Sama Abdulhadi Is The DJ Keeping Occupied Palestine Moving

22 October 2019
Culture, People, DJ Sama Abdulhadi, Palestine
Image: Tristan Hollingsworth
Sama Abdulhadi has gone from part-time DJ to certified House legend, but when you’re a female DJ working out of occupied Palestine, you know that there’ll be more than just music in the mix

“I’m still trying to figure out when DJs sleep and when they eat,” says Sama Abdulhadi with a smile. “I literally ask every DJ that question: ‘When do you sleep exactly?’ Every one of them gives me their formula and none of them sound like they work. In Berlin, I was so busy I slept a total of seven hours in five days. At the end of it, I couldn’t move.”

The Palestinian DJ, music producer and audio engineer is sitting in the Hotel Ibis Mall of the Emirates laughing at the craziness of the past 12 months. It’s been a mad, euphoric, exhilarating rush.

This time last year, Sama was a relatively unknown techno DJ who had originally moved to Paris for a six-month residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts. Then Boiler Room Palestine happened.

Streamed live from Ramallah last June, Sama’s hour-long set catapulted her onto the global stage, kick-starting a frenetic tour of the world’s clubs and festivals and helping to change perceptions of what it means to be young and Palestinian in the process. She has been pin-balling around the world ever since.

“I got so many bookings after Boiler Room. My pay cheque doubled, my listens on Soundcloud doubled, my followers doubled, everything doubled,” she says. “A year ago I had maybe a thousand followers on Instagram, now I have more than 35,000. And the thing is it was only by luck that I got my first gig in France (even though I went to play in Europe), and then Boiler Room came and boom! After that, officially I’m a DJ. I still have a problem saying it, you know. I’m a DJ, I’m a DJ. Apparently you can do this as a job and it’s driving me crazy because I have zero time to DJ.”

The first time Sama performed at Vibe Series in Dubai, the number of people who couldn’t get in was so high they moved her second gig to a bigger venue. She returned again in early May to headline Vibe’s seasonal closing party, playing the kind of heads-down techno that has ensured her continued appeal.

In person she is easygoing, affable, chatty. She exudes a sense of innate confidence and has the kind of zest for life that the youthful possess. As a female Palestinian DJ, however, she finds herself in a sometimes frustratingly unique position, with politics and gender added to what was previously a simple musical equation. No other DJ has suddenly found themselves with this kind of responsibility – to not only perform, but to somehow represent their people and their gender to the outside world.

“The thing is I’ve never concentrated on these things,” says Sama, who discovered techno while she was studying in Beirut. “I was never a feminist activist and I was never a political person. But now these things have concentrated on me and that’s a problem because I cannot even speak about them. I can’t speak about politics, I don’t really know it, and now after a lot of people started asking me about politics I have to read politics the whole time. The same thing with female empowerment. I’ve never really tried to do anything, it just happened on its own.”

The Haifa-based singer/songwriter Maysa Daw once said that “everything we do here as Arabs is connected to politics”, despite the perceived mundanity of everyday events. As such, there is a level of defiance running through every Palestinian artist’s work. Sama is really no different. Late last year, she gave a talk on techno music as a form of resistance and has previously stated that the mere act of creating cultural events proves “we are alive, active and that our culture is an ongoing, contemporary process”.

Boiler Room Palestine was an extension of this. It was an expression of solidarity between Ramallah, Haifa and Jerusalem, reminding those outside of Palestine that its people are not only united, but that they party together too, despite the restrictions placed upon them by the violence and claustrophobia of occupation. Bizarrely, it was the partying that proved to be the biggest surprise to outsiders listening.

“At the end of the day, you watch the news and that’s where you get information from, and the news is not going to tell you people are partying, they’re going to tell you people are dying, because people are dying every week,” she says. “That’s the sad reality that we live in. But the news is not going to tell you anything that’s normal.

“People always think we’re at war, but if that’s the case how are we alive, how are we studying, how are we going to universities, how are we driving, how are we eating?

“A girl from Syria added me on Facebook recently. She’s a DJ, she’s like 21, and she keeps inviting me to events – ‘party in Damascus’, ‘rave in Latakia’ – and I messaged her and said ‘how the heck are you DJing in Syria? They’re bombing Damascus right now’. And she said ‘you were DJing in Ramallah’ and I felt so stupid. I felt like such a foreigner, going to her and asking how she’s partying during war when we were partying during the Intifada.”

As with most Palestinians, many of the key moments in Sama’s life were the direct result of political decisions.

She was able to return to Palestine from Jordan with her family due to the Oslo Accords, which allowed for the repatriation of Palestinians displaced from the West Bank and Gaza during the Six-Day War, and met Fidaa, a bar owner from Haifa who helped kick-start her DJing career thanks to a decree that stated Palestinian citizens of Israel could live and work in the West Bank. It was through Fidaa that she first met Palestinians from within Israel.

“She brought a bus of 50 people from Haifa to Ramallah and she was telling them ‘there’s this DJ in Ramallah you guys have to see’,” she remembers. “That’s when we met in Haifa for the first time. I was like ‘who are these people? Who are you other Palestinians that we’ve never seen before?’ They came with their mohawks and their dreadlocks — because they’re in the Western world, they literally travel to Europe every weekend. We don’t. It was the first time we’d met and danced together; the whole city was talking about the party for a week and this new vibe and energy came to the city. It gave birth to something that still exists til now.”

You get the sense that Sama misses those earlier days, even though her studies and work have since taken her from Amman to London and Cairo, where she worked as a sound designer in the film industry for five years. This summer she has also been teaching children at a digital expression camp in Egypt. But alongside that, the touring continues.

“I’m thinking of moving back home, honestly,” she says. “When promoters are willing to pay me to travel from Palestine to gigs, I’m moving back home. It’s so much cosier for me and I like the scene more there. It’s the only country that doesn’t treat me as a famous artist. It’s the only place where nobody comes and takes a selfie with me. In Berghain [a Berlin club], where you’re not allowed to take pictures, they were taking selfies with me – and I wasn’t even playing. This whole thing happens everywhere in the world except in Palestine. They’ve all seen me running around in diapers. Nobody sees me as famous. That’s just perfect for me.”

The four tracks on Sama’s playlist right now

Skywalking EP by Mathame

Compos Mentis by Extrawelt

Vollblut by Reindeer

Nimbus EP by Victor Ruizer