Palestinian Rapper Tamer Nafar Goes the Distance: An Interview

15 May, 2022
Tamer Nafar, from his Face­book page (cour­tesy Tamer Nafar).

 

Sheren Falah Saab inter­views rap­per and social activist Tamer Nafar, cofounder of the sem­i­nal Arab rap group DAM, now embarked on a roar­ing solo career. Nafar is noto­ri­ous­ly out­spo­ken as a Pales­tin­ian who grew up in Israel.

 

Sheren Falah Saab

 

On a cold night last Jan­u­ary, Tamer Nafar drove to his home in Lod from Haifa. When he reached the entrance to the city, he found it blocked by police vehi­cles. That was not an espe­cial­ly rare sight, and the pop­u­lar Pales­tin­ian rap­per and social activist imag­ined that yet one more vic­tim of vio­lence had joined the sta­tis­tics. Except that this time, the mur­der vic­tim was his child­hood friend Hus­sein Issawi, 42. Issawi had been shot at close range and evac­u­at­ed by rel­a­tives to Shamir Med­ical Cen­ter (for­mer­ly Assaf Haro­feh hos­pi­tal) in Tel Aviv, where he was pro­nounced dead.

“First they told me he was only injured, that he’d been shot in the leg,” Nafar recalls. “I want­ed to vis­it him in the hos­pi­tal, but then the head­lines on the news sites were: ‘Sus­pect­ed mur­der in Lod.’ That’s how it is, a whole life is erased, reduced to just a num­ber. This man has a life sto­ry and I want­ed to tell it to the world. Hus­sein was among the first peo­ple who sup­port­ed me when I start­ed out in music. He believed in me.”

It is not sur­pris­ing that one of Nafar’s lat­est hits, “Go There,” engages in the theme of vio­lence and crime among Israeli Arabs — the most painful and burn­ing issues fac­ing that com­mu­ni­ty. “Go There” is the Eng­lish trans­la­tion, a play on words as it were, that he chose for the name of the song, which in Ara­bic is titled “Got­ter,” mean­ing “Get out of here.”

 

 

“It is a vul­gar street word that is very pop­u­lar in Lod,” Nafar says, refer­ring to his mixed Arab-Jew­ish home­town, south­east of Tel Aviv. “Two years ago, some­one called my atten­tion to the Eng­lish root of the word — go there. It’s an expres­sion that was addressed to our grand­par­ents dur­ing the British man­date peri­od. Then I under­stood that vio­lence has been part and par­cel of Pales­tin­ian Israelis’ sit­u­a­tion for decades, and that it is con­nect­ed to the sit­u­a­tion now. We are a peo­ple under per­pet­u­al occu­pa­tion and there is no way of escap­ing the cycle of violence.”

Thus the lyrics go:

Got­ter, Got­ter I will nev­er Go there / 
The British used to tell my grand­pa “get lost and go there” /
They ripped us out, so now we have to bend down /
Every­one is bleed­ing, blood is flow­ing like water … /
How can the world see my tears /
If my broth­er sees me with the eyes of a killer? /
Who should I blame? /
The one who sold us the weapons or the one who /
pulled the trigger? /
Oh mom, oh mom, a mil­lion rea­sons won’t matter /
When your son is afraid of the Arabs …

 

The biggest prob­lem in my com­mu­ni­ty is that we do not have a clear iden­ti­ty. Our iden­ti­ty has been slammed, pum­melled. That is what I say in the song ‘Go There’

 

Parking-spot rage

In “Go There,” Nafar explic­it­ly express­es his fear of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zen in Israel mur­der­ing him.

“The moment I get into an argu­ment with anoth­er Pales­tin­ian, let’s say about a park­ing spot, and the per­son starts get­ting angry, I got in my mind about the occu­pa­tion and colo­nial­ism is turned off at such a moment, and what remains is a gut feel­ing of fear. I can­not deny it. Last year, over 120 young Pales­tin­ian Israeli men were mur­dered. There are so many weapons in the hands of young peo­ple in this com­mu­ni­ty — peo­ple talk about one out of every three young peo­ple hav­ing a weapon — so sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, there is a pret­ty good chance that this weapon could be aimed at me, too.”

