In Berlin, Rasha Nahas Rediscovered the Joy of Singing in Arabic

'Something inside me wanted to know myself as a musician singing in Arabic,' says Palestinian musician Rasha Nahas, who chose to leave Haifa for an international career in Berlin. Her magic is once again on display in her new album

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Rasha Nahas in Haifa's Wadi Salib neighborhood. 'Right now, I don’t know if I’ll return to Israel.'
Rasha Nahas in Haifa's Wadi Salib neighborhood. 'Right now, I don’t know if I’ll return to Israel.'Credit: Sama Haddad

Rasha Nahas is not yet another Arab musician choosing to take the safe route. Five years ago, at the age of 20, she left Haifa and chose to settle in Germany, deciding to challenge herself and make her way in the world of music far from where she grew up. “Every woman chooses how to express herself,” she says. “I don’t try to adapt myself to one identity. For me, identity is a dynamic and changing concept, and it’s important for me to show this in my music, moving from English to German, between rock and more intimate music. I simply refuse to live inside a mold.”

In a Zoom interview from her Berlin apartment, the 25-year-old, speaking in a Haifa Arabic accent interspersed with English, explains her decision to leave Israel. “It wasn’t an easy move for me. I live in two worlds – that of Berlin, with my music and people I know from that world, and that of Haifa, where I came from, and which is still very meaningful to me.”

Rasha Nahas - Ya Binti يا بنتي (Official Video)

Nahas’ parents are from the Palestinian village of Tarshiha, in the Galilee. Rasha, her brother and her sister were born in Haifa. Music was a central part of her life in her childhood. She started playing guitar at the age of nine, joining the Rubin Conservatory of Music in Haifa. Since then, she’s never been separated from her guitar.

“I was very attracted to rock music,” she says. “I grew up on John Lennon and Queen, that’s what I wanted to do most of all. At the age of 13, I started writing songs. I wrote in English, but I still wasn’t planning a career in music. I just had an impulse to play and create music. I’d go to our roof and play, with the sea in the background. Everything was very spontaneous. Today, as a mature musician, everything is much less spontaneous.”

Rasha Nahas

At, 18 she started playing guitar in a local Haifa band. She later performed alongside Haya Zaatry, a well-know singer-songwriter in Haifa. In 2015, she got an offer to record an EP in London. “A producer called Mark Smulian had heard my songs,” she recalls. “We met in Israel and he suggested I go to England to record them. I went to Bristol and made a short album called ‘Am I?’ It included four songs. For two months, I was in in the U.S. in a writing workshop for women creators. Somehow, even though I started in Israel, all the offers I got were from overseas, including one from the Glastonbury Festival, where I performed.”

Rasha Nahas.Credit: Sama Haddad

Nahas’ efforts to build a career in Europe, singing and recording in English, did not make her forget the language she grew up with. She is now producing her third album. It’s called “Amrat” (“sometimes” in Arabic) and is sung entirely in Arabic. “Two years after I moved to Berlin, during which I sang mainly in English, I felt a need to return to Arabic,” she says. “My previous album, ‘Desert,’ dealt with my emigration from Haifa to Berlin. I sing in English there, the style is rock and the sound is influenced by the urban ambience of Berlin. Afterward, mainly during the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself in a period of reflection, a kind of suspension, and began writing in Arabic.”

Why is that?

“I wanted to examine that part of my identity, and the questions kept coming in bursts. Who am I, actually? I found that when I talk and sing in Arabic, there is less tension in my facial expressions, and my vocal cords are more relaxed. It made me understand that now that I had built my musical identity in English, something inside me wanted to know myself as a musician singing in Arabic. I took part in a writing workshop in Arabic, and something inside me opened up to the language; I found a different place within myself. I knew that I wanted my new album to have a duality that would reflect my movement between the Israeli space, which is more rural, both in Tarshiha and in some neighborhoods in Haifa, and the urban space of Berlin.”

Continuing the dialogue

Nahas’ decision to leave Haifa was an obvious one, given her desire for an international career – but also for her personal development as a Palestinian woman. “In Israel, there is a certain mold in which one can grow and develop, but not beyond that. For me, it meant oppression. Musically, I did feel that I have a place in Israel, but I needed to allow myself a personal space in which I could grow and develop the way I wanted to. In Germany, I’m now writing music for theater as well; I get to meet musicians from around the world, and I have many more options. The resources available to Arab musicians in Israel are limited; there are more possibilities overseas. On the other hand, I’d like to continue the musical dialogue I embarked on with Arab society in Israel.”

As an Arab singer, did you feel there was a glass ceiling in Israel?

