Sabreena da Witch: the first lady of Palestinian R&B

Sabreena da Witch (Ben Baker-Lee)

Sabreena da Witch, aka Abeer Alzinaty, made her first visit to Canada in March. Featured on the bill of hip hop shows in Toronto and Montreal, her tour was part of the sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week, where she also met with other artists, media workers and activists concerned with justice for Palestine.

Alzinaty has come a long way since she first started making music. Growing up in her hometown of Lydd she spent much of her life breaking the taboos imposed on her as a Palestinian woman living as a second-class citizen in Israel. About six months ago, Alzinaty decided it was time to produce her 15-track album featuring songs she has been writing for the past ten years.

“I was sitting at home thinking about how much progress male artists get in the industry, and it happens very fast,” said Alzinaty. “Female artists who speak only about politics or [only about] love, they grow fast too. Artists like me get pushed to the side. So I started my own company with my partner, with our own money and we did it ourselves.”

Much of Alzinaty’s music addresses not only love and politics, but also gender issues and her experience as an Arab woman.

“All of the songs are written from the point of view of a woman who’s a witch, who happens to be a woman of color, who happens to be a Palestinian,” she explained. But it’s not only Alzinaty’s identity that motivates her to rap about such issues in her music.

“I don’t believe in boxes; if Palestine was not under occupation, I probably wouldn’t be talking about it. It has nothing to do with me being Palestinian, but more with me feeling that this is wrong — the way Israel is [behaving] is just not OK.”

Though Alzinaty started singing at a very early age, it wasn’t until the second Palestinian intifada that she became aware of the politics surrounding her. She recalls her youth, and how she wrote poems in the seventh and eighth grade grappling with what it meant to be a Palestinian in Israel.

“I was never told about what it is to be Palestinian and the second intifada put that in my face. Thirteen Palestinians inside of Israel were shot [and killed] and we realized that to have an Israeli passport does not make you any [more] special. If the Israeli army doesn’t like you, you may be shot and nobody will care,” she said.

At that time she began sending mass emails about what was happening during the intifada to her fellow Palestinian friends living inside Israel, signing them with the name Sabreena da Witch. When she started to sing about Palestine her actions were seen as shameful to the community because of her hip hop style, and she received little support. Alzinaty recalled, “I was a woman first and just then a Palestinian. I used to sing for Palestine, come home and my parents would yell for hours.”

Alzinaty eventually had to lie to her parents about going to recording studios. Five years ago, she was planning to go on her first tour with a number of Palestinian hip hop artists and was threatened to be killed under the guise of “honor” by her male cousins. In the end it was her parents’ decision that prevailed and she did not take part in the tour.

While “honor killing” remains a serious problem that continues to plague women in her hometown of Lydd and in other Palestinian communities in Israel, Alzinaty has become an outspoken advocate against the crime. She tirelessly challenges her own community on issues of gender, while at the same time works to diffuse the misconception that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” and a safe haven for women of any background.

I was fired from my work for speaking Arabic in Israel. Democracy, it is not. If you just live there for two days you will know that if you’re not Jewish, you’re a nobody. I’m always treated like a Palestinian and they remind me of that every day. There is not even the illusion of democracy there.”

She added, “Israel never protected Arab women when it comes to honor killing. They know how problematic it is when it comes to families and tribes and they use it against Palestinians. If a woman is scared and it’s obvious that she is going to be killed, they say it has nothing to do with us. It shows you they don’t care about me, that it’s a lie.”

During her second year in college, Alzinaty was invited by an Israeli women’s organization, mentoring young Palestinian women in occupied East Jerusalem. According to Alzinaty, it was there where she grew both professionally and personally. Connecting with young Palestinian women coming from a background similar to her own, and who shared like ambitions, gave her the feeling of sisterhood. She also felt it was her opportunity to provide these young women with a different kind of role model than the ones present in the mainstream media.

Though a difficult move, in 2007 Alzinaty left Palestine to Baltimore, US, where she currently resides. Once believing that the men in her community were the problem and that women in the US had it figured out, she was surprised when she was forced to deal with sexism at her workplace and elsewhere.

“I come here [to the US] and it’s worse because women here believe they are free and they’re doing great. I can understand; my women, we’re not only occupied, we’re still living in tribal communities. What is the excuse for women here?”

Alzinaty’s visit to Toronto was the first time she was interviewed by women and as a woman. Previously, she was expected to speak only about Palestine. When she spoke of other subjects, such as women’s or queer rights, the discussion would inevitably return to the Palestine question.

“They would say, ‘That’s not our main subject, can we go back to Palestine?’ I was like, ‘I am Palestine!’ I’m a Palestinian person, whenever I speak, I speak of Palestine.”

Alzinaty’s work isn’t easy to digest by everyone, which is how she likes it, saying the more provocative, the better. Alzinaty says she is honest about who she is and isn’t afraid to push others’ limits. Part of her role, she says, is to show men “the new women in the house” and to show women “you can do it too.”

Tania Tabar is a writer and media worker based in Toronto. She can be reached at taniatabar AT gmail DOT com.

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