Dive into the musician’s perspective on womanhood, identity & art
Written & photographed by Sama Haddad
Maysa prepared coffee as I sat on her balcony with Whiskey and Bruno, her dogs, barking at every passing bird. I could hear her sing “Talking to the Moon” through the kitchen window. The wind was soft as the sky was turning pastel in the setting sun. She walked outside with a tray holding a kettle filled with Arabic coffee, two glasses, and a box of incense. She laid them out in a way that felt like home, lighting the incense and making a queue that seemed to cover hours on end. Maysa breathed the smoke in, allowing it to rush through and around her body. She let the coffee settle and poured us two glasses when the time was right. The balcony overlooked the lower part of the Carmel Mountain, where it meets the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Haifa. One level below the balcony is the Daw family’s vegetable yard. Maysa had introduced me to her tomatoes with great enthusiasm and pride before leading the way from the garden to the left-wing of her family home, where her studio and bedroom lay. In her studio, I saw a collection of her career milestones; a record of “Between Hanna and Manna” by DAM, the local hip-hop band Maysa is part of, her musical instruments and recording equipment, among the rest. Her bedroom held possessions that seemed to be a celebration of her life - jewelry from all over the world, and an owl’s wing used for guidance and clarity.
I photographed Maysa wearing a dress created by fashion designer George Nasser called “Armor” in Wadi El Nisnas
Maysa has this thing about her that makes you feel welcome. Her laughter is contagious and her modesty is admirable. Just before the interview, I photographed Maysa wearing a dress created by fashion designer George Nasser called “Armor” in Wadi El Nisnas. The market of Wadi El Nisnas is a central, historical, and cultural part of Haifa. Upon seeing Maysa, people were mesmerized by her charm and presence. And she, like a true local, ruled the market. Born and raised in Haifa city, Maysa knows its people inside and out. The elders of the market called her Saleem’s daughter, while the younger generation recited lines from her music. The Maysa we know today is the product of her experience thus far, claiming only the initial steps towards her self-realization.
Maysa first grew up in a religious school. She followed up on her prayers devoutly until her faith was shaken by a religious figure dying at her school. She explains how “They forced me and my classmates, as second graders, to pray over the corpse. The body was just laying there bare open in a casket. Back then, I removed religion from my life and stopped praying. Now I do pray, but it’s a mix of all sorts of beliefs in a higher power engaged in us all”. Maysa has been applying the higher power into her daily life with theta-healing and meditation, searching through a brain wave that we enter in hypnagogia - between being awake and in our dreams. She explains, “This wave gives you a straight connection to your subconsciousness. Through it, we can explore how our emotional energy affects our life”. Shifting from religion to her individual spirituality, Maysa embarked on the search for the manifestation of her true self, spanning to understand the meaning of her nationality and sexuality as well.
As Palestinian women, such as Maysa & myself, we are a minority within a larger minority. I choose to see this as a strength rather than a weakness. Our distinction highlights our uncompromising novelty in fighting for our rights on two fronts and in snatching our freedom from our oppressors - whether it's from the occupation or the patriarchy. We have a responsibility in leaving this world behind better than we received it, by unarming social norms and being the ones dictating the progression of our lives. Haifa, and its inner bubbles, makes this easier due to the diverse and accepting incubator that is it. But as Palestinian citizens of Israel, Haifa is also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it feels like we have sovereignty to lead lives outside the confines of social norms, scrutiny, and occupation, as Haifa provides a secure personal bubble to exist within. On the other hand, life in this city became a fib in the face of our liberation. We live in a mixed city under the occupation, Palestinians and Israelis (almost) alike. The so-called city of co-existence was a mere illusion reflected onto the world and imprinted in our minds. As we get older, we understand that it has nurtured our parallel existence with our oppressors rather than a combined one. All Haifa offers is economic co-existence, and not an authentic peaceful life between the occupier and occupied. See? That felt wrong as you read it, and as I wrote it.
I grew up without comprehending that I lived under occupation, and that’s how you know the settler-colonial regime has done its job
Maysa testifies to this saying, “I grew up in a school that cared about religion more than nationality. They educated us about their form of deity instead of presenting all the factors of our identity to choose from. I learned for myself what it meant to be a Palestinian, outside of school. At a young age, I used to be ashamed of being from Haifa when we spoke of politics. I was ashamed of having an Israeli ID. I had the great privilege of growing up in a town where a bubble guarded me against the real world until I was 13. And in privilege there is guilt. I grew up without comprehending that I lived under occupation, and that’s how you know the settler-colonial regime has done its job”.
