She was a star of new Palestinian music. Then she played beside the mosque.

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She was a star of new Palestinian music. Then she played beside the mosque.
Sama’ Abdulhadi, a rising star of the global electronic music scene who has become a flashpoint in the debate about Palestinian cultural identity, at her parents' home in Ramallah, West Bank, Feb. 24, 2021. Abdulhadi had permission to film a concert at Nabi Musa, a remote desert mosque, but the set was by stormed people furious at what they saw as an attack on Islam. Samar Hazboun/The New York Times.

by Patrick Kingsley

RAMALLAH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Until the showdown beside the mosque, Sama’ Abdulhadi believed she was a flag bearer for contemporary Palestinian culture.

A 30-year-old DJ from Ramallah, Abdulhadi is a rising star of global electronic music. She helped build the electronic music scene in Ramallah, the administrative hub of the occupied West Bank. And through the streaming of her performances in Ramallah and her appearances at major international festivals, she had turned this small mountainous city — often associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — into an occasional destination for hard-core European clubbers and international music journalists.

But then, late last December, came the mosque incident.

For her newest video project, Palestinian officials permitted Abdulhadi to film a performance at Nabi Musa, a remote cultural complex attached to a mosque in a desert area east of Jerusalem that some believe was built where Moses was buried. Several hours into the filming her set was stormed by religious Palestinians, furious at what they saw as an attack on Islam.

They distributed footage of the event, raising a media storm. Palestinian leaders condemned Abdulhadi, and police detained her for more than a week. She was released on bail but remains under investigation and cannot travel. And this pride of Palestine has become a villain to many amid a public debate about what it is to be Palestinian.

“I always thought that, you know, ‘I’m doing something for Palestine,’” Abdulhadi said in a recent interview in Ramallah.

“But apparently,” she added, “Palestine didn’t know.”

The furor exposed some of the rawest nerves in contemporary Palestinian society — increasing religiosity, resentment of the elites in Ramallah and an uncertainty about how best to express Palestinian identity at a time when Palestinian sovereignty feels particularly remote. Palestinians have limited autonomy in nearly 40% of the West Bank, but Israel rules the rest, controls access between most Palestinian-run towns and regularly conducts raids inside areas of nominal Palestinian control.

For some, Abdulhadi represents a kind of cultural resistance that helps assert and humanize Palestinian identity on the world stage.

“I didn’t go out to the world, playing in festivals and saying, ‘I’m a Palestinian DJ, and I want to free Palestine,’” Abdulhadi said. But over time, she found herself inadvertently becoming an informal cultural ambassador, “because everybody just wanted to know more about Palestine.”

For her conservative critics, her performance was nevertheless an affront to Palestinian tradition, the latest encroachment of foreign influence on the Palestinian way of life and even a metaphor for the failure of the Palestinian Authority — the body that oversees parts of the occupied territories and gave Abdulhadi permission to perform at Nabi Musa — to stand up for Palestinian interests.

“People on the conservative side saw this as an example of the weakness and absence of the Palestinian Authority, and the impotence of the Palestinian condition,” said Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian intellectual and former head of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Though Palestinian society was once more accepting of diversity, it has grown more conservative in recent years as the struggle for statehood sputtered and some Palestinians turned to tradition and religion to sustain their identity, Nusseibeh said.

Abdulhadi was born on the eve of a more hopeful time, in October 1990. Her family had been living in exile in Jordan since 1969, after Israeli authorities expelled her grandmother, Issam Abdulhadi, a leading women’s rights activist.

But as peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians gathered pace in the early 1990s, Israel allowed certain exiled leaders to return with their families, in a gesture of goodwill. Among them were Issam and her family, including young Sama’ and her older brother and sister. Her father, Saad, is a publisher and events manager, and her mother, Samira Hulaileh, runs a forum for businesswomen.

She met for this interview in their hilltop home, as Hulaileh served homemade lamb dumplings.

As a child, Abdulhadi was always a trailblazer. With her grandmother, she successfully lobbied her headmaster to let her form a girls’ soccer team (she later played for the national team). As a teenager, she organized hip-hop battles and break-dancing events, and acquaintances from the time remember her as a powerful presence.

“It was the same feeling that you still get today,” said Derrar Ghanem, a contemporary who also later helped build Ramallah’s electronic music scene. “She walks in, and you think, ‘Who’s that?’”

Abdulhadi began to experiment as a DJ amid the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that killed about 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians during the early 2000s. She used her father’s sound equipment to play music at friends’ events.

But it was only while visiting Beirut in 2008 that she found a genre that she really wanted to play. At a performance by a Japanese DJ, Abdulhadi discovered techno, a form of electronic dance music in which DJs typically create intense and mesmeric soundscapes.

“I felt something in Lebanon — a certain kind of freedom,” Abdulhadi said. Still feeling the effects of “the intifada and Palestine and the stress of it, I needed it for my sanity in a way. And I really wanted my friends to feel the same.”

On and off over the next few years, Abdulhadi helped build a techno community in Ramallah. It was hard work: At the first few events, she said, “a lot of people hated it.”

Initially, there were only a handful of DJs and few venues for club nights. All events had to stop at midnight. And Abdulhadi was in and out of the country — first to study sound design in Amman, Jordan, and London, and then to work as a sound engineer in Cairo and Paris.

But gradually, over the course of about a decade, she and several friends built a scene. They created a collective to train new DJs and organize events. They turned a restaurant and its kitchen into a makeshift club. And, eventually, they attracted international interest.

The tipping point came in 2018, when one of the world’s most popular electronic music websites, Boiler Room, filmed Abdulhadi playing a set in Ramallah. It later became one of the site’s most-watched videos. And Abdulhadi knew Ramallah had made it when a group of Germans flew in for a New Year’s Eve party that year, unannounced.

“I was like, ‘Who risks New Year’s on going to Palestine?’” she said. “‘Half of my friends are in Berlin partying, and you guys came from Berlin to here?’”

It was against this backdrop that the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism granted Abdulhadi permission to record a performance at Nabi Musa in December, as long as she respected its religious significance. The video was to be streamed on a second music website, Beatport.

Nabi Musa has various meanings and uses: Built after an Arab victory against the Crusaders, it’s the destination of a famous pilgrimage. But part of it is also a former drug rehabilitation center, and foreign donors recently spent millions to refit the place as a tourist site, events space and hostel.

For the Palestinians who stormed the concert or protested there later that week, none of those last details excused the decision to play electronic music there.

“It’s very hurtful to Muslim feelings,” said Nader Bibars, a television producer who believes he descends from the medieval sultan who built the mosque, Sultan Bibars. “They made it unclean.”

This response was intensified because many Palestinians feel their identity is increasingly under threat in general, Bibars said. “Because of this occupation, we need to prove our identity and heritage every day,” he said.

For Abdulhadi it was shocking to be framed as a foreign threat to Palestinian heritage. She had assumed her international success had given her greater credibility and profile at home.

“Honestly, I thought that a lot of Palestinians knew who I was,” Abdulhadi said.

But now she says the experience has shown her how Palestinians have become alienated from each other, cut off by walls and checkpoints from each others’ experiences.

“The occupation disconnected us from each other,” she said, “to a point where we don’t understand each other’s language anymore.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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