Subversive Sinbads

The Music of Shabjdeed and Al Nather

Jadaliyya Nov 2019English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). It features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed and Myriam Van Imschoot, and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes.

 “We don't do this gang shit

 We're family, Arab style

 Occupation is my trademark

 War zone is where I die

Originated from the Arabian front

Where you won't come or try

We've been there all this time

Don't trust any blonde white guys”  (1)


Al Nather and Shabjdeed - Arab Style 


“He is really accentuating that Arabic accent, ha," my friend commented upon hearing the lyrics above. “Yes, he is. I read in an interview he is known for his heavy accent replacing his Ps with Bs. But I think he is also performative and playing on a trope on how Arabs sound like,” I replied. We were cruising along a highway in Doha, Qatar watching the sun setting behind a sea of palm trees. As we cruised we blasted the music of Shabjdeed, a rapper from Ramallah, Palestine. In his debut album, Sindibad El Ward, Shabjdeed takes you on a musical journey imbued with so much tenacity and emotional prowess that it is both arresting and invigorating. The album is the product of his collaboration with producer Al Nather with whom he formed the collective 'BLTNM', an Arabic play on the world 'platinum'. The album is more of an audiovisual experience than a simple compilation of tracks. The strength of it lies not just in the innovative approach to Arabic rap and hip hop, but also in the narratives it spins, which are full of critiques of apartheid, mobility, neoliberalism and the state of the arts.

In the song 'Arab Style', from which the aforementioned lyrics come from, Shabjdeed oscillates between English and Arabic in a manner of seconds. He opens the song with his slang ridiculing the fact that he has to have an intro as he cusses out loud. Then he immediately transitions into his English where he pronounces each word with an overly accentuated accent. In the English part, Shabjdeed conjures up a personality that responds to both cliché tropes of being Arab and ridicules it. In one line he goes “occupation is my trademark, the war zone is where I die”, commenting on Palestinians constantly being associated and expected to sing about war and the Israeli occupation. While Shabjdeed’s lyrics wittingly critique and convey the various modes of operation of the Israeli occupation, he refuses to be reduced and boxed into a category of music about it. In an interview with Tom Faber at the Guardian, Shabjdeed rejects such limiting labels arguing “I was born here. We’re used to it. They [Israeli soldiers] could come here, start shooting, and we wouldn’t even stop the interview. It’s like traffic in London; it’s very upsetting, but we don’t ask, ‘How does it feel to live in traffic?’” (2) There is a sense of performative bravado in his answer, dismissing the occupation and reconfiguring it to be an issue as mundane as “traffic.” He acknowledges it as an omnipresent apartheid reality, but he does not want his creative energy to be totally subsumed by it. But in his answer, there is also a clear frustration of constantly being expected to discuss and associate his music with the Israeli occupation. Shabjdeed along with Al Nather are [sic] more interested in setting new musical trends than they are interested in identifying with nationalist labels or familiar tropes of 'music as resistance'. While they operate in Ramallah, their recent tour schedule throwing concerts from Beirut to Tunis and their heavy presence on the Arabic web-magazine of contemporary music, Ma3azef, indicates that they are on a clear mission to construct BLTNM as a serious musical brand.

In 'Arab Style', Shabjdeed continues and says “we’ve been here all this time, don’t trust any blonde white guys,” taking a jab at the Israeli attempts of the erasure of Palestine from its geography to its culture. In the Arabic part of the song, Shabjdeed replies to this erasure and conjures up the many rhythms of urban life in Ramallah from troubled romances to creative friendships and partying at rap concerts. In this song, Shabjdeed performs various parts of his personality. He is as much of an entertainer as he is a singer. This indicates that he imagines himself to be a maverick of some sorts, occupying a space on the outside through which he critiques through his music.

In one of his other songs 'Madraseh' Shabjdeed autotunes his voice to an extent that at first seems ridiculous or melodically outdated. (3) But when you play it again and again, the autotune has these nostalgic hints that have a purpose. It is reminiscent of a trademark of the famous Syrian singer, George Wassouf, but together with the slow beat in the background, it gives emphasis to his lyrics in which he comments on addiction, suicidal thoughts and being armed. In the lyrics, Shabjdeed conjures up a narrative of a man joining a military training academy with a sense of confidence and pride, only to be thrown in the notorious Israeli Moscovia Detention Center in Jerusalem. Moscovia with its inhumane and illegal interrogation tactics has occupied the imagination of many in the art sector, with director Raed Antoni’s most recent and controversial film, Ghost Hunting, on trauma and healing being set there. In the song he continues to rap about Moscovia saying that after two weeks in the detention center he asks in Arabic “who is free now?” while dreaming of another and more endearing reality in which he has his own house with a “pool and ping pong table.” The more he goes deep into the pain of detention and longing for a mundane everyday life, the more he autotunes his voice, making it an evocative companion to the lyrics. In her study of Palestinian music from folklore to hip-hop in the refugee camps of the Westbank, scholar Silvia Alajaji argues that through these various performances “a distinct 'Palestine' was beginning to emerge—one in which the past informs the present, the present informs the past, and both become inextricable.” (4) In the Sindibad El Ward album, we witness this multitude. From mapping the geography of apartheid from the Qalandiya checkpoint to the Rafah Crossing to critiquing the use of religion to quell the demands of the public, the album is an experience of contemporary culture from the West Bank.

