When I produced the first round of video profiles for the Palestinian Gandhi Project, in the Gaza Strip, one of my favorite stories I chronicled was that of the DARG Team (Da Arabian Revolutionary Guys) — a rap group that had tenaciously battled Islamic/cultural prejudice against “Western art” to become so talented they attracted the external attention needed to win coveted visas to Europe for a three-month tour. I caught up with them shortly after their return, and was thrilled to see the change in their worldview that was reflected in their music. In place of words that screamed sadness and anger over the destruction of their land, they were now singing of their pride in their identity and their desire to rebuild. What an inspiration for the youth of Gaza!
And then, upon this most recent return to Gaza, I heard the news: The group had returned for a second European tour, and instead, they had all sought and received permanent asylum in Switzerland and Sweden. All, except for Mohammed Antar, one of its lead rappers.
My first, gut response, upon hearing the news was — I have to admit — an almost personal sense of betrayal. I had showcased the group as “Palestinian Gandhis” — young men who survived the last Israeli war on Gaza (and repeated attempts to silence them by the Islamic government) to become beacons of creative, inspiring resistance. That is, until they chose instead to flee their homeland, leaving its struggles and their imprisoned peers behind for the sake of freedom and the “good life.”
Almost immediately thereafter, I felt guilt. Who was I, a privileged American who never had to make that choice, to condemn youth for seizing the opportunity to live a more “normal” life? It’s so easy to urge others to sacrifice, when you don’t have to do so yourself. And, when chatting with one of the group’s members online, he assured me that they were keeping up the fight by performing their message — just this time with no “prison bars.”
I sought out the lone DARG rapper who had resisted the powerful urge to escape hoping to to find help in deciding which of my conflicting emotions was “correct.”
“I have to be honest, we always thought about seeking asylum when we first landed in Europe. I mean, it was FREEDOM! A chance to wander like we had never experienced before,” recalls Mohammed. “But while for them there was a lure in the freedom to… do whatever they liked, for me…I soon began wondering what my goal was, what my mission was there, if it were not to go back and be with my people. Yes, in Europe, we got a lot of attention, but it seemed to be more pity than anything else — an assumption that you would rather be anywhere else than be stuck in Gaza. The hardcore activists were into the conflict, but not Palestine, not really. The words ‘free free Palestine’ are more about peace and love than they are about destroying Israel. Or at least they should be.”
According to Mohammed, the group overstayed their visa for three weeks as they debated whether to return home from their tour. In the end, they did — but only because he insisted. Later, however, when they were offered the opportunity to return to Europe to debut a rap written in honor of Vittorio Arrigoni — the Italian activist murdered last year in Gaza — the group went, this time determined to seek asylum in the process.
Except for Mohammed. He had broken with the group and stayed behind. “My main purpose is to tell our story by making music, and to do it in solidarity with my people. We were supposed to be the ‘revolutionary guys,’ but instead it felt like we would be cutting and running,” explains Mohammed. He admitted, however, that he also hated the thought of starting from zero — slowly building a new “base” for living, when in Gaza he had finally won hard-earned respect. And in fact, in Gaza, the response was swift. Once the darlings of the Gaza youth, most I talked to now speak of the team bitterly — as if betrayed themselves. They had looked up to them as examples, and now they felt as if they had been robbed. (There were some exceptions, of course. One of my friends explained, “Sometimes you just get tired of Gaza. And..you don’t stop being Palestinian by leaving.” But, the voice in my head says, that very “brain drain” could be the death of Palestine…)
As for his fellow crew members, “they think I am stupid to stay behind,” says Mohammed.
Mohammed is doing just fine, however, The PA Culture Ministry in Ramallah has awarded him $25,000 to develop his own, solo CD, and he is now seeking other sponsors. (To get a taste of his new direction, view his music video with GYBO [Gaza Youth Break Out] founder Abu Yazen in Cairo, as well as his new You Tube channel.) He sings alone, he said (although he is gradually involving his talented, 15-year-old brother), rather than joining the Strip’s other remaining rap group, Palestinian Unit. After the paying the price of being rejected by his DARG “brothers,” he wants to stay true to his own, unique style and message.
I can totally understand why most of the DARG Team grabbed for the brass ring and chose to stay in Europe, and who am I to deny them that chance, when I do not have to live in their shoes? But…my admiration is with Mohammed.