Nafar, 42, has had a tumul­tuous career. Israeli politi­cians have nev­er missed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak out in the media about the mil­i­tant songs that he’s writ­ten or the provoca­tive state­ments he has made. In Sep­tem­ber 2016, then-Cul­ture Min­is­ter Miri Regev left the Ophir Prize cer­e­mo­ny (for out­stand­ing work in the local cin­e­ma indus­try) when Nafar got up to per­form a song that includ­ed vers­es by the well-known Pales­tin­ian poet Mah­moud Dar­wish. A month lat­er, Regev demand­ed that Haifa May­or Yona Yahav can­cel Nafar’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in his city’s film fes­ti­val. In 2018, a per­for­mance at Tel-Hai Aca­d­e­m­ic Col­lege in the north was can­celed after a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the nation­al stu­dent union spoke out against the “unpleas­ant fric­tion” the rapper’s con­tro­ver­sial polit­i­cal lyrics would cre­ate. On almost every occa­sion, Nafar pre­ferred not to respond in the media, rarely giv­ing interviews.

“I need­ed to calm down the ‘inter­nal storms’ with­in me before deal­ing with the exter­nal storms,” he says now. “All of those can­cel­la­tions of shows, all of the noise around me — it thrust me into a place of deep anx­i­ety. How does it help me if every­one is talk­ing about Tamer and peo­ple look up to me — if I don’t feel good myself? The sup­pres­sion of feel­ings weighed heav­i­ly on me. When I lose a good friend who is mur­dered, I am expect­ed to go on func­tion­ing, not to cry, and it piles up inside. As far as I am con­cerned, they sim­ply deprived me of my abil­i­ty to express feel­ings, to share things when I’m going through a tough time — the loss of my friends who were mur­dered, the crises I’ve expe­ri­enced in my fam­i­ly. My father died 12 years ago. There was no emo­tion­al expres­sion of the loss and sor­row I’ve been expe­ri­enc­ing. It’s for­bid­den to cry — that’s what I’d learned. I became a father myself at the exact time I lost my own father. That cre­at­ed con­fu­sion and it affect­ed my body.”

How was that expressed?

“I start­ed los­ing hear­ing in one of my ears. I got up on the stage at shows and couldn’t sing because I could not hear the music very well. That was the moment I real­ized that I was in a pre­car­i­ous state, that I was unsta­ble, and that there was noth­ing more impor­tant than the need to look deep inside and to get help for myself. Over the past 40 years I have lost friends with­out shed­ding a tear, I absorbed trau­ma on top of trau­ma. What I need­ed at that point was to sit down and talk, and so I went for psy­chother­a­py. In ther­a­py, I learned to accept the anger inside me, the per­son that I am.”

 

Taking a walk

Nafar is mar­ried to Sadee­ka, whom he calls Susu. They have two sons, ages 12 and 8, and a big dog named Samu­ra. Nafar met Sadee­ka in eighth grade. “We were in school togeth­er. It took her some time to notice me, but I always loved her,” he says.

The fam­i­ly lives a few neigh­bor­hoods away from the more vio­lent areas of Lod, he adds: “We moved here two years ago, after I real­ized that it had become impos­si­ble to go on liv­ing in my neigh­bor­hood. As soon as the guns and rifles found their way into the neigh­bor­hood, I knew we were fac­ing a dan­ger­ous situation.”

Rap­per Tamer Nafar says Israeli author­i­ties “ought to take a deep breath and count to 10 before say­ing that we Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel have no self-crit­i­cism.” (pho­to Ella Barak).

After mak­ing cof­fee for us, Nafar announces: “Come, I’m going to take you for a walk around my old neigh­bor­hood.” That part of Lod, called Ramat Eshkol, is known to be a hub of crime, vio­lence and drugs. At first glance one can’t help but see the dirt and neglect there. An unpaved road leads to the build­ing where Nafar lived with his fam­i­ly as a child. A woman wrapped in a hijab spots him and walks up to say hello.

“How is your son? Did he get out of prison yet?” he asks her. The woman smiles in embar­rass­ment. “No. He’s been in prison for 22 years, he has anoth­er eight to go and only then will he be released.”

After­ward, Nafar explains that “that woman was our neigh­bor. Her son was put in jail after he mur­dered his sis­ter. I remem­ber the day they arrest­ed him real­ly clearly.”

Nafar was recent­ly filmed as part of a pub­lic ser­vice cam­paign by the Author­i­ty for the Advance­ment of Women, aimed at encour­ag­ing female vic­tims of vio­lence to turn to aid cen­ters for help, but it did not turn out well: Last month Social Equal­i­ty Min­is­ter Meirav Cohen demand­ed that the clip be removed from the authority’s web­site in the wake of crit­i­cism by the reli­gious-Zion­ist Srugim orga­ni­za­tion and the Bet­salmo Jew­ish rights group. Their com­plaint: Nafar had in the past “encour­aged hate” and what they saw as “under­stand­ing” of those who car­ry out ter­ror­ist attacks against Jews.

