"Put down the Stone, Pick up the Mic"
. By Peter Schäfer
Khan Yunis: poverty, unemployment, and tristesse. To the east and south, the town is hedged in by "death zones" patrolled by Israeli troops; to the west, the Israeli settlement Gush Katif prevents access to the sea; to the north, the road that leads to Gaza City is regularly blocked off. Only when supported by tanks will the Israeli army enter Khan Yunis and the refugee camp that adjoins it.
The will of the people to defend their land is strong. The streets are thronged with small traders, and most people are dressed in traditional Islamic garb. Those who grow up here have to fit in and shoulder responsibility for the family from an early age.
The pioneers of Palestinian hip-hop
Here, in the south of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian National Authority is weak, and people are generally left to their own devices. It is hardly possible to break out of this environment, in any sense.
But Muhammad al-Fara (19) and Nadir Abu Ayish (21) do stand out from the crowd. Muhammad is wearing dark glasses, a fashionable black shell suit and new trainers. Nadir's jacket is wildly coloured. Heads turn in the streets as they pass – and together, they are the pioneers of Palestinian hip-hop from the Gaza Strip: P. R., the Palestinian Rappers.
When asked about concerts in Kahn Yunis, they laugh: the community simply wouldn't allow it. "We don't have many fans in Khan Yunis anyway," says Muhammad, alias D.R. (Dynamic Rapper). "Maybe twenty. But in Gaza, we have more."
A grenade thrown at the concert hall
The big city is approximately one hour's drive away, when the road is clear. Last year, they gave five live concerts there. Word-of-mouth advertising attracted schoolkids and students of both sexes, and their reaction was enthusiastic.
"Still", says Nadir, "even in Gaza, it's not easy. At one gig, somebody threw a grenade at the concert hall. It mainly just made a loud bang, though. Nobody was hurt." They weren't particularly bothered by the incident; inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are used to worse.
P.R.'s lyrics deal mainly with their experiences with Israeli occupation troops. "We're fighting by means of our music", explains Muhammad. "Some of our friends have already been shot dead." Now a student of English, he too once threw stones at the tanks.
Songs about a mother, about love and drug abuse
"Four years ago, a bullet from a rifle hit me in the upper arm. There's no point in going on like that. We don't have a chance against the Israeli army. That was when I started to rap – and rap is now our weapon." Ever since then, Muhammad has spent most of his time sitting at his computer, developing new sounds.
"We do sing about other things, though. I wrote a song about an unhappy love affair. Then we did one about the drugs problem. And I also wrote a song about my mother." There is, however no real social criticism in their work, though the Israeli occupation has formed its main focus up to now.
The duo has now recorded nine songs in a studio in Gaza, but there's been no CD so far. "We simply don't have the money for that", says Nadir. "And how would we distribute it? There are no record shops."
This is why they send out their songs by email or cell phone. There is no such thing as the Palestinian pop charts, and rappers can only dream of appearing on the radio: in the whole Gaza Strip, and in large parts of the West Bank, loud music is looked down on, and dancing to it is out of the question.
Against public manifestations of joy
Critical Palestinians speak of a "culture of death"; as long as their compatriots are being shot dead, wounded and held in jail, many people feel that there should be no public manifestation of joy. Now, large wedding parties are again taking place in the Gaza Strip; but although dance music is played, none of the seated guests even claps along to it. It's an attitude that links the generations: music and exuberance are targets of disapproval.
Hindered at home, the Palestinian Rappers were delighted by the chance to tour Northern Ireland in March. The tour was organised by a solidarity committee in the province, and it gave Muhammad the opportunity to leave the Gaza Strip for the first time in his life.
"And when we came back", he laughs, "the first thing that happened was we were summoned by the Palestinian intelligence agency. They wanted to know whether I knew any Americans and what I had been up to in Ireland."
The intelligence officers had never even heard of rap: "We told them we were singing about the situation in Palestine." But the agents were more impressed to hear that Muhammad's father is a high official in the Palestinian National Authority: "Suddenly, the matter was closed."
Homemade beats and classical Arab music
The boys from P.R. rap to homemade "phat" beats and samples of classical Arabic music. The result is a mixture of Western and oriental sounds. Nadir makes his views plain: "Arab pop music is boring, it's always the same thing." Though originally inspired by certain bands from the US, the two rappers are now no longer fans: "All they ever rap about is money, women and big cars", says Nadir. "At one time, it used to be about racism and oppression in the US – and here, we're still living under those very conditions."
Nadir lives in Marasi, a refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip where he owns a hairdressing salon. "I listen to rap when I'm working", he laughs. "A sheikh lives next door, and he always comes in and complains angrily." But the people in the camp know their barber, and he never has any trouble. It's strangers who cause the problems.
"I'm well aware that we look different", admits Nadir. "With our clothes and our music, we do stick out a bit. People at first think we're godless, outside of society. But our parents are on our side." With all this in mind, P.R. do try not to hurt people's feelings – and they censor themselves in quite a witty way. In one song, for example, they hide the word "ba-bus" (which might be translated as "up yours") by superimposing a scream.
"Most people know what we mean, anyway", says Muhammad, "and because of the way we do the song, the others have no reason to get excited."
Hard times for independent rap or youth culture
Besides the Palestinian Rappers, there are at least two other rap bands in the Gaza Strip: RFM und Gazista. As for a real, independent rap or youth culture, as we know it from Europe or the States, it exists here only in rudimentary form, if at all. The rappers don't cultivate their own dialect, and there's none of the graffiti that typifies the scene elsewhere.
Indeed, there's hardly room for it, as almost every wall is covered with political slogans. But these two young musicians have certainly mastered the art of the cool pose. Nonetheless, at their photo session on the roof of the house belonging to Muhammad's parents, they keep cracking up with laughter.
For many in Gaza, the Internet offers the only opportunity to escape their captivity. "I'm in contact with a lot of people", says Muhammad. "But it hurts me to see how many don't even know where Palestine is on the map or the kind of ideas that are generally held about us." This is why the Palestinian Rappers are aiming to perform abroad again. Muhammad: "We want to make it clear to people in other countries that not everyone in the Gaza Strip is running around with a gun in his hands."
The Rappers are striving to present a more differentiated picture of Palestinian society – and, of course, to communicate a Palestinian view of the conflict in the Middle East.
Though the Palestinian Rappers write about better relations between Palestinians and Israelis, they also say they can barely imagine life after the occupation. And although the Israelis have announced their plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Muhammad and Nadir hardly dare to believe it, yet. Only today really matters.
© NZZ/Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan
This article was previously published in the Swiss daily NZZ.