DJ Sana Jammelieh at the Teder bar in Tel Aviv. Tomer Appelbaum

Meet the Female Arab DJs Setting the West Bank Free

Daring to enter a predominantly male musical realm, the women who mix techno, oriental and dubstep in Ramallah, Haifa, Bethlehem and further afield are paving the way for others

Palestinian policemen and woofers that shook the parking lot greeted us at the entrance to Solomon’s Pools, in the town of Al-Khader, near Bethlehem. Hundreds of people had gathered at the West Bank archaeological site to see the “Best DJ in Palestine” contest.

Eight DJs – seven men and one woman – were competing for the title on that Friday night in April. A bar covered in blinking lights sold Palestinian beer for five shekels ($1.40) and there was a particularly long line of people waiting for a draft of Shepherds, brewed in Ramallah. At one point excited American tourists burst into a surprising breakdance, to laughter and cheers in Arabic from the crowd. For our part, we maintained our anonymity; those around us didn’t know we were Israelis.

Each contestant represented a city: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramallah, Nazareth, Nablus. The Green Line is apparently irrelevant when it comes to some aspects of Palestinian cultural life.

"Vote contractors" worked the crowd, trying to persuade people to vote for their preferred contestant. One of our friends, Mousa, from the town of Husan outside Bethlehem, insisted that we vote for Yasmine Eve Kheshiboun, “the only female DJ in Palestine.”

Kheshiboun’s efforts and the outpouring of love she got from the audience did not prevail, however; the winner was the first contestant, Mike Massad. But Kheshiboun attracted our attention in a way the others didn’t.

Media Partner: Al Burj FM

The 27-year-old DJ, who's just starting her career, is a native of Nazareth, where she owns the Tree House bar. Over the last year, Tree House has attracted a number of young DJs who come to practice their art in front of an audience.

Kheshiboun, who lived in Florida from age 13 to 23, shuns self-definitions, refusing to be locked into the community to which she ostensibly belongs.

“If someone asks me, I’m first of all a human being,” she said during an interview at her bar, a week after the competition.

“My mother is American; my father was born in Kafr Kana [in the Galilee] and was educated in Nazareth, which is ultimately an Arab Palestinian city.

“The city’s heritage and culture, and those of my family, influenced me. I've absorbed them. The [identity] document that represents me is Israeli, but I’m Palestinian. I can’t say something simple like ‘I’m German,’ because my situation is more complicated. There’s always a lot of confusion.”

Kheshiboun, like many Palestinian citizens of Israel, often crosses over the Green Line to visit friends in the West Bank.

“I go with my Israeli identity card and pass through the checkpoints without many problems. The situation there is a disaster. They can’t believe there are Jews who are actually on their side," she added.

Ramallah-Berlin

When she is at the airport, Kheshiboun feels she is part of a minority: “My name and the fact that I was born in Nazareth usually lead to my being searched in a side room. There, they make me understand that there are people who are above me.”

Is playing in Palestine, for a Palestinian audience, different from performing in Haifa, Nazareth or Tel Aviv?

“About a year ago, I participated in the festival in Ramallah, where I was preceded by Sama,” she said, referring to the best-known female Palestinian DJ, Sama Abdulhadi, who currently lives in Europe. “She’s been a DJ for a fairly long time, and I was a little intimidated: It was the first time I’d played in Palestine.

But the music, Kheshiboun added, “is international, not oriental. Techno has its own world and its own language – it’s like a religion.

“Ramallah is similar to Berlin, in my view; new places are opening all the time. Admittedly, they aren’t open after 1 A.M., but many tourists come to enjoy themselves with the locals," she explained.

“Compared to cities like Hebron, in Ramallah, you feel the surrounding politics less, but the oppression still exists. When you spend most of your life thinking about how to survive, how to make it to tomorrow, you sometimes forget to tell yourself, ‘Wow, I want to learn how to play the piano, or to be a DJ.’ That’s oppression.”

Kheshiboun noted that there are different types of nightlife in the different West Bank cities. Hebron is considered to be more traditional and closed, while Bethlehem is becoming more and more up-to-date, like Ramallah.

