A Palestinian pop singer faces threats to make music with a message: NPR



DANIEL ESTRIN, Host:

I’m usually in the Middle East as NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent, where there’s always a deluge of news, like today, with the Israeli military launching deadly airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants there firing rockets. This endless news about conflicts in the region ends up overshadowing many other important stories from there, including those about the undercurrents in the Middle East that are challenging and changing society, so I want to take this time to present you with a pop singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ANTENNE (FT. TAMER NAFAR)”)

BASHAR MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: This is Bashar Murad. He’s Palestinian – like a Palestinian Lady Gaga. He breaks taboos and has paid a price for it. This summer, his concerts in the Palestinian city of Ramallah were threatened and canceled. He will speak for the first time in detail about what happened shortly. First, let me take you inside the music studio in East Jerusalem where he grew up as a musician. He recently gave me a tour.

MURAD: This is the recording studio, the two rooms.

ESTRIN: Wow. This is huge.

MOURAND: Yes. So this…

ESTRIN: And look – piano. Really nice place.

MURAD: Many of the most famous Palestinian musicians and artists have recorded here. Yes, and so many memories here – I mean, I grew up in this place. And then, I started recording my music here and writing. And it was a place where I found a lot of inspiration and developed into the character that I am.

ESTRIN: His dad is also a musician and founded a famous band in the 80s called Sabreen that pushed Palestinian music outside the boundaries of traditional folk music into a mix of East and West.

Can you tell me about this poster?

MURAD: So this is the poster for Sabreen’s second album, called “Jayy Al Hamam,” which means “The Pigeons Are Coming.”

ESTRIN: “Here are the pigeons.”

MURAT: “Here are the pigeons.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG “THE PIGEONS ARE COMING”)

SABREEN: (Singing in a non-English language).

MURAD: It came out – around the time of the Oslo Accords.

ESTRIN: The Israelis and the Palestinians were negotiating peace and there was hope.

MURAD: Hence the title of the album. They thought, you know, this would be the beginning of peace and that the bright future is about to begin. And…

ESTRIN: And then…

MURAD: And then the album after the name “Ala Fein”, which means “Where?” And it was like…

ESTRIN: Where are we going?

MURAT: …We didn’t get the pigeons, but where are we going?

ESTRIN: Last weekend when I visited the studio, they were packing up after about 20 years, looking for a more affordable space.

MURAD: Many Palestinian cultural organizations in East Jerusalem have suffered due to lack of funding.

ESTRIN: Which is political – Israel severely restricts the Palestinian Authority from funding open cultural institutions in East Jerusalem because Israel claims it as part of its capital. And Palestinian cultural institutions do not want to accept Israeli funding because they oppose the Israeli military occupation that exercises control over the lives of Palestinians. These are just some of the complexities that Bashar Murad grew up with and you can hear it in his music. When we spoke earlier this week, he started by telling me about his song “Ana Zalameh” – “I’m A Man”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ANA ZALAMEH”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

Each of my songs deals with a specific theme that I have experienced growing up. And so in “Ana Zalameh,” I chose to critique the idea of ​​toxic masculinity and how, you know, growing up, I always heard that a boy should act like that and girls should act like that. They would tell me that, no, you can’t do that. This is for girls. Or when I was walking to school, and I was singing, and then some random kid would come up to me, and say, why are you singing like a girl?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ANA ZALAMEH”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

The verse says, (speaking Arabic). So he says, I come and go as I please, and no one asks you where I am going? And then I go out, but my sister is not, it’s a shame. Do not blame me. I blame those who taught me this. Well, blame those who were before me. And it’s about how we are, we keep recycling the same toxic ideas and passing them on to the next generations.

ESTRIN: I want to ask you about another song, “Maskhara,” the title track of your most recent EP.

Murad: Yes.

ESTRIN: There’s a line in Arabic. You sing in Arabic. And the line translates to, my fate is out of my hands. No one understands my lifestyle. What are you talking about in this song?

MURAD: So this song – “Maskhara” means mockery. And basically, it came about as a combination of like, all the different kinds of pressures that I talked about that we’re experiencing. But it kind of came out all in one song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MASKARA”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

And it’s about the feeling of not feeling like you belong anywhere. And so, you know, you’re – you’re going to fight for Palestine, and then people are going to tell you that Palestine doesn’t exist. There are no Palestinians. And then, in your own community, you will fight against conservative norms, but you will carry the message of Palestine with you. And so this song was about how harsh and cruel this reality is that it makes people just want to escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MASKARA”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Are you the only openly gay Palestinian singer performing today? It’s correct?

