Mai and Amane, Arab Israeli teenagers living in Nazareth, are happy to leave talk about boys and make-up to their peers. They have a political message and they’re telling it through rap music.
The girls, only 15 and 16, make up the duo “Damar” — Arabic for “destruction” — whose mission is to expose what they say is the routine discrimination they experience growing up as part of Israel’s Arab minority.
Mai Zarqawi and Amane Tattur formed Damar after meeting at school in the Jewish-Arab city of Nazareth in 2009, and discovering a shared interest in fighting for Palestinian rights.
“We don’t hate Jews,” says Zarqawi. “We hate the idea of how Zionism came and took over our land and our culture and left us nothing.”
They refuse to identify themselves as Arab Israeli, but rather as Palestinians living in Nazareth, home to some 72,000 people.
And their lyrics are just as direct. “Do you think the third generation will be Israeli, bro? Time will not make them forget but instead it will add history…we don’t want your silence, we don’t want prisons and borders,” they rap in their song “Third Generation”.
“They buy us with money to recruit us all the time, they steal our culture — even humus and ful… The minority is fighting for freedom, Palestine is in our hearts, not forgotten,” it continues.
Israel’s Arab community of 1.6 million, which represents about 20 percent of the population, is made up of the 160,000 Palestinians who stayed behind after establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, and their descendants.
Although they hold Israeli nationality, Arab Israelis in practice remain second-class citizens, with the sector receiving far fewer government resources for health, education and economic development.
They struggle to maintain their cultural and political identity as Palestinians in a Jewish state where any expression of Arab national sentiment is viewed as a threat.
“As a Palestinian, I want to have a voice. I want to have freedom of expression. I love hip-hop and I love my identity. So when you bring them both together, you get Damar,” Zarqawi says.
Inspired by American singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill and US rapper Nas, the girls’ music criticises Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and takes on issues like the towering security barrier that cuts across the West Bank.
“Everywhere we go, we just see the wall in front of us,” Tattur says. “It destroyed our dreams, so through our music we’re going to build a new generation that really understands what is going on here.”
Their lyrics, mostly written by Tattur, also reflect their own teen experience.
“Our first song is about Arab schools being completely different to Israeli schools. We rap about what it’s like growing up with two sides fighting and how this affects us,” says Zarqawi.
“We would talk about how Arab teenagers don’t understand where they are from. They have an identity crisis because they have Israeli ID’s and Palestinian heritage.”
At first, no-one took them seriously. The girls struggled with a taboo against female musicians, and parents who thought the group was a passing fad.
“In the beginning, my parents were like, ‘OK, she’s a teenager, she will forget everything.’ But when we recorded our first song, they started to take me seriously and supported me a lot,” Zarqawi says.
“They let me go perform in Jordan myself, which was a big deal.”
Tattur says her parents also support the group.
“They love what we are doing. It’s the same with our friends. In the beginning no one accepted the idea of us rapping, but they began to understand the lyrics and what message we are trying to get across.”
Their gradual acceptance has paid off with growing success in the Arabic hip hop scene, one of the fastest-growing genres in the Middle East. It first made an appearance on the Palestinian scene in the late 1990s with the formation of the three-piece outfit DAM, otherwise known as Da Arabic MCs.
Another name attracting interest is Shadia Mansour, a British-Palestinian rapper in her mid-20s who has the moniker “the first lady of Arabic hip hop”.
DAM and Mansour both rap about politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but what makes Damar unique is the girls’ young age.
So far, the pair has toured the West Bank and Jordan, and are working on a first album. As for the future, Tattur is an aspiring actress while Zarqawi wants to pursue a career in music. Both, however, insist they will stick with Damar to continue spreading their political message.
“Hair, makeup and boys don’t concern us,” says Tattur. “As a teenager, Israel concerns us. There are a lot of problems here. Some people tell you you’re Israeli, some people tell you you’re Palestinian. So you get confused.
“We want to build a new generation through our music and words,” she adds. “We want to be role models for other teenagers.”