BETHLEHEM, the end of November - "The European-Palestinian Hip Hop Tour" arrives after gigs in Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. At 7 P.M. the Al Nadwa Cultural Center is already buzzing. Palestinian-German rapper Wassim Taha, aka Massive, is thrilling the audience, Palestinian-Danish rapper Mohammad Marwan, aka Marwan - symbolically dressed like an injured person, using crutches - both sings and moderates the evening and also talks on the phone to PR, the Gazan rapper who was not allowed to leave the Strip to join the concert. Everyone is waiting for the international star, Shadia Mansour - the British Palestinian who mixes rock and Arab folk music and whose voice shifts from hard rap to nearly operatic lyricism. Her coming on stage is greeted by huge applause and her set has everyone dancing.
After three hours, which also feature performances by rappers from Jenin and the Shoafat refugee camp, silence reigns. The stage morphs: The live musicians gather alongside the loudspeakers, instrumentalists who play ouds, the guitar, a set of drums, the double bass, the qanoun (a stringed instrument that resembles the zither). Now the performance focuses on an Arab sheikh, wrapped in an abbaya, wearing a traditional kaffiyeh on his head. Gradually he strips off the symbols of tradition, to reveal typical rapper garb, his T-shirt reading: "Hip hop is not dead. It lives in Palestine."
His music is complex, the rhythms are unexpected, the acoustic-Arabic sound blends with and reverberates within the mechanical electronics. This is SAZ, aka Sameh Zakout, a 25-year-old rapper who lives in the Old City of Ramle and who has been a performer for 10 years. As part of the "Ramle - A City of Rights" events, sponsored by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, with the cooperation of social organizations in Ramle, SAZ will perform Monday evening in an event devoted entirely to hip hop, and featuring the best Palestinian-Israeli rappers (7 P.M., at the Community Center on Hazait Street). The very same evening, author Sami Michael, president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, will hand out the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award, in memory of the Peace Now activist who was murdered at a demonstration in Jerusalem in February 1983. The award will go to two recipients: the Refugee Human Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University and the Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence) organization, in which Israeli soldiers talk about the Palestinian occupied territories.
The event's name takes on a slightly ironic hue after a visit to the Arab neighborhood, the city's "ghetto." Between Herzl Boulevard and Bialik, Jabotinsky and Hama'apilim Streets (Hama'apilim are European Jews who were smuggled illegally into Palestine during the years of the British Mandate), in a tangle of streets whose names ring decidedly Zionist - including streets named after Kibbutz Hanita and the Detroit Jewish Community - lies the ghetto. The name dates back to 1947, when the Jews bestowed it on the quarter where a thousand Palestinian residents are now concentrated, the remains of the original population of 16,000, most of whom fled during the War of Independence. The historical information posted on Ashkelon's English Web site still refers to a similar concentration of Arabs as "the Arab ghetto." However, following the 1948 war, no Palestinian was left in Ashkelon. By contrast, the municipal Web site of Ramle, where Arabs constitute about 20 percent of the population, does not mention the word "ghetto"; instead it points out that the inhabitants call the Old City Al-Sacne - the neighborhood.
It was in this Ramle ghetto where Zakout was interviewed for the first episode of Haim Yavin's documentary series "Blue Identity Card," which was broadcast recently.
The documentary film "SAZ - The Palestinian Rapper for Change," which was screened in the U.S. and Europe, tells Zakout's life story. His grandfather was a refugee from the Palestinian village of Asdoud and in the film SAZ joins him and his father - both of them sworn Communists and political activists - on a tour of their former lands, which are now surrounded by an electric fence and serve as pasture for mooing cows.
Zakout became involved in music at quite a young age and began to rap at age 15. His first stage was a neighborhood pizzeria. He was a member of the Dam group, one of the first rap groups in the Middle East, which was founded in 1998 by his cousin, Tamer Nafar. After leaving Dam, Zakout embarked on an independent path. Despite his tender age, he was considered a trailblazer, one of the pioneers of Arab hip hop in Israel.
Longing for a meaningful life
"Arab hip hop is the start of a broad, global movement opposed to violence - and which does not express violence either," Zakout says. "The lyrics may be acerbic, but there is no hatred in them. And unlike other streams of hip hop, there is no crudeness or aggressiveness, no meanness or incitement - not against women and not against any ethnic group. This is the message of a new generation that is fed up. Not a musical intifada. Giving meaning to life - that's at the heart of hip hop."
