Sunaina Maira, Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement. Washington, DC: Tadween Publishing, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sunaina Maira (SM): I wrote this book because I was deeply moved, in the first instance, by the hip hop coming out of Palestine and by the searing critique of settler colonial dispossession and racial violence in the songs of rappers such as DAM. Listening to the music coming out of Lid, Acca, and, increasingly, Ramallah, Dheisheh camp, and other places across Palestine underscored for me the ways in which young Palestinians were using a global cultural idiom and recreating hip hop as the poetics of Palestinian protest. The second major source of inspiration for the book was the youth movement that erupted across Palestine in spring 2011 during the Arab uprisings. I was in Ramallah at the time and witnessed the unfolding protests by youth demanding an end to the political status quo and challenging the factionalism of party-based politics in the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel. The more dramatic protest camps and revolutionary movements next door largely overshadowed their encampments in solidarity with the Arab revolts and Palestinian prisoners. But the struggle against colonial occupation and internal repression and collusion is an immensely difficult one to wage. It became clear to me after talking to these young activists, and to Palestinian rappers, that their protests and cultural production expressed a call for an alternative political language at a moment when it seemed that political vocabularies had been exhausted and when political skepticism and fatigue has been pervasive in Palestine. What does it mean to “do” politics when politics is itself suspect? What is the space of resistance within the ongoing violence of “peace?” What is the sound of refusal of complicity with “normalization?”
A song from Ramallah Underground, “Min El Kaheff” (From the Cave), eloquently captures the paradox facing Palestinian youth haunted by the sense of political betrayal in the wake of the Oslo Accords:
And Arab leaders let us down
Abandoned us, fled to our enemies
Because they couldn’t infect us with their cowardice
They promised the future and look what they got us into
2007: the world’s moving ahead and they blow us up,
Starve us, they wanna forget us
We spent years building and they came suddenly led us on,
Threatened and frightened us
Poisoned us with democracy
Wouldn’t let us have a normal life
They set us right on line of fire, they ruined us, destroyed us, dried up our blood
All that and still they couldn’t finish the job
I am trying not to care anymore, but politics pulls at me
I say, leave me alone
She says, I am part of your life
You won’t be able to resist me.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
SM: This book focuses on Palestinian hip hop as an expression of the social and political identities of a new generation of Palestinian youth in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and in Israel. Based on ethnographic research, it explores how hip hop and activism by Palestinian youth are rethinking “politics” in this generation and challenging Israeli settler colonial policies as well as the national leadership’s adoption of the Oslo framework. Through ethnographic research, I explore how Palestinian hip hop has lent itself to the politicization of a new generation of youth and the formation of an alternative public sphere and what it represents to young Palestinians, both within and outside of the hip hop subculture. The book examines the emergence of Palestinian hip hop artists and young activists on the public stage, the ways they transformed that arena, and the sentiments of inspiration, consternation, excitement, disapproval, and solidarity they have evoked.
One of the major political interventions of the youth movement is the call for a unified national identity linking the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Palestinians within the 1948 borders of Palestine (“1948 or ’48 Palestinians”). This is not a new political narrative but it is significant because it challenges the Oslo paradigm that fragmented the nation by situating what could be Palestine only in the West Bank and Gaza and deferring the status of Jerusalem, within the degraded terms of sovereignty supplied by Israel. Parallel to this critique, Palestinian hip hop has helped (re)connect geographically dispersed groups of Palestinian youth and offered a medium for reimagining the political itself. At the same time, I found that there are complex debates about national identity and cultural authenticity that surfaced in my discussions of Palestinian hip hop with young people. Some Palestinian youth questioned whether “Palestinian” and “hip hop” could even go together while in other cases Palestinian hip hop has been included as representative of Palestinian national culture at major cultural events. I argue that these debates are indicative of deeper tensions intertwined with gendered and national politics that Palestinian youth grapple with in the context of cultural and economic shifts in the post-Olso moment.
Both Palestinian hip hop culture, including graffiti, and the youth movement are significant because they re-politicize public culture and public space in the context of the retreat from mass mobilization since the intifadas and after Oslo. Young activists and artists confront repression and surveillance by Israeli as well as Palestinian authorities, challenging the PA’s sometimes violent crackdown on political protests and the ongoing repression of the colonial regime, including surveillance and censorship of Palestinian student activism in Israeli universities. Palestinian youth engage in a form of counter-surveillance, creating through music and visual culture a counter-archive of public memory that critiques the new “normal” politics of neoliberalism and consumption that has transformed urban life, particularly in the bubble of Ramallah. The book draws on literature from Palestine studies, feminist studies, and youth studies, addressing the gaps between them and areas in which these fields have not always spoken to one another.
