When we spoke, Yasmine Hamdan was on her way to major concert dates in Oslo and Copenhagen, before heading to a five-city U.S. tour and then on to Germany and Russia. She is an Arab singer-songwriter with a haunting voice and the personality of a social critic. To hear her tell it, she has fiercely marched to her own beat since she was an unruly “weird” child growing up in Beirut, Kuwait, and Greece. Yet you may not know her name, unless you spotted her as the sultry singer in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
It’s an unfortunate reality that while there are many great Arabic singers, few are known to us in the west, and fewer still in Los Angeles — despite the fact that the Arab American population first settled here in the early 20th century, and California is home to the largest number of Arab Americans in the nation (see Gregory Orfalea’s idiosyncratic The Arab Americans: A History from Olive Branch Press, 2005). Yasmine Hamdan’s is a charismatic voice you’ll want to add to your collection. She is in excellent company with Fairouz and Um Khoulthum and such contemporaries as Nancy Ajram, Mira Awad, Natacha Atlas, and Souad Massi.
The daughter of Muslim Beirutis, Hamdan’s family fled Lebanon’s civil war to live in Kuwait, and fled again when Saddam Hussein’s troops arrived in 1990. When she returned to Beirut as a teenager out of lycée (for her parents insisted on her receiving a French education), Hamdan met musician-composer Zeid Hamdan (no relation) and the two launched the pioneering trip hop duo Soapkills. But Hamdan was always restless in Beirut, and after touring with Soapkills, she eventually set out on her own, winding up in Paris by 2002, where she has lived ever since with her husband, the celebrated Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains).
In 2013, she published her album Ya Nass (Hey People), to considerable acclaim. Hamdan’s 2017 album from Crammed Discs is Al Jamilat (based on Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Beautiful Ones”), which she recorded in New York, Paris, London, and Beirut with Zeid Hamdan and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. One journalist described her as a “trailblazer”; the French daily Libération calls her a “nomad diva.” Hamdan has lived in six countries and sees herself as an inveterate wanderer. She became a French citizen in 2016.
Neither a commercial pop star nor a traditional Arab artist, Hamdan is a postmodern hybrid. She’s not selling sex so much as mystery and sensuality, and yet listening to her music, you may find you have the comfortable illusion that you know her, for the songs on Al Jamilat convey a poetic warmth that becomes a kind of international comfort zone.
Often on the road, when she does return to Lebanon, Hamdan says she derives “vitamins” and “a big amount of my inspiration” from her native city. For her first Soapkills music video, shot in Beirut, she was dressed like a bride walking amongst cars on a highway, and in her most recent video for Al Jamilat (shot by Elia Suleiman for the song “Balad” or “Country”) over 15 years later, she is also seen on a highway, stuck in a taxi in traffic.
JORDAN ELGRABLY: If you’re Palestinian or Lebanese or you’ve been a refugee or a wanderer, your song “Balad” may have a variety of meanings. What is the song about?
YASMINE HAMDAN: For me, home becomes a place of nostalgia and a place you can never go back to, in a way. But it’s an angry song that speaks about corruption and [bankrupt] leaders… It’s really more about an anger that I have.
I stand still and I see the country in a pickle / They talk of wars and strife and strains / It feels absurd, all this pain / Up in flames and down the drain /I struggle for daily bread. Forget about the butter now/ Where are my volatile elected friends? I am orphaned / Well I’m the highjacked and the alien. I am the deserted subject /So I’m the highjacked and the outcast. I am the cheated subject /I’m choking on my angry tears. I stand still and no one hears / Don’t blame it on me I’m disowned. I’m the stripped fellow I am dethroned / Well I’m the highjacked and the alien. I am the deserted subject. / So I’m the highjacked and the outcast. I am the cheated subject.
I like to ride taxis in Beirut — because although I do drive, I learned to drive after the civil war, when we had no infrastructure, and so I drive like a maniac, so I’d rather not drive. When I’m in a taxi I like to start conversing with the drivers, and this song in particular was born out of conversations and a feeling I had, some mixed feelings of frustration, related to the corruption and people in power. They’re a kind of mafia, they’ve always been there, and you cannot change them, and they’re using all kinds of methods to exploit religion.
