Dancing out their history
Youths from a Palestinian refugee camp use traditional folk dance to share their struggle with the world
Who says you can’t make something out of nothing?
A Palestinian dance troupe has done just that and has the name to prove it. Ibdaa is the name of the troupe, and in Arabic it means “to create something out of nothing.” Ibdaa is made up of children who were born and raised in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem in the West Bank. They combine Palestinian folk dance, called debka, with music, songs and theatrical performances to tell their stories.
“Their dance has sketches of their daily living, how they were living under occupation [and] how they were treated all along,” said Hanna “John” Batarseh, a Palestinian-American and a Sacramento resident for 23 years. “Plus, they show our culture. We have a culture and heritage that goes back thousands of years.”
Batarseh, whose father recently was elected mayor of Bethlehem, is a board member of the Sacramento chapter of the National Council of Arab Americans, which is hosting the troupe’s performance at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento on Sunday, November 27, the final stop of their month-long U.S. tour.
He grew up in Bethlehem just minutes away from Dheisheh and recalls that life there was so difficult, and the troupe’s success has been so amazing, that it truly exemplifies making something out of nothing.
Dheisheh is one of 59 refugee camps established for more than 750,000 Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Eleven thousand people from 45 villages west of Hebron and Jerusalem now live in the camp, with military violence, poverty and overcrowding characterizing their everyday lives.
Yet, even in these conditions, they found a way to keep their culture alive while expressing their painful situation: dance. Ibdaa was born in 1994 when 30 children from Dheisheh traveled to Paris to perform a dance representing their plight.
Keyan Dauad, now a political-science student at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area, danced with Ibdaa from 1997 to 2003. She remembers the performance vividly and how it reflects her own life as a refugee.
“We dance for fun but also for education, to teach people about what’s going on there,” she said.
The performance is split into three parts. One of them, “Al khaima” (“The tent”), starts before 1948, offering a glimpse into the lives of Palestinians at a time in their history about which little is known. Harvest celebrations and weddings are all of a sudden shattered by the occupation, portrayed by characters in black coming from outside the stage.
Dauad’s role was of a girl dressed in red, dancing alone very fast, trying to wake up the fallen Palestinians and encourage them not to give up. It ends with the waving of the Palestinian flag, representing their hopes of returning to their original homes.
This is particularly touching for Dauad. When she was 12 or 13, her grandmother passed away, and the last words Dauad heard her say was how much she wanted to return to her village, Al-Walaja.
Another piece, “Al wasiya” (“The will”), is about Palestinian farmers and the importance of the land to its people. A father is shown willing to the next generation the responsibility of caring for and defending their lands.
The final part, called “Mua’taqal” (“Political prisoners”), shows the reality of imprisonment. A girl dressed in white to represent peace is trying to reach two blindfolded and handcuffed men to free them but is being held back by a man in a military uniform.
“When I dance, I always put in my mind one specific thing: that I’m a refugee. I don’t want to be a refugee anymore. I want to live like any other human in the world, live a peaceful life,” she said.
Another former dancer, Jehad Al Shamarkeh, says the troupe not only allowed him to share his life as a refugee, but also let him experience his grandparents’ history firsthand.
“It lets me be in the shoes of my grandmother when she was expelled from her village. It lets us experience history in the modern way, instead of reading about it,” he said. He was part of the original group that performed in Paris, and he is now a student at Vista Community College in Berkeley.
Growing up in Dheisheh refugee camp was akin to growing up in a prison, he says, with the camp surrounded by a fence and openings blocked by concrete. There was only one gate for the 11,000 refugees to enter and exit, and it was guarded by an Israeli soldier who let them in and out “depending on the mood of the soldier.”
The nature of the performance is obviously political, Al Shamarkeh says, because the occupation is central to the lives of Palestinians. The traditional folk dance of debka is incorporated into the pieces so that the history is expressed through the culture.
Batarseh remembers debka being a staple of Palestinian culture growing up.
“When you go to any wedding, any celebration, you do debka. It’s part of our life,” he said. “Whenever people are together and having fun, there is debka.”
The dance can symbolize different aspects of culture, but it’s characterized by synchronized stomping of the feet to Arabic music. The closest thing to debka that Batarseh can think of that people are probably familiar with is the Greek foot-stomping dance, like they showed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Because the current political situation is reflected in the performance, there has been some criticism from people with opposing views.
Al Shamarkeh coordinated a 2003 show in Los Angeles, after which someone said to him that he could see in the dancers’ eyes “the hatred for Israelis and the state of Israel.” He responded by asking the man what he would expect of kids who were born into refugee camps, “for them to love Israel and the occupation?”
He said that, for the most part, such things are not a problem, but there are some Jewish organizations concerned about messages the dances could convey.
Yitzhak Santis of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) has never seen Ibdaa perform but, from the group’s Web site, concluded that “it is difficult not to see the dance troupe as anything less of a propaganda effort.” He says that their educating of the Palestinian refugee issue ignores “Jews from Arab countries that were evicted by the Arab governments” after 1948, many of whom went to the newly created state of Israel.
But Penny Rosenwasser of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which is co-sponsoring Ibdaa’s Bay Area performances, says many Jews are in support of the Palestinian struggle.
“A hundred years ago, Jews and Arabs lived together in Palestine peacefully. This is a very recent struggle,” she said. “As Jews, we know what oppression feels like. No people should have to go through what we went through.”
Rosenwasser believes that Ibdaa’s tour is valuable to understanding their situation as Palestinians.
“They’re telling truth about their own stories as an oppressed people. Culture, whether it’s dance or film or music or poetry, helps us to humanize each other, to see each other as living, breathing people with families and homes.”