“Hebron isn’t like Ramallah and Bethlehem isn’t like Ramallah,” she said. “Even in the United States, despite the fact that people are intellectually open and ostensibly liberal, there are enormous differences between cities. You have to remember that Hebron is in the most difficult situation.”

Overall, therefore, the best place to party is Ramallah. The wealth of nightclubs and bars scattered around the city offer a wide variety of musical styles, including glitch, dubstep, oriental and even mainstream. But in the best places, those that really invest in creating the most successful events, the music ranges widely between minimal and techno.

Kheshiboun did not want to talk about the political aspects of being in a field that excludes women from positions of prestige or power.

“I don’t like definitions and don’t want to say that the very fact that I’m a DJ is a feminist statement,” she said. “I’m simply doing what I love. For me, it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is what you do. Today, everyone does everything. I don’t want to look at this through pigeonholes.”

We're not 'Israeli Arabs'

Contrary to what some of those at the DJ competition told us, Kheshiboun isn’t the only female Palestinian DJ in Israel. The first woman to break into the limelight was Sana Jammelieh, one of the stars of the recent film “In Between,” by director Maysaloun Hamoud. Jammelieh, 30, played a DJ in the movie, portraying for the first time on the silver screen the multilayered character of a Palestinian lesbian.

Jammelieh, who plays electronic music bordering on techno and mixes an up-to-date repertory with local Levantine touches, said she began deejaying seven years ago. Unlike Kheshiboun, she was willing to speak openly about the political aspects of her life and work.

Media Partner: Al Burj FM

“I became a gimmick, because I was the first,” said Jammelieh, during a conversation at Scene, a colorful bar she co-owns in Haifa. “People began inviting me to play at all kinds of places, and I felt like this was happening only because I’m a woman. I was an attraction at Palestinian parties, but I felt that nobody was the least bit interested in what music I played. It’s insulting. I remember how people looked at me. It was really weird for them.”

As long as she was the only Palestinian woman on the scene, she said, she figured she'd be treated differently: “I felt it in the way people looked at me; they’d start up with me just because I was a female Palestinian DJ. It was upsetting. But after a few years, other women also began to DJ – Kheshiboun is one of them – and I began to feel that the audience was starting to care about the music.”

Jammelieh grew up in Nazareth in an educated Christian family, one of five siblings – “almost all of them dentists.” She then lived in Tel Aviv for nine years.

“For the first five years, I pounced on Tel Aviv,” she recalled. “I told myself I’d never leave this place. And then I started to suffocate. I felt like I was losing my identity – that I wasn’t speaking Arabic, wasn’t seeing Arabic, wasn’t reading Arabic.

“When I discovered Haifa, I felt like I didn’t belong to Tel Aviv. Suddenly, you’re speaking your own language, and hearing it.”

Jammelieh, who is also co-owner of a graphic design studio in Haifa, accuses the Israeli media of fostering a judgmental attitude toward Israel’s Palestinian community. “The worst definition anyone can give us is ‘Israeli Arabs,’” she said. “It’s the most amorphous definition imaginable. What is this creature? It’s simply a term that’s convenient for the media to use.”

Because “In Between” has been screened at film festivals throughout the world, Jammelieh found herself dealing with an international audience that isn’t familiar with the situation in Israel.

“They asked me, ‘What are you?’ I replied that I’m a Palestinian. ‘So where do you live?’ I said Haifa. They suddenly think, ‘Wait a moment. But Haifa’s in Israel.’ Each time I have to explain it anew and feel guilty that I even define myself as a Palestinian.

“Here in Israel, that’s all people talk about. It’s a curse to use this definition, really a curse, and then I’m marked as a traitor. Why? My father was born here in 1937; he was here before the state of Israel. I come from a Palestinian background, what’s wrong with that? I’m not going to blow anyone up; I’m not going to shoot anyone. I’m simply a Palestinian who lives in Israel.”

