Palestinian singer challenges Western stereotypes of Arab women

Rasha Nahas is surprised to learn she is in a unique category as a performer at this year’s Women of the World festival in the UK capital.

“I didn’t know it but I’m happy to be the only Arabic-speaking woman there and to bring my story and my way of seeing the world and where I come from and my language”, says the songwriter -Palestinian interpreter. The National.

As she ostensibly performs at an event to mark International Women’s Day, 25-year-old Nahas isn’t too eager to endorse a date or event to an ongoing cause.

“I appreciate Women’s Day as a day where we give space to a daily struggle… [but] I’m trying to bring women’s day [into] every song I release and every conversation I have.

After the release of his first album, desertin English in 2021, the Berlin-based instrumentalist will give fans a preview of tracks from his early works recorded in Arabic at the annual London Festival at the Southbank Center in London from March 11-13.

I feel like, especially in the West, there are a lot of expectations of what an Arab woman is, with stereotypes and preconceptions of how I should be, or what I should be think, or what my fights should be – and I have no energy for that.

Over a weekend of talks and performances by artists from around the world who use their creativity to create social change and advance the feminist movement, Nahas shares the bill with a diverse and impressive group of artists, activists and speakers, including the Somali poet Warsan Shire. , authors Pandora Sykes, Lisa Taddeo and Elizabeth Day and renowned political activist Angela Davis.

According to Nahas, being the only Arabic speaker of this illustrious feminist lineage is indicative of a tension that still prevails when it comes to Western representations of Arab women.

“I feel like, especially in the West, there are a lot of expectations of what an Arab woman is, with stereotypes and preconceptions of how I should be, or what I should be. should be thinking, or what my fights should be like – and I don’t have the energy for that,” Nahas said.

In her soft, thoughtful tone, Nahas rails against the “generally very orientalist and simplified” depiction of her species.

“It’s simplifying things so that it’s digestible, but we’re not simple. I am not simple. I am a complex human being and I find that very rich in fact. And I think I’d like to challenge the world to embrace the spectrum that’s inside of me. The experiences and the complexities and the layers and the identities and the languages ​​and the stories and the past and the future,” says Nahas.

Exploring this complex range of self is at the heart of his next musical release.

Amratwhich means “sometimes” in English, is an album with “two faces and two seasons” which delves into themes of home, belonging, spirituality and freedom in a two-part album; acoustic tracks inspired by his homeland in one chapter, and deeper electronic sounds that speak to his more chaotic urban life complementing the other.

Melodious and sung in his mother tongue, Amrat is a departure from its beginnings, desertwhich chronicles his personal and political journey from Haifa to Berlin in an experimental musical wave of rock’n’roll sounds, acoustic guitar, wailing violins and poetic vocalization, which earned a British critic the description of Nahas as having the “theatricality of the Weimar cabaret with added violins and rockabilly“.

Growing pains

As the musician describes desert as “very theatrical” with “big gestures and changing characters”, Amrat is a more thoughtful and personal offering that “doesn’t try to be anything”.

She rightfully – but not purposely – performs her first song release, Ya Bintiwhich means my daughter or daughter in English, at this year’s WOW.

The chorus of the song:I am here and you are there sitting far away, you are you but who am I? is an elegy to his younger self.

“Growing up, I feel like we gain so much but we also lose so much, like the baggage we carry. So as you become more secure, you become less innocent. And as you become stronger, you become less vulnerable. And as you work hard and build your career, you become less spontaneous.

Nahas is content with where her growth has taken her, but nonetheless her song is a reflection on “the alienation of growing up”.

“It’s beautiful you know, but it’s also bittersweet.”

Yes desert was “the baggage, the illusion of hope and wondering when you’ll arrive”, Amrat is a homecoming, something she only felt free to explore after a few years among the diaspora in Germany.

“Arabic is such an intimate language for me, you know. And I think I needed a space a little further from myself to express myself and find my identity, musically at least,” she says. .

Keyboardist and classical guitarist since the age of 10, Nahas has long shaped the soundscapes that make up his bold and experimental sound signature. While rock’n’roll has always been the source of her sound, she admits to being a “very shy little girl” who only performed in public for the first time when she was 15 when a friend pushed her to do it at an open mic night. .

Haifa is a place where there is so much art, there are so many up-and-coming artists, and the scene is really precious and unlike any other, but it can also be small and I needed space – to be like my own space – to live my experiences and write my songs and think and be and feel.

By the time she graduated a few years later, Nahas was writing her own songs and performing with popular Palestinian indie musicians like Maysa Daw and Raymond Haddad.

In 2016, Rasha Am I Record-breaking and captivating live performances have seen her embark on tours across Europe, South America, the UK and the Middle East, including shows at Glastonbury Festival, SIM Sao Paulo, at Midem, Sziget and the Palestine Music Expo, among others.

The singer credits budding creativity in her hometown of Haifa with allowing her to flourish musically. In recent years, the ancient city has built an impressive reputation for sprouting a generation of alternative, boundary-pushing creatives.

Nahas has toured the world and performed at several festivals including the famous Glastonbury Festival.  Photo: Bethany Burgoyne

“There is a very unique music scene in Haifa. Even before there was an official scene, we played in cafes and bars and it was really special. At that time, it gave me a lot of space to experiment, play and meet people,” says Nahas.

While the port city where she was born and raised still has “the biggest place in my heart”, its relative smallness in the world is what prompted Nahas, then 21, to move to Berlin.

“Haifa is a place where so much art is happening, there are so many up-and-coming artists, and the scene is really precious and unlike any other, but it can also be small and I needed to space – to be like my own space – to live my experiences and write my songs and think and be and feel.

His move to a bustling city renowned for its cabaret was a fitting amalgamation with Nahas’ foray into performance art and theatrical composition. Since settling in Germany, she has worked on numerous dance and theater pieces for prestigious venues such as Tanz im August in Berlin and Thalia Theater in Hamburg.

Back to its roots

As often happens to members of the Diaspora, over time the distance she initially craved from her homeland slowly turned into a greater understanding and appreciation of it.

“As an Arab of 48, our identity is very repressed and she never really had space to exist freely without really resisting anything because of the nature of the state,” says Nahas, who was born and raised in Haifa.

Living in Europe “without all the socio-political tension” has given her Arab identity the freedom to flourish.

“I developed a different relationship with the language and I got very close to it in a very paradoxical way because I was far from it.”

If being away from home gave her the inspiration to create Amratit is his proximity to her that gave birth to him.

Recorded in the new Studio 67 at Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights, Amrat heralds Nahas’ poignant return to a region that, like his album, is sometimes hopeful and sometimes painful.

While claiming not to be “such a mystical person”, Nahas says the Golan Heights – “one of the most beautiful places on Earth” – has “a certain wind and energy in the country that doesn’t feel like no other”.

An auspicious encounter on her first day of recording left her with an overwhelming positivity for the territory which, after more than half a century of occupation, is more generally viewed gloomily by Arabs. .

After opening her bedroom windows one morning, Nahas found a nest of newly hatched eagle eggs under the ledge.

“And I just see these baby eagles with the liquid around their eyes, which they’re opening for the first time,” she says admiringly.

“So I don’t know, there’s a lot to be said about the socio-political aspects of the Golan Heights and the meaning of recording the album there, which is so present to me, but I’m all about those magical moments, knowing you.”

Updated: March 11, 2022, 6:00 p.m.

Comments are closed.