MURAD: I mean, probably. I mean, I’m the one who, I guess, talked about it the most and wasn’t afraid to bring it up with him – in my interviews and on stage. I’m sure there are others, but maybe they’re not like, completely out or – so I can’t really – I don’t want to be like I’m claiming that title, but I’m pretty sure I am.

ESTRIN: Well, let’s talk about what happened this June. You were scheduled to perform at a Palestinian cultural event in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Murad: Yes.

ESTRIN: And a bunch of kids – you call them thugs – showed up and threatened your concert. They said, Bashar is gay. They used a derogatory word in Arabic for homosexuals. They said, you are offensive to Islam. And your concert is cancelled. And then it didn’t stop there. Shortly after your concert was cancelled, there was this cultural parade in Ramallah. There were people holding a colorful banner. They made the mistake of flying a rainbow pride flag and got beaten up. How do you feel about what happened to you and what has happened since?

MURAD: I mean, it’s a horrible feeling. Obviously, it was quite traumatic, and it was kind of shocking because I’ve been performing in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank for the past two years and I’ve never had any problems. And I think about what happened – I don’t think it’s just about me. I think this is a bigger story. I think that these guys who came used me as a kind of scapegoat to gain popularity in the Palestinian society and somehow come out as heroes who have saved our morals and traditions.

So it was a very easy target. You know, we didn’t even have security at the event. And so it was very easy for these kids to come and take control of the narrative because when they came, they came with their cameras. And they were videotaped – in quotes – “peacefully” and then when they turned off their phones and we had decided to cancel the event, they were still trashing the place, destroying the window and kind of – you know, people were hiding inside. My friends, my fans, my crew, we were all hiding while the police – while these guys were – were kind of swarming the venue.

ESTRIN: So suddenly you were accused of not being a suitable symbol, a suitable messenger for the issues and the cause you want to promote…

MOURAND: Yes.

ESTRIN: …Because you’re gay. All of this has sparked many debates that are still ongoing among Palestinians about the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. So what do the Palestinians say? What are you listening; Are people’s opinions surprising you?

MURAD: I mean, there are all kinds of opinions. There was certainly a lot of hate and it was fueled by the false information that was widely shared. So there was a lot of hate. I’m not going to minimize it. But for me, hate is always stronger than love because it’s easier to just have a like, that crazy reaction and that angry reaction and go and write something on social media. At the same time that there was a lot of hate, I also felt an unprecedented amount of love. You know, growing up, the issues of homosexuality and, you know, and the issues of gender and queer, were very, very, very taboo that, you know, growing up I thought I was the only gay person in Palestine. And so now, when this happened at my show in June, there was actually a conversation. Yes, in the beginning there was a huge wave of hate in the first couple of days. But then these voices of reason and these allies started speaking up, and it was really beautiful to see.

ESTRIN: But for now, Bashar, do you wonder if you’ll be able to safely perform in Palestinian spaces in the West Bank?

MURAD: Sure. Definitely because I think, you know, in the beginning I did everything and, you know, only the right people paid attention. Now everyone is paying attention to us.

ESTRIN: You have a new single coming out soon. And you wrote about it earlier this summer, but the theme resonates with a lot of dark things that you experienced this summer, right? Tell us about the new single coming out.

MOURAND: Yes. So this is a sneak peek, basically. The song is called “Ya Leil”, which means “All Night”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YA LEIL”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

And it’s about that feeling when you just want to disappear and hide from everything and everyone and when reality is so harsh and brutal that it just hurts your eyes, that you don’t want to see it anymore. And so you kind of retreat into the night. And although this all seems very dark to me, this darkness is also where I find my creativity. And so in the song, I’m like, yeah, I’m going to hide and cover my eyes, but I’m going to get lost in my imagination and heal myself through it and all that stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YA LEIL”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: This is Palestinian pop singer Bashar Mourad speaking to us from Jerusalem. Bashar, thank you so much for being here.

MURAD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YA LEIL”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: You can hear more of my conversation with Palestinian singer Bashar Murad and how his music challenges his society on today’s Consider This podcast. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YA LEIL”)

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

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