Three months ago, Jammelieh and a partner opened Scene, located between Haifa’s Masada neighborhood, known for years as a center of local Palestinian cultural life, and the lower city. She said she wanted to create a safe space in which people could enjoy themselves.

“I’m proud of the fact that there’s yet another place where people can come and feel comfortable. Gays, non-gays. People dress here however they want, behave however they want. It’s fun to see, because that isn’t self-evident,” she said.

The fact that Palestinian culture is thriving in the city comes at a time when the gay community is also being strengthened: “There is more awareness, especially in Haifa. Admittedly, people aren’t out of the closet with their parents, but with their friends they are. It’s marvelous to see people feeling much more comfortable with themselves, because they see others who are avowed gays and are successful and have it good. They see that it doesn’t have to be world-class disaster to be gay.”

Jammelieh also talked about what she sees as her own role in Palestinian society. “I see that I made a change in deejaying. Suddenly, many women are playing, and this isn’t an obvious thing. There were people who came to my parents and said, ‘You know your daughter is deejaying at parties? And you let her come home so late?’”

Warrick Page/Getty Images

“Of course there’s the issue of my external appearance,” she continued. “In Nazareth, it’s less comfortable for me to walk around with all my tattoos and piercings; there are people who look at this as being wrong and don’t like it. There are also some who surely say all kinds of things about me.

“At first, this really bothered me, but today, I no longer care. I know that many girls want to do what I did, but they don’t have the courage to take on the entire world by themselves. If you have a family that supports you, it cuts things down to size – and I have the most supportive family in the world. Everything I do, I tell them, ‘Trust me, this is what I want to do. I know I’m different from you.’ And they accept it.”

A few weeks ago, Jammelieh was invited to mix at Tel Aviv’s Teder Bar; she featured in her set several local artists from the heart of that city's music scene.

In general, she said, there is not much difference between her performances in the West Bank and in Israel.

“It is the same scene, and there are many people who go from here to there,” she explained. “Simply put, when I DJ here, I have a feeling that I am making a contribution, that I am bringing something to my people, and I feel more at home. There's a much richer nightlife in Ramallah than in Haifa. In the daytime, it's another world there, but at night there are really good parties.”

Jammelieh added that there are sudden power outages in the West Bank which can complicate matters. “I was playing at a New Year's party once, and every other minute the music went out with the electricity. It was a real bummer. But people get used to it. It’s funny, the crowd starts applauding every time the power goes off.”

One of her more memorable parties was in Jericho. “It was in an abandoned house, an unforgettable party,” she recalled. “The location was amazing. Really in the middle of nowhere. But then police came and shut down the party. I don’t know if it was Israeli or Palestinian police. They simply told us to turn off the music.”

Pioneering DJ

Despite her relative experience in the field, Jammelieh did not grow up in a professional vacuum. Sama Abdulhadi, the pioneering female DJ from Ramallah, is considered the most famous female Palestinian DJ in the world. She has also become well known over the years in such places as Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Britain and Belgium.

Jammelieh: “She and I started around the same time, if I am not mistaken, but she went all the way with it, studying production in London and she is now making her own music."

Abdulhadi refused to be interviewed by Haaretz for political reasons. “It was hard for me to decide whether I should participate in this interview. The situation at home grows worse each day with the prisoners’ strike,” she stated, referring to the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, which has since ended. “I feel it wouldn’t be right to speak about music and parties, especially when I know the families of prisoners and their children.”

Abdulhadi started mixing parties in 2006 in her hometown and focuses today mainly on techno, house and other sub-genres. She moved to London in 2010 to study audio engineering and music production at S.A.E. London, and went on to release two albums under the stage name Skywalker.

“I never felt that it was right for me to send a political or cultural message, because I am not there, and I cannot really feel the people,” she wrote from Paris. “I can try, but it is not like being there in reality. I left Palestine nine years ago, and I only return for visits, so I am the last person who is allowed to send a message. The ones who are, are the ones who live this madness.”

Abdulhadi has never played in Israel, and added, “The timing still isn’t right, but a better time will come soon – I hope.”

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