A Palestinian rapper and the music of hope
Think how strange it is to endure a childhood confined to a sliver within a city where you don’t know the language of those on the other side of a “separation barrier,” where you are a legal resident in a country whose symbols are not your symbols, where holidays are foreign, where posters of martyrs—often adolescents, sometimes your friend—are pasted along alleys and between heaps of garbage outside your home. You live in what is known as “the Holy City,” and “the city of the Lord of Hosts” (Psalms 48:8).
This childhood within Jerusalem exists in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, the only Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem or any other Israeli-administered area. Most residents have a blue ID card, permitting limited entry to Israel through a check point, but no citizenship, thus a vague legitimacy. Residents pay taxes to Israel even while their language is threatened. Currently, the Israeli government is proposing to revoke Arabic’s “official language status.”
For Shuafat’s youth, among the choices—if there are choices, given the seductive malignancies lurking all around—is to enlist in the blade intifada or “lone wolf” attacks using a knife or scissors to maim, even kill, and in exchange be killed or at least imprisoned. Or turn in a different direction: Perform rap music.
In a small room within the Palestinian Child Center in Shuafat Refugee Camp, a twenty-year-old aspiring rap artist sits before his tools: a modest computer equipped with digital audio software, and assorted recording equipment. “Outside, it’s a jungle,” says the young man, Mohammed Hamouda.
Hamouda the Rapper, his performance name, is matter-of-fact in describing his refugee camp childhood. “To survive means to fight. To be a violent kid is the culture. Even at six or seven you know you have to hit back. I would fight other kids, showing the street that I wasn’t afraid. You fight or be bullied.”
Walking in the camp offers scant evidence of where one might experience childhood. There is little space to run: There is an ever-present stench of sewage, detritus clogs alleyways snaking between crumbling building facades, damaged cars are stacked along narrow streets. A common street scene includes clusters of young men, their posture sunken, expressions sullen and resigned, yet also defiant.
The camp is unique, not for its warren of squalid structures and sense of nullity, but for its lack of definition. To many Israeli citizens, the Shuafat refugee camp is invisible. It is hidden behind a wall. To those aware of its existence, it is best ignored as a Palestinian enclave resistant to Israeli sovereignty, and as a menace to a unified Jerusalem.
The Shuafat Refugee camp was created in 1965 by Jordanian authorities and the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) to house refugee families from Jerusalem’s Old City. Within weeks following the 1967 war, Israel expanded the city’s municipal boundaries, resulting in the camp becoming part of Jerusalem. With Israel’s completion of the separation barrier in 2011, the camp found itself planted within the West Bank, severed though technically remaining within the city’s municipal footprint.
Since the Palestinian Authority has no role here, the camp exists in a governance vacuum. Without clear lines of authority, municipal services are neglected: Erratic access to clean water, frequent electrical outages, a malfunctioning sewage system, and irregular garbage collection contribute to an atmosphere of daily crisis. As a NGO official working in the camp noted, “what you see is a frenzy of mutual denial by anyone, everyone who has some responsibility for this.”
With special refugee status assigned by the United Nations, UNRWA struggles to provide rudimentary support for the burgeoning population. The camp nurtures anger and alienation, and has been the source of frequent attacks on Israeli border-control forces. Fueling a smoldering rage is the contempt youths feel not only for Israel, but the Palestinian Authority, viewed as a tool of the Israeli government for maintaining the status quo.
In May 2017, the Israeli Police Department opened its first post in the camp since 1967, whether to protect Israel or Shuafat is unclear, though the Jerusalem Police Chief, Yoram Halevy, claims the police station “will lead to strengthening mutual trust between police and residents.”
Even with a police post, after sunset lawlessness asserts itself.
Unsurprisingly, the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, considers the camp an incubator of anti-Israeli violence and those who target Israeli soldiers. The camp is a no-man’s land. It is considered an enemy by Israel, and used rhetorically by the Arab world to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Because there has been no official census, it is estimated that the refugee camp and surrounding neighborhood population is between sixty thousand and eighty thousand. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), over eighty percent of children live below what is considered the poverty line; fifty percent of the population is under eighteen; for men under twenty-four, unemployment climbs above thirty percent.
