GAZA CITY // It is the first day of Ramadan and four rappers from the Palestinian hip-hop group Darg Team, crammed into a stifling apartment in Gaza City's Maqusi Towers, break early what should be a day-long fast by smoking several rounds of shisha. Today they are recording a new song for the soundtrack to a Swiss documentary on the Gaza Strip - and, the young MCs insist, they need the heavy smoke to harden their vocal cords before rapping.
Gaza City seems an unlikely place to hear western-style hip-hop, but it is in these apartment towers in the north of the city where Gaza's rap scene was born nearly a decade ago and continues to thrive today. Gaza-based rappers took both first and third place in a recent national hip-hop contest held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This year, the Darg Team, whose name stands for Da Arabian Revolutionary Guys and is pronounced "darj", grabbed international headlines with its popular track, titled 23 Days, an angry and poignant critique of Israel's three-week assault on Gaza last winter.
Much like its beginning as an outlet for marginalised African-American youth in urban cities across the United States, hip-hop in the Gaza Strip has also been used by its handful of aspiring rappers to address the hardships they face in a territory perpetually plagued by war, occupation, poverty and civil strife. In their songs, Gaza's youthful MCs - of whom there are about a dozen, none over the age of 25 - touch on everything from their lives as stateless refugees and the need for political unity to the social role of smoking shisha and attempts to date girls in a religiously conservative society.
Although heavily influenced by US hip-hop stars such as Eminem, Busta Rhymes and Notorious BIG, Gaza's rappers, fusing hard-hitting rap beats with Arabian-inspired rhythms, make sure the style they push is their own. "We are trying to show the world, through music, that Palestinian youth doesn't believe only in war," said Ayman Mughames, the front man for Palestinian Rapperz, founded in 2002, making it Gaza's oldest rap group.
Mughames lost his father in the recent war when an Israeli artillery shell struck their seventh-floor apartment in the Maqusi Towers. "There are different ways to defend ourselves against the occupation - stones, guns, music," he said. "This is our way of resisting, and if people listen to the music, we can convince them of this." Because all a would-be rapper really needs are a few good rhymes and someone to manufacture a beat, rapping has become an art form easily accessible to Gaza's impoverished but musically talented youth.
Back at the towers, with just a laptop and a small microphone, the Darg Team turns simple lyrics on a torn piece of paper into a polished and searing poetic commentary on the politics of Gaza's reconstruction. "We will reconstruct Gaza ourselves, as Palestinians," goes an English translation of one of the song's verses. "But unity [between Hamas and Fatah] is our only way out of this mess." But adhering to the "hip-hop" lifestyle in a place like Gaza, even when your message is ardently pro-Palestinian, is not at all easy - and has even proved to be somewhat dangerous for the territory's rappers.
Some, dressing like they have been plucked straight from an inner-city neighbourhood in North America, are shunned or at the very least ignored by their neighbours, they say. Mohammed Antar, a 22-year-old rapper for the Darg Team, was recently arrested by the Hamas-run police force and interrogated about his friends, the way he dresses and whether or not he has connections with Israel or the Palestinian government in Ramallah, he said.
Hamas recently declared that no hip-hop group could perform without obtaining permission from the local government. Both the Darg Team and Palestinian Unit, a new group formed from Mughames's Palestinian Rapperz and local act Black Unit, said they were required to submit their song lyrics to the Hamas-run authorities. But Fadi Srour, 27, Darg Team's manager, sees a silver lining in the recent Hamas clampdown on their music, and says that despite the attempts to shut them down, Gazans are becoming more aware of what their message really is.
"The restrictions allow us to be more creative, give us more motive, and more time to think about what we're trying to say," Mr Srour said. "Arabic is great for that. Because it is so rich, you can say things in a roundabout way, but still get the point across." At a recently established "hip-hop school" held at the offices of a local non-governmental organisation, Khaled Harara of Palestinian Unit tells half a dozen young men who are there to learn how to rap, break-dance and produce music, that if they choose this path, they will face resistance in the community.
"You have to keep your heads up. Don't care what people say and believe in what you do," Harara said. "What does rap mean in Palestine? It is not cash, and it is not girls," he continued. "You don't do it to make money to get out. It's about occupation, war, racism, poverty and oppression." email@example.com