Five years ago, I stepped inside a small Catholic church in Anderson, Ohio to listen to Anna Baltzer speak about the situation in Palestine. At the time, my understanding of the Palestinians and their horrific suffering was very limited: I knew the basic outlines of the conflict, but hardly anything more.
It was only natural, however, that my intellectual curiosity would eventually become married to Palestine: I was a student of international relations, greatly interested in US foreign policy – particularly because of how criminal I perceived it to be – who had become increasingly involved with various social justice movements throughout my home state of Kentucky. In hindsight, my engagement with the seemingly unending tragedy being inflicted upon the Palestinians appears inevitable; yet, at that small church, on that spring day in 2009, I couldn’t have imagined how invested I was soon to become. Or that in four years’ time I would be living and working on the West Bank.
"Before I arrived in Nablus during the hot days of late August 2013, I was living in Lexington, KY"
Before I arrived in Nablus during the hot days of late August 2013, I was living in Lexington, KY, working a minimum-wage job, writing and recording rap songs; not yet brave enough to pursue my dreams, while also not yet completely sure of which dream I should specifically chase after. I had spent the past three years voraciously reading about Palestine: its history, its people, its current misery; I entertained thoughts of applying to graduate programs where I could further my study of not only it, but also the area of Bilad Ash-Sham in general.
At the same time, I was also beginning to take music more seriously: creating songs at a feverish pace, while simultaneously starting to perform shows around the city. I had long ago recognized my passion for both Palestine and music, but I remained unsure as to how they could be reconciled; how they could be merged together in order for me to pursue them both. That all changed during my time in Nablus: it slowly became clear that music and Palestine were not, as I had feared, mutually exclusive interests; on the contrary, they were explicitly interconnected.
Though a considerable amount of my time was dedicated to my duties and responsibilities as an English teacher, I quickly found myself penning songs about what I was experiencing in Nablus. Before boarding my flight to Amman, however, I had made no conscious decision to write anything while living and working on the West Bank; in fact, I had been intent upon leaving music behind in Kentucky in order to focus on Palestine. Yet, there I was, naturally, almost unconsciously, resorting to hip hop as a means of therapeutic self-expression.
I finished writing my first song, “Nablus (Palestine is Occupied),” in October, just after my school’s weeklong break for Eid al-Adha. Over the next eight months, I would write six more. It wasn’t, however, until a tea and shisha-infused conversation at As-Soltan coffee shop – “the office” as my friends and I referred to it – that I began to realize how this nascent project could expand, and what could specifically be done in Palestine in order to help it grow.
One of the first people I met in Nablus was Mustafa Azizi, a young filmmaker and journalist who had studied at An-Najah National University. Similar in age and outlook, Mustafa and I would go on to become very close friends. Having lived his entire life under a brutal and humiliating military occupation, Mustafa, like every Palestinian, was no stranger to resistance. Yet, unlike others, Mustafa’s chosen weapon in the struggle for liberation was not a gun, but a video camera. Since the dark days of the Second Intifada, he had honed his skills as a videographer, filming and editing countless projects. Recently, he, along with photographer Odai Qaddomi and graphic designer Abdullah Dweikat, had founded Karakeeb, Nablus’ first multimedia production company.
Though the new business lacked a mission statement, it was understood that Karakeeb, first and foremost, would exist to serve the people of Palestine – to help further the resistance. This was a principle that had guided Mustafa’s individual work: he would labor on almost anything, but only if it worked toward liberation. It was an honor, therefore, to be my friends’ first client; over our nightly tea and shisha at “the office,” we planned to shoot a music video for “Nablus (Palestine is Occupied).” What ensued comprised an unforgettable journey – one that would take us across the West Bank, from Nablus to Hebron and everywhere in between.
"He (Mustafa) would labor on almost anything, but only if it worked toward liberation"
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It was a beautiful Saturday morning in late May when we set off for Hebron. With bellies full of delicious fool and hummus, Mustafa, Odai, Abdullah, and I hopped into our rented servees, and slowly made our way through the city center and out of Nablus. Over the course of our two-hour trip, we joked and laughed, dancing and clapping as we listened to Palestinian pop music. We were excited about the project, and our enthusiasm was difficult to contain. Adding to the festive mood was the fact that we were – above anything else – four friends who enjoyed each other’s company immensely. Though we were ostensibly on a business trip, we all recognized the uniqueness of the moment, and we tried to enjoy it as much as we could.
