Israel's Palestinian Citizens Dance Through the Culture Clash

A bubbling new subculture is taking hold among young Palestinians living in Israel.

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A new generation of Palestinian Arabs is growing up in Israel, a new alternative subculture is shrugging off years of fighting for its survival and a traditional image. At the center of this revival is liberal Haifa. From the city, tattooed arms are stretching out throughout the country with bands, bars, parties and everything else that comes with cultural renewal and alternative lifestyles - usually more associated with places like Berlin, New York or Tel Aviv.

“We’re a new generation, less religious and very developed,” declares Lena Bader, 19, who came to Haifa from the Arab town of Kafr Qasem northeast of Tel Aviv and is now a first year fashion design student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “It’s a generation that wants to express how it feels through both clothing and a way of life. Every year there are more people. Kafr Qasem is a very religious place where everyone shares the same ideas. When you’re born there, every stage of your life is planned for you. As a feminist, it’s hard for me when women lack control, and are expected to stay at home and produce children. My mom, for example, who owns two pharmacies - it’s clear that she deserves more than that. I don’t want to be stuck at home.”

The change is also clear when it comes to fashion. “I’m not into evening dresses and feminine clothing, I prefer vintage and men’s clothes,” she says. “I like my dad’s clothing best. As a designer, I would like to fuse traditional Arab arts and modern design to create a new style.” After our conversation, she sent me the following text message: “You asked where my rebelliousness comes from. So, it comes from a search for love.”

Haifa cinematpgrapher Ayed Fadel, 26, is a member of the Jazar Crew entertainment and art collective, which organizes Arab music performances, and has been operating for three years now. Jazar, which in Arabic means carrot, conveys the group's maxim: that "there is life in the underground."

The year 2000, says Fadel, which saw 13 Israeli Arabs killed in confrontations with security forces, is key to understanding the sector's cultural development.

“If before then it was ‘in’ to be Israeli, to go out with Israeli women, to style your hair in spikes and go to Israeli nightclubs, from October 2000 onward the aspiration was to be Palestinian. If you performed and didn’t mention the word Palestine, the audience got angry. Today these things are being more taken for granted. The audience has evolved. You don’t have to mention Palestine everywhere and fly the flag to show that you have an identity. We have more abundant political content. You don’t have to say ‘blah, blah, blah Palestine.’” Fadel says that in addition to raising awareness over the occupation and the Nakba - a term denoting the Palestinian perspective of the calamitous events surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948 - the songs in his shows also relate to friction within Arab society, the rights of women and refugees.

I meet with Fadel at Alwarsha, a new café on Haifa's Ben-Gurion Boulevard that is bustling with a young, up-to-date Arab clientele: dreadlock-growers, hipster types and young men sporting urban outfits or a more standard look mix together. Books in Arabic line rickety shelves. And the menu is in Arabic only. Misa, the establishment’s young owner, politely declines an offer to be interviewed by Haaretz.

“We founded the Jazar group because there wasn’t a place where we could party, where we could express ourselves,” Fadel said. “When we used to go into parties, they would ask us for our army IDs,” he recounted, amused. “We wanted our own space where young people could feel confident speaking Arabic. The goal is to create a place where we can feel comfortable, where lesbians and gays can also come, as far as I am concerned even nude.”

Ayed recounted that one of the high points for Jazar Crew was appearing at a festival in Germany where Palestinian groups performed before an audience of 2,000. He says the hip Arab crowd here numbers only a few thousand. “We’re avant-garde, but the numbers are constantly growing.”

Those interviewed for this article didn’t especially appreciate the term "Arab hipsters" in reference to those following the latest fashions, but it is commonly used. A special term is heard sometimes to refer to Haifa's Arab hipsters: "Haifsters."

“Even if some of our clientele are hipsters, I prefer to view us as pirates,” Fadel says, noting that the Arab hipster identity has its origins in the alternative scene in Lebanon, citing bands such as Mashrou' Leila.

Among the regular female customers of Jazar Crew is 20-year-old Mai Jabarin, who is originally from Haifa but now lives in Jaffa. She sports a chin piercing and '60s-style hair decorations. She says she gave up her university studies in political science when she got the feeling it was nothing but a diploma mill. A devoted fan, she followed the Jazar crew to Germany. “It was amazing,” she said.

“More and more young Palestinians want to make music, paint and create fashion. Once, things like that were considered trivial. People were just involved in surviving. Today we’ve understood that part of that survival is cultural. We need to revive the culture that has died out, and raise awareness to the fact that we are here. We are a generation that thinks beyond just making money and raising children,” she said.

