North Africa, West Asia: Interview

The Palestinian artists reclaiming Haifa

Through music and writing, a new generation of creatives are carving out new spaces in this ancient city

Tugrul Mende
1 June 2021, 12.01am
Done with the melodies/leaving for Berlin/couple of months later/already posting about longing
Photo taken by Majd Kayyal

Musician Faraj Suleiman and writer Majd Kayyal belong to a new generation of Palestinian artists. They are trying to claim a space for Palestinian culture and identity through their work, creating new opportunities not only for themselves but for other artists as well.

In December 2020 the duo launched a new album titled ‘Better than Berlin’. The album, a shift from Suleiman’s previous work, explicitly explores social and political ideas. It tells the story of a hidden side to the city of Haifa – now the third-largest in Israel, and historically a major Palestinian centre with a history stretching back 3,000 years – that listeners can explore as they listen to it.

The two met together at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2010. Suleiman moved to Paris for work and Kayyal stayed in Haifa, working as a journalist and writer. Kayyal published his debut novel, ‘The Tragedy of Mr. Matar’, in 2016 and won the Qattan Foundation Young Writer Award. Kayyal has also been arrested several times by Israeli forces.

The new album was a musical and cultural hit across the region, though very little can be found about it in English. OpenDemocracy spoke to the artists about how this work came about and what it means.

The traveller of regret returns/Carrying thoughts of nihilism/ Waters me with oil of fear from upon your palms/Telling bedtime stories/ For the pacific ocean to fall asleep upon your bed
Photo by Majd Kayyal

Defining Haifa

The importance of ‘Better than Berlin’ lies in its social, cultural and political ideas; its metaphors and narration. Suleiman and Kayyal make Haifa – what it means for them personally and professionally – the main character.

“The idea of the album evolved after a few songs drafts that Majd wrote and I composed,” says Suleiman. “We started to analyse what the common subjects, characters, stories and emotions are that we’re dealing with. We quickly understood that our city, Haifa, is a central figure to deal with.”

Haifa is an important part of both artists’ lives and even though Suleiman’s career is in Paris both have strong opinions about the city, which they express in the songs. The changing rhythm of the city, and its impact on the personal and professional lives of its residents, are reflected throughout.

Haifa’s alternative music scene has helped make it the “Palestinian cultural capital”, allowing artists like Suleiman and Kayyal to reclaim the city as one that is central to Palestinian heritage.

Returning to Haifa

Because of the pandemic, Suleiman had to come home to Haifa while his band members stayed in Paris. This meant reorganising the recording process, from traditional studio visits, to recording songs via Skype.

“On the level of the creative process, the pandemic forced me to leave Paris for a while and return to live in Haifa, which helped us [Suleiman and Kayyal] a lot in meeting more. We had a vast space for discussion and brainstorming to crystalise the album,” Suleiman explains.

“On the other hand, for me as a composer, it's a nightmare to listen to rehearsals and direct the musicians on Skype.”

Who leased their house to a collaborator?/well, who became the cheapest dealer?
Photo taken by Majd Kayyal

Reclaiming Haifa

‘Better than Berlin’ isn’t just about Berlin. It is, as Faraj Suleiman explains, “a metaphor for any western city that became a refuge for Arab youth”. Many Palestinian artists found a home in Berlin, where they are reflecting about their own personal and professional experiences in their music. The German capital hosts one of the largest Palestinian communities in Europe.

“We were very conscious about it, and like all decisions in this project, the name was chosen in dialogue between both of us,” Suleiman says. “We thought of numerous details and elements that justify the use of Berlin. For example the Israeli mayor of Haifa has stated in her campaign that she'll ‘turn Haifa into Berlin’ and another example is that the German capital became the easiest immigration destination for Palestinian youth in Haifa.”

Kayyal agrees. “In this album, Berlin isn’t a thing in itself. Haifa is both the stage and protagonist in this album. It's the place where our human experience is taking place, and therefore it's central for our feelings and thoughts. Haifa isn't mentioned in the album at all, not even once, while Berlin is mentioned a few times including in the title. Berlin is highlighted and obvious though replaceable. Haifa, on the other hand, is hidden, obscured, nameless, but irreplaceable.”

who was caught by his wife/with his girlfriend at a cabin / They say that Hamoudi/the one who lifts and works out is spending two years in jail /for robbing the post office
Photo taken by Majd Kayyal

In comparison to Suleiman’s previous albums, this one is much more sophisticated and the lyrics and style of music are more integrated. The album should be seen as a unit, or a complete work of art. It is an important step for both artists, and the way they express their personal narratives throughout their journey.

Through this album, the artists are trying to claim their space and find new opportunities to create this space. As Kayyal explains, “We have neither slogans nor lessons to teach. We are expressing our understanding to ourselves – Palestinians living in Haifa – and our emotions and thoughts about the environment we live in, and we're publicly facing the questions that haunt us.”

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