Refugee Camp to Center Stage: Palestinian Rap Group's Journey

No. 11

Hello from Chinarrative. A few words of gratitude to kick off our final issue of the year: big thanks to our subscribers in our inaugural months as we seek to build our following and reach a broader audience.

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One of our areas of interests at Chinarrative is seeing the world through the eyes of ordinary Chinese people. In this issue, we bring you our first piece in that vein, a profile of the up-and-coming Palestinian rap group Saaleek first published online by The Paper’s Reflections Workshop in October.

Author Feng Shihao majored in Arabic at Shanghai International Studies University and holds a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from Hebrew University. Feng said she was inspired by a veteran journalist who stressed the importance of knowing the local language in international reporting.

She told Chinarrative that even though she didn’t consider herself very knowledgable about the Middle East, she felt acutely that “language was the key to unlocking a different culture, paving the way for deep and accurate observations about local culture and society.”

Reflections is a platform that features the best of Chinese nonfiction writing from around the Web, as well as its own original content.

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Saaleek’s Journey: From Refugee Camp to Forefront of Palestinian Rap

Saaleek performs at the Palestine Music Expo in Ramallah in April. Courtesy author.

By Feng Shihao

Under dizzying lights, the three members of the Palestinian rap group Saaleek strutted their stuff on stage. During the chorus of their song, they raised their right fists and repeated the following refrain: “The sun sets and rises/But we still ain’t free.” Members of the audience also lift their right fists and rap along. There’s a highly ritualistic quality to the scene.

It’s April 2018. The weather in Palestine has already turned mild and warm. The second Palestine Music Expo has just kicked off in the de facto capital city of Ramallah. The three-day festival encompassed Palestinian musicians and artists of all stripes—pop, rock, folk and hip hop. Admission was a mere 30 Israeli shekels ($8) and you could party into the wee hours with the performers.

Ramallah is just some 20 kilometers from Jerusalem, but to get from one to another, you have to navigate the biggest checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The two cities are separated by walls. Travelers returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah are subject to stringent security checks. Local cabbies say that during rush hour, clearing the checkpoint can take as long as two hours.

In this modestly sized city, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always lurking in the background. Scenes of busy daily life unfold before your eyes as vendors hawk their fresh produce in the wet market and calls to prayer are broadcast punctually from local mosques. You can also choose to meditate before the solemn monument on the grounds of the Yasser Arafat Museum and take in the “freedom” graffiti markings on a neighboring separation wall. Locals always greet outsiders enthusiastically, even though their living conditions are poor and their movement is restricted. Yet they are free to love or hate.

Third-world Rap Group

If you’re from a Palestinian refugee camp, that means your life revolves around unemployment, debt and isolation. Ma’en Ozreil, the lyricist for Saaleek, feels as if he was born into a never-ending cycle of debt. At age 21, he’s still helping his father pay off debts—in his own words, he feels that he hasn’t even been able to start his life from “zero.”

Rapping provided him with an outlet. During a visit to a friend’s place, he heard his friend’s brother, Tysser Aka, rap, which began his love affair with the art form. When the two started working together, Ozreil once wrote 120 lines in a day. He also serves as the group’s producer.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have someone to tell me to hold on, but when I tell someone they will reach their zero, I know it helps them to keep going.

As far as Ozreil is concerned, rapping gave him a reason to lead a meaningful life.

Their partner, Mohammad Silwad, was once a street hustler. Before joining Saaleek, he had already been rapping for three years. He incorporates his time on the streets into his work, lending Saaleek a certain gangsta sensibility. Even though he is the quietest of the trio, he is the most energetic performer on stage.

Besides poverty, the trio face the stiffer challenge of personal safety. Qalandia, the refugee camp where they live, is a frequent flashing point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Founded in 1949, the camp spans East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank and neighbors the biggest checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Many of its residents used to work in Jerusalem. But after the Second Intifada, the Israeli government added separation walls that isolated Qalandia from Jerusalem completely and many Palestinians have been barred from setting foot on Israeli soil.

As residents of the refugee camp were prevented from making a living, unemployment soared and social instability ensued. Domestic violence, truancy and drug abuse became more widespread. Like many other young Palestinian men and women, the three members of Saaleek have had to endure this depressing and dismal environment.

Self-control is especially important in a community like this. In the absence of jobs and life goals, how does one restrain oneself from letting go and leading a decadent lifestyle? These three rappers told me that they had each fooled around on the streets aimlessly to some extent, but now that rapping had made them idols of the dispossessed, they felt an obligation to set an example, “at least a somewhat decent example.”

That’s why they named themselves “Saaleek,” an ancient term in Arabic that roughly translates as “Robin Hood,” hoping to highlight the kindness and righteousness that characterizes supposed lowlifes who rob from the rich and give to the poor.

They have their own code of conduct, which includes no drugs or alcohol, no petty theft and respect for women. “We don’t do the kind of over-the-top stuff that celebrities do,” Aka said. “If I’m drunk, I can’t possibly write music.”

Sobriety is their basic requirement for themselves. Their agent, Mohammad Deckeideck, added that their goal is to stay away from unhealthy behavior and most importantly avoid hypocrisy, like engaging in behavior that they condemn during their daily prayers.

For Saaleek’s fans, the group resembles a political movement more than a rap act. The group had refused new members on account of their bad behavior. Their fans have also adopted cleaner lifestyles under their influence. Word has it a thief was once inspired to turn his life around after listening to Saaleek’s music.

The three members of Saaleek don’t like calling their fans “fans” and don’t consider themselves “hip-hop artists.” They believe they are artists with a platform. In their minds, Saaleek is a symbol for the entire Third World and all oppressed people and the desire to drag oneself out of the trenches of poverty and lead a better life.