Mai Jabarin’s brother, Hilal, 24, was the first Israeli Arab to study visual communication at the Bezalel Academy, and is now in his third year there. “It’s not easy being the first,” he said. “I feel like it’s a mission to start a new dynasty.” Two Arab women have joined the program this year, he said. “Jerusalem is not an inviting city for Arabs,” he added, even thought the Palestinian Arabs of East Jerusalem make up a substantial portion of the city’s population. “Especially not Arabs who want to start something new, to think outside the box or escape being stigmatized as an Arab,” he said.

Musa Mazarib, 38, from the village of Yafia, near Nazareth, owns Jerusalem’s fashionable Albir bar, the hub of the local scene. He says the phenomenon can be explained by Facebook and by virtue of being located in the heart of a culture clash. “There are similar subcultures in Lebanese and German cities, places where things collide. And this country is the mother of polarity and collisions.”

Jerusalem, he says, is not a simple place to establish an Arab establishment like his. “In Haifa, life is easier. You can sit and relax with a sausage focaccia with all kinds of nice guys and girls around you. In Jerusalem either you’re here or there—either you’re a conservative [Arab] smoking a water pipe or you’re someone with an open mind.”

Another sign of change in the Israeli Arab community is the success of the so-called “kambuta” party, a word meaning cauliflower, but in this context it refers to one of the community’s first openly gay parties, attracting about 500 revelers to Tel Aviv’s Block club. The festivities were organized by Hader Abu Seif of Jaffa, a 25-year-old employee at the Aguda—the National Association of GLBT in Israel. Abu Seif now lives in Tel Aviv with his partner. “People always tell me that as a gay man I should be grateful that I'm here, while in Arab countries we would be killed," he says. "A few months ago I was at a party [in Jordan] with a lot of Palestinian gays and lesbians, and I told my friend, 'look how many Arab gays there are and no one is slaughtering us.' There was a stunning religious woman sitting at the entrance collecting money. When we came back [to Israel], I asked how it was that nothing similar was set up here. It’s not because of the occupation or the structure of society. It boils down to our lazyness."

In an effort to promote the party line, he produced a series of provocative video clips for YouTube, which garnered thousands of views. One included a religious woman undressing. “We didn’t attack the religion. We simply wanted to show that we are a new generation. We used a religious woman not to attack religion - after all, I am a Muslim - but because it’s a symbol of Arab society. My mother went wild. She said ‘It’s all right that you’re gay, but I can’t believe you are doing this to me,’” he said. Ultimately, though, he added, she accepted what I had done. “In the Arab media, they said we were the Palestinian Woodstock, a generation that was dealing with art all of a sudden.”

His party’s success, Abu Seif said, is a sign of the changing times. “Arab straights and gays danced together and it wasn’t dangerous. When I say I am Arab, they ask how I didn’t get murdered. In Israel and Europe, they hear of an Arab who come out of the closet and are shocked. It gives them a feeling that they themselves are enlightened, because there are primitive people."

"In Israeli movies about gay Arab men, such as [Eytan Fox’s] “The Bubble,” the Arab is always suffering and needs a Jew to come to his rescue on a white horse. Why is there never an Arab who smuggles a Jew into Ramallah? It’s really aggravating.”

Another successful party line is Doris Dor and Rifat Omar’s “Cycle Femme.” Dor explained that about ten years ago, she moved from Tel Aviv to Haifa and had nowhere to go out.

“When we started, there were only mainstream parties in Haifa [with] Arab music, but we wanted a place playing house,“ Omar said, referring to a music genre that started in Chicago in the 1980s. “It’s always hard for us to find venues for our parties,” he added. “There are always the interrogations and the suspicions. Who are you? What are you? They think because we’re Arabs, maybe we’ll set fire to the place. In Tel Aviv it’s always easier for us to find a place.”

“In the last decade, there has been a major awakening,” Abu Seif said. “For years, they pegged us as engineers, accountants or construction workers who build a house next to their parents’ home and just want to get married and have children. This generation wants to do something else and live in a big city in Israel or abroad. The Palestinian protest is not necessarily manifested in demonstrations, but rather through art. The world is mistaken when it comes to us. Due to the Israeli-Palestinian aspect, they see us as people who suffer and are victims, people who are murdered and stabbed - but we are no different from other young people around the world.”

Mai Jabarin.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Haifa film maker Ayed Fadel (R) and Hilal Jabarin a student at Bezalel.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv‎‏
Lina Bader.Credit: Emil Salman
Rafat.Credit: Avishag Sh'ar-Yeshuv

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