“Welcome to Fikirtepe!” A young man yells out when he notices us passing by. He has correctly identified our motley crew as ‘not from around here’,here being the Fikirtepe neighborhood in Istanbul, and our crew composed of Al Nather, Makimakkuk, Oddz, Ayed of Jazar Crew, and Ahmed (founder of Root Music Istanbul) all Palestinian producers, MCs and DJs featured in the recent Boiler Room documentary ‘Palestine Underground’. We are also accompanied by Year Zero photographers and our art director. Such a large group of people loudly speaking English and simultaneously location scouting around the streets - a couple of them sneaking sips of beer on occasion is bound to attract attention. Fikirtepe is a strange point of urbanization and gentrification in Istanbul, with tall industrial office buildings conveniently lining the highway so as to obscure the many ‘gecekondus’ hiding behind them. ‘Gecekondu’ is the Turkish word for unauthorized constructions, the expression literally translating to ‘it landed in the night’ due to the speedy, often overnight appearances of these buildings.
It is this part of the neighborhood – disorganized, slightly chaotic, institutionally overlooked – that reminds rapper, MC, and producer Makimakkuk most of home – Ramallah. It is a fortunate coincidence, then, that this is the location for our photoshoot. An even more fortunate one that we crossed paths with the group at all, thanks to Roots Music Istanbul, who organized a screening of the Boiler Room documentary followed by a talk and DJ set at Anahit Sahne, a venue for various art performances in Beyoğlu. This event was the beginning point of our discussion earlier, in the crew’s Airbnb. When I arrived, they were still waking up, walking in and out of the living room, setting up the breakfast table, brushing their teeth. Oddz offers me a cup of tea while we wait for everyone to assemble. I take care to distinguish it from the identical ‘thin-waisted’ glass repurposed as an ashtray on the table besides me.
They seem ecstatic about the connection they have found in Istanbul, especially due to the network it opens up for potential collaboration with people from all over the Levant region: “Culturally it’s much more important for us to connect to Istanbul than to Germany, you know?” Ayed points out. Oddz adds “The bridge that we already built at the moment between Palestine and Turkey, and the Levant region, is something that had to happen even a long time ago but… it’s never too late.” The current exodus of people away from their native homes in the Levant due to political unrest seems to have found a common stopping point in Istanbul not for lack of unrest here, but perhaps for the cultural mix it seems to embody despite it all. The disturbance of these dystopian forms of social isolation seems to generate an unexpected sense of community in their place. In Ayed’s words, “even if you don’t want us to be together, we are together. We can just build our own reality”.
This is what these musicians have been able to do for themselves, each other, and even the Palestinian people at large otherwise divided across regions, political structures, and a strong psychological sense of inaccessibility. Ayed, who grew up in Haifa, an Israeli occupied territory, remembers thinking of Ramallah as virtually impossible to get to: “To go to Ramallah, for me, as a kid? I was like how do people go to Ramallah? Once I met some people and they took me out for the very first time I was like ‘What? Nightlife? Party?” Al Nather, from Jerusalem, chimes in: “We couldn’t believe there was another city.”
After a cultural explosion in 2011, events in Ramallah became increasingly common occurrence – Makimakkuk skipped her own graduation celebration to attend an all-day party in the area- and began attracting international attention from the likes of Nicolas Jaar and Boiler Room. Oddz recalls the surprise of a couple of the attendees at the Boiler Room in Jaffa, Tel Aviv: “They said ‘This gig changed my life, what the fuck. We just knew that a DJ from Ramallah was coming and we were like, what the fuck? Ramallah? It’s impossible.” They all stress the strong psychological nature of the divide between areas, and how they seem to dissolve when people cross them. Indeed, Al Nather stumbles over his words somewhat significantly as we talk about this: “Because I live inside – uh, I live outside – I don’t know where the fuck I live.” Ayed helps him out: “The other side.” There is a collective chuckle before Al Nather continues, “Yes, the other side. I had no idea what the fuck that meant. No idea.”
As the Palestinian music scene has grown, and Palestinian DJs and producers from diverse regions have connected, Ramallah has become a regular gig for DJs from areas under Israeli occupation (like Jazar Crew or Oddz) who have slightly more freedom of mobility than their peers from Ramallah. Jazar Crew has also done their part to normalize Palestinian culture in Israeli-occupied territory, which they refer to as ’48, a term coined after the 1948 Palestinian exodus. They have opened their own nightclub in Haifa: Kabareet. The venue was an abandoned Ottoman building before they found and rebuilt it completely DIY. Being an openly Palestinian owned and operated nightclub in an area currently under Israeli occupation does some dismantling of the psychological divide in and of it self. “You’re creating a temporary autonomous zone.” Ayed explains. “and as Israelis, they come. We cannot block them. We cannot say “you cannot enter because you’re Israeli” yeah? But we are very clear. If you respect it, you come back again. If you don’t maybe you will change You know consuming the culture, maybe it will influence you at some point”.