In 'NKD GLG' an English acronym referring to the transliteration of the Arabic words petulance and anxiety, Shabjdeed and his producer Al Nather present us with a visual homage to Ramallah. (5) Singing across its urban landscapes from its rooftops to its cars, they rap about the taxing and visceral toll of worries and anxiety. In the song, in which all members are decked out in artistic tracksuits, we witness a beautiful interplay of Arabic. In one sentence, Shabjdeed is able to use both classical Arabic and a strong “fallahi” dialect with a heavy emphasis on the 'ch' sound. (6) He breezes through Arabic with incredible ease and his intelligent play on words and reconfiguration of sentences speak to a powerful command of the language. He combines verses from the Quran along with street slang and gives a direct and impactful statement. The cinematography in the video for 'NKD GLG' is haunting and it is due to the work of the creative director and producer Al Nather. In his essay on the 'Architecture of Atmosphere' architect and author Mark Wigley discusses the use of architecture and decor to construct atmosphere and 'moods'. Wigley argues that aesthetics and architecture influence the way we understand and look at space and in the video we witness the many elements of that. (7) he rappers in 'NKD GLG' do not rely on the familiar aesthetics of Palestinian identity such as the Kuffiya, instead wear all sorts of flamboyant and colorful tracksuits indicating they are part of a different urban generation. Their sartorial choices assert to the audience that they are at once vernacular and global in their outreach. They are able to rap about the violence of the occupation while singing about various problems of neoliberalism that concern a wider audience. Aesthetically, the atmosphere in the video is heightened with the manner in which the camera slowly and closely follows the gaze of Shabjdeed as he raps about death and staring it in the eye, with the camera zooming out to show us the nighttime landscape of Ramallah and his friends dancing in a darkly lit car. Despite the lyrics, the atmosphere of this video does not leave the audience with a sense of fatalism instead with a form of radical optimism and an affirmation that Ramallah is BLTNM’s city.

While BLTNM’s album is a force to be reckoned with, rap and hip hop are not a new musical phenomenon in the Arab region. Engaging with tropes such as 'world music' and 'emerging music' is reductive and leads to an erasure of an already vibrant and varied music scene in various Arab countries. Rayya El Zein discusses the orientalist prism of such an erasure arguing that despite the “history of hip hop and rap in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) dating at least to the 1980s, the enthusiasm around 2011 for rap and graffiti cast Arab rappers as suddenly emerging onto the stage of global hip hop.” (8) El Zein highlights that during the Arab uprisings, European and American media outlets branded the accompanying music as “new” ignoring its historical trajectory. Looking at the Palestinian context, in particular, the music scene there is no stranger to producing innovative underground music. The road for Shabjdeed and Al Nather was paved for by other artists such as the hip hop group DAM, a group that originates from Lod, a city riddled with inequality and urban strife. DAM presented one of the earliest and strongest manifestations of the Palestinian street music scene with controversial performances that at times divided audiences and critics. DAM was also one of the very first bands that demonstrated the linguistic capabilities of playing and innovating with Arabic in their rap and hip hop fusion.

In Sindibad El Ward Shabjdeed and Al Nather do not present us with a monolithic narrative of Palestine or a singular message. In one song they are able to produce a tantalizing mixture that creates a sense of melancholy while at once inviting you to dance. When you play their songs expect to be exposed to charged lyrics dealing with urban warfare, sex, and cellphones made in China amongst other platitudes. For a lot of us on the outside, unable to visit Palestine due to the occupation, the album with its narratives of everyday life in Ramallah to its politically charged messaging, serves as an educational companion to contemporary culture and issues being discussed in the West Bank.  A few weeks after I discovered their album, I was walking around an art exhibit in Beirut and a few hours later the song 'Wen Ward' was blasting at the opening party of the exhibit, with various people dancing in beautiful unison. (9) Their music had become ubiquitous and provided us with a forceful sense of hope.



 (1) Al Nather and Shabjdeed, 'Arab Style', track 3 on Sindibad el Ward, BLTNM, 2019, digital.

(2) Tom Faber, “‘If Israeli Soldiers Start Shooting, We Won’t Stop the Interview’: Palestinian Hip-Hop Crew BLTNM,” The Guardian, 19 August 2019,

(3) Al Nather and Shabjdeed, 'Madraseh', track 7 on Sindibad el Ward, BLTNM, 2019, digital.

(4) Sylvia Alajaji, “Performing Self:: Between Tradition and Modernity in the West Bank.” In Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance Since 1900, ed. Moslih Kanaaneh, Stig-Magnus Thorsén, Heather Bursheh, David A.McDonald (Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), 105. 

(5) Al Nather and Shabjdeed, 'NKD GLG', track 4 on Sindibad el Ward, BLTNM, 2019, digital. 

(6) “Fallahi” references a rural accent commonly used by farmers in Palestine. 

(7) Mark Wigley,“The Architecture of Atmosphere.” Daidalos, 1998, 24. 

(8) Rayya El Zein, "From ‘Hip Hop Revolutionaries’ to ‘Terrorist-Thugs’: ‘Blackwashing’ between the Arab Spring and the War on Terror," Lateral 5.1 (2016). 

(9) Al Nather and Shabjdeed, 'Wen Ward', track 2 on Sindibad el Ward, BLTNM, 2019, digital.


Mohamad Khalil. Harb is a Lebanese writer and anthropologist, researching urbanism and social class in the Arab region.