence across cultures. “Bella Ciao’s” prominence in Money Heist inspired new iterations. The song became a summer hit across Europe in 2018. Remixes by Florent Hugel, a Marseille DJ, a multi-ethnic group in France which includes emerging artists, Naestro, Vitaa, Dadju e Slimane, and a Spanish version added electronic, techno, rap and cumbia elements. YouTube videos from Money Heist, the Italian version, and Hugel’s remix have been viewed more than 190 million times.
The difference between hearing “Bella Ciao” on Money Heist and on Kurdish videos is dramatic and startling. In the Netflix series, the song marshals political ideas ironically, or even cynically, in a hip, late capitalist entertainment spectacle. There is no entertainment in seeing the young Kurdish men and women loading ammunition and engaged in other military operations. What prevails is the somber reality of their fight for self-governance.
The Kurds’ adaptation of “Bella Ciao” brings it back to its resistance roots in chilling ways. We do not know the Kurds. Only the American soldiers who fought alongside them know them. The Kurdish version of “Bella Ciao” humanizes the men and women in haunting ways. This richly historic song ennobles their fight for freedom, universalizing a desire for liberty from oppression.
Since Trump acceded to Erdogan’s request that he withdraw American troops from Syria, a decision which has cleared the way for the removal of the Kurds, if not their extermination, “Bella Ciao” becomes the sound track of infamy. It is the song of betrayal by an unreliable ally, the last turn on a sad history of re-purposing. The deaths of Kurds fighting for self-governance will be anything but a bella ciao. Should they be looking for a song of betrayal, they might turn to “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” (loosely translated as: “the ungrateful wretch betrayed me”) from Don Giovanni.