Deena Abdelwahed is a whiner. At least, that's what she says herself. She is aware of inequalities in Tunisia, the country where she studied and where her roots are. As a member of the Tunisian LGBTQ+ community, she wants to address the inequalities that still exist there, such as the fact that homosexuality is still illegal there in 2019. Her weapon? The avant-garde dub/drum-and-bass of her live performances and latest record Khonnar, in which she extensively musically, uh, 'whines' about those inequalities.
Written by: Loulou Kuster
Photos: Jasmin Reif
Abdelwahed is at the airport to fly from her hometown of Toulouse to the coastal town of Brest, where she has a set at the Astropolis festival scheduled if her flight is cancelled. After a few hours of waiting and arranging administrative matters, she manages to get a new flight and we manage to get her on the line. “The festival is 23 years old and it has a great history in the techno scene in the 1990s. I was very stressed that I wouldn't be able to play there. I'd rather walk there than miss this set."
The DJ and producer is not originally from Toulouse, but was born in Doha, the capital of Qatar, as the daughter of two Tunisian parents. “I never felt completely Qatari. I learned the norms and values of my parents and every time we went on holiday to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, I thought: "I will live here later.” And that happens when she turns 18 and starts studying Fine Arts in Tunis. “I felt reborn, life came to meet me and I was discovering everything a young person discovers in a new city. There was nightlife, but I also became active in the political field. It was a turbulent time with all kinds of things happening and I was young, had an opinion and, like everyone else around me, I joined the protests that were going on.”
These are not just turbulent times that Abdelwahed refers to. The immediate cause of the Arab Spring is in Tunisia. When 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi sets himself on fire in December 2010, because he was unable to find work due to all the corruption and economic malaise in the country, mass protests arose among the population. What follows are weeks of unrest that lead to dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country and the dictatorial regime falling. “That was immediately noticeable, because when the regime fell, the blockade on the internet also fell, for example. That was great for me, because it made it even easier for me to find music and create playlists.”
Because that was what she was mainly doing besides her studies: scouring the internet in her small bedroom in search of interesting music. “I first did that for myself, until I once met a boy on the train that I started talking to. He asked what kind of music I had on my MP3 player, so I showed him some. His jaw literally dropped. Apparently it was completely new to him and he asked if I thought it would be fun to become a DJ. According to him, the music I showed him belonged in clubs. He showed me Traktor, a computer program for mixing tracks, and that's how I started making my own music.”
"I have no ideology. I only see things happen that are not right and I address that in my music."
After making endless mixes, she decides to send some things to people in the Tunis music scene. Her mix ends up at A World Full of Bass, a collective of DJs who play just about anything. “They organized parties in clubs and raves. Those raves weren't like you know here in Europe, where it's super well organized, everyone goes there after work and then walks home. No, they were raves in villages outside the capital, which attracted about 150 people. Usually it happened in a large detached house in the countryside and people danced until about nine o'clock in the morning, when the sun had already risen long and wide. We slept in cars and only drove back to the capital the next day. It felt a bit like raves in England in the 1990s, very raw and above all very illegal. It was fantastic to play there, because everyone was sweating and dancing and going crazy. We took a big risk by organizing those raves, because at that time the dictatorial regime still reigned and those parties were of course forbidden, but actually we were too young to really realize that.”
That Tunisia has only recently become a democratic country is still in the air, according to Deena. Her circle of friends there, who for the most part belong to the LGBTQ + community, still have to deal with the strict government on a daily basis. “Homosexuality is still illegal in Tunisia; you could end up in jail for two years. People are treated unequally every day and those who stand out or don't fit into a certain picture are blamed for it. The song 'Ena Essab' on my EP Klabb is also about this, for example. It's about a gay man who thinks: 'Because I'm like that, disasters happen in our country and because I fall for someone of the same sex, there is misery and pain in the world.' It may sound very crazy to the western world, but that is really what is being told there on the Islamic propaganda channels. People who proclaim this or believe in the propaganda become very lazy because you can blame the LGBTQ+ community for everything that goes wrong. For example, the Nobel Peace Prize should never have been awarded to Tunisia (the Quartet for National Dialogue, ed.) in 2015, as far as I'm concerned, knowing how things are going with the LGBTQ+ community here. I can get really mad about that, so at first I was nagging everyone about it, until I realized I can turn it into music too. I don't have an ideology either, I only see things happen that aren't right and I address that in my music. They are mainly observations. Now that I live in Europe, I can no longer deal with physical activism, so I try to address what is going on there in a different way through my music and through interviews with journalists.”
Since she moved to Europe Abdelwahed feels much freer. She lives with her girlfriend and doesn't have to hide from the government if they want to walk down the street hand in hand. “I love France, Toulouse and Europe. I can finally be who I am and do what I want, but I also miss Tunisia. Everyone in Europe has much more opportunities than Tunisians in their own country and that is sad to see. A lot of young people are leaving Tunisia because they can't do many of the things they want to do there. Young people have dreams and if that doesn't work in their own country, they go elsewhere to make that dream come true and many of those dreams can come true in Europe. I dream of going back one day and raising a little Deena in the country where she was born. That she can see how beautiful that country is and that her dreams can also come true in Tunisia.”
However, it is not always easy to play sets in Europe as a DJ with an Arab background. “Everything I do when I make music is labeled as 'Arab techno' or 'electronic Arab music', while in many sets I don't even use that many Arab influences. Just because I go by the name Deena Abdelwahed and I'm from Tunisia, I am often announced as an 'Arab DJ'. That is rarely done with Western DJs and that is something that annoys me. Not everything I make is immediately Arab music; I prefer to call it modern and experimental. But I also notice that there is a kind of identity crisis going on in the Arab countries. By that I mean that when I try something new in my music, it is quickly labeled as 'westernized' by the Arab world, but also to some extent by the western world, when that is not the case at all. I modernize music and try new things. You should see my music as a big laboratory where I try everything and experiment with new sounds and where sometimes experiments fail. What I make is modern. Not everything that doesn't have the typical folkloric sound is immediately westernized. My goal is to erase that stamp, to create new things without immediately calling it "Arabic" or "Westernized", and to find originality in the music that comes from the region I'm originally from. In this case it sounds like futuristic, experimental music with Arabic influences – and a good groove in it.”
Deena Abdelwahed plays Saturday February 16 on Uncloud in EKKO and a week later (Saturday 23 February) in The School. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.