Activists or Artists?

From left to right, Ma’en Ozreil, Mohammad Silwad and Tysser Aka. Source photos courtesy author.

Many Palestinian rappers, including Saaleek, were first exposed to the art form by listening to American hip-hop, acts like Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and so on. Many of the Palestinian rappers say that they initially had no idea what these black artists were singing about, but that they were drawn to the rebellious vibe and portrayals of daily life in their music videos. The sampling culture in hip-hop also allowed artists from foreign cultures to pen new lyrics to songs written by these veteran performers.

As marginalized groups in their respective communities, Palestinian and black rappers share a desire and urgency to advance their interests. For African-American rappers of the past, their main agenda was human rights and equality. As for the current generation of Palestinians, their main plight is the way the highly political nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict prevents them from pursing a better life.

But in terms of content, Palestinian rap is quite unique. There is very little borrowing of English terms—even expressions like “yo” or “yeah” are rare. In most cases, songs are entirely in Arabic, a melodic language in itself. The rich tonal variation and vocabulary of Arabic seems to lend itself naturally to rap. For example, the presence of vowels of different length in Arabic is conducive to a natural rhythm.

But the talented lyricist Ozreil has even more exacting standards. He told me:

If the lyrics aren’t complex enough, that means they aren’t very well-written.

Saaleek’s rap lyrics have appropriated from Arabic poetry, which has added variety to their lyrics. In fact, their “Robin Hood” ancestors from the Middle Ages were often occasional poets, waxing lyrical about their poverty and how they robbed the rich to help the poor.

These young rappers also have their own ideas on how political their songs should be.

Palestinian rap has long been known for its political content. Take DAM for example, the first Palestinian rap group to gain renown on a global scale. Their songs are highly critical, typically conveying the Palestinian perspective in the Arab-Israeli conflict or portraying scenes from Palestinian lives on the ground. Plus their lyrics are usually translated into Hebrew and English, so that nothing is lost in translation. Early on in their career, DAM was unabashed about their political agenda, explicitly stating they were practitioners of conscious hip-hop.

At the peak of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, especially after the Second Intifada, DAM’s work served as a much-need outlet for grassroots Palestinian sentiment. Consider this excerpt from the DAM song Who’s the Terrorist: “Who’s a terrorist?/You (Zionists) are terrorists/Because you took everything from us.”

Perhaps it’s burnout from decades of war, bloodshed, conflict and negotiations, but the new generation of Palestinian rap artists have decided not to be overtly political, despite their clear loyalties. Many musicians have consciously avoided using rap as a means of political expression, focusing on craft and popular appeal instead. Young Palestinian rappers often dabble in “trap”—electronic rap—in keeping with global trends.

Asked if they considered their work “conscious hip-hop,” Saaleek’s three members and their manager all shook their heads decisively and answered a definitive “no.” Manager Deckeideck said that some artists are heavily influenced by their political leanings while others do not touch on real-life issues at all. Saaleek, he said, fell somewhere in between. They don’t have a clear political agenda and prefer to portray the reality of their members, unfiltered.

Deckeideck said:

What they are doing is basically translating reality, and the reality here is that politics controls everything. So you might find political consciousness in the songs. But basically they don’t try to sugar the pill—they bring brutal artistry, basically translating things as they are without biased opinions.

For Saaleek, the Arab-Israeli conflict is merely a starting point, he said. The group aims for a broader appeal, hoping to capture the voices of oppressed people everywhere.

The Next Generation: the Future of Palestinian Rap

Musicians and curators mingled and chatted excitedly in the lobby of the hotel that served as the venue of the Palestinian Music Expo. Young fans were roaming the floor in packs, hoping to run into their favorite acts during a break between performances.

Faris Farraj, a Palestinian high-school student from Jerusalem, said his favorite act was Jordanian singer Synaptic. Even though Synaptic hailed from Jordan, his songs often touched on Palestinian issues and he frequently performed in Ramallah.

Another high school student, Isleen Atallah, said her favorite was Maysa Daw, a female singer who joined DAM more recently. DAM is already an icon in Palestinian pop culture and Daw’s addition as the group’s first female rapper was hugely significant. Atallah said that female rappers are rare in the entire Middle East, not just Palestine. “She shattered barriers, especially cultural barriers. That’s also why I find her music resonates with me. She’s my idol.”

Many Palestinian youngsters are well-educated. Apart from their mother tongue Arabic, they are often fluent in English. Both Faraj and Atallah are Palestinians who attend high schools in Jerusalem that follow an American curriculum. They will be taking both the SAT and Tawjihi, the high-school exam administered by the Jordanian government, before graduation. Palestinian youngsters fluent in English have easy access to western hip-hop, but Arabic rap feels closer to home.

Without a doubt, Palestinian youngsters have a genuine passion for rap. Palestinian rap only came to the fore around 2000 and is still considered a new genre in local pop culture. The older generation of Palestinian rappers are also evolving, expanding their repertoire to a wider range of subjects beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict and related issues. For example, DAM has penned songs in recent years about women’s rights and their work has engaged in deeper reflection about the state of affairs in Palestine and Israel.

Compared to international pop stars, Palestinian rappers strike a more powerful chord with local audiences. Also, any visitor to Palestine will fast discover that this is relatively open-minded culture and society, despite the turmoil of war and conflict, which has provided a fertile breeding ground for rap music.

The Arab-Israeli conflict will continue to be an inevitable topic in Palestinian pop culture, but what’s clear is that the vibrancy of local pop culture and local art is breathing new life into the territory. What the separation walls can’t hold back is people’s aspirations for a better life.

Translator: Min Lee