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The Lebanese Rapper Who Was Mistaken for a Terrorist

In 34 days, there were five suicide-bomb attacks by al Qaeda affiliates active in Lebanon. Checkpoints have sprung up on the roads, unfamiliar cars arouse suspicion, and public buses have started to display signs kindly asking passengers to remove...
February 10, 2014, 1:00pm

Hussein Sharaffedine, a.k.a. Double A the Preacherman

Everyone in Lebanon seems a little paranoid this year, and it's easy to see why. In 34 days, there were five suicide-bomb attacks by al Qaeda affiliates active in the country, such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Most of those bombings targeted Hezbollah strongholds in the Bekaa Valley and the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh—retribution for the Shia militant group's continued support of the Syrian regime.

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In response, checkpoints have sprung up on the roads into Dahiyeh, unfamiliar cars arouse suspicion, and public buses have started to display signs kindly asking passengers to remove their jackets before boarding.

It was presumably because of all this that 32-year-old Hussein Sharaffedine, a.k.a. Double A the Preacherman, the host of Radio Beirut’s weekly open-mic night and frontman of local funk band The Banana Cognacs, found himself being handcuffed by the Internal Security Forces, detained for 24 hours, and taken to the country's anti-terrorist unit.

On January 22—the day of his arrest and one day after a deadly attack in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik—pictures of Sharaffedine being cuffed in the area were posted to Twitter with the rapper looking far more Cholo than Salafist. I met up with him to talk about being arrested as a suspected terrorist and found out that his "modern Mexican attire" was exactly what got him into trouble in the first place.

VICE: So what happened? What were you doing in Haret Hreik?
Hussein Sharaffedine: I'd traveled up to Beirut from Sidon, where I live, to go to a mechanic in Haret Hreik to get some body work done on my mom’s car. It was meant to be a surprise. I was rolling down the street after passing through a checkpoint—no one asked me to stop. Suddenly, I see this guy in the rearview mirror running toward me, holding a gun. I remember thinking, What the fuck is going on? I noticed he was wearing semi-military fatigues, and I pulled over and put my hands up.

As soon as I parked he hit me with the gun and tried to drag me out of the window. Another officer arrived, and he also started hitting me. Then they put me in handcuffs and pushed me into the back of a car in front of what had become a pretty big crowd. No one had asked for my ID. Later, I found out that the guy who arrested me—people were calling him “Rambo”—was pretty well known in the area for some previous incidents, including killing someone during a raid. Apparently, I would have been his fourth victim.

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Where did they take you?
They took me to the local police station. By this stage the story was spreading all over the news. One police officer showed me a Whatsapp message on his phone relating that I was a known musician, and my detention was not great PR for the police in general. He was laughing. People in the station became apologetic; no one laid a finger on me. They asked me if I wanted to press charges against the arresting officers. I was allowed to speak to friends on the phone; we were joking about how ludicrous the situation was.

But there were complications?
I thought the investigation was over. I had my release papers. At around 1:30 PM, the commanding officer told me I would have to wait for the assistant chief investigator to arrive in order to finalize proceedings. He was apparently on his lunch break. At 5:30 PM he still hadn’t arrived, so the officer called him. They put the handcuffs back on me and told me to turn my phone off.

What did the assistant chief investigator say?
He had referred my case to the specialist anti-terrorist branch. The officer was trying to say that a report had been completed and I was a known musician, but he didn’t care. My brother relayed the news that I was going to be held overnight and taken to the anti-terrorist division the next morning for questioning.

How did you feel when you realized they weren't going to release you?
I was angry. I wanted to flip, but I knew it was best to stay calm. I'm from a Shia family. It's not central to my identity; I'm not religiously driven. But family and blood line is important in Lebanon. It is our culture. The arresting officer was Shia, and he called me an apostate Salafist because of my appearance. It was a new term for me. I understand that tensions are high—and, given our history as Lebanese, we are used to this—but there are certain procedures. At checkpoints I give the utmost respect, but I was badly disrespected. I mean, the security forces tell us to go about our daily business, but I got fucked over doing just that.

They wanted to put me in a cell, but thanks to my brother's arguing, and the fact that the officers were pretty aware there had been a mistake and were doing some serious ass-kissing, I was allowed to sleep in the officers’ quarters. I was still wearing the handcuffs.

What was your experience like at the anti-terrorist unit the next day?
The people at the anti-terrorist unit were actually pretty awesome. They were very polite, a side of the security forces that I’d never seen before. When I spoke to the head officer he said to me, “Hassan, the guys who arrested you are idiots.” I replied, “Why?” He looked at me—I was still wearing the same clothes from the previous day—and said, “Because that’s not an Afghani style, it's more Cholo-esque.” I couldn’t believe it. In the actual report that the anti-terrorist unit made, they stated that the clothes I was wearing were not comparable to Afghani clothing but “modern Mexican attire.” At around 5 PM I was released.

How do you feel now reflecting on the experience?
Afterward, local, regional, and international newspapers started contacting me—lawyers, human rights groups, etc. Politicians have offered their condolences; policemen at checkpoints in Saida have apologized for what happened. I guess the lights and cameras were inevitable. People now know of me because of what happened rather than the music, and I don’t necessarily like that. But if it creates more interest then that's a silver lining.

I’ve always felt that hip hop can serve as a call against racism and bigotry, and highlight cases of ill treatment and injustice. We live in a sectarian country where the security situation is not secure, the borders are not bordered up and people lack confidence in the security institutions and courts. A lot of the hip hop that comes out in Lebanon follows political themes. Sometimes, I think, to its detriment. Music should also be a release. When I get on the mic I address civil issues, but I also want to enjoy it, to get down, the same as when I’m listening. I plan to keep on rhyming. Maybe now I’ve got some leeway to talk about the police. I have before, sometimes. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t hear from them about that. I don’t think they were listening.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @scotinbeirut