J: Why is this particular moment in Palestinian youth culture important, and how is it different from previous manifestations of youth culture in Palestine?
SM: The generation of Palestinian youth that came of age after the Oslo Accords of 1993, what I call here jil Oslo (the Oslo generation), has been shaped by three significant political conjunctures: one, the decline of grassroots political movements and rise of NGO-based politics in the contradictory context of a Palestinian state without sovereignty, as well as the ongoing colonial predicament of Palestinians within Israel; two, the restructuring of Israeli military control and the disconnection among Palestinians created by the settlements and the wall, an encircled and increasingly peripheralized Jerusalem, and a besieged and blockaded Gaza; and three, the sense of national crisis laced by the disappointment in established political parties and the politics of normalization and neoliberalism.
While popular culture has always been an important site of national politics and cultural resistance in Palestine, post-Oslo youth culture emerges from a context of increased commodification and NGOization of public culture, on the one hand, and increased unemployment and debt co-existing with the imaginings of neoliberal democracy and individualized cultural consumption, on the other. In this context, “youth” is a category that is fraught with anxieties about conformity and co-optation, as well as hopes for radical change and revolutionary potential. Across national sites and historical moments, the imaginary of youth is one invested with these competing expectations and fears that are often reflective of larger political shifts and social concerns. This post-Oslo youth culture, that includes hip hop and the youth movement—but is not restricted only to these sites—grapples with these contradictions in ways that have not been taken seriously in the literature thus far, but which pose important questions about the kind of life that might exist other than that imposed by imperial, capitalist modernity. The book does not claim to answer all these questions, but it is the beginning of a conversation that centers the experiences and critiques of youth.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
SM: This book builds on my earlier research on Palestinian and Palestinian/Arab American hip hop as well as diasporic South Asian youth culture. It connects to issues I explored in my first book, Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, which focused on second-generation youth and negotiations of national authenticity and gendered and sexual politics in music and dance, including in desi (South Asian) hip hop. Interestingly, the ambivalence about hybrid forms of cultural expression as inauthentic and the anxieties about female behavior associated with these new subcultures as impure resonated with debates among young people about Palestinian hip hop, suggesting the deeper anxieties about border cultures as zones of moral ambiguity and about national identities facing the threat of erasure or presumed to be under threat.
My last book, Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11, was concerned with the ways in which Muslim immigrant youth in the United States understood national belonging in the War on Terror and their everyday experiences of the imperial state. Thus it was also a study of the nuanced forms of politics expressed by young people for whom formal politics is not always possible, desirable, or effective. Jil Oslo also extends the research I have been doing on hip hop produced by Arab and Palestinian youth in the diaspora and more recently on ’48 Palestinian youth. I coauthored an article with Magid Shihade on ’48 Palestinian hip hop and the notion of the present/absent as an analytic for the political subjecthood of young people from communities viewed as liminal, hence supposedly inauthentic, or already colonized, hence presumably disloyal, but whose resistance confronts the settler colonial logic of annihilation in daily life and through popular culture.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SM: I really hope a broad audience will read this book, as it was intended not just for an academic audience. It will speak to those interested in youth, Palestine, hip hop, youth subcultures, popular culture, political movements, gender, militarism, surveillance, and decoloniality. I would really like to inject a serious engagement with youth culture into Palestine studies, so that these issues can be linked to the exciting and important work that already exists on the politics of nation, gender, and resistance movements in Palestine. I think the questions of youth and resistance have a global purchase, and there are many ways in which these issues loom large around the world in the wake of Occupy and the Arab uprisings. As the discourse about Palestine expands in the U.S. academy and mainstream media, my hope is also that this book could contribute to a more critical discussion of representations of Palestine that could enter fields in which it has hitherto been marginalized or suppressed.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SM: My current book project is an ethnographic study of Arab, South Asian, and Afghan American youth activism in the Silicon Valley area of California and the turn to civil rights and human rights in post-9/11 activism. It discusses the cross-ethnic alliances and transnational politics that have emerged among college-age youth and their engagement with antiwar and global solidarity movements as well as resistance to Islamophobia and racial violence. The book is in part an examination of the failure of human rights discourse in the case of Palestine solidarity activism and the repression and surveillance experienced by young people who are the objects of the counterterrorism regime. Thus it is very much part of the transnational research I have been doing for the past few years linking Ramallah and Haifa to Oakland and San Jose.