“These are not polit­i­cal ad cam­paigns,” he stress­es. “I was ini­tial­ly approached by an NGO called Itach Ma’aki – Women Lawyers for Social Jus­tice, and we decid­ed that it would be okay to col­lab­o­rate with these [women’s rights] orga­ni­za­tions in order to pro­mote cam­paigns relat­ed to vio­lence in Israel’s Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ty. I don’t need a gov­ern­ment plat­form to pro­mote mes­sages against vio­lence, I do it in my songs. More­over, the financ­ing did not come from the Min­istry for Social Equal­i­ty. On its own, the min­istry decid­ed to share it on its Face­book account, and then removed it. That’s the whole story.”

How did you feel about Min­is­ter Cohen’s reaction?

“I did an ad cam­paign on the sub­ject of vio­lence against women and in favor of rais­ing aware­ness in my com­mu­ni­ty regard­ing the option to seek help — but even that they didn’t get. So what do you want? Should I say that I am in favor of vio­lence toward women? Would that make them hap­py? Now, after they’ve tak­en down my film clips, they ought to take a deep breath and count to 10 before say­ing that we Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel have no self-crit­i­cism. The gov­ern­ment min­istries are muz­zling us and even remov­ing cam­paigns, so they should not come to us with com­plaints. They shouldn’t say that we our­selves do not have crit­i­cism of cer­tain phe­nom­e­na in our society.”

Until now, the alle­ga­tions against you were that some of your songs incite against Israel, though in the clip against domes­tic vio­lence, the mes­sage was social and noth­ing more. What is being missed here, in your opinion?

“Because they want us not to have any iden­ti­ty. The biggest prob­lem in my com­mu­ni­ty is that we do not have a clear iden­ti­ty. Our iden­ti­ty has been slammed, pum­melled. That is what I say in the song ‘Go There’: ‘We used to have a his­to­ry. Now we have a past (a crim­i­nal record).’ Some­thing in the Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty with­in the bor­ders of Israel has crashed, has been delet­ed, and every­one who express­es his Pales­tini­an­ism in any form is per­ceived as being threatening.”

It seems like you enjoy irri­tat­ing the Israelis with provoca­tive statements.

“Good.”

What’s good?

“There are facts, and they exist. I’ve nev­er made racist remarks against any­one. And that’s what irks me — I bring up facts, I describe real­i­ty, and yes, it is dif­fi­cult, but this is real­i­ty and some Israelis have a ten­den­cy to dis­re­gard it. I am an artist and a rap­per. In the rap world, there are a few things that you need to be equipped with: You have to be sharp, you have to be based on the truth, and you have to use a punch line: to make stri­dent state­ments that real­ly sink in, that some­times arouse dis­com­fort. But that is the art of rap — it’s like a punch in the face. And that is some­thing that no one can take away from me. No one.”

Mean­ing?

“This is all some­thing I learned on my own, I didn’t get it from the Jews or from the Pales­tini­ans. I’m the same kid who bare­ly com­plet­ed the three min­i­mal units of Eng­lish on his matric­u­la­tion. I stud­ied dili­gent­ly night and day in a lit­tle room in our house, under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances: a fam­i­ly of six liv­ing in very crowd­ed con­di­tions, my father in a wheel­chair. For 30 years I sat in that house I showed you. Some­times there wasn’t elec­tric­i­ty, we had leaky walls and ceil­ings — and I learned what [the late Amer­i­can rap­per] Tupac Shakur had said. That is how I learned to cre­ate and to write songs. You can call it provo­ca­tion, I call it tal­ent that I acquired by my own devices, and no one can take that away from me. I came from a place that was all tears, but I still know how to smile and how to create.”

 

Hometown Tensions

Nafar’s home­town has had a star­ring role on the evening news for some time: The influx into Lod of the Garin Torani (lit­er­al­ly “Torah nucle­us,” part of a reli­gious- Zion­ist move­ment that takes root in under­de­vel­oped areas), with the encour­age­ment of right-wing gov­ern­ments, has sparked con­cern among vet­er­an Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents there that the day was com­ing when they would be expelled from their homes. Again. The ten­sion sim­mer­ing in Lod over the past few years erupt­ed in harsh and vio­lent riot­ing dur­ing Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last May. As one might expect, Nafar has a lot to say about the chances for coex­is­tence, for reach­ing some sort of under­stand­ing, with mem­bers of these local Jew­ish set­tle­ment groups.

Jew­ish-Pales­tin­ian coex­is­tence is like a man who beats his wife at home, but when they leave the house, they look like a per­fect couple.

