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Flash 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 the centuries.

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 great-grandparents.

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 sign.

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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