A tour of Ramle on the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, reveals just how much the residents are longing for a meaningful life. Night falls, and the streets are dark: "This isn't a festival of lights, like Ramadan or Christmas," says Zakout, pointing out a few houses owned by Christians that have already been decorated and lit up for the holiday season. "And the silence - just listen. This silence is crying out - it's not the same silence as that of the paths in a kibbutz. People talk about the 'upright generation' of Arabs - great. But a lot of us are bent over." Almost as if to underline his remarks, a boy of about 13 crosses our path. "What's new?" he and Zakout slap hands. "How is so-and-so?" Zaquot asks, naming his friend, the boy's brother. "I haven't seen him in a while now."
"He's in jail. Sold to a narc," the boy replies.
"Six of my friends are in prison. I don't believe it," Zakout mutters under his breath, pulling out his mobile phone and trying to call his friend in jail. "I visit them, I help them, I bring them telecards instead of cigarettes. And now another one - what a disaster. That's how it is when people are in distress."
Zakout first became aware that some of his friends were selling drugs at the age of 9, when he realized that several of his classmates were doing deliveries in a town that is afflicted with drugs and crime: "A girl from my class paid for her studies by herself. She was the sole provider of her destroyed family - all drug money," he relates. That's when he began to see things differently and became politically active. "My father told me: 'This is it, you are a man now, come to a demonstration.'"
We enter a narrow street in the ghetto, set next to a large, pretty building. The house is dark and its door bears a notice: "Danger - Occupancy forbidden." "They evacuated an entire family from here, supposedly because the house is hazardous. And what are they going to do? That's how people become refugees for the second time," Zakout says.
"I wouldn't dare walk around with you like this, at night, in the Jawarish neighborhood," laughs Zakout. "Once, when I was visiting there, they told me, come on, let's make a clip, we'll bring weapons, we'll film ourselves with them. I told the guy, let's not, let's bring children who love music and want to learn to play an instrument and sing." And he sang in Arabic one of those chilling, catchy songs of his, soon to be released on disc: "The microphone is the weapon - for life and death / The microphone is the weapon - words flow from the heart / The microphone is the weapon - it always lights my path / And rhymes are the bullets / Rhymes are the bullets.
"The people of Ramle are lost, so they say / Indifferent to what everyone says / People my age are orphans already / Hey, man / A Ramlawi film is about to begin - Action! / Our children are killing each other," sings Zakout, who has already survived two shootouts he happened upon in the ghetto - part of the settling of accounts between criminal gangs.
'Arab rap started here'
"Hip hop Palestine - this is a way to protest the situation without using weapons," he says, "and this is the way to give people hope. And to prove to those who come from nowhere that we do have a place to go, that despite the hunger, it is possible to achieve satisfaction - both psychological and spiritual. Arab rap started here," he continues proudly, "and from here we are having an influence - on the entire region, on the Arab countries and on Palestinians living abroad. An Israeli leader once said, 'As long as the Arabs aren't all standing in the same line, we have nothing to worry about.' So this is it, I have some news: In hip hop, we are all standing in the same line. What the politicians haven't managed to do - to bring people together - is happening by means of this small and lonesome message that is blossoming here. And it is catching on: There are many Arab hip hop groups in Israel and in the territories. In Gaza alone there are between 100 and 200 ensembles."
SAZ performs in Israel and in the territories. He has also graced the stages of several important clubs in Paris and New York - and he is still waiting for his big breakthrough. "In Israel, no young Arab artist has been signed up by a record company so far," he says. The documentary shows how his attempt to get a contract with a large record company failed, following an argument with the Israeli producer about the lyrics of one of the songs. "I want my disc, which is my outcry, to be on the shelves in Israeli stores. It will cry out - even if nobody buys it and nobody listens to it."
Is this your dream, to release a disc, to appear abroad, to taste major success?
Zakout: "My dream is just to live quietly - without hearing that this one has been killed and that one has been wounded or has gone to prison. And without feeling humiliated in my own country. To walk down my street, in my neighborhood, with my head held high - this is more important to me than any international performances."
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