(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BASHAR MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
This is Bashar Murad. He's a Palestinian musician in Jerusalem who's described his style as unapologetic pop music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).
ESTRIN: But with a blend of Arabic musical influences, it's uniquely Palestinian pop, with his dance riffs and concerts and video performances with props like bubbles, enormous hats and layers and layers of veils. His fans have dubbed him the Palestinian Lady Gaga.
MURAD: That's like the best anything that someone can say to me. Like, this is how you win my heart. Just compare me to Lady Gaga. I studied in the United States for maybe the first week I was there. I went to a Lady Gaga concert. And that was a moment of like a life-changing moment because just being in the crowd and, you know, all her messages of being carefree and fearless.
ESTRIN: This song, "Maskhara," is the title track of his most recent EP.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASKHARA")
MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).
ESTRIN: Translated from Arabic, the lyrics include the line, my fate is out of my hands. No one understands my way of life. He explains the song.
MURAD: Maskhara means mockery, about the feeling of not feeling like you belong anywhere. And so, you know, you'll be fighting for Palestine. And then people tell you Palestine doesn't exist, Palestinians don't exist. And then in your own community, you'll be fighting against conservative norms, but also carrying the message of Palestine with you. And then you might get pushback from your own society, which tells you, no, this is against our customs and traditions, this is against our beliefs.
ESTRIN: Murad is a musician and an activist. His music reflects the everyday anger, fear and frustration in the lives of young Palestinians. For more than 50 years, Israel has occupied territories that Palestinians want for their own independent country. Palestinians face Israeli soldiers, checkpoints, ongoing violence and dwindling hope for any change. Earlier today, Israeli airstrikes destroyed homes in Gaza. And Palestinian rocket fire continued into southern Israel. His music reflects that reality, but his songs also challenge social issues within Palestinian society. Murad is gay and a well-known voice in the Palestinian LGBTQ rights movement. Dr. Sa'ed Atshan is an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University.
SA'ED ATSHAN: I look at the struggle of the movement to address two systems of oppression. One is the Israeli occupation and the effects that that has on Palestinian society. And the other is the the patriarchy and homophobia within Palestinian society that shapes LGBTQ Palestinian lives. Those two systems of oppression intersect in really powerful ways. And it's important for us to understand those overlapping systems of oppression so that we develop the tools in order to achieve liberation, not just for LGBTQ Palestinians, but for all Palestinians ultimately.
ESTRIN: Murad's activism on both fronts can sometimes mean that his music takes on both the external conflicts Palestinians face with Israel and the internal conflicts imposed by a conservative society. And being an outspoken activist on both issues can sometimes mean having your activism to gain freedom for your homeland dismissed because of your identity. CONSIDER THIS - how can you be a public advocate for equal rights for your community when many in your own community won't accept you?
MURAD: Lady Gaga has the biggest security team, so maybe I should start to do the same.
ESTRIN: That's coming up. From NPR, I'm Daniel Estrin. It's Saturday, August 6.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MURAD: You know, growing up here in Palestine, you're always kind of either struggling because of the occupation, but you're also struggling because of social issues that affect people in their everyday lives.
ESTRIN: A lot of Bashar Murad's music pushes back at issues in the culturally conservative Palestinian society he's lived in all his life. His song, "Ana Zalameh," translates to "I'm A Man." The music video shows a factory. Boys are lined up and trained to be just what society expects them to be - forced to play sports and choose toy trucks over dolls.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA ZALAMEH")
MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).
I always enjoyed playing with Barbies, but I would be told that, no, you can't do that. This is for girls. Or how I didn't enjoy playing soccer with all the rest of the boys. But basically, yeah, the song was inspired by all these rules and restrictions that we impose on our children.
ATSHAN: It's very challenging, you know, because the way that oppression works, there are external systems of oppression and there are internal systems of oppression. And we can simultaneously be victims as subjects, but we can also be perpetrators. We can be both at the same time.
ESTRIN: Dr. Sa'ed Atshan is an associate professor at Emory University. His book, "Queer Palestine And The Empire Of Critique" looks at how Palestinians and the LGBTQ movement often find themselves fighting against criticism and opposition on many fronts. He says the complexities of this struggle resemble the challenges of the feminist movement.
