Rasha Nahas Is Connecting The Palestinian Diaspora
The morning after arriving in Golan Heights to produce her second album, Rasha Nahas opens the window to find a nest of freshly hatched eagles. The birds are tiny, and gaze at her after gradually opening glued-shut eyes. Then, they begin to make quiet bird sounds.
It’s a special moment, and it’s one that encapsulates the environment in which her two-chapter Arabic language album, ‘Amrat’, was created. English, the title means ‘Sometimes’. Released in January 2023, the album is one of longing, distance, and indefinites.
Nahas wrote the album in Berlin under lockdown after moving to Germany in 2017. She then returned to the occupied Golan Heights to finish its production. The studio became a second home, and upon arriving, the album was wrapped up in a week.
“It was a time of reflection, definitely, and also of longing and questioning,” says the Palestinian-born singer, “and a lot of things surfacing and dealing with them.”
Music has been part of Nahas’ life since childhood: piano playing progressed to keyboard lessons, which led to song writing and a fixation on guitar. She describes, sensually, how she’d loved watching musicians crane necks to croon into mics while guitars swung from their body. “I was attracted to it,” she says, “so I picked up the guitar and started playing it.”
Passion and dedication powered Nahas to formal training at a conservatoire where she studied classical guitar for almost a decade. She left equipped with tools, techniques, and knowledge that gave her the freedom to truly express herself.
But a wrist injury forced the artist to put aside her beloved guitar when writing ‘Amrat’. Instead, she experimented imaginatively with the guitar-less art of creating musical arrangements on a computer. As she recovered, she gradually returned to the instrument, and the music regained its acoustic sound.
This means the album pivots on a sonic split: electronic, urban, and loop-based sounds give way to clever acoustic melody. Halfway, the ethereal power of ‘Ryah Jnoob (Southern Winds)’, which follows a mother/daughter relationship to explore loss, love, and distance, drops to a stripped-back, melancholic guitar which carries the rest of the tracks.
‘Amrat’ is an album that poses many questions but offers little in the way of answers. It’s true to its name, ‘sometimes’. Guitar or synth? Arabic or English? Nahas casts aside such binary labels and instead steers through the spaces in-between. Never this nor that, but sometimes one, and sometimes the other.
This holds true for how the album asks listeners to rethink the boundaries of space. Haifa or Berlin? It manoeuvres seamlessly between two urban and rural worlds: Nahas’ hometown in Palestine and Germany’s capital city.
Berlin, for all its spirited, groovy glory, enticed the singer. She recalls: “It was stimulating in so many ways, and that’s why I moved there.” But then came Covid: streets emptied, musicians axed tours and gig venues shut doors. In a heartbeat, the city she’d dreamed of ceased to exist.
“I was in an empty city, in a really big, European city,” she remembers. “There was nobody in the streets, there were no events, there were rules about how many people you could meet.
“I found myself like, ‘what am I doing here again?’”
Berlin was a far cry from her beach-side hometown, and she longed to see her family. “Me and the people I love are scattered all over the world,” she says. “All of a sudden, I felt this distance, and I felt what it means actually that we’re in two physical places.”
But the pandemic also set her life into slow motion. “It was a time where you pulled the brakes and the whole world was on pause,” she reflects. “A lot of stuff came up.”
The album is moulded around this sense of stillness. Emotions, of course, come up – but they don’t catapult to extremes. Nahas catches them before they peak and subjects them to careful review. It’s the same way a child curiously catches butterflies in a net before once again setting them free.
This gives the album dreamlike charm: emotions come to a gradual standstill like those final moments before sleep. The opening song, ‘Amrat’, or ‘Sometimes’, closes: “Wherever I sleep/ I lay my head/ Under a window/ So the wind will Blow/ And I’ll be able to love.”
After writing the album, lockdown restrictions started to lift. Finally came the time to return home. Nahas journeyed to Golan Heights to record her album in 67 Studios – named after the year Israel occupied the area in 1967.
“This is where the album came to life,” she says. But Nahas hadn’t always intended to release it.
“I was in such a vulnerable, intimate space with myself when I wrote so many of the songs,” she admits. The idea of putting out the songs into the world felt intimidating.
Then, she wrote ‘Al Madini’, a soothing, lullaby-esque love song, and realised “okay, it’s time to record the album”.
The next step was sifting through some 40 tracks to decide which songs would make the cut. This felt very intuitive. However, when she came to perform the album, the emotional vulnerability laid bare in the song writing process remained.
Nahas’ background is in rock music. Theatrical vocals and a thrilling orchestral soundscape fire up her first album ‘Desert’, and onstage, she’s generally thronged by an accompanying band. In contrast, ‘Amrat’ is an album infused by softer sounds. As a performer, she is more scared of the quiet songs.