As we wound through the large hills of the southern West Bank, we decided that, once in Hebron, we’d shoot some footage of the checkpoint located right before Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi. Though the music video’s song is about Nablus, we wanted to include a few of the more glaring physical manifestations of Israel’s illegal military occupation, ones which are not – thankfully – encountered on Jabal An-Nar. Of course, the Israeli military is never far away from Nablus, as is evidenced by the constant roar of F-16s overhead, as well as the occasional sonic boom, detonated with the cruel intention of harassing and humiliating the civilian population below. Nabulsis are also constantly shaken from their beds in the early morning hours by the explosions of flash grenades, thrown by invading gangs of IDF soldiers conducting terrifying night raids. Fortunately, however, there are no checkpoints in Nablus. Nor is there an Annexation Wall.
After filming throughout the Old City, we left Hebron and traveled north to Bethlehem. Away from the shielded eyes of the tourists scattered across Nativity Square, one can catch a glimpse of what is possibly the most widely recognized symbol of Israel’s domination over the Palestinians: the Annexation Wall. As we did at the checkpoint in Al-Khalil, Odai set up his tripod and began to film the expanse of the graffiti-splattered concrete barrier imposingly towering over the four of us. The Wall is emblematic of Israel’s iron-fisted control over the West Bank and its Palestinian inhabitants; no matter where you go, you’re never too far from an IDF base, a settlement, or another checkpoint. To say it’s a suffocating atmosphere is perhaps an affront to besieged Gazans, but Israel’s continued strangulation and concomitant dismemberment of the West Bank has produced a hopeless, as well as increasingly volatile, situation. Ask any Nabulsi, and he’ll be quick to tell you: on the present course, a third intifada is inevitable, if not imminent.
Having wrapped up the day’s shooting, we climbed back into our servees and headed home to Nablus. The next day, we got what shots we wanted around town. Though we filmed in front of a beautiful mural painted on the outer wall of Nablus’ main football stadium, we spent the bulk of our time shooting in the Old City. Initially constructed over two thousand years ago, the Old City of Nablus is still a living, breathing entity. Unlike the cartoonish atmospheres experienced in the tourist-heavy Old Cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Old City of Nablus remains relatively untouched by outside influences, exuding an authenticity which forms an integral part of the Nabulsi identity.
Living in close proximity, I made it a point each day to walk through its tight alleys and narrow passageways, feeling my shoes push down against the smooth, worn cobblestones – those altered slowly by centuries of footsteps, dating back to the Romans. In “Nablus (Palestine is Occupied),” the third verse is dedicated solely to the Old City; such was its impact on me. Yet the song isn’t merely about one specific feature of Nablus, nor is it strictly about the city, itself. Taken altogether, it comprises a personal account of my journey to Palestine, and what I had experienced leading up to that point.
The other songs I wrote were penned in a similar vein, detailing everyday realities in illegally occupied Palestine; night raids, the haunting legacy of Israel’s invasion of Nablus during the Second Intifada, and US complicity in the crimes being committed against the Palestinians are just a few of the subjects that inspired me. In the future, I will be releasing the songs collectively as an EP, aptly entitled Straight Outta Nablus, which will be available for free download.
"I made it a point each day to walk through its tight alleys and narrow passageways"
In many ways, the making of the video for “Nablus (Palestine is Occupied)” was the perfect culmination of my yearlong stay on the West Bank. Though I had come to Nablus to teach, I had always viewed my position as an English instructor simply as a means of reaching Palestine – a way of sustaining myself financially over a prolonged period of time, during which I could more adequately experience the land and its people. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy my role as an English teacher, primarily because of the relationships I developed with my students. Yet the contract I had signed expressly forbade political activity, an understandable restriction in light of the difficulties involved in obtaining visas from the Israelis, but still one which I had trouble obeying.
I had arrived in Palestine acutely aware of the political situation, already an undoubted partisan of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. I was connected to the brutalities being committed against the Palestinians by way of my own government’s direct participation in the conflict; being a passive observer, therefore, wasn’t that easy. It was music, however, that helped me give voice to everything that I was seeing, hearing, and feeling, allowing me to document the hardships and suffering faced by those languishing under US-Israeli oppression. It is my sincere hope that the songs included on Straight Outta Nablus will help to enlighten those in the West, especially the United States, who are not attuned to the atrocities being carried out in their names. Though much conscious deception has been employed in order to blind us from the truth, our hands remain soaked in Palestinian blood, the stain of which will remain forever.