Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saint Levant: Between Fame and Controversy

Saint Levant has faced heavy criticism for his ties to Israeli activists and his style of activism, which some have criticized as being inadequate and lacking.

Saint Levant
Source: Instagram/SaintLevant

Dana Hourany

“I wanna take you to Paris and spoil you, I wanna go to Marseille and enjoy you, I want those guys in your DM’s who talk to themselves and then tell all their friends that they know you…” With these lyrics, Palestinian, Serbian, French and Algerian artist, Saint Levant took the video app TikTok by storm in November 2022 upon the release of his single “Very Few Friends.”

This 10 second snippet from the song’s official video has been viewed over 12 million times at the time of writing since it was first posted on 18 November 2022. The 22-year-old artist appears in the video sitting on a chair wearing a white tank top, olive pants, and a brown belt against a simple background with only a TV and vase in the frame. His neck is adorned with a gold necklace from his father’s hometown in Palestine.

Since the artist began posting humor, daily updates, and information on Palestine in 2021, thousands of people have viewed his videos on TikTok. His music career didn’t take off, however, until later in 2022, when his song “Very Few Friends” went viral on the popular social media app.

Lea, a 24-year-old Lebanese barista, sees the artist as part of a new wave of relatable Arab young artists.

“He’s attractive, has imaginative music, and includes elements of Levantine culture I can relate to. Since he is still a young artist, I don’t know much about him, but ‘Very Few Friends’ turned me into a fan,” she told Fanack.

A seductive tune with a fusion of the three most widely spoken languages in the Arab world—Arabic, French, and English—a calm beat, and a monotone voice were the elements that drew people to Saint Levant’s work. However, the artist has faced heavy criticism for his ties to Israeli activists and his style of activism, which some have criticized as being inadequate and lacking.

Who is Saint Levant?

Born Marwan Abdelhamid in Jerusalem to a French Algerian mother and Palestinian Serbian father during the Second Intifada, he spent his formative years in the Gaza Strip until the Battle of Gaza in 2007 drove him and his family to Jordan.

During his childhood in Gaza, Abdelhamid lived in a hotel built by his father, which he described to Arab News as the best years of his life.

“For everyone, like childhood is very meaningful. And for me, it was a juxtaposition because I remember the sound of the drones and the sounds of the bones. But more than anything, I remember the warmth, and the smell of … and the taste of food and just the odd feeling of soil,” Abdelhamid said in the interview.

A teenager at the time, Saint Levant began feeling like an outcast after moving to Jordan.

“I had an earring when I was 15, and I used to paint my nails,” the artist told Rolling Stone. “But it’s never my intention to be provocative.”

With his song “Tourist,” the artist conveys the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own home. Yet, he has previously said that Gaza is the only place where he feels a sense of belonging.

Out of the memories and attachment formed to Palestine, Abdelhamid launched his music career with “Jerusalem freestyle,” “Haifa in Tesla,” “Nirvana in Gaza” and “1001 nights.”

Building a fan base

Social observer and rap enthusiast Leen Saad told Fanack that she has been a fan of Saint Levant since the start of his career in 2021. In particular, she enjoyed songs about residing in Palestine, the Levant, and the psychological, social, and political aspects of living in the region.

According to Saad, those were the artist’s debut works. “I find it disheartening that he gained popularity as a result of ‘Very Few Friends,’ as this is not consistent with his earlier efforts.”

Saad was initially drawn to Saint Levant because of the cultural allusions he makes in his lyrics and how they mirror Palestinian lives, particularly in the diaspora, as well as because of the beats and melodies he makes, which she considers different from other independent musicians.

Furthermore, she commends his 2022 initiative to cover living expenses for a young Palestinian artist for a year.

Saad, who lives in Lebanon, said of Abdelhamid, who lives in the West, “while he is not entirely relatable to us Arabs living in the Arab world, I still like the idea of encouraging Arab artists that put out music that reflects their experiences in the region.”

Saad worries, meanwhile, that the artist’s popularity may decline as Saint Levant becomes a more mainstream and commercialized.

Saad said, “I will drop my fandom if his music develops into songs only about women and sexuality.

Controversy and issues

Saint Levant is no stranger to controversy. According to Jordanian-Palestinian activist “lllevantine,” Saint Levant follows two well-known Israeli activists on Instagram, Adiel Cohen, and Hen Mazzig.

Adiel Cohen is a Jewish-Israeli rights activist based in Tel Aviv who is a pro-Israel TikTok and Instagram influencer. Often mocking Palestinian activists and the media, Cohen is also an outspoken Zionism defender.

In one video, Cohen states that Israel was right to attack Gaza in August 2022 after intense hostilities between Palestinian armed factions, led by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Israel’s Defense Forces. In total, 46 Palestinians were killed, including 16 children. At least 360 Palestinians were injured, including 151 children, 58 women, and 19 elderly.

Hen Mazzig, on the other hand, is an Israeli writer, a former officer in the Israeli Defense Force, and an activist who has stated that a chant calling for the freedom of Palestine “From the river to the sea” constitutes a “genocide” against his people and murder of him and his family.”

Another post depicts Saint Levant advocating “humanizing the other side,” which lllevantine explained in her caption as siding with the Zionists that have committed violent crimes against the Palestinians for over 70 years.

Saint Levant, in a private chat with lllevantine that she leaked, mentions “peaceful reconciliation” and a “Secular state of Jerusalem” as solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Fanack reached out to the artist for a comment, but was unsuccessful.

Early activism

In his early years as an influencer in 2020 and 2021, Abdelhamid was outspoken about Israeli Apartheid, Palestinian oppression, the erasure of Palestinian identity, and the hardships of life in the Gaza Strip.

The artist also pointed out the discrepancy in Western media coverage of the Russian war on Ukraine, where Ukrainian soldiers are hailed for defending their land, but Palestinians are shunned.

Before he became famous in 2022, Abdelhamid’s TikTok account had been educating followers about the Palestinian struggle and the hypocrisy of the West against Arabs.

Criticism

Saint Levant’s action, in the opinion of 20-year-old Nour*, who runs the lllevantine account, is insufficient and counterproductive.

She points to his debate with pro-Israeli activist Rudy Rochman where he expressed affinity to Rochman for “acknowledging Palestinian suffering” as an example.

In lllevantine’s view, he gives voice to Israeli activists more than he does to Palestinians.

“Using his platform in this way puts the spotlight on Israel and erases Palestinian voices on the ground,” she told Fanack.

The artist also stressed the significance of intellectual and corporate activists like Edward Said and Bella Hadid. This, in lllevantine’s opinion, disregards the value of armed resistance against occupation.

“Popular activism focused on arts and literature is key to spreading the Palestinian cause, but it is not the only thing that will bring about the liberation of the land,” Nour explained.

lllevantine, whose uncle was assassinated by the Mossad, believes Palestinian activists should use their platforms to spotlight Palestinian voices and stories, as well as speak out frequently against Israeli aggression.

“He rarely mentions those who were killed at the hands of Israel. His arguments and opinions seem less aggressive than those of other activists on the ground, which I believe is Westernized and a form of normalization with the enemy,” she noted.

“I would gladly listen to him if he explained his position and elaborated on his stance, but for now he seems to be a trendy artist who has gone viral for being relatable to Arab youth.”

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