A couple of months ago, this bubble popped again. Haifa, like many other cities in occupied Palestine, became a war zone. When the sun was up everyone was at ease, but the moment the sun went down, danger filled the streets. Settlers would raid Haifa, backed by the Israeli military and police, to ruin Palestinian property and hurt innocent pedestrians. They slammed down doors and fired shots. In our streets, in our Haifa. We knew exactly what we had to do, as Maysa put it “What characterized our uprising was our unity. A coalition of sorts. We bonded a fluent connection between one another. The made-up division of Palestine did not prevail, meaning Palestinians who lived in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora united. Palestine is Palestine. We understood how much power we have together. It was the first time I understood that we are not only 20%, rather we are 50% when you blur the lines of our division. They convinced us that we are a small minority, but we are not! That is power in itself. We learned that we can overcome the problems we have between one another when we need each other. In one week, we commenced committees of doctors, lawyers, and activists all across the country. We put together demonstrations and pulled off one of the biggest strikes seen by Palestinians. All of this unity and no one had to say a word - each one of us knew what their place was and which role they had to take on, without the need of any formal leadership.”
What characterized our uprising was our unity...The made-up division of Palestine did not prevail, meaning Palestinians who lived in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora united.
The change is being made by rearranging the composition of power. The movement on the streets was what shaped the uprising. The people and our thirst to stop the iniquity pushed us to act. Active stances can manifest in many ways with Maysa believing that true activism does not only mean partaking in an educational role, but rather by leading by example as well, no matter the cause. She tells me how “We don’t need to explain things, we need to experience them”. Leading her to question “when does activism limit the activist in doing the same thing? When does activism get stuck on explanations rather than actions? For example, I used to think I shouldn’t speak about the times I was broken or hurt through my music because I was perceived as a strong woman. Like those two things were contradictory somehow. Now, I’m trying to reconnect with my 18-year-old self, to go back to a time when things were pure, before all of these outside influences”. As a society, we often build a consensus as to what it means to have a certain identity. We define the limits of each role to preserve a coherent social structure. For example, society expects all women to be mothers. Society expects mothers to keep their children as their first priority, prevailing their own needs and ambitions. It is more complicated to set the boundaries of a “strong independent woman” because that is a role society is yet to accept and fully comprehend. Nevertheless, each one of us takes our subjective experience and applies it to the given situation. In Maysa’s case, we accumulated a collective notion as to who she is through her music, thus labeling her.
When does activism get stuck on explanations rather than actions?... I used to think I shouldn’t speak about the times I was broken or hurt through my music because I was perceived as a strong woman. Like those two things were contradictory somehow.
Interesting enough, it may be Maysa who built this persona for herself rather than by her environment and fans. In songs she has co-written such as “Asli Bari”, “Jasadik-Hom”, and “Meen Enta” (Who are you), Maysa pinpoints in her lyrics what it means to be a free woman. We hear a motif in her art, emphasizing and confronting injustice. Despite the power of this label, Maysa thinks that “as listeners, we feel like we know the artist, and because of that, we have expectations from them. We get used to their music and we analyze their personality through it, expecting them not to change. This is absurd because we, the listeners, are ever-changing. But nevertheless, we still expect the musician to make the same music. We all grow, evolve, and change interests in life. As a listener, I wallow, I blunder. Then why can’t I do the same as a musician?”. Maysa elaborates, “DAM’s latest album, Between Hanna & Manna, was an inner revolution for me. I realized how much I limit myself, as I was not free before. I accepted that I can be all that I really am as a musician because I am not only one thing as a person. I am not only a Palestinian and not only a woman, I also love to laugh and enjoy my life, and make music about it!”. One may argue that the ability to be transparent, brutally honest, and open in your art on every emotional level is what makes you a strong artist. Being able to reflect vulnerability by letting your guard down and being unafraid of being all that you are makes you a strong person.
I accepted that I can be all that I really am as a musician because I am not only one thing as a person. I am not only a Palestinian and not only a woman
As we finished our conversation, the kettle empty and the incense still going, the sun had set to leave behind a clear black sky. Bruno and Whiskey were calm and wrapped up in themselves, enjoying the stillness the night had to offer. As I drove home through the trees, I found myself reflecting on what really makes a strong woman. Was it her confidence? Or was it her financial independence? Maybe it’s neither, or maybe it's both. I believe that as long as she claims her autonomy and can make choices of her own, she can be anything she likes, including strong. As long as we can find happiness on our own, and be satisfied and fulfilled in what we choose, that’s all it takes to be independent. Maybe that should be the new social construct of a strong independent woman. All I know is that these guidelines apply to Maysa’s next chapter, as an individual, and as a musician. Shaking off others’ opinions and ready to share her versatility, she is creating new music, launching herself into a new era.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to write about it one day while eating Maysa’s freshly harvested tomatoes, both of us watching the sunset as incense fills the air.
A very special thank you goes out to the people of Wadi El Nisnas, who welcomed us open-heartedly to create within their shops & homes.
Check out George Nasser’s art on IG @theartofjojo
Stay up to date with Sama Haddad’s writing & photography on IG @samahaddad