“I assume there is one. I never looked at it that way. I simply got opportunities and offers overseas, which is why I’m here. Right now, I don’t know if I’ll return to Israel.”

Audiences in Europe embrace you. There is a sense that your experience in Israel was different.

“My experience in Israel was short. That question is not for me.”

Why is that?

“I feel that we Palestinians are always examined in comparison to something else. I never feel free in my Palestinian identity as I do as a woman, a musician, as a human being. I’m not a particularly nationality-conscious person, but in the existing context national identity is always sensitive and examined with a magnifying glass. I’ve always been asked what it means to be Palestinian. For me, national identity should not be a charged issue. The existence of a Palestinian nation is not a charged issue. The structure of the state, the context of occupation, that’s the charged issue. Our existence creates tension, and our struggle will never be legitimate. I sing for human rights, for women’s rights and for the rights of my people, but I don’t want to take this to the level of a national struggle. It’s not my role to persuade people to accept me. If I try to do that, I automatically place myself in an inferior position, but I’m a person who’s equal to others. My role is to sing, without taking out anger on anyone.”

Music reflects your inner world, but most female Arab musicians sing songs written by others. How do you explain that?

“Arab society is complex, and my situation as a woman, a creative artist and someone living far from home is particularly complicated. As women, we fight for our place in society and for the freedom to express our femininity with pride. As women in an Arab society, we haven’t had the space and possibility of expressing ourselves as we really are. There is always prejudice and social molds that impose certain modes of behavior on us. We’re told how to express our feelings, how to conduct ourselves in a relationship or how to behave with our bodies. We fight this on a daily basis. The songs and language hold up a mirror to society and what is happening within it. We suffer from a double oppression: by Arab society, which sanctifies masculinity, and by the state, which is responsible for the occupation. Under these circumstances, we don’t really have the legitimization to express our femininity.”

The Wadi Salib neighborhood in Haifa.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

So, being a woman in an Arab society automatically places you in a struggle?

“I agree. In my songs, I’ve managed to cast off societal shackles and demanded a personal and feminine space and language which can be experienced legitimately. My songs express our conflicts as Arab women, and I’ve learned to do this in my language, despite the restricted space society allows me. But it’s important to note that the space women have is limited everywhere. A woman scientist will be treated differently than a male scientist. A woman’s experience is always viewed in relation to a male experience. Women don’t have legitimacy for authentically expressing themselves.”

Haifa has become a center for feminist action in Palestinian society in Israel. It appears that your discourse is influenced by this activity.

“I’m not directly influenced by the activism of specific organizations, but we’re all part of the same struggle. There is something radical in Haifa, in the positive sense, and it’s connected to other factors that characterize the young generation that I’m a part of. It’s a generation that is more aware of its rights and wishes to express itself, both as Palestinians in an apartheid state that discriminates on the basis of race, and as women in a patriarchal Arab society. It obliges us to express radical positions in more than one area, to support the MeToo movement, as well as the Black Lives Matter one.

Rasha Nahas.Credit: Rasha Nahas' YouTube channel

“In Germany, I’m always asked if I’m a political musician, and I reply that I’m a musician in a radical way. You can’t live in such an extreme mode without being radical; you can’t talk about violence in the family without talking about the occupation, or about women’s rights without talking about LGBTQ rights or the rights of Palestinians. I don’t accept the approach whereby it’s legitimate to struggle for some things and illegitimate to fight for other issues.”

How did you feel when you saw the events in Haifa and other cities

“What happened in mixed Jewish-Arab cities was a symptom of something deeper, a response to prolonged oppression. The pain is there, transmitted from one generation to another. The expectation that it will pass is unrealistic, and the events of May brought us into contact with the pain of oppression, occupation and the attempt to dispossess Arab families in Sheikh Jarrah. The occupation is here, and that’s the real problem. I’m for coexistence, but it won’t happen without equality. It’s a critical issue. On every visit to Israel, on the way back to Germany I undergo a humiliating security check at the airport. So what kind of coexistence are we talking about? The problem is with the establishment, which does not treat Palestinians equally.”

What do you feel when you see the attacks in Israel?

“Why are you asking me about attacks? I’m here in Berlin, far from all that’s happening in Israel, and that’s not a topic I’d like to discuss.”

But these attacks could hit anyone, such as Amir Khoury, the Arab policeman from Nof HaGalil, who was killed in Bnei Brak. Doesn’t this worry you?

“It scares me and worries me. What is happening is definitely bad, but I’m not in Israel, so who am I to talk about something I didn’t experience myself?

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