Saturday, September 16, 2006

The street cred of Gaza

GAZA - Rapper D.R. (Dynamic Rapper) enters an upscale restaurant in the city center in the early afternoon. A beautiful young American woman named Jackie escorts him to the table and sits with him. He is full of smiles and high-fives, and his black eyes peek out above the rims of his fashionable sunglasses. Everyone here knows him. He is very skinny, wears a sleeveless shirt and low-riding Bermudas that look like they could fall down at any moment; on his head is a red baseball cap over a hairnet, not unlike rapper 50 Cent - and on his feet are sneakers, obviously.

"I don't want to imitate the Americans; I'm a proud Palestinian," says D.R., a.k.a. Mohammed al-Faraa. The place: Gaza City. The restaurant - Ma'atuk, on Omar al-Mukhtar street, next to the Hezbollah support tent set up by Islamic Jihad.

Al-Faraa, a Khan Yunis resident, is only 21, but is known all over the coastal strip, along with his two peers in the group Palestinian Rappers, PR for short. He looks like a real rap star, standing out in gray, militant Gaza. But PR's lyrics bring us back exactly to where we are. "The peoples' tragedy" is the name of a song they wrote about the 1948 Nakba ("catastrophe," the founding of the State of Israel). "That which occupied our lives, destroyed all our opportunities, the massacre commited, Sabra, Chatila and the deportation ... 1948," sing al-Faraa and his comrades Ayman Magames and Mahmoud Fayyad, a.k.a. Kana'an.

When rapped the words indeed sound less militant, but maybe the lyrics are the reason the group's concerts were not banned in Gaza.

"In our society some like us, and of course some condemn us," Magames says. "After they heard what we have to say, there were no more allegations about our trying to be like the Americans. As Palestinian-Arab rappers we convey a message of rage. Rap started in the United States as a protest against racism. Our protest here is against the Gaza reality. Some of the Palestinians express their rage by throwing rocks; we do it through rap. It is better than stones, because violence only breeds more violence."

Can't take away my art

When asked whether they are the only rap group in Gaza, they respond with a triumphant smile. "Shitloads, there are so many rappers in the city today you can hardly count them," al-Faraa says. "We started in 2003 and since then dozens of young people have been trying their luck in rap."

It appears Gaza also boasts a female rapper - Nivin, a 17-year-old, sings a love song with the trio.

"We don't see any money out of music, forget about it. We have to pay the recording studio, and every song costs us NIS 300," says al-Faraa. "For months we have been saving money for a studio, and it takes a lot of our time. Our dream is for the Palestinian issue to be known all over the world. That when I chat with someone on the Web and tell him where I'm from, I won't be accused of being a murderer. I hope they realize the Palestinian message is a message of peace. I had five friends who were killed in the intifada, and those gone will not come back. But I don't hate the Israelis, only the Israeli government that deprives me of my freedom and liberty; but it cannot take away my art."

A mention of Israeli rappers stirs mixed reactions. "We don't like Subliminal," Fayyad says. "I don't see him as an Israeli, but as a Zionist. He hates Arabs, and I'm addressing his message. But if there is a group of rappers with a message of peace, we can work with them. Subliminal aside, we are ready to work with any Israeli rapper. We already played in Israel, at Peki'in. There was an American Idol-style show there, and we were guests of honor. There were even Israeli cops and soldiers in the crowd."

During our meeting, the three look through the window of the al-Masharaq building, the site of their recording studio. From there the Gaza beach can be seen, but the PR crew is concerned about a parade of armed men passing below the building - thousands of members of the various security apparatuses demonstrating against the Hamas government. The armed men fire their guns, and the rappers seem amused. "I took part in demonstrations when the intifada began," says al-Faraa. "At the end of 2000 I was even shot with a live bullet. Since then I stopped going to demonstrations."

Drugs no, narghile yes

They enter the studio. Al-Faraa at the center, as is fitting for a star, and Magames and Fayyad at his sides. "Heyna ana jai, heyna ana jai" (Here I come), they begin - and are surprised to hear the Israeli rap group Hadag Nahash sings the same lyrics. But PR's song does not deal with the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv relationship, but rather criticizes Arab singers Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbi, who might be described as the Arab versions of Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. "They only show off their bodies and put no meaning in their songs, no message, sort of show girls," Magames says.

The rhythm picks up, and the trio is into the beat. Al-Faraa leads with his hand gestures. Like the best of American rap, he also repeatedly cups his groin, and the song ends in English: "Get out of the way, bitch."

"We don't curse," he says. "Look, when my parents understood I intended to be a rapper, they had conditions - that I stay in school and keep the tradition. We live in Gaza in a Muslim society, and we plan to keep living here. We started rapping while studying at the university, after we heard songs on the Internet. At the beginning we played before different audiences in Gaza. We left for Ramallah and then we toured abroad. We had concerts in Ireland, the British embassy flew us there to play for the Arab community, but ultimately it is clear to me that my home and land is in Gaza.

"Therefore there are a few things we don't do, like drugs. We do like to smoke narghile. We even have a song about the narghile, whose lyrics make you think at first that the song is about sexual relations between a guy and a girl, and then you realize it is actually a love song for a narghile."

What about groupies, post concert sex?

"We are Arabs, we are bound by a certain tradition. I cannot walk in Gaza with girls or whores around me like rappers abroad. It's not our thing. Sometimes we sing about love, a mate, and even about girls who only care about makeup and a good time. But you have to understand something. With the girls in Gaza you can only look. You cannot talk to them. If I approach them, it could get messy."

At the end of the day they leave their dreams of a rap career at the studio and descend the stairs from the sixth floor, since frequent power failures have grounded the elevators. Exiting to the street they are met by the dozens of armed men coming back from the demonstration. Welcome back to Gaza reality.

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