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DAM Explores the Unmapped in Their New Album "Dabke on the Moon"

[Crop of album artwork for [Crop of album artwork for "Dabke on the Moon"]

DAM’s latest album “Dabke on the Moon, released in November 2012, details the lives of prisoners of the occupation. This refers to both prisoners literally detained in Israeli jail cells as well as the millions of Palestinians who move – relatively – more freely, but are still held prisoner in the tight clench of Israeli apartheid. “Dabke on the Moon” is a reflection on Palestine amidst revolutionary change in the region. It pushes the boundaries of traditional hip-hop with a myriad of collaborations on the album that span a broad array of musical genres. The untraditional musical sounds also break social taboos not usually discussed in mainstream music.

The first single, "If I Could Go Back in Time," featuring Amal Murkus, has created an international buzz that has come close to deflecting attention from the other songs on the album. The music video is co-directed by Slingshot Hip Hop director Jacqueline Reem Salloum and DAM’s own Suhel Nafar. UN Women funded the video’s production. The song/video, detailing a young woman’s murder at the hands of her father and brother for attempting to flee an arranged marriage, has both been applauded and criticized. Some believe the song and the video confront domestic violence in a way that empowers Arabs and Muslims by reclaiming the gaze away from Western audiences. However, others have accused “If I Could Go Back in Time” of reinforcing stereotypes of Arab and Muslim men while extracting the violence from the broader context of domestic tensions afflicting Palestinian families forced to live under systematic oppression. Such circumstances limit access to income, health, education, and mobility, thereby shaping the narrative of gendered violence amongst Palestinian families in Israel and the West Bank.

DAM’s Tamer Nafar took time to speak to me about the overall message of hope, defiance and continued resistance featured on Dabke on the Moon. Nafar also responds to critiques of the first single, “If I Could Go Back in Time,” as well as the larger implications of gender equity in public space and music.

Christina Nesheiwat: DAM is known for politically conscious lyrics and you have explicitly rapped about inequalities between men and women before. What brought the group to write "If I Could Go Back in Time"?

Tamer Nafar: It keeps happening to girls we know. If we don't know the girl, we know the man who did it; it's a small city. It needs to be talked about. Now everyone is talking about the song, whether they like it or not and it is becoming a conversation. I’m glad it is out there. For DAM, we want to talk about injustice without giving a damn who is responsible for it.

CN: Were you worried that by talking about violence against women in a direct way, DAM would perpetuate the stereotype of Arab men or Muslim men (for example, a scene in the video where the Fatiha is recited) being "more violent" than “Western” men?

TN: We write for the victim and I don’t care how others use it, it’s not for them. When people criticize the song because they believe it reinforces negative stereotypes about us in the West, it’s like telling people in Tahrir Square, in the midst of the Arab Spring, don’t go out and protest, so that you aren’t strengthening the stereotype in the West that Arabs live under dictatorships. I want to build my society. I don’t care what other people think.

We were attacked in an article, saying that we are giving fuel to Western propaganda. The funny thing is we wrote the song in Arabic, in Palestine, and the ones criticizing us are sitting in America, writing in English, on an American website, in an American university. 

CN: Were you prepared for these reactions, or were they a surprise?

TN: Every song we write gets reactions, of course we expected it. We are getting amazing responses from young women; they have been stopping us in the streets saying "it’s about time." But a few academics want to focus on the idea of stereotypes.

CN: In the United States there have been instances of media and women’s rights organizations attempting to place “honor” crimes in a different category than domestic violence in an attempt to “other” communities of color. Do you consider what people call “honor” crimes to be a part of domestic violence?

TN: It is violence, murder in the first degree and it should be treated as any other murder. I don’t know who said women have to be responsible for upholding the entire family’s honor. Unfortunately it allows people to classify “honor” killings as a different type of murder.

CN: There is academic work that seeks to link higher percentages of violence against women with highly militarized societies. Do you feel there is a relationship between the Israeli occupation and violence against Palestinian women in their own homes, directly or indirectly?