She considers the voice a “vulnerable instrument,” and admits it’s a lot easier to play a loud song than to play a very sensitive, heart-breaking ballad. This is especially the case on tour, she adds, where, each night, you’re faced with a crowd of strangers who arrive with certain preconceptions of who you are.
But she finds it’s also the quiet songs that are most relatable. She’s talks of the band with pride: “We really manage to create an intimate, safe space and create a beautiful dialogue with the audience in shows, as well as rock the hell out of it.”
Unlike her first album, ‘Amrat’ is written in Arabic. Singing in her mother tongue is a rich, fascinating, and liberating thing. “You hear everything in the voice,” she adds. “It’s like there’s nowhere to hide.”
The first show of tour was particularly special. A few hundred guests had taken their seats in Paris’ intimate Institut du Monde Arabe to watch the show. “We just went into our world, and we brought people in very gently,” recalls Nahas, “but we also rocked it and filled the space.”
Then, there was the sold-out release gig in Berlin. “That was so much love,” the singer wistfully remembers. “From the first chord, people were completely with us.”
Nahas describes the performance, energetically, like a take-off.
Written in Arabic, the musician had forecasted the album would appeal more to Arabic speakers. But she’s pleased to see fans across Europe and the Middle East connect with ‘Amrat’. The European tour, which kicked off in January, propelled her from Berlin to Munich, to Paris, to London and then back to Berlin in March.
There were also the Arabic speakers in the diaspora singing along to lyrics at shows in cities like London and Paris. For Nahas, this was precious. “[These are] people that look like me, listen to the same music as me, people that speak my language,” she says.
She continues: “When I speak about missing home or longing for my family, they know what I’m talking about, because they feel that. We share a similar context because we’re both abroad in the diaspora.”
This is a different connection for Nahas. It’s one that’s “really special”.
Once a song is written, Nahas rarely changes it. Neither music nor lyrics come first, but both emerge symbiotically in the song-writing process. “They have to work, or they don’t,” she explains.
Most of the album’s tracks were written alone, but two were joint endeavours with “fierce, inspiring women”. The first is ‘Ryah Jnoob’, written with Palestinian artist Terez Sliman. The second is ‘Toyour’; a collab with Cairo-based artist Dina El Wedidi.
Nahas and the Egyptian artist wrote the song, translated to ‘Birds’, long-distance during lockdown. “This is what the song deals with,” explains Nahas. “It’s about birds that are flying between contents, in between people, and are separated.” The song’s delicate guitar is joined by the two singers’ wistful harmonies. A steady drumbeat emerges midway like soft, beating wings.
Joining forces with other artists has taught Nahas that the brain is a beautiful thing. “These ways of being and creating and writing have been shaped by a lifelong experience and a whole universe of influences,” she marvels.
When two brains click, or “spark” she thinks it’s the best thing ever. It’s a shame, she reflects, that great artists who’ve passed away didn’t share their processes more. If she could make music with one musician from the past? David Bowie.
He’s one of her biggest inspirations, as are rockstars John Lennon, Patti Smith, and Leonard Cohen, of course. PJ Harvey also makes the cut, and so does Joni Mitchell. It’s fair to say she was raised on rock & roll.
Despite the Arabic language’s rich musical history – with Nahas sourcing inspiration from musicians including DAM, Kamilya Joubran, Maysa Daw and TootArd – there are few singer-songwriters and even fewer rock artists.
This was a double-edged sword. “Who do I look up to?” she wonders, but also remarks that it’s helped her carve out her own voice and space in the music scene.
Much of Nahas’ verse concerns the conflict between Israel and Palestine that has sparked global outrage. I wonder if she feels a weight of responsibility when writing about these topics in the public domain. “Definitely,” she says. But she emphasises that she’s singing of her personal experience of these things.”
Nahas makes music through working with emotions, and as she points out, emotions are disarming. She explains: “You can agree with me or not – you can love me or hate me; you can be really against something, but you would still be touched by the song.”
“That’s why I love this territory so much. I’m writing from a personal space and the materials I’m working with are emotions, and they just go beyond people agreeing or disagreeing with me.”
“I would say that is where I’m digging in. This is where I’m experimenting.”
And experiment she does, treading water between the various coordinates of her life: Haifa to Berlin, Arabic to English, gentle guitar to electronic beats. The musician invites the listener into a state of questioning, and this is where she keeps them.
Rasha Nahas’ ‘Amrat’ sculpts a definitive identity through refusing to be one thing. The album is careful and graceful. It’s pensive without being sombre: gentle, yet still deliberate. It makes a case for finding comfort in uncertainty – for finding a home in the in-between.
‘Amrat’ is out now. Stay in touch with Rasha Nahas online.
Words: Amelie Maurice-Jones