This Palestinian Rapper Believes Love Will Conquer Hate When It Comes To Gaza
I am a child of divorce. When I was 10 years old, my parents separated. As anyone else with divorced parents can tell you, it isn't easy at first.
I felt like a ping-pong ball, constantly splitting my time between my parent's two houses. It often felt like I spent more time going back and forth between the two than anything else...
After a couple of years, you get used to this. It becomes a part of your routine. Yet, imagine if going back and forth between your parents' houses meant going through several military checkpoints with soldiers that are indoctrinated to despise you. At these checkpoints, you are often subjected to ridicule, torment and physical abuse.
These are the circumstances that Raffoul Saadeh, a 24-year-old from Palestine, faced every single day while growing up.
In an exclusive interview, Raffoul was brave enough to tell us his story.
When we hear about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the news, we are simply presented with facts and figures accompanied by gruesome images. We are updated on every failed cease-fire, or any small development in peace-talks being held in Cairo.
Yet, we are rarely told the stories of the individuals affected most of all. In this culture of impersonal reporting, we forget that people just like us have to live through this carnage and chaos every single day.
This is precisely why we spoke to Raffoul. Every individual deserves to have a voice, particularly those who fall victim to oppression.
This is Raffoul's story...
Meet Raffoul Saadeh...
Raffoul was born in Connecticut to Palestinian parents, but they moved when he was 7 months old. His family couldn't really afford to live in the United States, so they were forced to return to their homeland.
Although he grew up in Palestine, Raffoul has since returned to the United States. A firm believer in the power of education, he was awarded a scholarship to Georgetown University, where he studied international politics with a focus on Muslim-Christian understanding.
He likely chose this topic because he is somewhat of a rarity in Palestine, in that he is a Christian.
Raffoul’s graduation at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
When most of us think of Palestine, we probably assume that everyone there is Muslim, but that is simply not true. Palestinian Christians make up a little less than 4 percent of the Palestinian population, and they are descendants of some of the earliest followers of Jesus Christ.
According to Raffoul, Christians used to make up nearly 12 percent of the population, but now make up less than 1 percent. Most of them have left due to the conditions there.
In addition to Georgetown, Raffoul has also done work across the United States with death-row inmates, and did Teach for America in Suitland, Maryland.
Raffoul is somewhat of a renaissance man. In addition to teaching, studying and doing altruistic work, he is a talented rapper. He has filmed several music videos in Palestine, and primarily writes about his experiences growing up there in relation to the violence in the region.
At present, Raffoul is still in the United States, but he will return to Palestine in September.
As a consequence of the violence between Israel and Palestine, much of his extended family are part of the 8 million Palestinian refugees that have fled to various parts of the world.
"I have family all over the world, in Australia, Maryland, Connecticut, Toronto, Ecuador, Colombia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria... A lot of my family were part of the refugees that have been kicked out of their homes since 1948."
Most of his family left in 1948 in 1967.
For someone that grew up in such a chaotic region, Raffoul is remarkably well-rounded, and considers himself one of the lucky ones. With that said, his mind still struggles with the horrors and tribulations that he witnessed growing up, and he worries that they have changed him irrevocably...
The Psychological Impact of Growing Up Around Violence
"We basically live in a cage, it's an open-air prison..." This is how Raffoul described the walls and barriers that Israel has put up to separate the Palestinians from Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank. "The living conditions are pretty bad."
He adds that as a consequence of the blockade on Gaza, "The majority of the population relies on humanitarian aid, what kind of life is that?"
Many, including Raffoul, would characterize what Israel has done as a modern-day apartheid. Raffoul describes it as "blatant segregation.
Wall separating Israel and Palestinian.
Thus, growing up in Palestine under these conditions was incredibly distressing. This was particularly true for Raffoul, as his parents were divorced, and one lived in Jerusalem while the other lived in the West Bank.
In essence, this meant that he would have to cross several military checkpoints just to get to their houses or school every single day.
Growing up I had a harder life than most other kids with my parents divorced... My Dad was in the West Bank, and my Mom was in Jerusalem... So to go from my Mom's house to my Dad's house I'd need to pass through these three checkpoints every day... Going to school, I was late almost every day, I was absent a lot... I got into a lot of trouble because of that, it was a side-effect of the conflict... If a soldier felt like torturing you that day and making you stand in the sun for three hours, they could do that and point their gun at you...
At one point, these soldiers even attacked his 75-year-old grandmother at one of these checkpoints. It was Easter, and he was waiting in line with his grandmother amongst thousands of other people waiting enter the Holy Supulchre Church.
There is a checkpoint right in front of the church. Eventually, as the line continued to grow, the Israeli soldiers started to push the barricades at the checkpoint towards crowd.
...My grandma slipped and tried to hold onto the barricade and a soldier pushed her down... I tried to pick up her back and one of the male soldiers smacked her across the face and she fell on the ground... I tried to help her and they started beating me too... And then they carried my grandma to the police...
As a Christian, Raffoul also grew up feeling looked down upon from multiple angles.
"Growing up, there was always discrimination... From Israelis and Muslim-Palestinians... Even though I'm fully Palestinian and fully support the cause, I've kind've felt that I'm stuck in the middle somehow..."
Yet, he noted that all Palestinians are united through the same struggle, regardless of religion.
"We are facing the same attacks, the same open-air prison, the same caging behind apartheid walls... There's always discrimination, there's always radical believers... But in terms of struggle, we die together, we live together, we suffer together, we feel the same time of pain... Of course that's to form a kind of bond that can't be broken..."
