Meet Palestine’s first female techno DJ who is literally breaking boundaries through her music.
It is easy to sound clichéd when talking about music. How many times have we heard that “music brings people together”, or that “music can change the world”, and so on? With Sama Abdulhadi, however, all of the above is true. Palestine’s first female techno DJ, SAMA’ is a rare example of an artist whose music literally brings people together,
Having organised the first techno nights in the Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, a decade ago, Sama’s parties have been taken on by various crews and artists within Israel and ‘occupied Palestine’ (as it is often referred to) to the point that the area now boasts an electric, vibrant, underground scene. Now living in France, and subject to a recent mini-documentary by Boiler Room, we chat to SAMA’ about female DJ’s, the wider Israel-Palestine conflict, and the role that her music and others’ has in reaffirming Palestinian cultural identity.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up, and how you got into DJ’ing?
Well, I was born in Jordan since my family was exiled from Palestine in 1969. After the Oslo Agreement, we moved back to Palestine, where I grew up. I don’t really remember what made me want to DJ, but my dad finally gave in to my constant nagging for cables, equipment etc. It started as a hobby – I was more into audio engineering as a job (I was working as a sound engineer in cinema in Egypt), and I just DJ’d because I loved partying; it eventually grew into a career, which still amazes me. I escaped the adult job!
Female DJ’s are, unfortunately, rare everywhere, and I’d imagine even more so in Palestine: Ayed mentions in the documentary that 7/8 years ago, you could barely have seen a girl smoking a cigarette at a party. Did you face a lot of adversity coming up as a female DJ?
I think there is a big difference between the scene in Haifa and in Ramallah, with two different legal systems. I started DJing much longer than 7-8 years ago, as a teenager, but it’s important to remember that we didn’t really have real real parties because Israel put a tight curfew on us, we were under their siege and going through the Intifada. That’s why the occasions were limited, and revolved around birthdays, Halloweens etc. 7-8 ago things had already started moving, the problem is much older than that. For me, it was rougher in terms of gender rights and expectations 15 years ago, as a young teenager.
A big problem in the industry is the over-sexualisation of female DJ’s, a double standard which is not inflicted on your male counterparts. Have you experienced this?
Of course. Who hasn’t. As a woman, you are belittled and objectified on all levels.
Anything from being booked on a women stage, to being the token female (and Arab female), to the super problematic compliments of people shocked I actually know how to audio engineer….to constant street harassment, from Cairo to Paris. Yelling at men to get off or stop following you around is a constant daily thing that has becoming a norm for all women.
Do you think there should be more female DJ’s? Who are some female DJ’s you’re into at the moment?
Definitely, so we can finally stop talking about the subject of female DJs as its own genre. How is it still its own separate category in 2018?! I want a music scene that gives me the space to be just as good, progress because of my skills only, get booked on the same stage, and given the same type of attention as a male DJ. So creating women-only festivals is an important step for visibility, but hopefully, in a perfect world, these differences wouldn’t define someone’s career.
I always liked Nicole Moudaber, Monika Kruse, tINI… I’m sure I can go on for ever, but this is on the top of my head. What I like about them is that they are very strong producers, they’re on the same level as men, they have the right ethics of techno DJing in my opinion: little attention on their looks, never seeking for attention through their appearance. They got there because of their hard work and talent, which I respect and hope I can walk in these footsteps;
Is there representation from other genres and scenes as well as techno in Palestine?
Yes; Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop and Acid, House and Dub – shoutout to Muqata’a, Bruno Cruz, Walaa Sbeit, Nasser Halahleh, brilliant guys who have contributing to launching these scenes. I guess you can see the others in the Boiler Room.
What was behind your decision to introduce more Detroit and Berlin-based techno into the scene?
I just always bought the music that I liked – I discovered it was Detroit and Berlin after I played it, so it wasn’t an intentional or political choice per se (even though I’m always happy to find out there is a strong message attached to a music I like). I guess I like the deep base, the melodic synthesizers, purely because it’s the music that touches me.
Why did your parties in 2009 when you went back to Ramallah not work?
Because no one got the music or the vibe it was supposed to create, I guess. Looking back at it, I think it was too different to the scene at the time. It didn’t resonate with any traditional rhythms, instruments, or dances we had, and had no lyrics. When I see the huge shift today, I realise that anything is possible, that tastes and traditions evolve constantly, and that music can have a universal impact.
