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To be a Gazan in Tahrir

Politically charged Palestinian rap provides an outlet to express frustration towards Hamas.

Last Modified: 07 Aug 2013 11:20
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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"As an artist, the Egyptian revolution proved that art is one of the most important parts of revolutionary activities," says the Palestinian rapper Mohammed Antar [Reuters]

In the months leading up to the removal of President Morsi, Palestinians became an increasing object of distrust and even attack in the Egyptian media. This situation has continued since his ouster, as the media has reinforced the sense that Egyptians are besieged by domestic and foreign forces that threaten its security and even soul. Yet Palestinians were in many ways a primary inspiration for the first revolutionary wave of 2011 through their actions during the al-Aqsa intifada and the history of Palestine solidarity groups on Egyptian campuses, where many of the key revolutionary activists first became politically engaged.

Mohammed Antar is one of Gaza's growing crop of celebrated rappers, whose songs well capture the grim realities and lack of choices that represent life as a constant prisoner in the tiny Strip and the sometimes desperate attempts by youth to assert some autonomy and power in the present situation.

Antar has been staying in Cairo the last several months and sat down with Mark LeVine to discuss his experiences as a Gazan in Cairo today, the situation in Gaza, and the ongoing role of art in revolutionary struggles.

Mark LeVine: How did you get your start as a rapper in Gaza and how does the story fit into what's happening today?

Mohammed Antar: I've always aspired to be an artist. After I finished high school in Gaza City I started to act and do the arts and begin rapping around a decade ago, in 2004. At first I started just copying the rap you'd see on TV - 50 Cent, Eminem, etc. But then I found Arab rap; groups like DAM, Aks’ser, Saz, Salahaddin, Islam Jawad, Rayess Bek and other Arab rap pioneers. Interestingly, rap was still isolated enough in Gaza that when I started I didn't really know Palestinian Rapperz, the first Gazan group, which was featured in Jackie Salloum's Slingshot Hiphop, even though we were in the same city. But what got to me was the way the Arab rappers brought politics into their music. They decided that you have to talk about your society and its problems. So right at this time rap became really big in Gaza. Kids were rapping and beat boxing in the streets.

But this all changed in 2007 when Hamas took over. There was no way to do anything in the streets, and it's hard to have hiphop without having the street. No way to do anything. People starting to say, "Gays are here" because they thought you have to be gay if you rap. We were treated like we were in street gangs, but we couldn't act that way because we were actually a "fake copy" - we didn't know how to fight like one. So we started to think about how to fight back.

ML: Has hip-hop remained ostracised until today in Gaza?

MA: No. It started to get big again right after the Israel-Hamas war of January 2009. The group DARG Team, which I was a member of, led the way. In a way it was an advance notice of the Arab Spring. Rappers started talking about politics and what was really going on here. Not just Israel's attacks, but the internal politics in Gaza. We were at the same time writers, fighters and youth activists.

Essentially, as often happens, the war opened up opportunities that had stopped when Hamas took over in 2007 and there was fighting in the streets, and everyone was scared. When Hamas first faced rap in 2007-08 it treated it as if it was just Western culture and part of an invasion of Palestinian and Muslim values, etc. After the war, Hamas was opposed to us because we talked about politics, about its failures, so we were attacked. For example, I was part of the Gaza Youth Breaks Out movement, which put out the Statement against Hamas and Israel and all the levels of occupation and its supporters.

ML : That "manifesto," which came out only weeks before Bouzizi's self-immolation sparked the regional uprisings, was a really powerful move, perhaps the even earlier spark of the uprisings, or at least a herald that something had changed in the Arab youth culture.

MA : Yes for sure. That statement was Tamarrod before there was a Tamarrod! Today, there are so many new rappers I don't even know them all. It's becoming bigger despite Hamas's best attempts to silence it.

ML : But many of GYBO's main people have been forced into exile.

MA : It's true that it's become very hard to remain in Gaza. Hamas started arresting, threatening, harassing and beating members. The group is trying to stop [our] education, and they make life difficult for [our] families. Also, despite efforts to organise various initiatives aimed at unifying Palestinians, we didn't get feedback or support, and you can't live in Gaza without support.. You simply couldn't be political in Gaza against Hamas, so the only way to survive was to leave, at least for the time being.

And if you're an artist it's worse, of course. As a political artist I have to choose to live in a free country if possible because there's nothing to do publicly. You can't live in Gaza and fight, at least not now. If I can't do that, what should I do? Just stay at home? I can't even do that, because they still come and ask for me. They ask for me when they see a journalist come visit my building, they even ask me who taught me English, when they know I learned it in school like everyone else.

ML : But the new generation of rappers is still in Gaza. How are they surviving?

MA : Everyone in Gaza knows that if they work hard, there is enough possibility to get exposure and options like I had with DARG, or with the Palestinian Rapperz. So there's no option but to work hard. But when we started we got a chance to be in the street, to live our culture.

The new generation has no chance for that; they can just watch what we did through the internet. They don't even know what a rap concert means. In some way that makes it easier for them, it's also harder. I was arrested, other people were harassed. You can't say we've survived, though, because we've had immigration after immigration. Surviving will start when we change.

Crossing Borders

ML : What did the Egyptian revolution mean to you as a Gazan and artist?

MA : Look, Palestinians always take hope from wherever there is change in the Arab world, and Egypt in particular has been a big deal for Gazans given our location. As an artist, the Egyptian revolution proved that art is one of the most important parts of revolutionary activities, so it inspired many of us to increase our output and do an even better job in creating political art. Broadly, it told us you don't have to just stand there. You don't have to take it. If Egyptians can do it, we can as well. 