In addition, I have a co-edited book that is coming out in the spring, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (University of Minnesota Press) that looks at these questions from the other side, to speak, from within the U.S. academy. It links the policing of knowledge within the U.S. university to the broader politics of imperialism, militarism, racism, and neoliberalism that underlie debates about academic dissent that generally center only on academic freedom. The volume includes writings by scholars who have been themselves targeted for their criticism of U.S. foreign policy or of Israel and of others who dissect the gendered and racial politics of academic repression and the longer histories of academic containment.
Excerpt from Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement
From Chapter One
One of the most striking, and persistent, observations made by the young people I spoke to, students as well as artists and activists, was that their generation of Palestinian youth wanted an alternative politics and that the pursuit of new cultural forms overlapped with their search for a new politics in the post-Oslo era. Basel said, “We were trying to give voice to an alternative art scene in Palestine, an alternative voice in Palestine that was trying to say something different and to find a different language.” Young artists and activists of jil Oslo were thus engaged in this quest that drew on or revived, in many cases, earlier frameworks of Palestinian resistance or discourses of national identity while (re)creating new cultural idioms or political vocabularies. Yasmine, a young activist from al-Bireh, said eloquently that the independent youth movement’s “aims were to go back to resistance and resuscitate the Palestinian struggle as a national movement,” in the post-Oslo context of general depoliticization and demobilization. As Ahmed, a young activist from Ramallah, astutely observed, “Popular culture plays a massive part in building the national narrative, especially when there’s a problem with that narrative.”
This quest for a new narrative or alternative politics is situated in the post-Oslo moment which heightened for Palestinians, including youth, the contradictions of living in a state without sovereignty, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in an increasingly Judaized East Jerusalem. The youth of jil Oslo, particularly those who are in their late teens to mid-twenties today and were born just before or after the Oslo Accords of 1993, have come of age in a very different political reality than the previous generation. The supposed political withdrawal or apathy of youth has to be understood in a historical context in which youth are not represented in the “leadership and decision-making” of the Palestinian national movement, according to commentators such as Samir Seif. However, as Seif adds, young people were “widely engaged in the organization and leadership of the [first] intifada, its striking forces, its popular committees,” and “young people served in the unified leadership of the intifada.” The young people that I spoke to were also old enough to remember the second intifada, and to have been deeply affected by those memories of occupation, invasion, and resistance. Feryal, a young woman who was from Nablus and remembers living through the months of curfew, said that it was the “traumatizing experience” of the second intifada that motivated her political activism as it did for others to whom I spoke.
Fajr Harb, a young activist from Ramallah who is well known in the youth movement, observed thoughtfully:
To understand Palestinian youth today, you have to understand the previous generation’s politics and Oslo. During the first intifada, the enemy was in the streets. It was very clear who we had to fight. After Oslo, things changed and the Palestinian cause changed. The purpose of Oslo was to divide the West Bank from Gaza from Jerusalem—the purpose was to divide Palestine.
As the lines of national struggle became less clear after Oslo, Palestinians were also increasingly disconnected and divided from one another in the bantustans created by Israel’s fragmentation of the West Bank, using the Wall and the settlements; in an encircled and increasingly peripheralized Jerusalem; and in a besieged and blockaded Gaza. In fact, many commentators observe that it is the Oslo agreements that gave “birth [to] what Jeff Halper has called Israel’s ‘matrix of control’” in Palestinian areas with the construction and expansion of the Wall, settlements, bypass roads, and checkpoints. The colonial state apparatus generated ambiguous legal categories and forms of identity documentation for the colonized population and territories—differentiating between peoples and geographic spaces, for example, in Israel, East/West Jerusalem, Gaza, and West Bank Areas A, B, C. This is what Ann Stoler describes as the inherent blurring of rights and “epistemic murk” constitutive of the architecture of settler colonial states, an ambiguity that is core to imperial biopolitics and its construction of proliferating territorial and identity designations.
