Queer Musician Bashar Murad: “Just Being Palestinian Is Political”

Queer Musician Bashar Murad: “Just Being Palestinian Is Political”

Queer Musician Bashar Murad: “Just Being Palestinian Is Political”

Published June 5, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photo by
Brynjar Snær Þrastarson & Patrick Onkovic

Few Icelanders had any knowledge of musician Bashar Murad until May, when anti-capitalist BDSM techno lads Hatari dropped a post-Eurovision video—shot in Palestine during the Israel-hosted competition—for a new song called “Klefi/Samed.” Co-written with Bashar, the single spotlights his powerful, haunting vocals, with lyrics that are a defiant cry for freedom (“samed” means “steadfast”).

Released on the eve of Hatari’s post-Eurovision tour of Iceland—during which Bashar appeared onstage as a guest vocalist—the video attracted considerable attention, not least for the raising of the Palestinian flag.

“People think that we’re attacking someone [in the video] just by raising a flag,” says Bashar. “But we’re not attacking anyone. We’re just saying that we exist. As a Palestinian, I feel that my identity is constantly under attack. Most of the negative comments are saying ‘Palestine doesn’t exist, Palestinians don’t exist.’ It’s very disheartening. That’s why I felt it was so important to raise the flag in the video.”

The story behind how the single came to be made is interesting in itself, but it’s Bashar’s story that ought to command more attention, for his background, his dreams, and the work that he continues to diligently produce against the odds.

Breaking the norms

As Hatari prepared to travel to Tel Aviv to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest, they stated in numerous interviews that they intended to highlight the Palestinian cause. On the sidelines of the contest, they also wanted to collaborate with Palestinian artists. Mutual friends put Hatari and Bashar in touch, and when Hatari suggested working together, he was receptive.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to all of Palestine. I think every Palestinian feels that way.”

“There was a lot of pressure on them to boycott Eurovision,” he says. “I myself thought it would be best for people to boycott. But there should be room to find different ways to show solidarity and challenge the system, and I thought that this band could do that. Of the 43 participants at Eurovision, I think they were the only ones who commented on the occupation, or about anything that’s going on there.”

The collaboration happened remotely. Hatari sent their parts of the song to Bashar, and he recorded his parts and sent them back. “I felt a reflection of what I do in Hatari,” he says. “My music is all about challenging norms and breaking stereotypes about Palestinians in general; breaking gender norms and societal pressures that want everyone to be the same, and reject anyone who’s a little different.”

Bashar was also keen to show the band his Palestine once they arrived. “They weren’t about to be given tours of checkpoints or the separation wall, or anything negative;” he says. “[Eurovision] was all about showing Israel in the best light possible—so to me it was very important to show them both sides of the story.”

Life in music

Bashar grew up in East Jerusalem, the son of the groundbreaking Palestinian musician Said Murad, who founded the band Sabreen in 1980. The band enjoyed a 20-year career, and Bashar was born during the height of their fame.

This would end up having a profound effect on him. “Music was always an escape for me, an escape from the reality of living there,” he says. “I grew up with two kinds of pressure: the pressure of occupation—the physical and emotional pressures of checkpoints, walls, curfews, constant military presence and soldiers always in your face pointing guns at you for no reason—and then the other kind of pressure, of living in a conservative society that is scared of anyone who’s different. Being gay in that environment was very difficult. Music was the only way to escape it. I would write songs and sing for hours, it was like therapy for me.”

Doubly divided

As he tells it, East Jerusalem is in many ways doubly divided; separated from the rest of the city and from the rest of Palestine itself.

“East Jerusalem is under Israeli military occupation, under international law,” Bashar explains. “But recently [US President Donald] Trump decided—I don’t know why—that it’s the undivided capital of Israel. This disregards all the basic agreements detailing how, when the Palestinian state is established, East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine.”

“Although we have all these limitations on us, you have artists like me who are fighting tooth and nail to get their voices out, somehow.”

“I’ve been seeing all these comments saying that because I live in East Jerusalem, I’m free to express myself under Israeli rule,” he continues. “In reality, my community is all Palestinian. I’m a Palestinian who has a Palestinian experience—just like the people in the West Bank and Gaza—although it may be different. Life in East Jerusalem is very separated. I’m surrounded by West Jerusalem and Israeli settlements, so it feels like you’re on this little island that has its own unique character—but then you have the West Bank, which is separated by a wall from the rest of the Palestinians. This was done on purpose, to divide us and separate us.”

Desire for change

This separation has a profound effect on the cultural life of East Jerusalem, especially because Palestinians on the West Bank cannot go there. “At the same time, the people who are there have a very strong desire to make a change and do great things,” says Bashar. “Although we have all these limitations on us, you have artists like me who are fighting tooth and nail to get their voices out, somehow. This is what encourages me to keep working and to keep doing what I’m doing.”

