Israeli Arab Female Rappers Find Themselves Caught in the Middle

The two women in the group Arapeyat are shunned by music stations in both Israel and the Arab world, but they're still rapping.

Rapper Nahwa Abed Al'Al takes a drag of the hookah and tells a funny story with a bitter aftertaste. It happened to her and her friend Safaa Hathot when they were performing in Belgium a few years ago.

"We were walking around looking for water pipes, and a young guy came up to us – I think he was originally from Morocco," says Abed Al'Al. "He began flirting with Safaa and told her 'you look like a rich girl.' Safaa burst out laughing and replied, 'What are you talking about, I don't have a shekel.

"When he heard the word 'shekel' he was shocked. He said, 'Wait a second, you're Israeli,' and ran away. I wrote a song about it. It's called 'Lavin Badna Naruah' ['Wherever We Go']."

The song doesn't deal with the harmless Moroccan guy, but rather with the big problem hinted at in his response: Israeli Arab artists' travails when they try to spread their music.

"In Israel they relate to us as Palestinians. You won't' see videos of us on Channel 24," says Hathot, referring to Israel's music TV station. "And when we travel from Israel to the Arab world, we're considered Israelis, so on Arab stations you won't see our videos either. Basically we have nowhere to go."

She then qualifies that: "There's always hope – that's the only way we've been able to do this for 12 years already."

When Hathot and Abed Al'Al, as the rap duo Arapeyat, began performing in 2001, there weren't many Arab rappers in Israel, certainly not female Arab rappers. So Arapeyat (a compound of the feminine form of "Arabs" and "rap") was a pioneering band.

The two women have been chosen to take part in the exhibit on housing, language and history in Jewish-Arab cities that opens Thursday night at Tel Aviv's Nahum Gutman Museum. Hathot and Abed Al'Al won't be able to attend – they're performing in Ramallah.

Abed Al'Al, who is about to turn 30, also works in a perfume shop while studying to teach physical education. Hathot, 27, works as an actress at the Israeli town Shfaram's youth theater.

The two have been rapping for around half their lives. Hathot's love affair with the genre began when her older brothers listened to old-school hip hop at home.

"Since I was 12 I've listened to hip hop, but it was really at 14 that I become engrossed," Hathot says. "I got into the words and translated them into Arabic. I started to dig deep and try to understand what exactly hip hop was."

Feeling the anger

What draws them to this music? "How the rappers look," says Hathot, as the two burst out laughing. "Just kidding," Hathot continues. "But it's true – I loved how they looked," even though she didn't always understand what they were saying.

"Not really," says Hathot. "Not at first, but I felt the words. It's like a Jewish person will listen to us rapping in Arabic. He won't understand the words, but he'll feel us. That's what I had with American rappers. I felt their anger and I loved it, and also the beat."

In 2000, two Arab rap groups formed – DAM from Lod and MWR from Acre. Hathot knew the members of MWR and asked if she could perform with them. They agreed to let her rap with them, but then came a hitch: Hathot's parents wouldn't let her appear onstage with men.

But she didn't rebel. "I tried to stand my ground, but I saw that it wasn't helping and I listened to what they told me."

Abed Al'Al now comes to Hathot's aid: "I suggested to Safaa that we start a girl group. That way her parents wouldn't have a problem with it." Abed Al'Al barely knew what hip hop was, but Hathot gave her an Eminem CD to get her on her way.

"MWR also helped us," says Hathot. "They taught us how create the flow and sit on the beat."

Arapeyat's first song was called "Shu Sa'ar Bal Danya"("What Happened in Life"). "It's a song about life in Acre," says Hathot. "How the guys drop out of school and use drugs instead of building their lives."

Not that they experienced that directly. "It wasn’t in our home, but we saw it," says Hathot. "Acre is small and everyone sees things and knows what's going on."

The MTV stigma

According to Hathot, "For our second song I said, 'That's it, I need to say something about our being Arab girls.' The song is called 'Al Banat al Arabiya' ('The Arab Girl'). It was about what we felt as Arab girls. We know that there are boundaries and we recognize this, but we're also asking for our freedom."

Hathot and Abed Al'Al talk about how when they were starting out people were shocked at seeing two teenage girls rapping.

"There was this stigma toward rap that they got from MTV," says Hathot. "And they asked, 'Why are Arab girls dressing like this? Why do you need this?' But this gave us strength, and we're glad we opened the door for other girls …. Not that long ago we saw some girl wearing a hijab in Ramallah who was rapping. In a hijab!"

It's not that Al'Al and Hathot are always at work on their music. They don't perform often in Israel, and even though they have existed as a group for 12 years they have never recorded an album. They rap, but they have never learned to produce. In recent years, Hathot has recorded songs outside Arapeyat. She's working on a solo album with a producer from Nazareth.

Do they write about the political situation? "It's impossible not to, but that's not my thing," says Hathot. "I talk more about social issues. This is where I think I can really make a difference. I don't know how much I understand politics. Sometimes I write about what I feel. I wrote the song "Akko Shelanu" ("Our Acre") when they took over Arabs' homes in the Old City [of Acre].

"And a few years ago, when Israel attacked Gaza," Hathot says, referring to Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09. "I wrote a song about a guy from Gaza that I know. His name is Khaled and he raps. When I called him to ask how he was doing, he asked me to write a song about him if he died. He didn't die, everything is okay, but I wrote a song about him anyway called 'Tihye Lanetzah Khaled' ['Live for Eternity Khaled']."

In any case, the two women are not about to quit. "We're getting older," says Hathot. "You need to get married sometime, and I'm not saying that because we're Arab women. At some point you have to say, 'Enough.' But I won't stop anytime soon, because it's in my blood. For a lot of guys this is too much to handle. I can understand it a bit, but I also don't understand it."

"It will all be okay," Hathot adds a bit later, turning to Abed Al'Al. "I'll marry you."

Avishag Shaar Yashuv