That wasn’t it. Back when he was a teenager, Khleif was faced with daily racism, often in the most mundane situations. Even in gaining admission to Israeli-run clubs, he was often denied entry for not possessing an Israeli army ID when asked to present it at the door —which Palestinians usually do not possess because they rarely serve in the Israeli army. Simply put, it was a method used to filter Palestinians out. “At one point, we said fuck it, and we organized our own parties,” Khleif recollects. This barely masked racism was the fire starter, for him to dive into a diverse range of cultural activities that he now runs and partakes in. He threw his first party ten years ago, hiring a venue and playing music without focusing on one genre. The party drew only 50 guests at first, but it was enough to spread the word and attract more people to subsequent parties. “People started getting to know each other. Even better, they had a stage now, so they also started playing music,” he reminisces. “Bands formed on the dance floor and the scene started to grow”. It wasn’t long after some of his friends also started organizing their own parties, that they recognized the dire demand for Palestinian youth to gather and to rediscover their roots and identity. A few years later, in 2010, Khleif co-founded a collective under the name Jazar Crew. This meeting of minds helped to establish a unified initiative, one that fights for Palestine language and culture to be more visible, and to ensure that their voices are heard. They established relationships and collaborated with artists in Ramallah, the newly established cultural center of Palestine territory. They also dug into their heritage of rich Arabic culture, rediscovering it, putting it in new modern forms, and applying it across different mediums. There were T-shirts decorated with Arabic words and letters. Magazines published in Arabic. Even disparate indie bands popped up singing in Arabic. This new creative wave proved to be influential as it consequently brought about an independent Arabic theatre into existence.
“For my people, there was no space to meet, to communicate or be creative,” he explains. “To me, music is the place, where we can meet, dance, and feel safe. It brings my people together, builds bridges, frees our minds, and establishes our own mode of communication”.
Khleif understood that his activities had to cover all aspects of Palestinian culture, looking into areas where it was failing and trying to create appropriate solutions. One particular issue was the screening of Palestinian films. Palestinian filmmakers needed a place for their films to be screened, and the Palestinian audience needed a space where they could watch these films. The answer to this was the Haifa Independent Film Festival, a festival that Khleif co-founded and is now in its fifth edition. Besides being a platform, the festival became a means to bridge and dismantle the embargo and isolation imposed on them through holding Israeli passports. Due to their passports, Palestinians within the occupied territories are prohibited from traveling to many Arabic countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.
“It was hard in the beginning to establish trust”, Khleif admits. “But we explained who we are: that we are Palestinians, we are here within Israel, we exist, and we fight every day. With some back and forth, the trust was established.” Since then they have been screening not only Palestinian films as part of the festival’s program but also films from Arabic neighboring countries. To boot Palestinian films from Haifa are now also welcomed for screenings in neighboring Arabic countries.
Their efforts echoed worldwide. Bookings included international names such as Nicolas Jaar and Acid Arab. They also attracted the attention of Boiler Room, who reached out to Jazar Crew to collaborate on a Boiler Room party in Ramallah and to produce a short documentary film about their activities and the Palestinian underground music scene. Jazar Crew worked hand in hand with Boiler Room from the inception until the final cut was ready to be aired, in efforts to ensure their portrayal was genuine. “We understood that they were really interested in us, our position and what we are about, not just interested in creating buzz or producing yet another video,” Khleif recounted. “They expressed it in many different ways. For example, normally there’s Boiler Room Paris, not Boiler Room France, or Boiler Room Berlin, not Boiler Room Germany, but here they called it, Boiler Room Palestine. For the first time, they titled it under a country’s name as a statement.”
Khleif saw an opportunity to expand his message and his sound even further, deciding to move to Berlin, arguably the world capital for techno. He moved to the German capital five years ago, where his network grew and he played at many parties and festivals. He also has organiyed his own parties and events, where he invited other Palestinian musicians and bands to play, including Muqata’a, Dakn, Toot Ard, and Zahed Sultan.
“Lately with all the media coverage, we’ve received exposure as Palestinians. We’ve been getting more and more bookings,” he explains. His first gig was an invitation from Fusion Festival, to play in a designated area reserved for “Arabic” underground music, arguably an attempt by the festival organizers to appear diverse and inclusive. His set and his name were attached to the label ‘Palestinian DJ’. Khleif can’t avoid feeling tokenized. “ I was invited to play as a Palestinian, and not because of my music, which usually I don’t like,” he says. “I like to get bookings for what I play. I stopped accepting any random bookings and now I always look into both the meaning of the event and who is behind it.”
Rojeh’s music style is not restricted to one genre, it varies from Arabic hip hop to downtempo, but he especially likes techno because of the dance floor experience. “There’s something about the freedom that exists within it,” he smiles. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you are from, you became one community, like a city or a country within the dance floor.”
The reception in Berlin has been undeniably enthusiastic, but recent events in the party capital Berlin, a scene heavily subsidized by cultural senate funding, has meant that not everybody shares the same enthusiasm. When the queer-feminist collective Room 4 Resistance used the hashtag #DJforPalestine on their social media outlets, their party at About Blank club was canceled three days before the event. This was reportedly due to the club coming under pressure from the “Die Linke” party senator Klaus Lederer, who, according to the club’s management, likes to party there. This sentiment against any solidarity with the Palestinian cause is shared by many across the entire political spectrum in Germany - from the far right to the far left.
BDS (Boycott Divest Sanction) is an international movement that calls for economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land, grant Arab citizens equal rights, and recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The movement is notably supported by many prominent Isreali academics and Jewish organizations such as The Jewish Voice for Peace. Yet the German Bundestag recently has ruled the movement as “anti-semitic” in a resolution that was passed by cross-party alliance, cutting off funding to any organization that actively supports BDS, overlooking the movement’s vast Jewish supporters. Many say this in itself is painfully ironic, Germans accusing Jews of anti-Semitism.
“I’m not anti-semitic!” Khleif declares. “I’m anti-apartheid and anti-racism. Those who scream anti-semitic to whoever is critical of the right-wing government of Israel and its illegal practices and human right violations, don’t understand what the term Semitic means and most likely have never been to Israel”. On this topic he sees the BDS movement as a peaceful protest to put pressure on Israel to end its brutal, deadly, and inhuman treatment of Palestinians. “It’s about human rights,” he explains. “For example, we are against the Palestinian Government as much as the Isreali government. I align myself with all oppressed people and that’s not only Palestinians, whether it’s people in Africa or Latin America, Europe or Asia”.
This German anti-Palestinian bias hasn’t affected him and he has been continually getting bookings nonetheless. “I’m getting bookings from people who support human rights and justice,” Khleif insists. “In my opinion, it's only logical, whether it’s Palestine or not. An artist shouldn’t go to perform in a place based on a racist apartheid system, where only a few kilometers away, people are both deprived of basic human rights and face restrictions on their movement.”