In March, about two months before the Eurovision Song Contest, members of the Icelandic band Hatari contacted Palestinian singer Bashar Murad. “They wanted to meet Palestinian artists and see a different perspective,” Murad says. “We met on Skype, we started talking and then we decided to do a collaboration together. … Then they came in April to film the ‘postcards’ [the segments shown between songs during the broadcast of Eurovision]. The next day they met me in Jericho, in the desert.” There they filmed the video for the song “Klefi / Samed.”
The Icelandic industrial punk band, which entered the Eurovision stage screaming and wearing black outfits reminiscent of sadomasochist clubs, stirred up interest even before the contest, when its members invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an Icelandic fistfight – to the delight of the media, which was happy to disseminate the taunt. They threatened a pro-Palestinian protest onstage, in contradiction of the contest rules, which forbid promotion of political causes, but many viewers were still surprised when they raised Palestinian flags at the end of their last performace. Murad was not one of them.
“I knew they were going to do something, but I wasn’t sure exactly,” he says. “And my whole agreement to collaborate with them was if they did something. That’s how I discovered them, I read articles about them saying that they were going to make a statement, and this is why I agreed to talk to them. … Something needed to happen in the final broadcast.”
On their only free day during the week of the contest, the six members of the band asked him to take them anywhere he wanted, a place he had never visited. Murad decided to go to Hebron. “We got a tour guide and he took us around Hebron. He took us to the Old City. … It was shocking. There were buildings that used to belong to Palestinians but then settlers came and took over. They [settlers and Palestinians] are living back to back. He told us how the settlers are throwing bottles of piss on the houses, and I saw it actually.”
At one point the group arrived to an area that Murad, as a Palestinian, couldn’t enter. “It bothered them and it bothered me,” he says. “The next day, they were interviewed by Eurovision bloggers and they said, ‘Yesterday we went to Hebron and we saw apartheid with our own eyes.’ That shook up Eurovision. … A committee called them and told them, ‘You’ve crossed the line, you’re making it too political.’”
Murad believes that it’s absurd to claim that Eurovision is not a political event. “I was not happy with it [taking place in Tel Aviv]” he says. “Music can’t be just music. Music has always come with a story, with a background and a context of where it’s from. … You can’t tell me that Eurovision happening in Tel Aviv is not political. I knew that they were going to show people dancing and having fun, that they’re going to put the ‘postcards’ in different cities in Israel, and some of them weren’t, some of them were occupied territories, like the Golan Heights. … They’re not going to mention the occupation, that in the back yard, there’s so much happening and no one is talking about it.
“People keep saying, ‘don’t make it political,’ as if this is a bad thing. Our lives are political, everything we do is political. … You know, Netta [Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision contest] kept saying, ‘Don’t make it political’ – but then she was making this comparison, that Eurovision started because Europe was very divided after the World War [II], and they wanted to bring people together. Isn’t that political?”
Murad, 26 and openly gay, grew up in the neighborhoods of Dahiat al Barid and Beit Hanina in Jerusalem. He has a blue ID card, like all the Palestinians in greater Jerusalem who are not Israeli citizens. He now lives in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Several years ago he studied for one year at the Rimon School of Music in Ramat Hasharon, and says that he was the first Palestinian living under the occupation to study there.
His father, a musician who now runs a recording studio in Sheikh Jarrah, was a member of a successful Palestinian band called Sabreen when he was young, and his mother, who died a decade ago, also used to sing. His father is a Muslim and his mother was a Christian, but he describes himself as “nothing” – without religion.
Our interview is conducted in English. He understands basic Hebrew but speaks English like it’s his a mother tongue. His hand movements are relaxed, he chuckles occasionally. It’s clear that he’s not daunted by our conversation. Although he is new to interviews, certainly with the Israeli press, he is self-confident. When he talks about studying in private Palestinian schools, including an American high school, I ask if that’s where his excellent English is from. “Yes, I was always obsessed with American TV shows,” he replies, laughing. “What taught me English was ‘Desperate Housewives.’”
When did you become interested in music?
“I was born into this musical environment … musicians were coming [to our house], local and international. It was something that I had in me, since a very young age, and so music was always a way for me to escape reality – the reality of living in Jerusalem, under occupation, but also in a generally conservative society.”
How were the studies in the American high school?
“I went to four different schools in East Jerusalem … and it’s not the real life, the real experience of living here. … In the American school, we were learning everything in English, like American government, American politics, and our teachers were are all American. I wasn’t really integrated into [Palestinian or Israeli] society. Our parents wanted to protect us from the reality and give us a normal life in an abnormal setting. These experiences made me very Americanized and detached from reality. I just wanted to escape, I just wanted to leave the country and never come back. I’ve always wanted to leave, to go to America, to a big city like New York or L.A.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way. Many of his schoolmates found themselves packing their suitcases and going away, including his only brother, who is now studying psychology in Spain. In East Jerusalem there aren’t many restaurants or entertainment venues, he says, and it’s hard for young people to have fun. In the past he used to travel occasionally to Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem, but now this is a rarity.
“The interactions I have, it’s not something I enjoyed,” he says. “Everyone goes there to have fun, drink – you’re not there to have deep conversations. When you go there, you’re going to get a lot of interactions with people who don’t know anything about you, who don’t know that in East Jerusalem there are Palestinians who don’t speak Hebrew, who have their own community, who consider themselves Palestinian. When you go there, you get asked questions you don’t want to answer when you want to have fun.” This is how he found himself living in isolation, without any connection to Israeli society, and at the same time on a kind of island, separate from Palestinian society.
This is why after completing high school, Murad went to study in Bridgewater College in Virginia. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” he says – a very different picture from what he had imagined. “I stayed there for four years and I came back here immediately after, and I started working in Ramallah in communications and PR.”