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Hip Hop: Palestinian Style

An Interview with DAM

Culture

From left to right: Suhell Nafar, Tamer Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri. Photo by Steve Sabella.

On September 30th, 2009, DAM or Da Arabian MC’s, the premier Palestinian rap group, performed at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg following a screening of Slingshot Hip Hop, Jackie Reem Salloum’s award-winning 2008 documentary chronicling the history of the Palestinian rap scene inside Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Composed of Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri – all from the mixed town of Lyd [Lod], located twenty-two kilometres southeast of Tel Aviv – DAM were able to include Winnipeg in their tour plans thanks to the sponsorship of Canpalnet Winnipeg, Independent Jewish Voices, Peace Alliance Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, and several departments and institutes at the University of Manitoba.

Jonah Corne, a co-organizer of the event and professor in the Department of English, Film, and Theatre at the U of M, spoke with the Nafar brothers.

CD Why has hip hop proven to be so adaptable a form for you guys, and where do the similarities between African-American and Palestinian hip hop end?

Tamer There are many things in common between us and African- Americans – the ghettos, the high numbers in prison, and historically the fact that while they were stolen from their land, our land was stolen from us. We hear lots of echoes of our situation in their lyrics. There’s a Public Enemy album called Fear of a Black Planet, and everyone knows that Israel is afraid of the demographics, of the Arab birthrate. The major difference between African-American hip hop – which for us will always be the Godfather – and our hip hop is the culture: different instruments, different ways of rhyming, different flow.

CD What about the local influences on your music? Your lyrics often quote Palestinian poets, like Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Ziad. Do you see yourselves within that tradition of poetic resistance?

Tamer It would be like being a British guy not knowing “to be, or not to be.” The basics of Palestinian awareness are in those poets – Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Ziad, all the poets who were in prison, who were transferred from their land, sometimes even killed. It’s very important for us to know them. I don’t know about our place in that tradition. It’s would be arrogant to answer. It’s possible that we’re influencing a new generation with a new language, but time will tell.

CD It might be interesting for readers who don’t speak Arabic to know something more about the linguistic texture of your rhymes. Most hip hop in English radically strays from standard, mainstream English. Do you rap in a slang-heavy version of Arabic, or more an Arabic that you would speak to your grandparents?

Suhell When we started listening to hip hop, we learned a lot about rappers’ circumstances through their lyrics, and when they used slang, we loved it. Later, when we started mixing our own culture into hip hop, we added more and more of our own slang. Slang from my city that if I used it, people five minutes away wouldn’t understand it. Slang that all Palestinians use, but that Lebanese don’t. Even today we do a song with a name that no Arab is going to understand, because it’s slang we use in our area, and that’s it. There’s lots of drug dealing in Lyd because of the bad poverty, and lots of slang that only the drug dealers use. We put those words into our songs, too, to show more of the culture. Slang makes the message more powerful, and people feel you more.

CD What role did you guys play in the making of Slingshot Hip Hop? Was this your first experience working with film?

Tamer Slingshot is Jackie’s work more than ours. We were just characters. All we needed to do was to inform her if we were playing a show or doing a workshop, but we didn’t know what the story would be. I just thought, you know, a report.

Suhell Yeah, Slingshot Hip Hop is the biggest film that DAM has been part of, but we’ve been involved with others: Udi Aloni’s Local Angeland Forgiveness, and Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford Transit. These days, we have a new film called Checkpoint Rock, and Jackie and I are working on a feature that isn’t a documentary. Art in Palestine is getting bigger because people are hungry for it, even though we don’t have anyone funding it. Everybody’s doing it independently.

CD Last year’s war in Gaza had overwhelming majority support in Israel, suggesting a dwindling of oppositional elements in the country. Have you seen shifts manifest themselves in day-to-day life?

Tamer I think the policy was about making the land Jewish. And it’s left Zionists and right Zionists [who supported the war]. The problem isn’t left or right, the problem is Zionism. Israel’s true face is being shown more nowadays, and not only since the Gaza War, but since a few years before October 2000, and it’s important for me to know that people aren’t unaware of what’s happening. Unfortunately, many kids are dying in the process. Nowadays, if you’re the strongest, then justice is with you.

CD Yet Slingshot Hip Hop ends on a fragile note of hopefulness. Would you say that’s totally shattered right now?

Tamer I’m not optimistic at all. I will make songs, make people aware, and that’s it. I respect and love my music, but if I throw my CD at the wall, the CD will smash, not the wall. Art can shape culture, which can change a fate, but art is more about documenting in a metaphoric way what’s happening. Unfortunately, nowadays it’s the material conditions that decide who survives and who doesn’t.

CD We had a frustrating experience earlier today with your CBC radio interview – intensive prescreening over empty fears of anti-Semitism; an unwillingness to let you perform in Arabic lest you say something indecent and no one catches it. Maybe all that was freak, but I’m wondering how in general you’re received when you come to North America or Europe?

Suhell We’re not surprised, and it’s not like we only have this kind of thing out of the country. We have the same at home. We’ve been censored before. They’ll call us for an interview, and the second we arrive, they start begging us: please don’t say anything about the USA, please don’t say anything about Arab countries, please don’t say what I heard you say in another interview. We’ve had experiences much worse than today, which maybe was a misunderstanding, but it’s not surprising.

CD I promise this magazine won’t censor you. Go ahead, say whatever you want.

Tamer Okay. Fuck you, CBS.

All [Laughter]

This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Mayworks).

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