What has changed since then?
You can find a good-ass party every week in Ramallah and Haifa; we were hugely motivated by the movement “DJs for Palestine”, with names such as BenUFO, Black Madonna and Four Tet, standing up for us. It gave us a a sense of hope, equality, and dignity.
With other genres of music, artists can be political in their songs, via their lyrics etc. This is of course not possible with DJing, however, for me, it seems as if it is the very act of hosting these parties and bringing people together like this that is the political statement here. Would you agree?
Yes, techno is less literal, it is a case of “the medium is the message”. The very nature of techno is to create a space cut from human sounds, rules, typical encounters; it’s not as codified as other genres, it’s a place for escapism, which is political in itself. Today, I’m discovering how nightlife is becoming actively militant. Nuits Sonores partnered up with European Lab, a platform for political debate funded by the European Union. Same for We Are Europe, a conference and party festival in the Hague, for which I talked about techno as a form of resistance, and then played until 6am.
The Palestinian population is obviously split across three states, and this is a place in which division is a recurring theme. How crucial is music for trying to cure this division, and bring people together?
It introduced us to the people that are living in the occupied territory, and that is a step. Gaza is much harder, but there is a family that is growing and a connection that now cannot be undone. We are united, bigger and stronger, and I’m pretty sure we will keep growing.
Jazar Crew say in the documentary that they don’t check if the people who come to their parties are Israeli or Palestinian – ‘you never solve racism with racism’ they say. How important is inclusivity for you, and do you find it difficult to be so inclusive when you have had so much denied to you?
Again it is a different case on our side. They are in the occupied parts, where it is mixed, and it is a known fact that Israeli clubs ask Palestinians for ID’s just to not let them in, so I understand why Jazar wouldn’t want to ask people for ID’s; being subject to racism all your life is not easy AT ALL, so they will not start being racist themselves, and I respect that. On the other hand, in the West Bank, we don’t interact with Israeli citizens, we only get soldiers. We don’t get normal people; we just get the crazy ones. No soldier is gonna come party with us, if he comes it would be for a different reason.
One of the Jazar Crew also called music a ’therapy for the identity crisis that we are experiencing here’. How important is what you and Jazar Crew and others are doing in keeping Palestinian culture alive?
Jazar Crew and others are keeping Palestinian culture, active, contemporary. This is the living proof of Palestinian modernity – while Israel has built its narrative around a historical presence from 5000+ years ago, we are the visual evidence that history is being written everyday, that we are strong, independent-minded and, most importantly, living and not just surviving.
What does Israel’s recent so-called ‘apartheid law’ mean for Palestinians living in Israel, or “occupied Palestine”?
Which one exactly? They keep coming up with new ones that are crazier and crazier, it is always getting worse for the people in the occupied territory, for people in Gaza, for people in Hebron, for the whole of the West Bank… it never started getting better in the first place to then get worse, it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. No one knows what can be done.
The Israel court recently approved demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, which would mean that the West Bank would be split in two. What does this mean for the fate of the Palestinian state?
Worse and worse and worse and worse… everything that they do, every step that the Israeli state makes, is always a step worse to Palestinians. The question is, what have they ever done to improve the situation? Nothing ever in history. So I don’t know how to answer you with something that is not other than the word WORSE.
You now live in Paris, how have you found the perception of the conflict from the point of view of a Western country?
Mesmerising, I have no idea how people can live in such surrealist, in-denial craziness: some people here actually think Israel’s hands are clean and their actions are totally logical.
How was it, going back and playing the Boiler Room set to a packed out crowd in Palestine?
It was a dream I never thought of having come true; I still watch it and get the same goosebumps. I’ll never thank them enough for the trust, enthusiasm and visibility.
How important is the work you guys are doing in telling people that there is life inside Ramallah, and Palestine in general, that it’s not just a danger zone?
Very important. One day were going to make a festival that will host a 100,000 people from all over the world. We cannot stay in apartheid, we cannot keep living like this with a view of a danger zone filled with bombs and terrorists. Common walking in the streets of America is more dangerous than living in Palestine.