ATSHAN: The queer Palestinian movement is in many ways a byproduct of the feminist Palestinian movement. Most LGBTQ activists consider themselves feminists as well, and actually the founders of the LGBTQ movement in Palestine were overwhelmingly lesbian women. And so we have a long history of feminist organizing within Palestinian society many, many, many decades. And women in Palestinian society have had to grapple with the question of, what is the priority, what needs to come first, the liberation of the nation or the liberation of women? And they hashed it out. There were different schools of thought. And ultimately, they arrived at near consensus that actually the two struggles are inextricably linked, are equal priorities. They can't be separated.
ESTRIN: But fighting against oppression on two fronts can sometimes mean one community feels pitted against the other.
ATSHAN: You know, I have tremendous respect for Bashar Murad as an artist. He's, you know, unapologetically queer, Palestinian, creative. I did hear about the event over the summer in which his performance was shut down. And it did break my heart that that was the case. I think that that deprived his audience.
ESTRIN: Earlier this summer, Bashar Murad's concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah was canceled under threat by an anti-LGBTQ group of Palestinian men, led by an activist from an Islamist family. That kicked off a series of attacks and anti-LGBTQ threats, shutting down Palestinian cultural events, still continuing today. Coming up, maintaining solidarity across social struggles.
MURAD: Sometimes it takes a while to start to question the reality and to question whether this is normal and whether it's normal to have walls and to not feel like you're fit anywhere.
ESTRIN: Musician and activist Bashar Murad is talking about Israel's separation barrier, a network of concrete walls and fences stretching hundreds of miles, dividing Israel from the West Bank. Israel says that that wall is for security to keep out attackers. Palestinians say the wall is a form of apartheid, requiring proper documentation to cross into Israel, and a land grab. I spoke with him from Jerusalem about being a voice for Palestinian rights and for his own gay community.
MURAD: To add to that, the layer of the social issues that we have, such as, you know, lack of jobs and not enough people being fully educated and homophobia and our struggles with women's rights and all these things which have also been perpetuated by the occupation, because this military occupation, you know, forbids or slows down the progress of the people. So our social issues will be magnified, and it will be very hard to deal with them and to talk about them.
ESTRIN: Yeah. I mean, you're saying that there are so many social issues to deal with, but there's a feeling in Palestinian society that you have to put them aside to focus on the Israeli...
MURAD: Yeah, of course. And often it's like we know the main issue is the occupation. So it's like we don't want the rest of the world to focus on the other issues because this is our main issue now, the fact that we're under a brutal military occupation. But at the same time, I am a believer that we can fight those other fights at the same time. But it has to be done in a smart way where it doesn't overshadow the main conflict and the main oppression, source of oppression that has been happening for over 70 years.
ESTRIN: Bashar, are you the only openly gay Palestinian singer performing today? Is that right?
MURAD: I mean, probably. I mean, I'm the one who's, I guess, talked about it the most and haven't haven't been afraid to discuss it with in my interviews and on the stage. I'm sure there are others, but maybe they're not like fully out or - so I can't really - I don't want to be like claiming that title, but I'm pretty sure I am.
ESTRIN: Well, let's talk about what happened this June. You were going to perform at a Palestinian cultural event in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And a bunch of guys, you call them thugs, showed up and threatened your concert. They said, Bashar is gay. They used a derogatory word in Arabic for gay. They said, you're offensive to Islam. You're - and your concert was canceled. And then it didn't stop there. Shortly after your concert was canceled, there was this cultural parade in Ramallah. There were people carrying a colorful banner. They were mistaken to be carrying a rainbow pride flag and were beaten up. How do you feel about what has happened to you and what's happening?
MURAD: I mean, it's a horrible feeling. Obviously, it was quite traumatizing. And it was kind of shocking because I have been performing in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank for the past, like, couple of years and have never had any issues. And I think what happened, you know, it's not - I don't think it's just about me. I think it's about a bigger story. And I think those guys who came kind of used me as a scapegoat in order to gain popularity within Palestinian society and sort of to come out as heroes who have saved our customs and our traditions. I think also it says a lot about the lack of order and the lack of law and order in the West Bank. They still trashed the place, destroyed the storefront and kind of, you know, people were hiding inside. My friends, my fans, my crew, we were all hiding while the police - while these guys were - kind of cornered the venue.
