Renowned Israeli-Arab Rapper Gets Past Firebrand Culture Minister and Heads for Netflix

Tamer Nafar, star of 'Junction 48,' laments that it's hard to sing love songs when you're a Palestinian in Israel

Tamer Nafar.
Goni Riskin

To reach rapper Tamer Nafar’s home, you just follow the history of Zionism as told in the street names in the western part of the city of Lod. First you turn off the highway onto Zionism Street. At Menachem Begin Circle, you take Jabotinsky Street to Histadrut Street, then you turn onto Heroes of Israel Street, and so on. Once you enter Nafar’s home, though, the heroes become entirely different. Again and again he serves coffee in a cup with lines from a poem by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish on it. “When do you know that you have succeeded as a rebel? When they put you on a cup or a T-shirt,” laughs Nafar.

What poem is inscribed on the cup? “Tathir al Farasha” (“The Butterfly Effect”), says Nafar and immediately clarifies: “This isn’t the poem that annoyed Miri Regev,” referring to the culture minister’s outburst at the last Ophir film and TV awards ceremony, before he and actor Yossi Tzabari came onstage to read, among other things, some lines from Darwish’s poem “ID Card,” with the line “write it down, I am an Arab.”

Influence of Darwish

“The truth is I like that poem of Darwish’s less,” he says. “It is important to me but from the artistic, poetic perspective I very much prefer his later poems. Mahmoud succeeded in having people remember his love poems as well, not only his Palestine poems. He succeeded in being universal without forgetting Palestine. I hope, I think, I am on the way to that place.”

This is a good time to write about Nafar, and not particularly in the context of his having made headlines in the Regev-Darwish affair. At 37, he is now at a very productive and interesting moment in his career. The Film “Junction 48” (directed by Udi Aloni and with Nafar starring in it as a rapper called Karim, based on himself) has been showing recently in the United States and has won critical acclaim in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. This week, broadcasting rights to the movie were acquired by Netflix, which will start streaming it worldwide this summer.

The soundtrack of the film – a short album of six songs, some of them hip-hop firecrackers with the gas pedal to the floor, some of them melodic and sensitive – was released last month. Now Nafar is working on a solo album, in English and Arabic, produced by Rea Mochiach. He is also about to start recording his next album with his band, DAM, to be produced by Itamar Ziegler.

In June, when they will be recording the album, the ensemble will travel to England to appear at the Glastonbury Festival. Nafar is also performing, together with actor Ayman Nahas in a show that combines stand-up and music. In addition to all that, in recent weeks he has been performing in the play “Sayed” at the Arab-Jewish Theater in Jaffa, about the life of Sayed Darwish, the father of modern Egyptian music who paved the way for Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab and who died in 1923 at age 31 (some say he was murdered by British authorities in Egypt).

Small victory over Miri Regev

Complex writing, sensitive tone, focus on problems in Arab society and not necessarily what is done to it by the Israeli regime – these aren’t the first things that come to mind of anyone familiar with Nafar only from the news. ”Say ‘Tamer Nafar’ to Israelis and they will talk to you abut Miri Regev, the Ophir Awards and all of that,” he says. “That’s clear. How many Arabs appear in the Israeli mainstream? Hardly any. And when do they appear? When we are an item in the news. Only when you are having a problem with the Arabs do you bring on an Arab, or when you want to flaunt coexistence. Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad. But in any case you only listen to Achinoam. Mira Awad, incidentally, does amazing work. And I also have great respect for Achinoam. Politically I don’t agree with her but I do respect her effort to say what she thinks. This has been a rare thing among you recently.”

Nafar considers the song “Ya Ret” (“If Only”), which is included in “Junction 48,” as one of the best he has written. “This is the song that best explains where I am, what I want, where I came from, what my present is and what my future is,” he says. Nafar, or Karim (the boundary between the rapper and the character he plays in the film is intentionally blurry), sings at the beginning about his strong desire to croon love songs and about the wall of reality that prevents him from doing so.

