Sama: Partying in Palestine

© Desiré van den Berg

Words by:

It was sunset when Sama Abdulhadi stepped up to the decks in a plain black t-shirt, her wavy hair loose. 300 dancers thronged the leafy patio of Radio Bar, pressing towards the booth for the most anticipated set of the night. It was the first time Boiler Room had streamed a party in Palestine. The scene was finally catapulted onto a global stage, and the world was watching.

Beyond the garden, the streaming numbers were rising online. A Boiler Room organiser later told me that Sama’s viewing figures wildly exceeded expectations, reaching the kind of numbers they would see for techno’s top tier acts.

No one who saw Sama’s confident set would be surprised to hear she is the West Bank’s most successful DJ export, now touring Europe under the name SAMA’, working on multiple studio projects and an alumna of Paris’ prestigious Cité internationale des arts. Two months before the Boiler Room set I saw Sama enter that same garden, then-packed with smiling families and dogs rather than sweating ravers. Dressed in an old bomber jacket that seemed too heavy for such a sunny afternoon, she sat and told me about her unconventional journey to the top.

We were in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, where the electronic music scene has been steadily gaining prominence. Though she spent her childhood around this breezy, rubble-strewn city built across green hills, Sama’s family is not native to it. Like many Palestinians, her family history charts a series of exiles: her mother’s family forced to leave what is now Israel to Jericho in the 1948 war, then her father expelled from the country in 1969 because of his own mother, who had called for a sit-in and hunger strike to protest the killing of women in Gaza. He was finally allowed to return with his young family in 1994.

Sama speaks with a deep, assured voice but moves around with fidgety energy. It’s easy to imagine her as one of the hyper kids growing up. Her first outlet for this was breakdancing, after she discovered hip-hop as a teenager. At school parties her classmates would listen to commercial music radio, which was regularly interrupted by local news. This news was rarely positive.

From the age of 10 to 16, Sama lived through the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel which resulted in thousands of deaths, and its aftermath. She recalls Israeli soldiers taking over her family home and credits her parents with distracting her siblings from the conflict on their doorstep. “They made a game about how to light candles without a sniper detecting you,” Sama remembers. “Or when the water went out we would collect it from the rain. They got us through six years of war, man.”

"There's nothing. No people, no war, no nothing. Just you and the music, and you let everything out”

The Second Intifada also led to the construction of the separation barrier, the contentious wall which separates Israel from the West Bank. Sama treats it with typical irreverent humour. “All roads lead to Rome,” she smirks, “except in Palestine. Here it’s either Rome or a wall.” Many young Palestinians climb the eight-metre wall to get into Israel, including DJs who play on the other side. This is not Sama’s style. To enter Israeli territory legally she has to apply for a permit, a notoriously unpredictable process. It’s been a long time since she last climbed the wall.

“I did a couple of times as a kid,” she says, suddenly serious. “I remember one of my first friends that died, he used to live in Jerusalem. I didn’t even think, I just jumped over, went to the funeral and stayed in that house. Then I came back.”

Sama discovered dance music at 16, via two CDs from trance-pop giants Tiësto and iiO. Two years later she discovered clubbing and techno in Beirut, and went on to study sound design before moving to Egypt to work in film. It was there that she heard about French festival Palest’In & Out, which showcases Palestinian artists in France. Sama was offered a six-month residency in Paris, and sealed the deal with a festival set in front of a massive crowd. “I was terrified with 1000 people in front of me for the first time,” she says. “I was used to playing to 30.”

© Desiré van den Berg

It’s not easy for a European promoter to book a Palestinian artist – especially one from the West Bank. While Palestinians born in Israel hold Israeli passports and can travel easily, Palestinians from the West Bank have Palestinian passports, which are one of the worst in the world for freedom of travel. Getting visas is expensive and laborious, while foreign travel takes a lengthy route via Jordan. Sama only saw this after she moved to Paris, where she still lives. “I understand why no one was booking me back then,” she reflects.

Being free from Israeli control does not mean Sama is free from the expectations she encounters as a Palestinian in Europe. She is often booked for events on the assumption that her selections fit a Western stereotype of Arab music. Her heads-down techno could hardly be more different. Even when she is booked for appropriate events, she’s used to being advertised by her gender and nationality rather than her mixing. “Stop booking me because I’m Palestinian or because I’m a girl,” she says. “I want you to book me because of the music.”

While Sama doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by her Palestinian identity, some Western DJs have been speaking out on the politics of her homeland. In September the #DJsForPalestine campaign swept across social media, with DJs offering support for Palestinians by pledging not to perform in Israel until the end of the “brutal and sustained oppression of the Palestinian people”. Sama felt encouraged by the messages of solidarity, saying: “They make us feel powerful and heard.”

“Palestinians need to get away from the reality they're in, to be able to sustain until tomorrow”

Yet while Western DJs can decide how political they want to be, Sama is not given this choice. “Politics follows me everywhere,” she says, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” People come up to her at performances and ask about the intricacies of Israeli domestic policy. “Sometimes I don’t even understand what they’re asking me,” she explains. “The second you say you’re Palestinian, everyone’s like: ‘Oh damn, how do you feel?’ And I’m like: ‘I’m good, and you?'”

In a context where Palestinian culture and identity is under threat, the mere fact that Sama is a touring Palestinian DJ is a political statement. But that doesn’t mean that she, or her music, must take on an explicit political dimension. “I don’t work as a Palestinian,” she says, “I work as a techno DJ.”

Her greatest pleasure, though, is to work as a techno DJ in Palestine. She takes frequent trips from Paris to Ramallah to play at bars and house parties. The West Bank scene has been steadily growing over the past ten years. Promoters go to extreme lengths to avoid local restrictions: tempting international DJs to ignore the headlines and come to Palestine, starting parties in the afternoon to obey the midnight curfew and going all the way to Jordan to source quality sound equipment.

There are only a couple of good venues in the West Bank so far, but the scene is expanding rapidly – once there were parties every few months, now they’re almost weekly. While the logistics and the politics may be different, when you get to the dancefloor, it’s just like partying anywhere. The one difference is the crowd, who turn up on time and raring to go. So far local promoters have hosted UK garage pioneer El-B and Exit Records’ Sinistarr. Both were taken aback by the furious energy on the dancefloor, and the locals’ special taste for higher tempos and complex rhythms.

The parties in Palestine have also brought together Palestinians connected by blood and language but divided by history. Palestinian populations have long been splintered between the West Bank, Gaza or cities within Israel like Haifa or Jaffa. Now they are getting together for regular parties in the West Bank and major events like Nicolas Jaar’s 2017 headline show in Ramallah. Sama’s new Electrosteen project also brings together a variety of Palestinian producers who remix traditional songs as hip-hop, techno and reggae.

Last time I visited the West Bank, I saw Sama play in a shabby belly-dancing club outside Bethlehem, sandwiched between an olive grove and a construction site. The crowd was small, mostly friends, and Sama danced furiously until it was her turn on the decks. Whether in Palestine or abroad, dancing always gives her the chance to disconnect.

“There’s nothing,” she told me, “no people, no war, no nothing. Just you and the music, and you let everything out. Palestinians need to get away from the reality they’re in, to be able to sustain until tomorrow.” The party was defined by its location, yet somehow placeless; it was defiantly political yet no one was talking politics. It was able to contain these contradictions. When I asked Sama what made the energy at each Palestinian party so fierce, she had an answer ready: “It might always be the last one.”

Photography: Sama was shot at her home in Paris by Desiré van den Berg

The Electrosteen project is due in December

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