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Review, 8-7: Refugees
Liberating Dance from Palestinian Troupe
By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2003 Anna Arias Rubio
PHILADELPHIA -- Ibdaa
is a troupe of 18 Palestinian youths, ages fifteen to eighteen,
who live in the Dneisheh refugee camp near the city of Bethlehem
in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. During their powerful presentation
at the Bonnell l Large Auditorium of the Community College of Philadelphia
Thursday, I was constantly aware that these young performers were
not only portraying events from the history of the Palestinian people,
but also reenacting their own personal experiences.
Presented in Philadelphia
by more than a dozen local activist and cultural organizations,
Ibdaa was introduced by Rachael Kamel of the Jewish Peace Network
and the American Friends Service, and Ahlam Yassin of Sustain! and
the Arab-American Community Development Corporation. Next, a member
of the troupe talked about the Ibdaa Cultural Center and life in
the Dneisheh Refugee Camp.
Dneisheh was established
in 1949 and, consisting of only one-half a square mile land is home
to 11,000 people, including 6,000 children. The dancers are from
the third generation to live in the camp. The word "ibdaa" means
to create something out of nothing, and this is definitely what
has been done here. Ibdaa Cultural Center was founded in 1995 and
includes not only the dance troupe, but a nursery, kindergarten,
children's library, computer and Internet centers, restaurant, multi-purpose
hall, sports program, community mural, women's cooperative, music
courses, guest house, income generation projects and scholarships.
The first piece presented
Thursday by the Ibdaa dance troupe was "Al-Waseeya" (The Will).
According to the program notes, this dance addresses the relationship
between farmers and the land and the determination of the Palestinian
people to defend their land against the various occupying forces:
the Ottoman empire, Great Britain, and Israel. The songs featured
are national hymns and Palestinian folk ballads preserved through
Projected on the floor
is the shape of the Sun, as we listen to a distant ney or flute
and recitation in Classical Arabic, which my Lebanese companion
is unable to translate. Twelve dancers enter wearing traditional
Palestinian costumes of shiny red and gold fabric, all with flowing
headdresses and white sneakers. They sit on the floor in groups,
relaxed, smiling and waving at each other as if in a village plaza.
As the song changes they get up and break into a joyful debkeh.
The debkeh is a folk dance of the Middle East with regional variations,
but typically danced in a line with skipping "grapevine" footwork
accentuated with stomps. The women wave their arms and hands in
a graceful birdlike manner and the men are very masculine, chests
up, hands on the hips or arms intertwined in a line. Singles or
doubles break from the group to show off with fancy footwork. One
particularly exciting move by the men involves them all dropping
to the ground dramatically, cockily posing, leaning on one elbow
and then suddenly leaping up together to continue.
During the playful debkeh
a young man enters in black, representing the invaders; he weaves
between the dancers, sneaking and snatching. The other men become
aware of him and dance more fiercely with their fists raised; as
they drive him away the gestures change, and the women slap the
ground and form a circle with their fists in the air. This is followed
by a softer, melancholy segment for nine young women divided into
three groups of three that finishes with them all crouched and looking
to the floor, as if awaiting the return of loved ones. As the men
begin to enter, again with their fists raised, more invaders arrive,
dressed in black and with uncovered heads. Chaos and panic is followed
by a sudden stop. One of the men falls at the front of the stage,
as if shot. Another crouches and holds his hand, as the women beat
the ground in mourning.
It is at this point
that the reality of what I was seeing hit me hard. I have been referring
to the dancers as men and women, but really they are children. They
weren't born at the time of the invasion of the Ottomans or the
British or even the creation of their refugee camp home, but they
are faced with violence almost every day. They have all seen or
lived this scene they are playing for us. What they have not had
a chance to live is the traditional agrarian village life of their
The dead man is carried
off the stage, which briefly goes dark before everyone returns,
sitting on the ground as if in the town square, this time more subdued.
Women enter with circular straw mats like those used in winnowing.
The music changes to a song about freedom (according to my Lebanese
friend) and again they break into a joyful debkeh. Black-shirted
invaders enter once again. The invaders take positions in the corners
of the stage and then leave.