Tamer Nafar
Rami Shllush

Women are the hope

The words of the song reflect Nafar’s belief that if there is any chance for the redemption of Arab society, and perhaps the whole region, it is to be found in women and therefore later on in the song he quotes Mahmoud Darwish (this time from “Sanusiru Sha’aban” – “We will Become a Nation”) and makes a switch there. “Darwish wrote that we will become a nation the moment a poet can describe a female dancer’s body in an erotic way,” says Nafar. “I wanted to take what he says one step further. To say that we will become a nation the moment a female poet is able to describe a man’s body in an erotic way. This is kind of slaughtering a sacred cow, even though I am sure Mahmoud would have wanted us to take it further.”

The artistic dialogue that develops between Nafar and Darwish’s words got swallowed up of course in the dialogue-killing ruckus that raged when Miri Regev boycotted Nafar’s appearance at the Ophir Awards last September, and even before then, in the summer, when she came out against the broadcast of the program about Darwish on Army Radio. “I won’t lie: This perked me up,” says Nafar. “That Miri Regev got up and left at the Ophir Awards – that’s a victory for me.”

It’s also a victory for her.

“Okay. She wins every day. Like in the neighborhood we would get into fights with someone gigantic. He steps on you, steps on you, steps on you and then you give him a little flick and you are so proud of yourself. So that’s the small victory. It made me wake up the next day ready to fight again, ready to get slapped again. They are threatening our existence and I still exist. This too is a kind of victory, I think.”

The morning after the awards ceremony, Nafar indeed woke up full of energy, swam 20 laps, went to the gym, got ready to write a post that would say “Fuck you, occupier” and then the news came. “They killed a girl in Lod. Pulled her out of her car in the middle of the street, with two children in the back seat, and put two bullets in her head. And that’s it. Everything changed,” he says. “I hadn’t lost, I had been defeated. This paralyzed me for a week. Even Facebook-wise it silenced me. The whole world was talking about nothing but Miri and Tamer. They called it the ‘Nafar storm.’ I even have a photo What’s his name, your president?” he asks and after a moment’s pause he adds: “What’s his name – your ... our president?”

Ruby Rivlin.

“So there was a headline in a newspaper: ‘Rivlin talks about the Nafar storm.’ And look at my Facebook page: It stopped. The last post on it went up before Miri Regev left. If someone should have written a post about that – I would be that person. But it took me a week to recover. My phone rang, all the television programs. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I felt defeated. If Miri Regev had prevented me from singing, I would have gone home and thought of a reaction. But something inside my society is paralyzing me. Fucking paralyzing me.

“Do you know how many women were killed in Lod last year? Ten, maybe more,” he continues, but then he hastens to add: “I am aware of how problematic we are socially but in no way am I going to let the Israelis feel good with this.”

Feel that we are better than you are?

“Yes, because it isn’t true. The Israelis like to think so. Especially recently. ‘Look at what is happening in Syria, look at the refugees, how they are begging to go to the West.’ This is what people are saying now. But no one is thinking about how so many of them are from Lod and Jaffa. Their home is here. Who kicked them out? You. Who isn’t letting them return? You. So don’t feel good about yourselves. It’s lucky there were no selfies back in 1956, to take pictures of yourselves with the corpses in Kafr Qasem. You don’t deserve the title of the enlightened people of the Middle East.”

The Palestinian spring

On the way to a performance in Nazareth a few weeks ago, Nafar and actor Ibrahim Saqallah were talking about the film “In Between” directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, which is about three young Palestinian women who live in Tel Aviv. The film was in the headlines at the time and Nafar and his partners took advantage of this and designed the poster for the standup-rap performance as a paraphrase of the poster for the film. They themselves appear in the poster in women’s clothing and wigs. They opened the show with: “Are there any people here from Umm al-Fahm?” – whose municipality had called on locals to boycott the film. “So you should know this isn’t real,” the opening continued. “We aren’t girls who are going to smoke and screw in Tel Aviv, we are guys who are going to smoke and screw in Tel Aviv, and this is very different, this is fine.”