The ambiguity of legal identities and the profusion of spatial categorizations has also generated hierarchies among Palestinians based on associated distinctions about who can live where, who can marry whom, or who can travel across which borders. For example, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian addresses the divisions within families in East Jerusalem, some of whose members have Jerusalem identity cards (“blue IDs”) and some of whom have the more restrictive West Bank identification; the fear and anxiety created by living in conditions of “illegality” in Jerusalem; and the ways that this has broken down social and family relations. I heard stories of young people who were interested in a romantic relationship with someone who had a different identity category and chose not to pursue it because it would mean that they may not be able to live together due to Israeli laws regulating residence for Palestinians. One young woman interviewed by Shalhoub-Kevorkian offered an eloquent statement that captured the nature of colonial rule that permeates spaces of intimacy: “Their borders are in our homes, lives, bodies, and relationships.” Young activists from the West Bank and also 1948 Palestine have engaged in creative campaigns to challenge these Israeli laws that regulate residence, romance, and family life, as in the mock “weddings” near the Wall staged by the campaign “Love in the Time of Apartheid” in 2013. Settler colonial rule permeates the most intimate of spaces, reshaping relationships of kinship, desire, marriage, and sociability, which is why it has been described as a form of sociocide in Palestine, a destruction of social relationships and the fabric of society and an assault on the social itself.
Parallel to the colonial partitioning of national space and management of bodies and affective lives, there has been a de-politicization in the post-Oslo moment, not just of youth but also of Palestinian society in general. This is the social and political context in which jil Oslo has come of age. Relative to the mass movements and intense mobilization during the first and second intifadas, there has been a demobilization of Palestinians who are still living under conditions of occupation, if in a different phase of colonial governmentality. Ruanne said incisively that, for Palestinian youth in the 1990s, “It was a moment when the revolutionary movement was, in a sense, dissolving after Oslo. I think probably young Palestinians started looking for something else to articulate their experiences, for they were still experiencing the full force of the racist state.” By the time the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, according to George Giacaman, “most parties, including those on the left, were quickly losing whatever mass base” they had during the first intifada.” There was a decline in the hitherto energetic grassroots involvement of student groups, women’s organizations, and popular committees throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo Accords introduced a new paradigm for Palestinian politics but also precipitated a “crisis” for the Palestinian national movement, marked by “loss of a clear cause, lack of hope, and perception of the end of the national project.”
The youth of jil Oslo, then, have two major points of departure for their search for an alternative to existing political frameworks. First, youth in the West Bank and Gaza have experienced a restructuring of Israeli military control given that “the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip and the removal of many of the internal checkpoints in the West Bank have created fewer arenas for direct confrontation with the Israeli enemy . . . . interest in traditional youth activism has dwindled and there are fewer sites of direct clashes.” As Ruanne observed, the fragile semblance of “peace” and the relative loosening of restrictions on movement and easing of checkpoints also led to fewer militarized encounters with Israelis that created a schizophrenic reality for this generation: “There is a classic colonial context of double consciousness. The more people here do not interact with Israelis as a colonial force, the more removed they are from that reality.” Feryal said that what was “most depressing” after Oslo was that so little had changed and that “people lose track of why we did this [resistance during the intifadas] in the first place.” The politics of normalization, or what Taraki calls the “new normal politics” of this period, was marked by a “deradicalized politics of normality” and a “new individualistic ethos” that distanced itself from collective struggle.
The contradictory reality of this new phase of colonization is marked by the fact that the Palestinian Authority did not have full sovereignty after Oslo but became the subcontractor for the occupation, in a sense, managing security and repressing dissent through its own internal military and intelligence apparatus. Ramzy Baroud observes of the crisis in Palestinian politics since the concessions made in the Oslo agreements:
. . . for a Palestinian leadership to be acknowledged as such by regional and international players, it has to excel in the art of “compromise”. These carefully molded leaders often cater to the interests of their Arab and Western benefactors, at the expense of their own people. Not one single popular faction has resolutely escaped this seeming generalization. . . . This reality has permeated Palestinian politics for decades. However, in the last two decades the distance between the Palestinian leadership and the people has grown by a once unimaginable distance, where the Palestinian has become a jailor and a peddling politician or a security coordinator working hand in hand with Israel.
Echoing this view, Hafez was critical of the PA’s willingness to comply with externally imposed frameworks and “demands of self-governance” and the “discourse of countering terrorism, according to Western agendas.” Hafez, and many other young (as well as older) activists with whom I spoke, view the PA as a “comprador regime serving Western interests” that has undermined genuine grassroots or mass-based collective resistance.
[Excerpted from Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement, by Sunaina Maira, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 Tadween Publishing. For more information, or to order a copy of the book, click here.]