You could have forgiven Sama’ Abdulhadi for giving up.
The Palestinian DJ/producer was arrested on Dec. 27, 2020 and held in a Jericho jail for eight days after coordinating and playing a livestream event for Beatport at a site called Maqam Nabi Musa, about 30 minutes east of Jerusalem. The location is commemorated as the tomb of the prophet Moses and is currently used as both a place of worship and, since 2019, a tourist attraction featuring a hotel and dining.
Abdulhadi’s event was the first electronic music performance to take place at Maqam Nabi Musa. A leader of the burgeoning — although still largely underground — Palestinian electronic scene since her 2018 Boiler Room set went viral, Abdulhadi had intended to use the livestream to showcase artists from Palestine and the Middle East. Instead, she ended up in a jail cell, where she had to shower using a bucket of water and where she stayed into the first days of 2021.
When she got out and home to her family in Ramallah, Abdulhadi’s situation had become an international story.
The heart of the matter was essentially public opinion. While Abdulhadi had secured all of the proper permits from the Palestinian authorities to host the livestream, when word got out that a woman was playing techno at the site, an angry crowd turned up in protest, shutting down the show and looking for someone to blame for the perceived impropriety. Authorities arrested Abdulhadi. Critics accused her of desecrating a holy site; others said she’d simply become a scapegoat.
While Abdulhadi is typically based in France — where she moved years ago after gaining acceptance into the artist-in-residency program at Cité internationale des arts and where she currently resides on a residency visa — she’s hasn’t been legally allowed to leave Palestine since the arrest.
But Abdulhadi’s enthusiasm about sharing the electronic sounds and stars of her home region hasn’t waned, even as she’s become entangled in the region’s cultural conservatism and complicated geopolitics. In April, she kicked off a new three-party livestream series with Beatport featuring acts from around Palestine and the Middle East. The final installation begins Monday (May 3) at 9 a.m. ET via Beatport’s Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. The show will feature sets by Palestinian artists including Orabi, Yasmine Eve, Julic and Abdulhadi herself.
Speaking from Ramallah via Zoom, Abdulhadi here discusses her situation.
How have you been spending time in the months since your arrest?
In the beginning I was staying home with my family. I was more afraid to go out and was trying to work more on music production and be less active. Then I just decided that I’m going to face it, so I just continued to do the residency. I filmed everything for it, and now we’re streaming it, and I’m still free, which is good. That’s it. I’m kind of trying to deal with the fact that mentally I might not be okay to deal with people or go out. I’m working on that step by step — going out to public places, walking in the middle of the city, having people point at me and say stuff. With time, things are calming down.
In terms of this new residency, at what point were you like, “I’m just going to go back and do this?”
In the middle of the investigation. I was still in prison. It was [during] a discussion with the police. The guy that was investigating me, I looked at him and said, “I don’t care that much about the location. I just want to show these artists to the world. I just want to play music, and the show is going to play [even if] I make everyone record in their bedroom. These artists need to be showcased.”
Why was it so important to you to move forward, particularly after the challenges this project had created?
I wanted to make something where I connect the two [worlds] and people maybe start visiting Palestine and seeing the beauty of the country we have here and not just the bad things the world sees. That was my goal. [I said], “If you guys don’t want people to see the good part of the country, that’s fine. I’ll just show the artists of the country, because they deserve the stage.”
What was your first move in making that happen?
When I left prison, the first call I had with the managers, they were like, “Okay, what do you want to do?” I was like, “We’re going to do this. I’m going to do it. I don’t care about everything that is happening, because these artists really are incredible, and they deserve to be heard.” The thing is, it’s impossible for them to go out and try to play in the world without somebody discovering them and taking them out. Somebody needs to give them that chance, just like Boiler Room did for me. I wouldn’t be where I am if somebody didn’t find me and take me out. I’d still be here.
What factors were you keeping in mind when selecting the residency lineups?
I really wanted to do the Middle East, North Africa and also kind of open eyes on the ideas that the world has on the Arab world. I never knew that the world looked at the Arab world like this, until I went abroad, that everyone is terrified, for example, of Iran. Or for them Syria is a no zone. Or that in Palestine, we are all terrorists. I have been asked that question. Like, “Do you guys still have terrorists everywhere?” It’s like, that’s not a question. It’s so mental. I really wanted to make that point.
You mentioned how difficult it is to get a permit to even do a legal electronic event in Palestine. Then you actually got a permit for the event in December and things went sideways. What did it mean to you, it going down the way it did?
It kind of made sense for a very weird reason. When I got home I found the event on the news, I knew that tomorrow someone from the police will come talk to me, because the vice president said it on TV, that they were going to investigate. It was sad, because it was the first time I felt so safe and confident about doing something. Because I had a permit and because we had a filming five days before that one in Ramallah, and the police did come to close it, but when they saw the permit and that everything is in order and we were wearing covid masks and everything, they let us go and left. That was one of the reasons they believed me in the investigation, because the same permit was used five days ago.
So then what happened?
It could have been solved in two different ways. They told me, “The place is not a religious site, it’s a historical touristic site.” It’s a hotel that has a mosque next to it. They just got money, like four million Euros, to renovate it and do activities there, and they’ve been doing that for that past year. The company that was supposed to take it over put a hold on it because of Covid. They didn’t want to run a hotel during the pandemic. That’s a losing business, so they put a pause on the project.