Even in the United States, Raffoul has experienced mixed receptions as a Palestinian, and he blames much of this on the American media, which is typically pro-Israel.
.@SeanHannity is on the ground in #Israel with the latest on the Gaza conflict. Tune in tonight at 10p ET. pic.twitter.com/WVccndgw7C — Fox News (@FoxNews) August 4, 2014
Likewise, Raffoul has often felt as though he is constantly stigmatized for being Palestinian:
My experience in the United States is that people really operate through a lot of stereotypes that are built into them through the media... If I had a huge beard, was dark-skinned, and said I was from Palestine, people would probably look at me in a weird way... But I look like I could be from anywhere, so when I introduce myself as a Palestinian, the reaction depends on the person and where they are from... In an airport once... I was flying from Texas, and the officer asked me where I'm from, and I said 'Palestine' and he replied 'Oh, you're from one of those crazy places where people try to bomb themselves,' and tried to give me a high five... People just automatically assume that I'm Muslim, they have no idea I'm Christian... Or they make the assumption that I'm a violent person or that I support active terrorism...
He noted that most of the time, most people weren't really aware of what was going on in Israel and Palestine until this recent Gaza conflict. Which is quite sad, given that American tax dollars directly fund the conflict.
Raffoul did note that the media have begun to show more of the reality of the situation in the current conflict in Gaza. Likewise, he has noticed that more Americans have finally begun to question Israel's motivations when they bomb United Nation's schools full of refugees for example.
Psychologically, Raffoul's experiences have had a deep impact on him, and he often feels like an outcast.
... We try to make a happy life regardless of all the suffering we endure... But it has affected me psychologically... Growing up I was always just depressed... Thinking about death... Fearing if one of my parents or cousins was going to pass away... Fearing if I was going to get tortured today... Even though I came to the USA, I always felt like I stood out from everyone else because I've what I've been through... And that people didn't really appreciate what they had... The memories are always that of pain... But that's what comes with segregation, with apartheid, with walls to separate people, with the demolishment of houses.
Indeed, the Israeli government once demolished Raffoul's home, stating that his family didn't have a license to build there.
...The psychological effect has been the most traumatizing aspect of all of this for me and my family... It just makes you angry and frustrated, and you can't go take it out on the soldiers because you might get shot... So you take it out on each other... You have to live with it.
Raffoul and family.
He noted that some people have it much worse than he does as well. People have been forced to watch their family members die, children have seen their parents burn, and there is really no hope of living a normal life after that.
It's difficult to imagine growing up under such conditions, most of us live such pampered lives in the United States. As I was speaking with Raffoul, however, I was inspired by how much enthusiasm he still has for life, despite his troubles.
More than anything, it seems that making music is what drives him forward...
The Healing Power Of Music
Raffoul has taken all of the pain and suffering he has experienced and created very emotional and powerful music:
Every single word that I rap is inspired by war, by suffering, by discrimination, by human loss... And I use music as an outlet to spread my voice... It evolved out of painful moments in my life... My goal is no different than any other artist out there... I just want to take the listener with me on that same journey of suffering that I went through... That's why I don't bring facts into this... It's not going to speak to you as much as giving a vivid description of a child seeing his own mother die... The hard thing is that people don't really want to listen to reality... That's something I'm trying to change about society today.
From a very early age, he loved hip-hop, and it helped him deal with his daily reality.
Tupac Shakur was one of his first influences. "For me, he actually helped me put up with a lot of the things I was going through, just listening to a lot of his music... I listened to a lot of hip-hop passing through checkpoints... And then one day I started writing verses."
He's also a big fan of Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, Biggie, Jedi Mind Tricks, among other artists.
When he returns to Palestine in September, he plans to focus his energy on making more music and becoming more politically active.
You can check out some of his songs on YouTube...
Love Will Conquer Hate
While the recent chaos in Gaza might lead many to believe this conflict is never-ending, Raffoul has not given up hope. "When I was younger, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't let everything that I've been through affect me as a person..."
Raffoul believes in the power of love and optimism.
He does not hate Israel, or Israelis. He simply wants the suffering of common Palestinians to end.
Raffoul noted that Israelis and Palestinians have lived together normally before, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, before politics and hate replaced peace and love.
He believes that the struggle for peace between Israel and Palestine must fought together by both sides. Raffoul believes in a one-state solution for that reason, as he doesn't believe in separation or barriers.
He ended our conversation with an impassioned call for love and solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians.
People need to talk less about politics and more about understanding and loving one another... We should all be protesting together... I shouldn't be sitting with an Israeli arguing with them, and fighting about who's right and wrong... I should get to know them... Because if you get to know someone as person, then you learn to understand what they want in life and where their perspectives come from... When you bring politics in directly without getting to know each other first that's where the problem lies... We need to teach love and understanding to each other, and that's what's missing in society... I just want people to understand that we're normal people... I have the same heart, brain, and organs as other people. I shed the same blood, and cry the same tears as anyone else... I am a normal person, I just want to have a normal life. That's more important than history, or who's right or who's wrong... The concept of treating each other as human beings and not looking down on others just because they are certain religion or control... And that's important, even on the streets of America...
It's inspiring that someone who has been through so much still believes in the potential of love to breed solidarity, hope, and peace between all peoples.
Raffoul provides a lesson for all of us, that no matter how much darkness there is in the world, a light will always shine through. Love will conquer hate any day of the week.
Photos Courtesy of Raffoul Saadeh