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’
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.