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An unlikely rap battle: How this Israeli-Palestinian duo forged a friendship and a movement

Sameh: When Uriya came to meet me 20 months ago at the bar I was managing in Jaffa, I suspected he was another patronizing Israeli looking for a token Arab for his project.

I have always been an outspoken artist over my 20-year career as a leading performer in the Palestinian rap scene. I have been involved in many different peace and coexistence initiatives over the years where sometimes I found myself being reduced to perspectives I didn’t really agree with. Many NGOs that I had worked with in the past had tried to manipulate me to be “less” Palestinian in order to be more acceptable by the Israeli mainstream.

Uriya: In June 2018, I was inspired by the American rapper Joyner Lucas and his controversial music video “I’m Not Racist,” where a white and Black American each rap the most derogatory stereotypes about the other to their face. I decided to make my own version emphasizing the blunt racism and tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

After two years of hard work of touring the country and speaking with dozens of Arabs and Jews, I had documented their extreme opinions into a six-and-a-half-minute rap battle. I realized that for the project to be truly authentic and impactful, I needed an Arab partner. I had to open myself up on a deep level to different perspectives. That is when in May 2020, a friend connected me to the rapper Sameh ‘SAZ’ Zakout, and my life changed.

Watch the World Premiere of “I Am” — DUGRI’s exclusive new video made for the Forward

Sameh: From first sight, I knew Uriya was different. I saw a person who was asking himself tough questions that others usually don’t. When I told him what my family went through in 1948 and how I feel living as a young Palestinian man in Israel, I saw the attention and openness in his reactions.

I noticed how he listened to my critical perspective of the Israeli government and really felt there was something special about him. Even though he listened with respect and spoke very directly, he did not kowtow and was not apologetic. I saw that he was interested in the truth.

The initial meetings with Uriya inspired me, and after two months of giving him a hard time, I agreed to participate in his project and became fully on board. One or two meetings per week quickly turned into three and sometimes four.

Uriya: We instantly clicked. An initial half-hour meeting became three hours of spontaneous heart-to-heart conversation. We began meeting two to four times a week for a whole year, and delved into an unusual artistic collaboration wholeheartedly. I wanted to learn everything about Sameh’s life and perspective, and I was very straightforward with my questions. When he told me about his family going through the Naqba, at first, I got defensive — “What do you mean, ‘Naqba’? After the UN’s declaration of the partition plan, we celebrated in the streets and you attacked us, remember?”. When Sameh told me about his Communist family being deported from their village, something opened up inside me.

The authors laugh at home with Sameh's mother

The authors laugh with Sameh’s mother Aida, in a visit to her home in Ramle, Israel, June 2021. By David Blumenfeld

For the first time, I was exposed to the Palestinian narrative from a personal point of view. I learned about the nonviolent Palestinian people living in this land, how they became victims of the political situation. Those people on the other side of my Independence Day, are close family members of this charming Arab dude I was becoming friends with.

This level of understanding we had was enabled by our ability to speak very directly while respecting each other’s stories and opinions. I discovered that Sameh, the Palestinian rapper from Ramle, is like me in many ways more than some of my own fellow Jewish people.

Sameh: Our conversations about family, love, politics, human rights, and history opened us to one another and we became close friends. We discovered that we each had grandfathers who were important role models for us; Uriya’s grandfather Yoram Zamosh had personally raised the Israeli flag on the Western Wall in the 1967 war, and Uriya had grown up with his stories of defending the Jewish homeland.

Sameh with Uriya's grandparents

Sameh meets Uriya’s grandparents Yoram and Naama at their home in Aseret, Israel, June 2021. By David Blumenfeld

My grandfather Abu El-Njem, was also deeply charismatic, well-educated and a proud Communist who was forbidden by Israel’s government to teach Palestinian history, due to his influence on the community. He always taught me not to hold a weapon, but rather to educate myself and to work hard, speak my truth and be a functioning part of society.

The fact that Uriya was fascinated by my stories and the way he opened up to my narrative, gave me confidence in collaborating with him and co-creating together. I learned a lot about myself and improved my understanding of our world through the deep conversations I had with Uriya, but more than anything, I learned to trust him as a friend. I grew to identify with the values that motivated him.

Uriya: Giving up control I had over my project was not easy for me. Making Sameh a partner also meant that I couldn’t make decisions by myself anymore. We started by going over the Arab side’s lines I initially created, highlighting the ones Sameh wasn’t comfortable with and eventually replacing them with new lyrics in Arabic.