So when the crowd of people showed up, they said it’s a religious site. That’s why they want something to happen, instead of the prime minister going on TV and making it clear that it’s a non-religious historical touristic site and that [they] just put $4 million in it to make it into a hotel. Then people would have been like, “Okay, it’s a hotel.”
But they didn’t do that?
But they didn’t do that. They feared the public opinion, especially when it comes to religion, because as you know Palestine is full of holy sites, and Israel keeps desecrating them, every week they have to throw bombs or crash a prayer at the Aqsa mosque [in Jerusalem] and ban Muslims from going in to pray in the holiest site for them. I remember very well in the intifada, when they surrounded and besieged the nativity church for over a month with Palestinian resistance stuck inside and 200 or so monks. So I know and understand how sensitive that topic is, because it bothers me too.
Do you think authorities were essentially relenting to public opinion by arresting you?
I think they didn’t know what to do about it. It’s the first time anything like this happened, and that’s why I kind of accept that it happened in a way. I’m not that mad about it, because something crazy had just happened, and everyone in Palestine got up and started yelling — this time at a Palestinian and not at Israel, which is new. The government got confused and didn’t know what to do. They called whoever gave the permits, and everyone denied it. Our government is 20 years old; it’s younger than me. We’ve had two presidents in our lives. It’s not like they have that much experience in this kind of case.
What was your time in prison like?
Very slow. Very boring. I was getting a lot of investigations. There’s this thing where you’re going to court or an investigation that they put you in this solitary cell that is like, one meter by one meter, with no chair and you can’t do anything in there. You’re not even allowed to have cigarettes. You wait for two, three, four hours. I learned how to sleep standing up, which was brilliant. I read a lot of books. Sadly, I was showering in a bucket for eight days because there was something wrong with the pipes. Very bad New Year’s Eve.
Did you know you’d eventually get out or was it more like, “I have no idea when this is going to end”?
In the beginning I didn’t know, because they weren’t letting me see my lawyer or talk to my family. All the facts I knew were what the things they were telling me — that a lot of people went to the place [where the show was] and burned it, that a lot of people want to kill me and I’m in prison for my own protection. That was [the conversation] every day. There were a lot of fights, and I had a feeling that something bad was happening, because they were not letting me see or call my lawyer.
When you did get out, what was it like to then be at the center of this global story?
I never wanted to make that story. I’ve always been trying to spread awareness of Israel and everything Israel does. The location where I was filming is next to the biggest illegal military camp for Israel, and I honestly thought who was going to hear about it and come make a problem was Israel. I thought that the military was going to come and throw a couple of gas and sound bombs and we’d have that on tape and put it out. That was the worst case scenario that crossed my mind. I didn’t expect it to have a bad effect for Palestinians.
Was that disappointing?
It was, because I never expected it to come from my people. I thought a lot more people here knew who I was, especially in the government — that they knew what I do in life. Apparently nobody did, which also is not that bad because me being in prison for eight days created the conversation. So now you have the Muslims who know what techno is, the Christians who know what techno is, the president who knows what techno is. The archbishop of Palestine knows what techno is. The full population knows what techno is.
Where does your case currently stand? Are you allowed to leave Palestine?
Yeah, they removed the travel ban a couple of weeks ago. I was going every Monday for four months to the police station and signing my name to show I wasn’t leaving. So if I did that, they finally agreed to the bail. I’d been trying to remove it for months.
Will there be a trial?
No idea. I hope they just close the case.
That’s the best case scenario for you?
Yes, I have hope in justice and the belief in my heart that my government is not corrupt to pin this on me.
For a lot of people in the U.S., Palestine feels inaccessible and very far away. Obviously your residency is a big step, but beyond that how do people in the U.S. become more attuned to what’s happening in your part of the world?
Sadly we don’t have anything like Resident Advisor to talk about the Arab world. We’re kind of working on a platform like that for the Arab world, especially and for the Arabs that are international in the world, like Arabs in France.
Is it difficult for Palestinian artists to tour?
It’s kind of impossible to live here and be a touring artist. That’s why I don’t live here anymore. Getting out of Palestine, you have to cross the bridge to Jordan, which used to take anything from 16 hours to three days when I was a child and now it can take 3-10 hours, depending on how much you pay. It’s a bit expensive to travel, and then you have to fly from Jordan so it might take you 2-3 days to travel arrive wherever you are going. It’s a lot of money to be able to get out from here to anywhere in the Arab world even, not even Europe or America, and nobody is willing to pay that much to fly me for a gig and back.
That’s why you have to live in Europe, and you cannot do that without a residency permit. It is extremely hard to get one, so it is impossible for artists in the Arab world to tour, unless they have a foreign passport and some extra money. I got lucky with a residency at cite des arts, and then worked my ass off to keep my residency card renewable. If I make one mistake, or work less hours then I have to, then everything goes away.
Obviously you have big goals of spreading music by Palestinian artists and developing the Palestinian scene. What do you see in your own future?
I hope I go back to touring. I need a crowd and loud speakers. I think I keep doing what I’m doing — working with young people that are trying to grow something from the region, keep touring and growing and giving what I have. That’s my thing in life. When it’s done, I’ll probably become a football trainer for a small girl’s team somewhere here in Palestine.