The director of the Palestinian Child Center, Khaled Al Sheikh, explains that the one safe playground with adult supervision in the refugee camp is within the confines of the Center, where there are also after-school academic classes and “peace education” activities supported by a German government organization, GIZ, and its Civil Peace Service (CPS) program, offering instruction in art, the traditional dance of dabkah, music, drama, and athletics, including “flag football” taught by a German social worker who loves the American sport.
Using the center’s Internet access, Hamouda the Rapper discovered hip-hop, particularly Ice Cube’s recording of “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It.” The rappers 50 Cent and Missy Elliot also became strong influences. “Even if I only understood a little of Ice Cube’s music, I knew it was me,” Hamouda says.
YouTube was his English instructor. At first attracted to the music’s driving rhythm, he studied rap language while withstanding outside pressures. Two brothers had been imprisoned, one for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, such a commonality that the “stones to prison choreography” is a rite of passage.
“I didn’t throw stones,” Hamouda says. “First of all, I can’t throw. Besides, throwing stones doesn’t make anything.”
Hamouda is large, American high-school football player large, and moves fluidly, having inherited from his father, a professional soccer player, an obvious athleticism. He can also be very still and silent and an attentive observer. When asked about his childhood, he weighs the question before responding. “Hell is traveling hours to sit across from your brother, thick glass separating you, speaking by prison phone. When you see your brothers and you can’t touch them, it’s a nightmare but you are awake.”
Beginning in the late 1990s, rap music took root in the Palestinian community. Several groups became popular, including DAM (meaning “lasting forever” in Arabic, and “blood” in Hebrew) from Lod, and G-Town from Shuafat. An identification with African-American urban ghetto culture inspired a new form of self-expression, challenging stereotypes, replacing for some the energy of stone-throwing for rapping.
“I want to find the right way to translate my pain
I hate terrorism and I love my religion
I feel like I’m living alone, not a human being
Because no one knows what’s going on in my refugee camp
I want you to live your childhood dream
And imagine yourself to be superman
And fly away with your dream
It doesn’t matter who failed before you
Believe and struggle to achieve your dream”
From “Alhaya Amal” (Life is Hope) by Mohammed Hamouda
“I loved to sing and wanted a piano even before rap,” says Hamouda. “My father bought a keyboard for me and I taught myself to play ‘Happy Birthday.’ There really wasn’t any place in Jerusalem for rap. I’d go home, read about it, work on my music, and then started performing.”
Taking workshop classes in rap music at the Child Center, introduced by CPS through Sawa Sawa, a Palestinian cultural organization, he soon performed at El Hakawati Theatre, the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem. Later he participated in a young-rapper project in Bethlehem. One of the members of G-Town heard Hamouda perform and became his teacher. Khaled Al Sheik, who once had a music studio, donated equipment for a recording space which soon became Hamouda’s proverbial second home. Hamouda is the main rap music teacher, with assistance from Khaled Sheikh Ali, who is also a musician. CPS and the Sawa Sawa program complement the rap music instruction, sponsoring workshops that includes visiting German rap artists and music producers.
Sitting in a restaurant in East Jerusalem, the young rapper is dressed like a kid you’d see at a suburban mall or Brooklyn café: flannel shirt, graphically busy t-shirt, ripped jeans, boots. An Israeli couple at a neighboring table hears the English language conversation and politely interrupts.
“Is it safe to go through the Damascus Gate?” they ask, referring to an Old City entrance and the site of a recent stabbing. Hamouda’s posture changes, his face an arena of deliberation. He turns, expressing a youthful kindness, yet something paternal as well.
“You’ll be safe. What’s the difference how you enter? Of course you can go.”
But he understands there’s a difference.
The youngest of nine children, Hamouda began to teach rap at the center when he was seventeen. “I had my eye on one kid who was about to get into trouble. I started with him. Now he’s the best.”
The center’s director explains that Hamouda is popular and effective because “He deals with the children on their level, the level of their thoughts, and he is dealing with them not as a teacher but as a friend.”
He teaches three times each week: two days for boys, one day for girls. “I explain to them that rap is hard,” Hamouda says. “It’s more than just dressing like me. I teach them about lyrics. I tell them, you are artists. Think about things, think differently, you are different from everyone else. Watch differently, see differently.”