Nafar: “If we were talk­ing about this hap­pen­ing in New York City, maybe it would be beau­ti­ful. Walk­ing from Chi­na­town into Lit­tle Italy and so forth — there real­ly is some­thing beau­ti­ful about it [coex­is­tence]. But them set­tling here is not meant to extend a hand toward peace. What it is is a firm dec­la­ra­tion that this land is theirs and they are the cho­sen peo­ple. The Garin Torani is a well-orga­nized group that forces itself on the state and even extorts it, and also takes steps toward car­ry­ing out eth­nic cleans­ing. They don’t even hide their belief that the lands belong to Jews and not to Pales­tini­ans. And if the Pales­tini­ans insist on being on these lands, then they will be sec­ond class. When they have back­ing from the state and from oth­er bod­ies around the world and it all sim­ply pass­es in silence — what do you want me to say about it?”

How did the riots of last May affect you?

“I am a human being and I have feel­ings, and I am also a father. Dur­ing the riots, I was very afraid for my chil­dren. It was not an ordi­nary fear, it was fear inter­twined with a sense of help­less­ness, that I had no way to pro­tect my fam­i­ly. Peo­ple were sur­prised at the inten­si­ty of the vio­lence, but I think it was all quite pre­dictable. The moment that the Jew­ish trou­ble­mak­ers arrived here on bus­es, with their short-bar­rel Uzi weapons, and even got back­ing from the police — that was when I felt I was in real dan­ger, and when I under­stood the mean­ing of pow­er. It has noth­ing to do with who is armed and who isn’t, but who is Jew­ish and who isn’t. I won’t for­get the moment I heard repeat­ed calls of ‘Death to the Arabs’ in the streets of the neighborhood.

“In the end, two peo­ple were killed in Lod, both of them inno­cent, Mous­sa Has­souna and Yigal Yehoshua, and it pained me to see that both of them were vic­tims who just end­ed up in this sit­u­a­tion. I fer­vent­ly hope that jus­tice will be done. But the state doesn’t real­ly come out strong against every mur­der — it depends who is the mur­der­er and who is the mur­der vic­tim. The inves­ti­ga­tion by the Shin Bet [secu­ri­ty ser­vice] and the police led to the arrests of the mur­der­ers of Yehoshua, and those who mur­dered Has­souna were released from deten­tion and are receiv­ing pro­tec­tion from the state. It pains me that the state is pro­tect­ing murderers.”

Did you ever think of leav­ing Lod?

“No. I still have things to do here, I have a lot more work to do. As I say in the song ‘John­nie Mashi’: “I lib­er­ate the city and I leave.’ My mis­sion is to sow hope among the young gen­er­a­tion. But gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, I am not priv­i­leged enough to leave Lod.”

After the riots in Lod, many Jews felt that it is impos­si­ble to rely on a shared exis­tence along­side Palestini­ans in the coun­try. What do you think of that claim? Is there any real­is­tic pos­si­bil­i­ty of this in the State of Israel?

“The coex­is­tence between Jews and Pales­tini­ans that we have now is like a man who beats his wife at home, but on the out­side, when they leave the house, they look like a per­fect cou­ple. Most of the peo­ple claim­ing that there was coex­is­tence in Lod are Jews — we, the Pales­tini­ans, were not say­ing it. Even with­in the coex­is­tence that the Jews chose to say does exist, we were not real­ly asked what we think. They sim­ply decid­ed that there is a shared exis­tence, but in actu­al fact it does not exist.

“I believe in co-resis­tance, and that is what we need: for the Jews to work togeth­er with the Pales­tini­ans so that Pales­tini­ans will be able to live with dig­ni­ty and receive the rights to which they are enti­tled. Coex­is­tence is a sit­u­a­tion in which two peo­ples exist. Right now, there is no ‘exis­tence of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple,’ with all the prob­lems in the West Bank, the siege in Gaza, the refugees, the prob­lems of Pales­tini­ans with­in Israel itself. So where exact­ly is the exis­tence? Some Israelis do not want coex­is­tence, they want to leave the sit­u­a­tion as it is, with­out any real solution.”

Is it pos­si­ble that Hamas also wants to con­tin­ue exploit­ing the frus­tra­tion of Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel in order to con­tin­ue fan­ning the flames here?

“I am not the Hamas spokesman. Why are you ask­ing me about Hamas? Your ques­tion is strange. I am express­ing the dis­tress of the young Pales­tin­ian gen­er­a­tion liv­ing in Israel, I do not belong to any move­ment. Let’s say that Hamas is play­ing a cheap polit­i­cal trick and is exploit­ing the frus­tra­tion of Pales­tini­ans with­in the bor­ders of Israel — that is, after all, stan­dard polit­i­cal prac­tice that’s evi­dent on a dai­ly basis, to fuel the fire out in the field, just as Bibi [for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu] did. Don’t for­get that Gaza is still under siege, and that the frus­tra­tion of the Pales­tini­ans there is extreme, in the same way that there are frus­trat­ed Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in Lod.”

