Meet the Palestinian hip-hop artist at the center of Israel's culture wars

Tamer Nafar fell in love with hip-hop growing up amid the faded public housing blocks and garbage strewn public parks of Ramat Eshkol, a hardscrabble interethnic neighborhood in the central Israeli city of Lod where life was punctuated by daily spurts of gunfire. 

At a soccer field near the building where his family lived, drug dealers would stash weapons and warn kids to stay away. At school, his classroom had 45 students, no air conditioner, and a leaky roof. Just a five-minute walk from his home, an upstairs neighbor was shot and killed in a gang hit that left multiple people injured. It took the police nearly an hour to arrive.

“Just a month before, a Jewish guy was stabbed and they had a helicopter in the air within 10 minutes,’’ he said. “I found myself feeling [angry] about the police. At 18, my friends started dying.’’

Against this backdrop, Nafar found solace in the lyrics of African American rappers like Public Enemy and Biggie Smalls, learning English and absorbing their social commentary as he listened.  

Nafar and his friends would devour hip-hop videos. Scenes depicting confrontations between police and African American youths reminded them of Lod. “They would say, wow, they are talking about us,’’ he said. “That’s exactly what happened yesterday.”  

The audio samples in Tupac Shakur’s “White Man’z World” introduced Nafar to Malcolm X and Spike Lee.

“I found Palestinian heroes through African American ones,” Nafar said. The nationalism of the Black Panthers, he said, prompted him to learn about the Palestine Liberation Organization; the verse of Maya Angelou led him to Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. “I had to go West so I could find my Eastern identity.”  

As he grew older, he said, socially conscious hip-hop inspired him to write provocative protest rhymes in Arabic with his rap trio, DAM. When a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv club prompted international outrage over Palestinian terrorism, Nafar and DAM threw the accusation back at Israel with the lyrics, “Who is the terrorist/ You are a terrorist/ You have taken everything I own in my land.’’  

Now, Nafar’s youth and early years as a rapper have become the basis for a semiautobiographical movie, “Junction 48” -- and he has become a cultural lightning rod, angering Israel’s right and left.

Through a coming-of-age romance between two young musicians, the film depicts the struggles of a new generation of Palestinian Israelis who find themselves caught between two worlds, citizens of a country that is in constant existential tension with its Palestinian compatriots.

The movie, which opens in the U.S. in March, follows the story of Kareem, an Arab Israeli with dreams of making it big. It shows Kareem trying to break into the Tel Aviv hip-hop scene, befriending rappers whose rhymes glorify the Israeli army and performing in Arabic for a Jewish audience.   

Like Nafar, Kareem is from Lod, a biblical-era town about 15 miles southeast of Tel Aviv that lies a bit closer to some of the Palestinian villages in the West Bank. It is one of the few mixed cities in Israel: Arabs make up 29% of the city’s population while they account for one-fifth of the national population.

As Kareem navigates the obstacles of Israel’s music scene, there are also problems for him back home. His friends are involved in drug trafficking. His girlfriend’s cousins have forbidden her to date. After the 1948-era home of a friend is destroyed by a government bulldozer, Kareem sets up a stage amid the rubble and raps an ode to “the land of my ancestors.” 

Each situation poses existential questions. “Kareem is at a junction -- a crossroads. ‘Do I go with my girlfriend [in public], or not?’ Am I Palestinian? Or do I sing at an Israeli club?’’ Nafar said. “This whole junction and confusion started in 1948.”

On the eve of Israel's war of independence, Lod was an Arab village on the railway to Jerusalem. The British authorities built an international airport in Lod that serves the country today. Amid fighting there, the Israeli army killed hundreds of Arab civilians in the town and expelled tens of thousands more -- part of a larger trauma of Arab displacement accompanying Israel’s birth that Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or disaster.

Kareem’s struggles -- to balance to his career ambitions in Israel with loyalty to his Palestinian heritage, and to reconcile modernity with traditionalist customs -- reflect the political and cultural crosscurrents faced by the Palestinians who remained inside Israel after 1948.

Nafar’s grandfather, who left an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa after it was destroyed by Jewish forces, settled in Lod after the war. His father bought an apartment in Ramat Eshkol, originally built for Jewish immigrants who moved out as the neighborhood gradually fell into disrepair and crime rose. 

Director Udi Aloni, 57, the son of a noted left-wing Israeli Jewish leader and a longtime friend of Nafar’s, encouraged him to write about Lod. Aloni said that Nafar’s story represents the experience of young Arab Israelis living between worlds. “He connects me the to the reality of the third generation of kids from the Nakba who speak Hebrew and Arabic perfectly, and move back and forth easily between the two.’’  

Though told through a Palestinian lens, “Junction 48” did not stir much controversy after it premiered in Israel. Ticket sales in the tens of thousands were modest, and it didn’t draw much of a Jewish audience. 

In August, however, Nafar attracted controversy when he accused the Israeli Academy of Film and Video judges of passing over “Junction 48” for its top movie awards because the film presented a distinctly Palestinian narrative. He criticized the academy for having no Arabs among the nearly 1,000 voters. The academy chairman at the time denied the charges of discrimination in selecting its judges.

The rapper said that while Israel’s predominantly left-wing cultural elites want to be politically correct by embracing Arab citizens, they still can’t come to grips with a Palestinian rendering of their conflict.

“Anything that had to do with the story itself, they iced me,’’ he said. “That’s how the Israeli left-wing rolls: ‘We like your talent, but keep your Palestinian narrative outside.’’’

Then, at the film awards ceremony, Miri Regev, Israel’s right-wing culture minister, left the auditorium in protest during a performance by Nafar because it featured a recitation of passages penned by Darwish. Regev later unsuccessfully tried to have Nafar’s concert at a festival canceled, alleging in a letter that “Nafar elects at every opportunity and on every stage to come out against the idea of the state of Israel and its existence as the state of the Jewish people.”

Nafar says the attacks by Regev reflect an effort by Israel’s government to censor art.

“I was educated in an Arab Israeli school. I was denied Mahmoud Darwish before I was 20,’’ he said. “All they told us is that they saved the country. Nobody told us that they kicked out my grandfather. This whole piece is missing.’’

“Junction 48” also takes a swipe at traditionalism, showing Kareem’s girlfriend under pressure from male relatives not to be seen with him in public or perform together.

“There is very strong self-criticism,’’ he said. “The good guy in our movie is Palestinian and the bad guy in our movie is a Palestinian.’’

Nafar has come out against honor killings in Lod, and he once was threatened by local hard-liners for performing with a woman.

Despite Nafar’s pointed criticism of the Israeli majority, his status as a rapper limits his popularity among Arabs in Israel, said one journalist.

“Cultural figures are important, but they don’t sway the masses,’’ said Jackie Khoury, the news director of the Arabic radio station A Shams. “If you walk on the streets of Nazareth and talk to people, [anyone] over 40 wouldn’t recognize him.”

Nafar said Palestinian audiences of the film in the West Bank were surprised at its portrayal of mundane, normalized interaction between Jews and Arabs. And for all Nafar’s biting criticism of the Israeli establishment and his bleak outlook on Israeli-Arab relations, he still sees potential for something better. Lod, despite the poverty, crime and nationalist tension, could be a cosmopolitan place if relations between its ethnic groups improved, he said.

The collaboration in “Junction 48,” he said, could be a vehicle for reconciliation. “Our movie is a solution,’’ he said. “The solution is when the strong side, the privileged side, will be part of the story-telling of the oppressed side…. When Jews and Palestinians work together to tell the story of the oppressed, that’s where hope comes.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @joshmitnick

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