Monday, November 23, 2020

Nablus rap: self-expression as resistance

By Owen Millar - May 10, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture]

Bahaa Jper sits in the loft of a coffee shop in Nablus’ Old City and speaks of the worst thing that has ever happened to him. Three days ago, one of his best friends, Numan Dwikat, passed away at the age of twenty, after a short and uncompromising battle with cancer. For Bahaa, Numan’s death is a strange and stirring testament to the value of life lived under occupation – not just life itself.
Numan Dwikat was a break-dancer who grew up on the streets of Nablus and worked towards the goal of one day leaving Palestine by the fortune of his talent. Bahaa tells me that, whenever someone asked Numan what he wanted to do with his life, “the only answer he ever gave was, '[I want] to perform in the streets around the world.’”
Numan attempted to perform as much as he could throughout the West Bank, but was routinely confined by occupation forces at checkpoints to the environs of Nablus. Bahaa says that Numan was able to perform in Israel on a number of occasions, but only by taking the risk of scaling the separation wall. “Every time it was dangerous for him, but he was ready to die just for his dream and for his talent.”
Despite his determination to get out, Numan, who was not religious, became fatalistic about his ability to ever escape the occupation. Bahaa remembers him saying, long before he was ever diagnosed with cancer, “God said I’m going to die in Palestine.”
Soon after he was diagnosed with cancer, a French agent approached Numan with an offer that would enable him to finally leave Palestine. It was a contract for a three-year tour of Europe, an opportunity to dance in streets around the world. Numan told the agent about his diagnosis and reluctantly declined. The agent left the offer on the table, hoping Numan would recover.
Numan was given a referral to seek out a second opinion and further treatment in Jordan. Except for his short trips into Israel, this trip three months ago was the first time he had ever left Palestine. When he arrived, he was told the cancer was too advanced and there was nothing to be done. He returned once more to Nablus to live out his last days, to die in Palestine.
Bahaa is reluctant to politicise his friend’s death. He says, “I don’t want to mix this with the occupation and the situation we live in here, but it’s already mixed… If he had been in another country he wouldn’t need to face all of these issues.” Perhaps he could have gotten out sooner. Perhaps his cancer would have been screened earlier. In any event, it would have been easier for him to dance where he wanted.
Even still, Bahaa does not believe there is any worth in thinking of his friend’s death as a tragedy of the political situation. For him, self-pity is less useful than the strength of inspiration, and in Numan’s short life he finds much to be inspired by.
Bahaa himself has passion and talent. He is now 25 and has been performing as a rapper and singer since 2008. Like his friend Numan, he would like to turn his talent into freedom.
In 2009, he was the lead singer of a band, Sudfe (Arabic for “by chance”, a reference to how the group came together by coincidence in a coffee shop) comprising international musicians that was making waves in the West Bank music scene. For a time, Bahaa says he was spending more nights away from his home in Nablus than he was in it. After a particularly successful show in Ramallah, the band’s manager was approached by an agent with an offer. It was a contract for the band’s own extended tour of Israel. It meant money, freedom, and the band’s exposure to further interest and opportunities – possibly abroad.
The band’s manager visited Bahaa at his home in Nablus to give him the good news. However, when the manager told him about the situation and handed him the contract to sign, Bahaa tore it in two. The band manager, quite angrily, asked him why he had done it. Bahaa simply said that he would never ask for permission to enter his own land. He does not call this land Israel. To him, it is the “the forty-eight land”, the land from which the Palestinian people were driven in the 1948 Nakba.
The band dissolved, Bahaa went back to supporting himself working nights as a receptionist in a hotel, performing rap gigs intermittently, and, still, he has never seen Jerusalem.
Although Bahaa’s decision might seem, on the surface, to run counter to his dreams of freeing himself from the occupation, it in fact holds to a stronger and more sustaining ideal of freedom – one that is not limited to the confines of a purely political imagination. To him, being freely able to enter Israel and get paid for his talent is a political right, and he will never confuse his rights with his dreams. To do so is to sell not just himself short, but Palestine also.
“If you ask anyone what their dream is in Palestine, they will ask for their rights.” People want to move freely – to get out – says Bahaa. “Where?” he asks. “Anywhere,” invariably comes the answer. But freedom of movement is just a right, says Bahaa, and the people of Palestine have stopped dreaming about what they want to do with that right.
Bahaa is thankful that he has his dreams, an awareness of his passion, but he laments that the pervading consciousness of Palestine, at least beyond Ramallah, is one of self-restriction.
“I’m not sick. I have some music and maybe I could just sing on my own, or write songs, and maybe it will help me some day… but, about the others, they have nothing to do – they still do not know what they can do.”
There are specific reasons for this lack of self-awareness – or lack of ways of accessing self-awareness – that relate to the occupation, but which are also not ultimately determined by it.
In the first place, the occupation’s relative stranglehold on the West Bank economy – the annexation of farming lands, restrictions on industrial development, restrictive control over all imports and exports, and the related disincentives to investment – has meant that Palestinians have very little money in their pockets to dream with.
Bahaa says that being unable to afford things like travel, higher education, or, in the case of men, a dowry for a bride, has meant that the Palestinian youth have had to curb their expectations. Angry and frustrated, Bahaa says much of the youth – and the youth of Nablus, in particular – are spending what little money they have on short-term releases. “They think the only way to run away from all of this is to just drink alcohol and get drugs.”
Importantly, however, this form of release is shunned in Nablus as being religiously and culturally shameful. “They know that it’s shameful, so they go to the mountain.” The mountain Bahaa is speaking of is Mount Gerizim, which towers over the valley of Nablus and is the home of a small Samaritan population – a population that does not bear the same weight of cultural shame associated with alcohol. And so, on particular nights of the week, a strange microcosm can be found on Mount Gerizim of disaffected Palestinian youth drinking away their sorrows next to the religious and ethnic descendants of the ancient Israelites.
Importantly, the burden of shame the youths of Nablus feel is not one simply placed on them by a pious older generation – many of whom did exactly the same thing when they were younger, says Bahaa – but it is one which they actively foster amongst themselves. Bahaa sums up the thinking behind this particular shame: “We are Palestinian, we have to be fighters. We were born to be fighters, we were not born to have fun.”
This is the mentality that Bahaa sees as being ultimately self-restricting and self-defeating. It places a seemingly insurmountable political struggle at the centre of Palestinian identity, while pushing to the fringes anything that does not explicitly relate to it. It relegates individual expression to a place beneath collective anger.
Of course, Bahaa does not equate drunkenness with individual expression – he adamantly wants the youth of Palestine to find more fulfilling ways to spend their time – but he equates the freedom to want to be drunk with the freedom to want to do anything else.
This is why Numan gives Bahaa hope and why his death is so hard for him to take. It was Numan’s dedication to his passion in spite of the forces constraining him – not in direct and conscious opposition to them – which, for Bahaa, constitutes true resistance.
An act of self-expression is an act of resistance anywhere in the world. It seems that in Palestine, where resistance is needed so badly, it should be allowed to take centre stage.


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