There are those who claim you sup­port the boy­cott, sanc­tions and divest­ment move­ment. BDS is a move­ment that is essen­tial­ly opposed to the exis­tence of the State of Israel, and that is also prob­lem­at­ic for the Pales­tini­ans there. 

“I don’t want to say if I’m for or against BDS. There’s an argu­ment among the Pales­tini­ans in Israel on this issue, and the activists them­selves under­stand that it is a gray area. We live in Israel in a sit­u­a­tion of great con­fu­sion; it is com­plex. I myself have at times had crit­i­cism of BDS, and the reac­tion I got not long ago from one of their activists was, ‘When there are the Abra­ham Accords between the Gulf states and Israel, when the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty has been left with­out any influ­ence and when there is no Pales­tin­ian move­ment that oppos­es the occu­pa­tion in a non­vi­o­lent man­ner — then the only thing that is func­tion­al and involved in sig­nif­i­cant activ­i­ty against the occu­pa­tion is BDS.’”

But by its very essence, it is a prob­lem­at­ic move­ment. Artists in the Arab world are afraid to col­lab­o­rate with Pales­tini­ans in Israel for fear of being boy­cotted. The Jor­dan­ian singer Aziz Mara­ka per­formed in Kafr Yasif (a town near Acre, in the Gallilee), and was boy­cotted — and that is a Pales­tin­ian vil­lage. It’s not as if he per­formed in Tel Aviv.

“BDS mis­han­dles a lot of sit­u­a­tions. There are instances in which a boy­cott that I can­not jus­ti­fy is invoked. In the case of Aziz Mara­ka, I am one of the first who came out to defend him when he was crit­i­cized; also when he gave an inter­view to Haaretz, I defend­ed him. Some cor­rec­tions need to be made.”

 

Lesson from his father

To date, Nafar has put out three albums and he’s also com­posed the sound­track to “Junc­tion 48,” the 2016 movie direct­ed by Israeli-Amer­i­can film­mak­er Udi Aloni. Nafar, who also starred in the film, was award­ed the Ophir Prize for Best Orig­i­nal Music — along with Israeli Ita­mar Ziegler — and was nom­i­nat­ed for best actor. In July, he will be putting out a new EP, “In the Name of the Father, the Imam and John Lennon,” which will include five songs, all in English.

One track, “The Beat Nev­er Goes Off,” released six months ago as a sin­gle, describes the sit­u­a­tion in the Gaza Strip dur­ing the war last May; a young rap­per from Gaza called MC Abdul and Pales­tin­i­nan singer Noel Khar­man per­form it with Nafar.

“I was very hurt by it. I am used to per­for­mances being can­celed from the Israeli side, but this time it was my peo­ple, from Pales­tin­ian soci­ety, who called for it to be can­celed. It isn’t only Umm al-Fahm. I’ve had per­for­mances can­celed in Kab­ul (in the West­ern Galilee) and near Jerusalem, too. Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ments attacked me, claim­ing that my songs harm the dig­ni­ty of my community.”

Nafar sports tat­toos on both fore­arms. One is a line in Ara­bic, aimed at his late father: “Father, are there ampli­fiers up there?”

“I wish my father could hear my music,” he says, chok­ing up. “And this is a tat­too of my kids’ pic­tures, and this is a tat­too of my wife.”

In the song “Baadu Fi Ruah” (I still have spir­it), you say that even though you get punched in the face you still man­age to raise your head again.

“That’s who I am; that is some­thing I learned from my father. Life broke him time after time, but he had this dri­ve to keep on going, to keep his head up. He worked installing solar heaters at a time when there was not a great deal of under­stand­ing of work­ers’ rights. He car­ried the solar heaters on his back, and up the stairs of the build­ings, and because of that he had a crooked back.

“My father was illit­er­ate, and was also a haji (a Mus­lim who has made the pil­grim­age to Mec­ca). He would dri­ve me and the musi­cians to per­for­mances. After Fri­day prayers at the mosque, he would go off to nap and then in the evening he’d take me to per­for­mances in bars, where he would sit out­side and wait. He didn’t touch alco­hol. This is a man who could not be bro­ken, and from him I also learned not to be broken.”

 

Sheren Falah Saab’s inter­view with Tamer Nafar first appeared in Haaretz and is pub­lished here by spe­cial arrangement.