But the reality is that politically, Hamas became stronger, yet the main problems, like ending the division, or the siege, or getting electricity back on, continued. You could only live the revolution in coffee shops and at home, and when we tried to be in the squares of Gaza to support Egypt's first revolution, Hamas beat us. And for ordinary people in Gaza the revolutions in other countries didn't really mean anything because they didn't see the changes. They didn't see what the youth accomplished in Egypt and elsewhere and so we didn't get support the way Egyptian youth did at first.

In fact, within a year, it became a situation where we were called into security almost every week. They beat on us and put pressure on us all the time for that first year after Mubarak was gone. They played the situation very well because whatever protests had begun they quickly ended as people had to go back home, go to work, or have no job except working for Hamas security. The average people won't work with us because they'll get in trouble with Hamas, which made people begin leaving.

ML: I met some Gazan activists beginning in the Muhammad Mahmud (street in central Cairo) fighting in late 2011. They were actively  participating in the revolution here, fighting against the security forces with their Egyptian friends.

MA: Yes, Gazans came here to fight because we couldn't fight at home. Gazans don't yet believe in changing the system, so when the revolution started again in November 2011 and we were being heavily pressured at home, it made sense for some activists to come join this revolution. There was a real connection with the Egyptian revolutionary youth, or at least a section of them. Also, it was about going to the Square. The Square, taking over the public squares and fighting for your rights had become the language of the world. So we wanted to be a part of it but couldn't in Gaza.

It's hard to express how difficult it's been for Gazans to get to Egypt - I passed through Egypt to the airport from Gaza many times, but we were never allowed to stay in Cairo, only to transit to and from the airport. So to finally be here in Cairo, it's amazing. Suddenly being a Palestinian youth activist made it easier to get in. When I came through Rafah, they actually called my name from the other side to come through and Hamas got so angry they stopped and interrogated me for 30 minutes about how I had such connections before letting me go. Needless to say, I'm not going back to Gaza any time soon; they will be all over me.

But here, during the recent wave, I was on stage two times, speaking about life in Gaza. I was against the Brotherhood because I'm against Hamas and know what their rule means. I put on my thickest Gazan accent so everyone would know I wasn't Egyptian and explained that I was for the revolution and against the Brotherhood and with Egyptians, and how Hamas made life so miserable for us and that I supported Egyptians and people were very enthusiastic. But after what I said, purposefully, there's no going home for a while, that's for sure. AS a 27 year-old, I don't have time to compromise anymore, I should do what I have to do and act how I need to before it's too late.

ML: This raises the issue of how you're treated as a Palestinian today in Egypt, with all the reported antagonism and even incitement against Palestinians.

MA: Well, you can find all kinds of people here. There are supporters of Palestinians, anti-Palestinians, Hamas/Brotherhood supporters. TV is so hostile now. When I tried to rent an apartment and people learned I was Palestinian, they wouldn't lease the apartment to me. I finally had to stay at various friends' houses until I found a longer term solution with one of them. I just travel around the subways, try to stay normally below the radar and not be too Palestinian.

For Gazans, some of us got confused and wanted to prove so quickly that we are not danger like the TV says about Palestinians in general. But I feel it's best to calm down and wait for the storm to move on. Egyptians have so much to think about, being Palestinian was a big deal for the first two weeks after Morsi fell, but not after that. Now people have heard that Palestinians supported June 30 Front. And besides this is should weaken Hamas because of its relationship with the Morsi and Brotherhood government. So that's good for us.

ML: What are your future plans?

MA: Well, I'm making my first official album and its sponsored by Ministry of Culture in Ramallah. I still can't believe I got money from them.

ML: I guess, it is part of their struggle against Hamas. Anyway they can reach into Gaza is a win for them?

MA: In fact, no. The [European] funders ask for that - to have a Gazan component of culture they fund - and Ramallah supports art not for politics, because they know that rap can also attack, as part of more broad public support for art.

And besides this I have gotten invited to Brazil to tour there and South America for a month with fellow rapper Shadia Mansour and several other well-known Arab rappers. We are very excited because Brazil has always supported Palestine. Hopefully this will produce some great music by all of us.

Politically, I have heard talk that November 11, the anniversary of Arafat's death, will be Gaza's June 30, the day to launch the revolution, although no one I know has heard any specificities or knows the people behind this call. This is clearly a way to let Fatah be in control of the revolution, because Fatah can lead the revolution and the Gazan activists can sit back and watch and learn how to play the best role. I'm not sure I like letting them lead it, but the situation in Gaza is just like here in Egypt. Most people dislike Fatah, they understand what it has done and how it failed. But for people like me, the bigger problem is Hamas rule. If Fatah can take out Hamas the way Sisi took out Morsi, then we can deal with Fatah and its problems and talk about another system.

ML: The language you are using is not very democratic. It is as if you're living in a situation of complete lack of democracy even though Hamas, like the Brotherhood (or the Freedom and Justice Party), won what are accepted as free and relatively fair elections. 

MA: That's true, but the reality is there is no democracy at all in Gaza, no matter who wins elections, and you can't fight both forces at the same time. You have to at least get one against the other, and then maybe you have a chance. That's what Egyptian activists hope to see in Egypt, and perhaps it will happen in Gaza too. In the end, Hamas has made it harder to resist and fight for our rights, just like Morsi did in Egypt. You can't have a successful revolution anywhere when the government is making it harder to achieve your basic rights. 


Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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