Using the creative model Joyner had laid out in “I’m Not Racist,” we tried to choose the harshest and most nasty words we could come up with. We based our lyrics on the interviews I conducted across the country, adding Sameh’s words and personal touch. I asked him tough questions about the Arab culture and society, bringing up charged issues like “murder for family honor” and the complexity of a dual Palestinian / Israeli identity, and his answers were very patient and enlightening.

The authors rapping in their first video

Uriya (R) raps the worst stereotypes about Palestinians to Sameh (L) in their first video, “Bo Nedaber Dugri | Ta’al Nihki Dugri.” By Vadim Mechona

We treated these sessions like therapy, just allowing ourselves to speak very freely and accept everything the other has to say without judgment. After recording Sameh’s responses, we focused on transforming them into rap bars rhyming Hebrew and Arabic, to emphasize the fact that most Arabs speak Hebrew, while the majority of Israeli Jews do not speak Arabic. This entire process made us become closer friends, despite the problematic language we used in the rap to demonstrate the raw bigotry and racism of our societies.

Eventually, we decided to name our project “Let’s Talk Straight” (Hebrew: Bo Nedaber Dugri | Arabic: Ta’al Nihki Dugri), as the word “dugri” (in “straightforward”) is a very commonly used word in both of our languages.

Sameh: The relevancy of the project was immediately apparent as tensions between Jews and Arabs reached a seemingly new high during the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas that broke out in May.

The timing of the project release on May 21 — on the exact day of the cease-fire with Gaza and two weeks after the horrendous riots started in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel — was completely coincidental. We published the video the moment it was finally ready.

Watch DUGRI’s viral video “Bo Nedaber Dugri | Ta’al Nihki Dugri”

Those extremely tense days only showed us what good friends we have become. We spoke daily and tried supporting each other emotionally as our people were fighting each other. It felt like what was happening to our communities on the ground is the cosmic “backwind” we needed to finish our social project and release it to the world.

Uriya: Our people were hating each other and losing hope in the streets, while we were becoming best friends and establishing a unique partnership. It was surreal.

The events in May showed us how important our work is and made us much more committed to each other. We both became fully devoted to this unique partnership. Sameh and I were proud to be able to experience the differences between us, celebrate them and co-create from them. We don’t agree on everything, and sometimes we make each other mad, but we value each other’s qualities, especially the ones less present within us. There is so much potential from learning from one another and combining our knowledge and skills to make something impactful.

The authors walk arm-in-arm on their first video set

Uriya Rosenman and Sameh Zakout walk arm-in-arm on the set of their first video “Bo Nedaber Dugri | Ta’al Nihki Dugri.” By Vadim Mechona

Sameh: Thankfully we got 100 times more love and admiration in response to our video than hatred and fear. “Bo Nedaber Dugri | Ta’al Nihki Dugri” received over five million views on social media channels and more than 50 articles were written about us in publications around the world, including The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC. We received thousands of messages from Gaza, the West Bank, other Arab countries, and people across the globe supporting our initiative and approach. Most of the positive feedback we get focuses on the level of truth and directness we bring as an Israeli-Palestinian duo, and the quality of the delivery, something we are very proud of.

The authors Sameh and Uriya together in a selfie at a bar

The authors in a selfie captured at Mansheya, a bar in Jaffa that Sameh managed. Courtesy of Sameh Zakout & Uriya Rosenman

Uriya + Sameh We are not trying to solve a decadeslong conflict with a viral video. However, we are extremely confident in the approach we organically discovered through our partnership: tolerating complexity, speaking authentically, and advocating for moderation. We do not have a specific solution, but we believe in a long-term friendship and commitment to truth and collaboration as the best place to start.

After defining our mutual goals as a unique duo of a Jewish educator and a Palestinian artist, we decided to establish DUGRI, an authentic content social venture, making work that speaks from the moderate majority of both societies. Our primary focus is on education, delivering workshops to teenagers across the country.

The authors speak to high school graduates

DUGRI speaks to Israeli, Arab and Druze high school graduates as part of a Israeli society seminar in a gap-year preparatory course. Some of the students will go on to serve in the army, others will participate in national volunteer programs. By Lidor Arber

In our lectures, we speak about the story and process of creating our first video while becoming best friends, and how it’s connected to the reality of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians in this region.

For many of the kids we meet, we are an indigestible duo. We do not fit the stereotypes they’ve seen on TV, nor are there many examples of Israeli-Palestinian friendship. After the first shock of seeing those guys from the video who called each other horrible names now sitting and speaking as best friends, the students warm up. They start getting into blunt, sincere questions.

In other words, they start talking dugri.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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