How Palestinians in Israel Use Music to Break Borders
Partying within a conservative culture isn't easy, let alone when movement is restricted. These groups are hoping to change that.
Image still from 'Palestine Underground'
There is a quiet – or perhaps not so quiet – revolution taking place on the dancefloors of Palestine. Without access to "proper" nightlife, a handful of Palestinian youth are taking matters into their own hands. By fighting back against conflict through music, they’re continuing a global tradition of the nightclub as a political space as much as it is a place to party.
Unlike Tel-Aviv, which enjoys an international reputation as a city with a vibrant club and dance music scene, it’s crucial to remember that Palestine is shut off, quite literally by borders. Essentially, Palestinians have for years said they live under occupation, and as such it has been difficult for Palestinian culture to flourish. A West Bank barrier blocks travel – it's considered a wall of apartheid by Palestinians and justified by Israeli authorities on the grounds that they believe it protects their citizens from terrorism. And so those who live in the West Bank are effectively marooned – separated from the Palestinian citizens in Israel, who also face both legal and de facto discrimination. So how is music helping to bring Palestinians from both sides of the wall together, while also reconnecting them with the 7.2 million refugees who make up the global Palestinian diaspora?
This is something Boiler Room sought out to explore in their documentary Palestine Underground (watch below). It looks at the music scene blossoming there, and the major players behind it – many of whom are the third generation to live under the Israeli occupation that began in 1948. In the film you get a sense of a Palestine that is more than just the dust-filled war zone that it has been reduced to in the public imagination. Much like anywhere with a young population, there is life here, and young people trying to do what young people do all around the world: listen to loud music and dance.
But doing this under military occupation within a conservative culture isn’t easy. The people of Ramallah (a Palestinian city in the West Bank) have an agreement with the government, which bans loud music in public after midnight, and means much of the nightlife blooms at house parties – or after parties – rather than clubs. Residents of the West Bank also need permits to travel within the country, which are usually denied. As such, it is easier for promoters in Israel to book international artists than it is for them to bring an artist over from Palestine, but those with Israeli passports can travel into the Palestinian territories freely.
At the forefront of the Palestinian music scene, especially its nightlife, is Jazar Crew – a collective of five friends from Israeli city Haifa, who began throwing parties in 2011 out of “a need of a place to dance and bring people together and put them in a place where they feel safe and secure and belong”. Musically, their live sets combine their heritage with newer influences: traditional Arabic samples mixed into anything from glitchy electronica to liquid DnB. Held at Kabareet – the first Palestinian-owned club in Haifa – the Jazar Crew parties operate a strict safer space policy.
They employ a guestlist, but this is for the purposes of accountability rather than exclusivity. “The concept of the dancefloor and partying in daily life or in weekly life, it wasn't common [for Palestinians]”, says Ayed, a Jazar Crew member, as we chat before a screening of the documentary in London. “In order to protect the dancefloor and to make the movement really strong, it was very important to protect it from sexism, chauvinism, homophobia, machismo etc from the start”. Anyone is allowed to come to the parties; the only caveat is that you must support the Palestinian cause: “We are making a statement about a cause of humanity and justice”, he continues, “There are many Israelis on our dance floor; the Israeli people who are next to us also believe in our statements, they also believe in our agenda, and they stand next to us for justice”.
Living in Haifa has its ups and downs for the ethnically Arab artists – all of whom belong to the minority population of 1.8 million Palestinians living in what they refer to as Occupied Palestine (Israel). Their Israeli passports mean they have the privilege of travel and relative freedom of movement, but it also means they are outsiders in their own country. “The Israeli music scene has existed always, but we’ve never been part of it and we’ve never wanted to be part of it”, says Ayed. Hilal, another member, describes the experience of growing up Palestinian in Israel as “schizophrenic” – “you're growing up somewhere, deep inside its culture, but you slowly start to realise it's not yours”, he explains. “You are always in conflict with yourself. It's very challenging, once you realise your reality and your truth and what's surrounding you. It makes you have to start again and research about yourself”.
Despite all this, they have used the relative privilege granted to them by their Israeli passports to connect the Palestinian music scene, and to unite Haifa and Ramallah through nightlife. Whether through sampling traditional Arabic songs and the distinct sounds of the city they live in, or simply by hosting parties in places all Palestinians can access, the scene has become a way for Palestinian artists to connect with their heritage – and with each other. But Jazar Crew are far from the only artists breaking borders and putting Palestine back on the map through culture.
Other players include Odai, a tattooed and pierced DJ who is seen jumping the wall dividing Israel and Palestine to play a gig at the beginning of the documentary; Sama’, a techno DJ and producer who discovered her love of electronic music at a Satachi Tomiie gig while living in Lebanon; Saleb Wahed, a rap group who are using their music and specific Ramallah-centric dialect and slang to speak to their own community; and Muqata’a, the ‘Godfather’ of Palestinian hip-hop, and a rapper whose name translates into ‘interference’ or ‘boycott’.
The documentary sees Sama’ playing sets of her trademark hard techno as well as spearheading a two-week music residency, working with her peers on samples from a huge archive of old Palestinian music – something these artists have never had access to. “The scene is growing… now we have about 15 DJs when we had none 10 years ago”, she says in the film, her eyes wide. She expands on the importance of the scene over email from the small suburb outside of Paris where she now lives: “For us it’s important because it hands us the key to our freedom in our own prison. For the rest of the world it is important so they humanise us a bit… when Europe sees us dancing to the same music they do I guess they relate a bit to us”.
For Muqata’a, the significance of the movement lies in the community that is being built around it, and the fact that they are “creating in a place where public space has been taken away.” He has unsuccessfully been trying to perform in Haifa for the last four years, but cannot obtain the necessary permit to travel there as a resident of the West Bank. Music, for him, is a reclamation. “The scene, in its different forms, has a hand in putting Palestine on the map, standing in the face of complete erasure”, he says.
From food to music, Palestinians have felt their culture has been stolen and systematically erased under Israeli occupation. Sampling Arabic music in their sets and rapping in their native dialect is a way for Palestinians to fight back, if only in the sense that documentation keeps them from disappearing entirely. The importance of this burgeoning scene is perhaps best summarised by Muqata’a, who when I ask where he hopes his music will take him, answers simply, “home”.
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