And it's very sad to me because, you know, they don't know who I am and what I'm about. And, you know, part of my mission statement was always, you know, to bring Palestine into pop culture, like I said, and to raise awareness through music, you know. So, of course, I make music for a selfish reason to, like, you know, express myself and to feel better. But I also carry with me this, like, message and making sure that I don't forget where I come from. And they - these guys that came, they don't know anything about, like, what I do.
ESTRIN: So suddenly you were accused of not being an appropriate symbol, an appropriate messenger for the themes of the cause that you want to promote because you're gay.
MURAD: Yeah, definitely. And we have this a lot - happens a lot of the times. You know, I think this is what, in a way, the occupation has inflicted, you know, because of all these borders and separations and walls and checkpoints. It has divided and separate the Palestinians into so many different groups that we always struggle with - it's very hard to be united because it's easy to pick out the differences and easy to pick out how one is more privileged than the other. And so this is just, you know, the gay thing now is just like a continuation of this pattern of, you know, division and making even the gays feel like they're not Palestinian.
ESTRIN: All of this has sparked a lot of debates that's still going on among Palestinians about acceptance of the LGBTQ community. So what are Palestinians saying? What are you hearing? Are you surprised by people's opinions?
MURAD: I mean, there's all kinds of opinions. Definitely there was a lot of hate, and it was fueled by the false information that was shared widely. So there was a lot of hate. I'm not going to minimize it. But to me, hate is always louder than love because it's easier to just have, like, this crazy reaction and this angry reaction and to go and type something on social media. At the same time that there was a lot of hate, I also felt an unprecedented amount of love. You know, growing up with the topics of homosexuality and, you know, and gender and queer issues, they were very, very, very taboo that, you know, growing up, I thought I was the only gay person in Palestine.
And so now, when this happened at my show in June, there was actually a debate. Yes, at first, there was a huge wave of hate for the first two days. But then these voices of reason and these allies started to speak up. And it was actually beautiful to see. And a lot of people privately talked to me as well. And I've been getting a lot of messages. And to me, I prefer to focus on that because it's a reminder that, you know, I'm on the right track. And the louder you get, the more hate that you're going to get and the more angry mobs with torches are going to come after you.
But I think what we need to work on more is also knowing how to talk to our own people and to help them see that, you know, not everyone who's a little different is bad or bad for Palestine, and that every Palestinian, no matter who he is is a representation of the cause because he's Palestinian. He was born here. And no one has the right to tell another person that he does not represent Palestine. So I think now, you know, just like America had their Stonewall moment, I think now we're at that moment as well. And, you know, we don't - it doesn't have to match exactly what happened in other places or the standard of what it means to have queer liberation in other places. It's about us, the queer community who's here, who have been fighting this fight. It's up to us to continue it and to help navigate it and help see where it goes. And I think in the future, it will have some kind of good effect.
ESTRIN: This is the first time Bashar Murad is speaking in detail about the threats he faced this summer. He says it's hard to talk about in the media because he doesn't want to give fuel to anti-Palestinian voices. Israel is a more welcoming place for the LGBTQ community than West Bank cities run by Palestinian authorities. But he doesn't want Israel to be let off the hook for the way it treats his other identity - Palestinian.
MURAD: Part of, you know, my whole message as an artist has been also to highlight pink washing, which is the idea of painting, you know, painting Israel as a haven for gay rights at the expense of Palestinians and painting us as barbaric, backwards people. And also for me, as this person who is fighting against the occupation, but also fighting against conservative minds, it puts me in a rough spot where I can't criticize my own people. I can't talk about what's happening freely. I have to choose my words carefully because I know if the wrong person is listening, they will take whatever they want and create this narrative that they want to create.
So that's why I'm very hesitant. And a lot of the time, you know, they want to focus that - they will say that the Palestinians came and stop this party. And they'll say Palestinians are homophobic. But then they will fail to mention that there is a gay Palestinian artist, that he has an audience. They fail to mention all these things. They will only focus on the things that make us look bad and that continue our oppression.
ESTRIN: That was Palestinian pop singer Bashar Murad in Jerusalem. His most recent EP is called "Maskhara." His newest single, "Ya Leil," is coming out soon. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Daniel Estrin.
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