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

Joshua Mitnick, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOD, Israel -- 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.

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