Rasha Nahas is surprised to hear that she is in a category of one as a performer at this year’s Women of the World festival in the UK capital.
“I didn’t know that but I’m happy to be the only Arabic-speaking woman there and to bring my narrative and my way of seeing the world and where I come from and my language,” the Palestinian singer-songwriter tells The National.
While she is ostensibly performing at an event to mark International Women’s Day, Nahas, 25, is not too keen on subscribing a date or event to an ongoing cause.
“I appreciate women's day as a day, when we give space to an everyday struggle ... [but] I try to bring women's day [into] every song I release, and every conversation I have.”
After the release of her debut album, Desert, in English in 2021, the Berlin-based instrumentalist will give fans a sneak preview of tracks from her first recorded works in Arabic at the annual London festival at the Southbank Centre in London from March 11 to 13.
In a weekend of talks and performances from artists around the globe who are using their creativity to create social change and further the feminist movement, Nahas shares the billing with a diverse and impressive group of female artists, activists and speakers, including Somali poet Warsan Shire, authors Pandora Sykes, Lisa Taddeo and Elizabeth Day and the renowned political activist Angela Davis.
Being the only Arabic speaker in this illustrious feminist line-up is indicative of a tension that still prevails when it comes to western portrayals of Arab women, Nahas says.
“I feel like, especially in the West, there's a lot of expectations of what an Arab woman is, with stereotypes and previous ideas of how I should be, or what I should think about, or what should be my struggles – and I have no energy for that,” Nahas says.
In her softly-spoken and thoughtful tone, Nahas rails against the “usually very Orientalist and simplified” depiction of her kind.
“It’s simplifying things in order for it to be digestible, but we are not simple. I am not simple. I'm a complex human being and I find it very rich actually. And I think that I would like to challenge the world to embrace the spectrum that is inside of me. The experiences and complexities and layers and identities and languages and stories and past and future,” Nahas says.
Exploring this intricate gamut of selves is very much at the heart of her next musical release.
Amrat, which means "sometimes" in English, is an album with “two faces and two seasons” that delves into the themes of home, belonging, spirituality and freedom in a two-part album; acoustic tracks inspired by her homeland in one chapter, and deeper electronic sounds that speak to her more chaotic urban life completing the other.
Melodious and sung in her mother tongue, Amrat is a departure from her debut, Desert, which chronicled her personal and political journey moving from Haifa to Berlin in an experimental musical flurry of rock'n'roll sounds, acoustic guitar, wailing violins and poetic vocalisation, that garnered the description by a British critic of Nahas as having the “theatricality of Weimar cabaret with added violins and rockabilly".
While the musician describes Desert as “very theatrical” with “big gestures and shifting personas”, Amrat is a more reflective and personal offering that “isn’t trying to be anything”.
She is aptly – though not purposefully – performing her first track release, Ya Binti, which means my girl or my daughter in English, at this year’s WOW.
The song’s refrain: “I am here and you are there sitting far away, you are you but who am I?” is an elegy to her younger self.
“As we grow up, I feel like we gain so much but we also lose so much, like the baggage that we carry. So while becoming more certain, you become less innocent. And while becoming stronger, you become less vulnerable. And while working hard and building your career, you become less spontaneous.”
Nahas is happy with where her growth has taken her, but nevertheless her song is a reflection on the “alienation of growing up”.
“It’s beautiful you know, but it’s also bittersweet.”
If Desert was “the baggage, the illusion of hope and the wondering when you’re going to arrive”, Amrat is a return to her roots, something she found she felt free to explore only after a few years among the diaspora in Germany.
“Arabic is such an intimate language for me, you know. And I think I needed to have a space that is a bit more distant from me to express myself and to figure out my identity, musically at least,” she says.
From Haifa to Berlin
A keyboardist and classical guitarist since the age of 10, Nahas has long been crafting the sonic landscapes that constitute her bold and experimental signature sounds. While rock‘n’roll was always at the root of her sound, she confesses to being a “very shy little girl” who only performed in public for the first time aged 15 when a friend cornered her into doing so at an open mic night.
By the time she graduated from school a few years later, Nahas was writing her own songs and performing with popular Palestinian indie musicians like Maysa Daw and Raymond Haddad.
In 2016, Rasha’s Am I record and captivating live performances led her to embark on tours across Europe, South America, the UK and the Middle East, including shows at Glastonbury Festival, SIM Sao Paulo, Midem, Sziget and the Palestine Music Expo, among others.
The singer credits the burgeoning creativity of her birthplace in Haifa for allowing her to come into her own, musically. In recent years, the ancient city has built up an impressive reputation for germinating a generation of alternative and boundary-pushing creatives.
“There is a very unique scene of music in Haifa. Even before there was an official stage, we’d play in cafes and bars and it was really special. At that time, it gave me a lot of space to experiment and play and meet people,” Nahas says.
While the port city where she was born and raised still has “the biggest place in my heart”, its relative smallness in the world is what pushed Nahas, then 21, to move to Berlin.
“Haifa is a place where so much art is happening, there are so many artists thriving, and the scene is really precious and unlike any other, but it can also be small and I needed the space away – to be just like my own space – to experience my experiences and write my songs and think and be and feel.”
Her move to a bustling city renowned for its cabaret was a fitting fusion with Nahas’ foray into performance art and theatrical composition. Since relocating to Germany, she has worked on numerous dance and theatre pieces for prestigious venues such as Tanz im August in Berlin and Thalia Theatre in Hamburg.
Returning to her roots
As often happens to those in the diaspora, with time the distance she had initially craved from her homeland slowly turned into greater understanding and appreciation for it.
“As an Arab of ’48, our identity is very much repressed and it’s never really had a space to exist freely without really being resistant to anything because of the nature of the state,” says Nahas, who was born and raised in Haifa.
Living in Europe “without the whole tension of the socio-political” gave her Arab identity the freedom to flourish.
“I developed a different relationship with the language and became much closer to it in a very paradoxical way because I was far from it.”
If distance from home gave her the inspiration to create Amrat, it was her proximity to it that birthed it.
Recorded in the new 67studio in the Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights, Amrat heralds Nahas’ poignant return to a region that is, like her album, sometimes hopeful and sometimes painful.
While professing not to be “such a mystical person”, Nahas says that the Golan Heights – “one of the most beautiful places on Earth” – has a “certain wind and energy in the land that is unlike any other”.
An auspicious encounter on her first day of recording left her with a prevailing positivity for the territory which, after more than half a century of occupation, is more typically viewed somberly by Arabs.
After opening the windows to her bedroom one morning, Nahas found a nest of eagle eggs that had just hatched under the sill.
“And I just see these baby eagles with the liquid around their eyes, which they are just opening for the first time,” she says with awe.
“So I don't know, there's a lot to say about the socio-political aspects of the Golan Heights and the meaning of recording the album there, which is so present for me, but I'm all about these magical moments, you know.”