The music changes, and
the faces of the young men and women brighten. The gestures suggest
searching and sleeping, as the voice of a child is heard singing
that he wants only to wake up and have every day be the same. The
dancers split into boys and girls and come downstage one couple
at a time to dance their bows and wave the two fingered victory/peace
Another work, "Al-Khaima"
(the Tent), also deals with the history of the Palestinian refugees,
and their previous life as farmers. This piece is even more representative,
as the performers dance with scythes and other farm implements and
the music includes the chirping of birds. The invaders arrive covered
with black sheets to a roaring sound suggesting an air raid.
The evening's most powerful
work arrives with "Al-Matakal" (Political Prisoners). The program
noted: no explanation is provided, the interpretation is up to each
audience member. The piece begins with a young woman reciting in
Arabic, (as a colleague later translated for me) "Where have all
the men and boys gone?" and "Where are the prisoners?" (On Wednesday,
as an informal part of a cease-fire agreement with Palestinian groups,
Israel released 300 of an estimated 6,000 Palestinian prisoners,
many of whom it charges with crimes against Israel.) Her voice is
filled with passion and desperation, sometimes raising to a scream
and then settling into a kind of resolve. She expresses loss and
anger, and tries to come to grips with her own situation.
To wordless string music,
a man dressed in an Israeli army uniform pushes around barefoot,
shirtless young men, tying their hands behind their backs and blindfolding
them. He even places a black bag over the head of one prisoner as
he crouches on the floor. A woman enters carrying a baby, pleading;
he shoves her to the corner. It is painful to watch. The prisoners
are scattered around the stage. The music changes and the soldier
stands upstage with a young woman in a flowing white robe standing
in front of him. They are face to face, the soldier holding a rope
tied around the woman's waist. They begin a slow dance of attraction
and repulsion, sometimes actually breaking into a tug-of-war with
the rope. The woman seems to be the spirit of the people; pushed
to the floor, she crawls and stretches out on the floor, trying
to reach the tied-up prisoners, but is constantly pulled back or
kicked down. She is long-limbed and graceful with elegant, expressive
hands. I am struck with the thought that the very young -- and gifted
-- dancer playing this woman in white, had she been born in some
other place, might just as easily be gracing the stage with any
top ballet company in the world.
The soldier takes the
black bag from the head of the prisoner on the floor and drops it
over the head of the woman in white. He places his foot on her head
and his hands on his hips. As he stands there another young woman,
her head and face wrapped in the traditional Palestinian cloth,
enters behind him waving the Palestinian flag, and two more youths
enter and spread a white sheet on the ground, spray-painting it
with the word FREEDOM.
Between each piece,
the representative of the Ibdaa Cultural Center spoke to us about
life in the camp. He told us its history, from when the inhabitants
lived in tents to the tenement-type buildings they're crammed into
today. The original inhabitants of the camp came from 45 different
villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron. These people were farmers,
and the sense of loss of connection to the land was referred to
throughout the program.
According to Ibdaa's
brochure, the camp is continuously invaded by the Israeli army;
violence is an almost daily reality. The camp, we were told, has
only one doctor, and he's there just six hours per day, six days
per week. Many sick people and victims of violence die because they
have no way to get medical attention. During an intermission, volunteers
collected contributions towards a planned clinic for the village.
It is an inspiration to see people who lack so many of the most
basic necessities, like medical care, choose to dance.
These young people are
living proof of the importance of art. They could be throwing rocks
or committing other acts of violence, but they have a powerful faith
that by sharing the story of their people and celebrating their
culture they can change the world. According to its brochure, "Ibdaa
hopes that (the performers) will meet as many people as possible
to convey their message for peace with justice in these critical
times in history, and to build a bridge of friendship and solidarity."
To find out more about
Ibdaa, see photos of the children, read their writings and see their
artwork, please visit Ibdaa's web site .
Reviewer's Note: I would like to thank my consultants, Michele
Tayoun and Hazami Sayed, director of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture,
a non-profit organization which is dedicated to exposing children
to the language and culture of the Arab world and to promoting understanding
and respect both within the diverse community of Arab-American children
and among children of various ethnic, religious and socio-economic
backgrounds. To visit Al-Bustan's web site, please click here .
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