Nafar has a problem with “In Between” in principle, and as might be understood from the previous sentence the problem doesn’t stem from the film’s feminist agenda. So what bothers him?

“It’s that they depict Tel Aviv as an Israeli bubble that is protecting us from ourselves. You see three Arab girls in the dark and behind them shines the light of Tel Aviv. This is a big fucking no. I think this wouldn’t have got by before the Arab spring.”

How’s that?

“My generation shaped its identity after the second intifada. A certain pride came into being, and I’m not talking about flags. Patriotism, my ass. I am talking about existence.”

Remembering Arab spring

Is that what is meant by “the proud generation?”

“Is that what they’ve called it? I don’t know. But now there is a new generation that is drawing its opinions from the Arab spring. And I have a sense they feel the occupation is preferable to independence. They are saying: So, should we be like Syria? Like Iraq? Or they are thinking: Yes, it’s terrible what happened in Umm al-Hiran and Kalansua’’ – referring to Arab locales in Israel where homes were demolished – “but that is still better than what is happening in Jordan.”

Is there really talk like that?

“This is what I’m sensing,” says Nafar, but he seems to pull back a bit and adds: “It’s necessary to research whether there is such a generation. I hope I am wrong. I hope there aren’t very many people who think that it is better for others to occupy us and take care of us. We are in the midst of a process. At the moment there is a kind of darkness and it is impossible to know whether this is the darkness of a coffin or the darkness of a womb.”

Fifteen minutes after the standup-rap performance in Nazareth ended, Nafar and Saqallah were in Saqallah’s car on their way back to Lod. As they were driving past Umm al-Fahm, Ayman Nahas phoned Nafar. They spoke for half a minute and then Nafar turned around to look at the back seat and it emerged that a joke about the Jew had surfaced. “Ayman has lost his American Express card,” Nafar said to me. “He asked if by any chance you had taken it – or do you only take land?”

Rap in the wake of Trump’s order

One interesting influence on Nafar’s work is Rahel the Poetess, who entered his creative bloodstream and appears in his songs again and again. “I grew up on Rahel,” he says, explaining that he learned her poems in literature lessons at school. “I have books of hers and Bialik’s. Not because they were Zionists and I want to learn about my enemy. I love poetry.”

In 2004 he wrote a song about studying Rahel’s poem “And perhaps these things never were ...” from the critical perspective of someone who could not be a partner to her love of the land. “My song talks about how the teacher asks me to learn ‘Kinneret’ and I tell her that if I do that I will oppose Rahel’s idea. She is so in love with the Sea of Galilee and I, the Arab, can’t have that connection to it. My connection is to Tabariyya” – the Arabic name of Tiberias – “and it’s not the same place.

“I felt bad. I felt something was missing. Why am I in love with the Kinneret via someone who occupied it?” he says of the background to the writing of the song. “And why am I more familiar with Rahel than with Mahmoud Darwish? The protest isn’t against her but rather against the system that made me study her and not our poets.”

More than 10 years later, when Nafar wrote “I am not political” for the film that he stars in, did he remember his old song and Rahel’s poetry? He tried to use them as a reference for the new song. It didn’t work. Nevertheless, Rahel does come into that song. In one of the lines he sings her words: “Only about myself did I know how to tell.” And not only does he rap these words, he also sings to the melody Albert Piamenta composed and Chava Alberstein and Danny Granot sang at the end of the 1960s.

Does this quote from Rahel also stem from political criticism?

“No. It has nothing to do with Rahel’s love of the land,” says Nafar. “I didn’t quote Rahel the Zionist, but rather Rahel the poetess.”