Every time I go to Beirut, I see people and the quality of life going slowly from bad to worse, and from worse to even worse. The political situation is very abusive, and so for me those drivers many times [are like my ears and eyes], like a whistleblower or a political informer. The conversations I’ve had with them have always been very critical against the political elites and the ruling parties. And it kind of echoes my sense of hopelessness of the situation in Lebanon. But it’s also about hope and survival and people who will continue, actually, surviving no matter what. It’s not limited to Lebanon; it’s a global situation.
Yasmine, you’ve lived in six countries and you recorded Al Jamilat in four; why are you such a wanderer? What are you looking for?
Ah, I don’t know. It has become a habit I guess. When I was kid I followed my parents. I don’t know why, but every two or three years we would be changing cities. I mean I know why, because they were both crazy. So eventually my sister and I ended up having this very scattered childhood, and then when I went back to Beirut the feeling was that I came back to a supposed home, but I didn’t feel any belonging. It was difficult to connect. Beirut was really interesting but there was something very disquieting about a city after 15 years of civil war, something very dramatic in it. I was very sensitive to that, and everything reminded you of this fratricidal war. At some point I realized that my connection to this culture was really inspiring to me when it came to music. I started to collect old Arabic music, and in this music I started recognizing things that I would see in my parents, my grandparents; I started creating some narratives, I started creating my own memory of this place, because I never had the connection, I didn’t have a narrative, a connection to Beirut, an identity I would say — Beirut and even wider, the Arab world.
I really connect to all the places I lived in, and to the desert and to something that comes from Bedouin culture and the Gulf. Khaliji music was a big inspiration, as were the movies I used to watch when I was a kid. And I had the grand aunt of my mother, who was like my grandmother. She was completely nuts, but one thing I really loved was the connection I had with her and with the older generation through music. My grand aunt used to sing a lot of really old songs that I had never heard, so I knew her versions, and I think my connection with the music, the click, happened one night when I was in a nightclub [in Beirut]. It was very late, I was completely destroyed, I had danced all night, and I was maybe one of the only people left in the club. Suddenly the DJ puts on this song of this Syrian singer, Asmahan, from the ‘30s, and it was one of my grand aunt’s songs that she used to sing to me. And I had a glimpse of hope. The next day I went around Beirut, researching old records. I started with Egypt because it’s obviously “the” place, and from Asmahan with whom I had a really big obsession, I went to Abdel Wahab and then to a lot of people. I would sometimes travel to Damascus or other places, and meet diggers, people who would be collectors, and try to have access to some songs. For me finding these songs was like finding a very precious diamond. That’s how I started [as an Arabic singer], because before that I was singing in English with Soapkills. Back in Kuwait I had started listening to a lot of English language music, western music I would say: Kate Bush and Radiohead, and I loved Chet Baker, Etna James, a lot of singers and a lot of bands.
You said that your parents were crazy and your grand aunt was “nuts.” I’m sure you meant it affectionately, but what do you think it was…
I think it’s many things. When you go to Lebanon there’s a special vibe, people are a little bit…special. They don’t fit the box.
You mean crazy in the sense of their individualism?
When I say I was weird, I would say I was like an alien, I was not synced with the place. I was not connected. I didn’t understand the codes, I didn’t understand where people came from, really, and I didn’t care. I was really — I think I still am — very free in my head.
How do you feel you capture the changing Arab world? Is it because you’re a product of east and west?
I don’t know really what I’m capturing…I’m an insider/outsider and I think the distance and the proximity both together allow me to have this certain point of view, a certain freedom and kind of criticism. I’m not nationalistic, I don’t claim identity, but through my work I claim this mixity, and you know, I come from different cultures and places and I know that a lot of people are like me and I am the product of this place and of many places, and that was what was important for me, was to be honest with myself, and sincere toward all those places I come from.
Of course, everyone refers to you as a Lebanese singer-songwriter, but you became French last year, and you’ve been living in Paris for the past 15 years.
I was first faced with this problem when we came with Soapkills to France, years ago. I had suffered in the Middle East because we were pioneering a certain kind of [indie] music, it was really new for the place, and so we had to open a lot of doors, and it was at the same time very thrilling and quite difficult, also. I was faced with a lot of pressure, especially that I’m a woman, and I was wild. I had hope and I had a vision and I trusted in my vision, and then when I came to Europe, I was faced with this reality, this post-colonialist environment, that looks at you as an Arab, and you need to fit this image that they have of you, as an Arabic speaking person or an Arab woman or whatever, and so I was faced with this kind of post-colonialist point of view. I think I’m a warrior, I can fight, but it was never easy to open any of the doors.
