Autostrad, a funk-rock-reggae band from Amman, shatters the norms of traditional Arabic pop with songs about sex, drugs, and unemployment on the Jordanian street. It has also shattered the norm of how many Arabs deal with Israel.
The six-man group enjoys an ardent Palestinian fan base, but its recent tour in Israel – where it played to Palestinian fans in Nazareth, Haifa, and the Golan Heights – has stoked a tense debate about how Arabs can best support the Palestinian cause. Most refuse to acknowledge Israel's sovereignty over historic Palestine and critics have berated the band for accepting, or “normalizing,” relations with Israel, rather than joining the popular Arab movement to boycott it until Palestinians are granted a sovereign state of their own.
Proponents of the cultural boycott of Israel flooded social media after learning that Autostrad obtained an Israeli visa from the Israeli embassy in Amman, under the Twitter hash tag, “come_to_Palestine_after_liberation".
"Your 'cultural communication' is for only the few… welcome to Palestine, dirty, lying Arab hypocrisy," tweeted Jordanian architecht Roaa Zaidan, reiterating the argument that the band caters mostly to a Palestinian elite, while undermining the popular struggle for equality and freedom for the majority.
Many say that Arab musicians should instead apply for Palestinian permits, which don't grant access to cities such as Jerusalem and Haifa in Israel proper.
The movement known as "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) has succeeded in persuading, and sometimes threatening, a slew of prominent musicians from visiting Israel, in what they claim is an effort to end the occupation and promote the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Autostrad resisted such requests. Along with thousands of local fans, they branded their shows as a form of “cultural resistance,” strengthening solidarity and bringing a sense of normalcy to a war-weary people.
They issued a Facebook statement following their Nazareth show, echoing a position expressed repeatedly by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that “visiting the prisoner does not legitimize the jailer.”
“[The Israeli visa] is the only way for us to get to our homeland, Palestine, and no one can stop us from doing our work,” said band member Hamza Arnaout to the Jordanian site Ammannet before the tour.
But Budour Hassan, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who blogged on the issue, insists that fighting occupation, not improving its conditions, is what's needed.
“It’s not like if they don’t come it’s like a funeral,” says Ms. Hassan in a phone interview. “We have our own Palestinian musicians, who can’t move freely.”
For at least some fans at Autostrad's intimate East Jerusalem concert, however, attempts to deter the band from visiting Israel are “incompatible” with modern Palestinians, who are weary of hollow talk of liberation.
“That this beautiful band comes all the way from Jordan strengthens my position here as an Arab in this land,” said tattoo artist Wassim Razouk, who hit three of the band’s six shows last week. “This conflict will be resolved in hundreds of years, but, in the meantime, I’m not ready to waste my life.