One of Bashar’s goals is to build bridges between people in the West Bank and people abroad. “It’s very difficult to live there,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re just being suffocated, and sometimes you think it might be easier to just leave and be free. But if everyone who’s educated and cares about culture and music leaves, then who’s going to be left? Who’s going to take care of the city? This is why I stay.”

“You couldn’t do that in Palestine!”

One of the more frequent criticisms levelled at Hatari during Eurovision was that they couldn’t possibly perform in Palestine because the country is intolerant and homophobic—a criticism Bashar made the point of addressing.

“When you have a voice, you want to use it in the best way you can—not just for yourself, but for all Palestinians.”

“Growing up there, I’ve seen a lot of positive changes in the way people think,” he says. “Especially in people around me. They’ve changed the way they think because of meeting me and knowing me. I think that people can’t understand anything that’s different until they have a direct experience with it.”

“Secondly, Israel is painted as a safe haven for queer Palestinians,” he continues. “This might be true in many situations, but it’s not right to generalise a whole population as homophobic. And it’s not right legitimise occupation by saying ‘Palestinians do this.’ Furthermore, Tel Aviv is the only bubble in Israel that’s very accepting of queer people. There was a gay parade in Jerusalem a few years ago, and a Haredi Jew stabbed one of the people walking in the parade—but I don’t then generalise that “all Jews or all Israelis hate queer people.” It’s an argument that doesn’t get us anywhere, and it’s exhausting. How do you get through to those people who are being brainwashed?”

At the same time, he cautions that those who want to show support for him or Palestine as a whole mind their words. “I don’t like seeing comments that say ‘fuck the Jews.’ That’s not what I’m about at all,” he says. “That’s very frustrating. They think they’re helping by saying stuff like that, but that’s not what I’m going for, at all. We want peace, at the end of the day, we want to be recognised and we want justice. We don’t want to talk shit about another people.”

Evolving attitudes

Bashar attributes much of his success in opening minds to his approach to these tough issues.

“My music is always about encouraging people to be more tolerant and accepting,” he says, “and to talk about serious issues, but in a light, satirical way, because I think that’s how you reach people. I don’t like to be too aggressive about things, because I think it takes time to change people’s minds and open their eyes. I always say that I don’t want the occupation to define me. There’s so much more to being Palestinian, and I want to show what that’s about. My videos always showcase Palestinian artists and dancers, and other people who are breaking societal norms. I’m very driven by that, and it encourages me that I get a lot of support back home.”

On one occasion, Bashar performed at a Palestinian queer party, performing his song “Everybody’s Getting Married” in a wedding dress. “People loved it!” he says. “And that encourages me to keep going—seeing that there’s so much support, and that there are people who share the same morals I do. These people are the ones who will make a change.” He also welcomes when people are confused by all this, because, as he says, “It’s good to get people to think and to question what is normal.”

The responsibility

Although Bashar emphasises that he doesn’t want to be defined by the occupation, he also feels a strong sense of duty towards his country.

“I just want to be a major pop LGBT icon, like Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury.”

“I feel like I have a responsibility to all of Palestine,” he says. “I think every Palestinian feels that way. You grow up learning about the Nakba, about all the history and the suffering, and you witness it on a daily basis in your interactions with soldiers and police, how you’re treated like a second-class citizen. So when you have a voice, you want to use it in the best way you can—not just for yourself, but for all Palestinians. Because you see that they all suffer, and that some people are more privileged than others.”

Bashar considers himself a more privileged Palestinian by virtue of living in Jerusalem, which grants him a different kind of ID, and the ability to travel more extensively than someone living in the West Bank. The geopolitical situation makes it difficult for Palestinian artists to grow an international audience. “Not a lot of people come to Palestine to check out the music scene,” Bashar says.

The Palestinian scene

However, there is the Palestine Music Expo, started by Martin Goldschmidt and Palestinian artists. Held in Ramallah every April, PMX is a three-day festival of Palestinian artists with music delegates from all over the world. And for those who cannot make it to PMX but want to check out Palestinian music, Bashar recommends the Spotify playlist Palestine Sounds.

With all these challenges at play, Bashar’s dream, ultimately, is to be able to keep doing what he is doing. “I just want to be a major pop LGBT icon, like Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury,” he says.

“My dream is to keep performing. That’s what I love the most. And at the same time, raising awareness and telling people our stories, because when you’re a Palestinian musician, you can’t just be a musician. It’s always going to be political somehow. Just being Palestinian is political. Everything you do is a political statement. So it’s important to me to keep performing and keep making music, and to create a space where people can be themselves and be accepting of everyone and not to judge people based on the colour of their skin, or their background, or their gender.”

You can check out more of Bashar Murad’s music and other creations on YouTube, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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