“Me and my friend chill in the park
We fly through the air and we don’t see any haters
Life put us together, who can hear us
Even if life is tough we will stay together
I care about his issues and he cares about mine
Even if nobody understands us….”
From “Ishabi” (My Friend) by Nour, age thirteen
“The kids, at first, had violent lyrics in mind,” Hamouda says as he sits in the center’s music room. “I wanted to reduce the violence. We talk a lot about feelings. Over time, the songs began to have something different. They learn that violence doesn’t make things. Yes, violence is the culture. The kids know Facebook, they know the situation. They start to think in a crazy way. The violence creeps in.”
“No one asked me to teach,” Hamouda continues. “I asked myself. You see, I had a teacher, it was important, so I became a teacher. I started with an eleven-year-old. Others followed. We hang together. They perform outside of Shuafat. The kids mature and they have dreams. They want to create music, and now they have someone who can help them.”
The students, ages thirteen to sixteen, attend UNRWA schools, Palestinian public schools in a neighboring village, or East Jerusalem public schools, each school offering its own curriculum and historical narrative. More than a third of the Shuafat youths do not graduate high school. All of Hamouda’s students are in school, some having dropped out and returned. The schools offer no classes in art or music, “nothing creative,” according to Hamouda.
“I say to my students, what do you know about war?” Hamouda says. “Do you see war? Is that what you want? Go to school. There is a life, not just guns. I tell them there is not just red color everywhere like Syria. It’s all about your imagination, and colors. I don’t want to see just black and red, where everything then is destroyed and becomes gray. I want to see white, blue, green. I don’t tell the kids to change. They change themselves. I explain: we are artists. We are not political actors.”
“Believe in your dreams
Even if it’s just something simple
Get on the road
Even if it’s a long way
Keep the hope in your life
And then decide whatever you want.…”
From “Alhaya Amal” by Mohammed Hamouda
When he isn’t at the Children’s Center, Hamouda is a student at Sync, a college in Bethlehem, studying sound engineering, digital mixing, and acoustics. It is a world foreign to his family’s expectations, sometimes
literally so. “My father wasn’t happy with hip-hop. Of course not. Music in Islam is not easily accepted and there isn’t anything like hip-hop. Eventually he heard me perform and he said, ‘You’re good. I support you. Go.’”
“I know that we are all in danger. I am stronger teaching the children. They support me. They change. The kids start to see life with positive eyes even if we live in a refugee camp. Some of the kids already quit school, but now they started to study again. All of them want to keep doing music. That’s what is most important for me.
“You see me. For a Palestinian I am huge. And I wear cool clothing that I buy over in West Jerusalem, from the American Eagle store. Is that normal for a Palestinian? I don’t know. What am I? I am an artist.”
One young man working with a dozen boys and girls, transforming chaos into nascent self-definition, is not the scalable model that will heal the profound despair present in Shuafat’s alleys and the crevices of most every refugee camp and walled-in West Bank community.
Hamouda himself realizes this, but explains that rather than inhabiting a prison cell, there is a means for self-expression, taking what is budding existential rage, refining it into something other than hatred. A graffiti portrait on a wall facing the children’s center captures the maelstrom of passion within the refugee camp, fueled by fear, trauma, and a pervasive sense of futility. By studying urban ghetto rap the children are not just victims but participating in their own recovery, demonstrating a capacity for survival and hope, perhaps an act of redemption.
There is danger here. Expose children to aspiration and self-expression, respond to their thirst and nurture a sense of possibility, help them navigate between dignity and disgrace, and you are taking a great risk: If the children become enraged by a sense of confinement, if their creative outlet is ultimately cauterized by something ferocious that swallows that very sense of possibility, the dream might descend into nightmares.
Following a visit with Hamouda at the Child Center, I walk to an awaiting bus that will pass through the check point, returning to “my side” of Jerusalem. A few steps behind me are two children from the center. When I turn to look at them, they return my gaze, offering faint smiles, but not with an unbridled child’s innocence. Puzzled, when I enter the bus I ask my seatmate, who knows the camp and its residents, why the two children stared at me and offered faint smiles.
“They wanted you to be safe.” ♦