TN: There is a huge connection, directly and indirectly, between violence and the occupation, especially as regards Arab-on-Arab violence. Lyd, where I live, is considered one of the biggest crime and drug markets in the Middle East. When Arabs [in Israel] get killed, cases are not even opened, no one investigates, and no one is arrested. It’s easier to pull a trigger on another Arab knowing nothing will happen to me. This is general, and it similarly impacts Arab women. Of course when there is occupation, there is poverty, when there is poverty, there is less education. Honor killings happened before the occupation, but the occupation is responsible for increasing the percentages.

CN: What do you think is your role as an artist in ending violence against women?

TN: As an artist, my role is to talk about it, do workshops, and do it with women, like Amal Murkus. If one out of five girls can follow Amal and sing, fight back and believe that some men do believe in change, this is important. I’d love to see more female emcees, like Shadia Mansour and Safa Hathoot, kickin’ it on stage. We worked on a project with Shadia in London and it was amazing to write, create, and perform together …it’s revolutionary to have two sexes doing that. We need more artistic Leila Khalids out there.

CN: Are there any other songs on the new album that address women specifically?

TN: There is a song on the new album called “Ulilo Bin Saffek” featuring an amazing singer, Mouna Hawa. Mouna is giving lessons at the beginning of the song, saying, “When you are talking to your boyfriend on the phone and your dad asks who you are talking to, tell him it’s another girl from class. Don’t think twice, lie.” The message is more or less provocative. When you live in a hypocritical society, it’s okay to lie, you have every right to lie

CN: Can you talk about how the collaboration with the UN Women came about in making the music video for “If I Could Go Back in Time”?

TN: When I wrote the song three and a half years ago, I prepared an offer and sent it to at least ten different organizations, Arab and non-Arab. The UN was the only one to respond. In fact, many organizations ditched their meetings with us. We wrote the song emotionally and we still needed facts and the right information from people who work in that field. When we wrote “Letter from a Prison Cell” we went to Addameer, a prisoner organization and met with them five or six times. The UN helped make the song/video be more realistic, not just provocative.

CN: Earlier you mentioned you do believe there is a relationship between the Israeli occupation and violence against women. Was there ever an intention of including that aspect in the song or video?

TN: The song talks about women who are being victimized by their brothers. After her brother kills her, if we showed him driving home and having to face a border we believe it would have been a very forced scene. It’s typical for a society to blame everything on the outsiders. I think I want to hold the full responsibility as a man and I want to believe I have the power to change it, regardless of the occupation.

CN: What are some other themes DAM wanted to shape on Dabke on the Moon?

TN: One of my favorite songs on the album is “Letter from a Prison Cell.” In terms of composition, it’s an amazing song because it wasn’t created in the traditional style of hip-hop. It is heavily influenced by the classical Arabic genre, featuring Trio Joubran and Bachar Khalifé. They both come from the non-hip hop world so it’s a unique collaboration.

The only song in English on the album is a love story mocking co-existence. They are trying to sell us a lot of co-existence. It’s a story about me getting stuck in an elevator with a beautiful girl and the song is called “Mama I Fell in Love with a Jew.” She is pressing the button for the upper floor and for me, as a Palestinian I can only go down. Yes, we are stuck together, but stop saying we are stuck together, because the occupation is fucking us up, not you.

And “Dabke on the Moon,” – is also the title of the album. It is one of the most optimistic and fun songs to perform; people cannot stop dancing to it.  It documents what we felt when we witnessed the Arab Spring: we are trying to fly a spaceship, but it doesn’t fly because it is overweight. So we have to throw out all the leaders and dictatorships. As soon as we throw them over we can fly and reach the moon and dabke. The title is more creative than the usual. We are used to titles like “Palestine Forever” or “The Right of Return.”

I watched a National Geographic documentary about some sort of new experiment NASA was doing on the moon and the same day I read an article about the tunnels in Gaza and it didn’t feel good. They are reaching to the moon and we are digging tunnels. They are responsible for that because if the US didn’t sponsor Israel, then Israel would not have money to build walls and put Gaza under siege, and maybe we would have the chance to reach the moon instead of digging tunnels. So we fantasized about it and suddenly the Arab Spring came and we said "fuck it," we can change things, and we want go to the moon. Armstrong went to the moon and he put up the flag. We don’t really like flags and patriotism… we are artists, so we decided to go to the moon and dabke.

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