Dec 29, 1999

report: "Rebellious rhymes from a destroyed refugee camp"

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The hip-hop beats ringing through the muddy, unlit streets of the burnt-out Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared seem incongruous. But the rhymes are camp-grown - and courageous.

"I'm carrying worries / From inside a destroyed camp / I'm preparing an attack / Words that keep turning in my head / Nahr al-Bared is fenced-in with iron bars / In the newspapers they speak about suffering / Every word makes sense."

Farhan Abu Siyam, 21, is Nahr al-Bared's first and only rapper. Going by the name of MC Tamarrod (which translates as MC Rebellion), he grew up in the Palestinian refugee camps of Nahr al-Bared and Bourj al-Barajneh.

Abu Siyam knows that hip-hop has few takers within Palestinian society. "Many people don't like rap because they're against Western music and its elements like the beat." But he asks the community to give rap a chance, stressing that he does not sing in a foreign language, but uses Arabic. "I rap in our Palestinian dialect, in the language of the camps where I was born and grew up."

Abu Siyam says he is inspired by the hip-hop crews 'Katibe 5' and 'I-Voice' in Beirut's Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp and rap groups in Palestine such as 'Ramallah Underground' or 'DAM' which are regarded as the founders of Palestinian hip-hop and have a style that is serious rather than entertainment-oriented.

Palestinian rappers are usually inseparable from their origins, stress their marginalised or oppressed situation and use their words as weapons in their political and social struggles. Groups direct their rhymes at the discrimination that the approximately 250,000 Palestinians in Lebanon face as well as at their own society's establishment, accusing NGOs and the political parties of being corrupt and betraying the Palestinian cause.

Abu Siyam raps about the miserable post-war life in Nahr al-Bared. Together with the autonomous media collective 'a-films', he has produced a short video clip. Gesturing in front of a bullet-riddled wall in a burnt-out building, he revisits the camp's devastating war in 2007 and raps:

"Asking me what happened? / Those who hit have run / Those who passed by have looted / And some of them have burned."

Two and a half years ago, the Nahr al-Bared camp in Lebanon's north was totally destroyed in a war between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the non-Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam. Two-thirds of the camp's former inhabitants now live on its outskirts in damaged homes and temporary shacks. Abu Siyam says many people sing or talk about Nahr al-Bared, "but nobody speaks out about the war, the hopelessness and oppression."

Nahr al-Bared is still closed down and designated as a military zone by the LAF which mans five checkpoints around the camp. Access is restricted and journalists are not allowed to work freely. "We're surrounded and live like in a prison. In other camps people can come and go in a normal way," says Abu Siyam. The LAF's presence in and around Nahr al-Bared is one of the main topics Abu Siyam raps about:

"I'm Palestinian and don't submit to the rule of your army / Stop building this wall! / From the first time I saw you, I knew what you wanted / 'Hey you, give me your ID, where's the permit?'"

The Lebanese army states the checkpoints and permits are necessary to preserve the safety of the people "through preventing the infiltration of terrorists and wanted people, smuggling of weapons, explosives, and illegal material." However, many refugees in Nahr al-Bared feel humiliated and oppressed by the LAF. Abu Wissam Gharib, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Nahr al-Bared, says he understands that warfare required an army, "but once the war is over, why does the army stay?" Gharib wonders why he needs to have special permit to return home to Nahr al-Bared when he can travel everywhere else in Lebanon on his ID.

Abu Siyam records in al-Mukhayyamat studio in the Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj al-Barajneh, located in the suburbs of Beirut.

"The parties are two-faced / Their authority is silly / Fortified by lies / Their politics are sick."

Abu Siyam is aware of the power of his lyrics. "We're not against the Lebanese system, but they deprive us of our rights." Palestinian youth do not see a future in Lebanon and see emigration as a way out. When a delegation from donor states recently visited Nahr al-Bared, the residents of the temporary housing units did not ask them for more aid, but for visas allowing them to emigrate.

In Nahr al-Bared the slow reconstruction and the continued presence of the LAF have led to widespread unemployment. Charlie Higgins, project manager for Nahr al-Bared's reconstruction at the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) describes the economic situation in the camp as "stuck," with the economy yet to regenerate and employment situation unimproved since the war ended.

Abu Siyam hopes that whenever Nahr al-Bared is rebuilt there will be a music studio where he might record his songs. He will have to drive to Beirut to record the two new rap numbers that he is currently working on.

This report was written by Ray Smith and was published here by IPS Inter Press Service and republished by the Daily Star.