I think the western world may harbor a perception of Arab women as completely oppressed by their patriarchy, but when I think of women like Um Khoulthum, Nawal el Sadaawy, Assia Djebar, Suheir Hammad, or Zaha Hadid (and of course there are many others), I don’t think of Arab women as weak. Do you want to help break the stereotype?
Of course, women are the ones who are making things happen. If tomorrow women in the Middle East or women in the Arab world decide to just stop, just do a protest or whatever, the countries would shut down, I mean it’s obvious. I grew up on extremely strong, sexy women role models, in my family but also in the music world and in the cinema and everything that was around me, and I can say that it was a big motivation for me because I’ve always felt that this was the truth and this was what I connected to.
Do you consider the Arabic language to be an issue when you’re traveling outside the Arab world, for instance touring the United States? I read somewhere you said, “I don’t think language is a border or a checkpoint.”
I think everything is in my music. I mostly perform in front of audiences that do not understand Arabic. I don’t think it’s a checkpoint, I think on the contrary it’s a way of communicating. It’s kind of a door or a place, a pocket where people can meet and connect in different ways. I think there’s something really spiritual about that kind of connection and I believe in it, I believe it can change peoples’ minds, it can change mentalities, it’s very enriching. It has never been a problem or me, especially when people get the artistic direction and the emotions.
You were born into a Muslim family. How has your experience of Islam been, compared to how it tends to be depicted in western media?
I’m Muslim but not really. My family did not care. And I always managed to skip religion classes when I was living in the Gulf, even when they were obligatory. I never agreed on how it was taught because I realized at a very early age that it was very much about controlling and manipulating people’s minds and heart, and I never felt comfortable with anyone telling me how to feel or what to believe. I also felt, as a girl and a woman that I was discriminated against, because of a patriarchal, misogynistic interpretation of the Qur’an, catering to a male-dominated version of the world. And that always annoyed me to no end. Faith is a very intimate process that involves being sincere and truthful to a spiritual presence.
When you write, which language do you naturally feel comfortable in?
Things always happen to me by pure coincidence or accident, so when I started living in Greece, I had to learn a new language. I didn’t have anybody speaking Arabic around me, so it was very challenging. At first my sister explained to me that I needed to translate from Arabic to French, because I was in a French school, so the concept started slowly entering my head, and then I also learned a new language, which was Greek. And at some point, I think I was isolated because I didn’t know how to communicate very much with people, and I started reading and I remember I read the same book maybe 30 times [L’enfant et la rivière by Henri Bosco], before I understood it, and when I started understanding the French really well, I became crazy about books, and I read a lot of very old writers. I mean I started with Zola, Balzac, all of that. At the age of 11 I had already read all of Zola, all of Balzac, Stendhal, everybody from the classic French literature.
So French culture was something you got in your youth?
Yeah, it was actually the narrative link in my childhood, because although my parents spoke Arabic at home, my mother didn’t speak French very well, so we spoke Arabic together. At the same time, we were going to French schools, so that created a kind of narrative, and in every country I went to, it was a French school. That was the underline, one thing that was always the same, even though I would change friends every time, change countries, but at least I had this language community.
So how did your English get to be so good?
Elia [Suleiman], and at school I read a lot…I love to read in English. I just read Hisham Matar’s The Return. I really like to read books in English. I cannot say that they’re all easy, because some words or sometimes the way language is used can be complicated for me. It makes me travel. I’m going to tell you something that might be a little bit shocking: I love reading in Arabic but I don’t read that much in Arabic, because I get too claustrophobic, I don’t know why.
Hisham Matar’s book The Return is heartbreaking, because he lost his father, he lost his country, and he’s trying to figure out is he going to become American, is he going to live in England? He’s Libyan and lived in Egypt…And this is a situation that quite a few people are in.
Yes, but I think the drama of his book is very much linked to his father and the fact that you have this absence that is present more than anything else in his life. It must be very difficult. He’s very brave and inspired. For me in the music or in the songs or in the characters I imagine, I really am fascinated about one thing, many times, it’s about how people have resources, how people get organized, how people always can fight and find hope. And I think with time, you realize that life becomes more difficult, but at the same time, you become stronger, and you know that you have more resources. It becomes more complex, it’s quite fascinating, actually and inspiring.