Meet the Palestinian DJ who sparked a political storm

Meet the Palestinian DJ who sparked a political storm
In-depth: The arrest of DJ Sama after hosting a techno event in the West Bank reveals a deeper set of tensions within Palestinian society.
6 min read
28 January, 2021
'I've been getting death threats since that day'. [Getty]
Sama Abdulhadi, aka DJ Sama, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority on 27 December, a day after hosting a techno event inside the compound housing the Shrine of the Prophet Moses. 

She is accused of desecrating a religious space and violating Covid-19 protocols. Sama, 30, was jailed for eight days and released on bail on 3 January. She remains barred from international travel and faces up to two years in prison if proven guilty. 

"It was not a party. There were no drugs or alcohol. It was a boring film set and my friends were there as extras," Sama told The New Arab. "We weren't even in the mosque, and we had permission from the authorities," she continued.

The cultural and/or religious status of the Maqam Nabi Musa, as it is known in Arabic, is ambiguous. The 15th century structure houses a mosque, but also a hostel, restaurant and a bazar-style square where the filming and DJ set actually took place. 

Sama had been commissioned by US group Beatport to produce a series of music videos in places of cultural and historical importance across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Emails published by The New Arab's Arabic language service Al-Araby Al-Jadeed confirm the event was given the go-ahead by Jehad Yasin, Director General of Museums and Antiquities at the PA Ministry of Tourism, which oversees the site. 

All was well it seemed, until filming was interrupted by a group of to-date unidentified young men, armed with batons, who were heard shouting: "Get out! This is a mosque!" Not wishing to escalate the situation, Sama, the crew, and her friends packed up and left, hoping this would be the end of the matter. 

Sama Abdulhadi has undoubtedly been caught in the middle of a wider social, cultural, and political storm of which she is only a part

However, videos of the heated altercation quickly spread online, along with false rumours about 'naked dancers' and drugs and alcohol at the event. "I've been getting death threats since that day," Sama says.

Fearful of a public backlash, PA officials pointed the finger at one another, or, like ex-Education Minister Sabri Saidam, sought to capitalise on the controversy by whipping up religious sentiments for personal gain.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced the appointment of an investigative committee. However, reports in al-Quds newspaper revealed that some officials, including ministers, had refused to even show up for questioning, raising doubts about the investigation's integrity. 

At the same time, many rallied in support of Sama, including members of several civil society groups. In a Facebook post, Human Rights Group Al-Haq condemned Sama's "unlawful" imprisonment. Meanwhile, a petition on calling for her immediate release gathered over 100,000 signatories. 

Instagram Post

Following an initial police investigation, the Public Prosecutor recommended that Sama be released but, surprisingly, on 29 December a judge extended her detention by an additional 15 days. 

"It seems there was pressure from above, otherwise they would have followed the Prosecutor's recommendation and released Sama earlier," a Palestinian lawyer suggested to The New Arab. For their part, the PA claim they were holding Sama for her own safety.

Regardless of the outcome of her trial, the unfortunate events surrounding Sama's arrest reveal a deeper set of tensions.

In recent years, Israel's stranglehold over the occupied West Bank has tightened, particularly in the Jordan Valley where the Nabi Musa compound is located, an area Israel has openly said it wishes to annex permanently.

For decades now, Palestinians have looked on as sites of cultural, historical, and religious significance have been slowly stripped away from them. Anger and resentment at the status quo have been building up for years, feelings exacerbated by a moribund peace process, falling living standards, and now Covid-19.  

In this context, some of this anger may have been directed at Sama. On the Friday following her arrest, Palestinian men prayed at the shrine asserting the site's Islamic status. They also burned furniture and mattresses from the hostel, in an apparent suggestion that they had been sullied by Sama and her friends. 

A few days later, armed Jewish settlers were filmed at the maqam, only this time the reaction from Palestinians was comparatively muted. 'Where are the Muslims?' asks the man behind the camera. 

Whereas retaliation against the occupation or armed settlers is difficult and dangerous, Sama was an easy target. As a woman from a notable Palestinian family, she has been scapegoated, a member of a privileged elite perceived to be living it up while the disenfranchised majority suffer the onslaught of occupation and poverty. 

Should Sama have known better? "No," she insists. "I'd never been to Nabi Musa before nor heard of it. I was just told there was a hostel and it was fine to film there". This is plausible: the site had fallen into disrepair over the last few years, becoming a drug rehab centre until it was refurbished by the PA with help from the UNDP and the EU in 2019. 

While she is unapologetic, Sama does hint at some empathy with her critics. "We never knew how much of a bubble we live in. We [Palestinians] are separated by the Occupation to a point that we don't know each other anymore." 

As for the young men who crashed the event, they are being claimed by a range of factions and political groups but very little is known about their true identity. "They said they are from Shuafat," a poor East Jerusalem refugee camp, said one attendee, but what this means socially or politically is still unclear.  

We never knew how much of a bubble we live in. We are separated by the occupation to a point that we don't know each other anymore

The controversy has also sparked a debate over what constitutes "national" culture. Many seemed to have been angered more by the genre of techno itself than the alleged "desecration" of the shrine, where historically music was always performed during the annual Nabi Musa religious festival. Indeed, at the shrine's re-opening ceremony in 2019, attended by PM Shtayyeh, live music, albeit of a more traditional bent, was also performed.  

However, the alternative live music scene in Palestine today is limited to the middle and upper classes enclaves of Ramallah and Bethlehem, and techno remains largely "underground", according to Sama. 

Nabi Musa shrine in the occupied West Bank. [Getty]

To the cultural puritans, who deny her art is Palestinian or Arab, Sama quips: "Techno is Amr Diab minus the voice. It is electronic music, which is already everywhere in Arabic music". 

Understandably, she feels hurt and betrayed: "When I play in big festivals in Europe, I'm the only Palestinian. I've always been proud of that. I've never received hate messages. I'm shocked that the first time this happens, it comes from within Palestine, from Palestinians." 

As for what comes next, Sama intends to finish the projects she started, but she is obviously shaken.

"I'm still confused. I've been having messed up feelings. I'm at a crossroad. One path to the light, and another to darkness."

Sama Abdulhadi has undoubtedly been caught in the middle of a wider social, cultural, and political storm of which she is only a part. In Palestine's current state of chaos and anomie, stories like hers find fertile ground to grow and spread out of control, leaving her in the crossfire, but revealing a deeply divided society living a moment of transition and crisis.

Ziad Al-Qattan is a London-based freelance journalist. He holds an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter: @ziadqattan