Oddz has some firsthand experience with this: “By playing in Kabareet, and in Haifa also, I saw Israeli people changing and flipping their minds, and just start to consume and appreciate our culture, in a crazy way.” And the music scene has allowed the gap to be bridged both ways, although perhaps not as explicitly in Ramallah. Even when Israeli people do attend shows and parties in Ramallah, seduced by its growing reputation and famous acts like Nicolas Jaar, they do it discreetly, “behaving as any other foreigner”, Makimakkuk elucidates.
“We don’t meet Israelis in Ramallah. If there is an Israeli at our party we wouldn’t know, because they’re not going to speak Hebrew and we’re not going to ask for IDs. This creates another point of tension.” This makes it hard to distinguish between genuine support and mere consumption of the culture. “We are still at the very beginning of change,” says Oddz, “because change from our side, what do we expect? For an Israeli person to change, they need to take action.”
Passive consumption is certainly not a sign of, and even less an equivalent to, outward support for the Palestinian cause in a state that is constantly pushing to ostracize and exclude their population. Parties in Ramallah have started to become strictly regulated since the rise of the music scene, with an explicit midnight curfew enforced by veiled threats. “They tell the venues, the touristic police or whatever, they inform the venues that if the party continues after 12 they would arrest the owners and the DJs. This they don’t say officially, they say it, you know, on the phone” explains Makimakkuk, “But the threat is always there to the point that it creates a psychological thing within your mind as a venue, as a business owner. You’re eventually going to shut the party down at 12:30 thinking the police will come, even if they’re not even thinking about coming.” This accounts for the prevalence of house parties and DIY venues in Ramallah, described by Al Nather as “these very special places where we can put up a sound system and be free inside –in secret”.
This oppression takes on more of a bureaucratic character for him, as the only Jerusalemite present. He recounts a particularly Kafkaesque nightmare involving the blue cover of his Jerusalem ID, torn with age. In order to renew it, he needs to book an appointment six months in advance, be there at 5 in the morning – just to be able to re-issue the cover. I’m shocked: “The cover for the ID? Not even the ID itself.” He nods. “To do anything in the bureaucracy it’s like that.” In the meantime, if he is stopped by a government official, his current ID might not even be considered valid. His national insurance was abruptly halted at some point during the 3 years he was studying abroad, after which he had to provide documentation accounting for the entirety of those 3 years in order to get it back. Makimakkuk interjects: “If he stayed longer, they could have told him ‘fuck off ’. They could just take his ID. He would get issued a green one and he would have to live in Ramallah.” Al Nather lets out a sardonic laugh: “It’s beautiful for the Israeli government, it’s what they want, one less Palestinian.” Even though the flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul is a mere 2 hours, Al Nather and Root Music Istanbul had to devise a 24-hour itinerary to get him to the show. “So, this is why I am such a special case, amongst other things…” Here his laugh becomes genuine, mischievous.
In the face of this gargantuan institution, the world they have been able to create through music production is infinitely precious. Ayed remembers the first time he heard rap music from Ramallah: “Their music was always a reference for us as rebellious music, for me personally and for the crew. Like Muqata’a would release a track and all the guys would be hyped. Especially the hip-hop part of it, we were always waiting for it. You know when you’re waiting for someone to scream loudly your words?”
It’s something that’s worth fighting for, despite how hopeless it may feel at times. Makimakkuk compares it to climbing a ladder: “You’re going up the ladder and you don’t even see that there is a ceiling and BAM. You know? You hit your head. You find yourself rock bottom. It makes you feel like shit, like what the fuck am I doing? Why am I even trying? Maybe I should go and try somewhere else, do it on my own as an artist or take my crew and go somewhere else but… we love it there. We want to be there and we don’t think that anything will change if we keep leaving.” These words hit close to home. This sort of resistance through creative expression is not only surprisingly effective but increasingly necessary, a form of social connection that is harder to police. Ahmed notes how “it was obvious that the music scene in Istanbul & the community were really in need of this kind of thing.” Ayed agrees. “People are hungry.”
Our interview ends on a sentimental note, a sense of familiarity now present in the room – voices talking over each other, sharing cigarettes and breakfast. “You have to try the grilled olives” says Oddz, passing me a plate of this apparently Turkish delicacy I had never heard of before. Makimakkuk expresses her gratitude: “We know it could be a burden and we will try our best to have it not be a burden for Istanbul, but thanks for having it as a safe haven for us to meet, from Syria, from Lebanon, from Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, whatever…” I am also grateful, and note how happy it makes me that Istanbul can still be this point of connection, even though… I trail off. Oddz immediately intervenes, reassuring: “This connection was something really beautiful. It touched a really deep feeling in me, in all of us. And I don’t think it’s going to be the end so… Yallah.”
WE LOVE IT THERE. WE WANT TO BE THERE AND WE DON’T THINK THAT ANYTHING WILL CHANGE IF WE KEEP LEAVING.