Dancing, yanni, for peace

What did you do when you were 16? Cough up a lung trying a cigarette, go on your first date, learn to drive?

A group of teenagers from a Palestinian refugee camp are being a bit more productive with their time. While their peers get international attention by blowing themselves to bits, these high-schoolers are trying to save their people’s skins in a different way.

Internationally acclaimed youth dance troupe Ibdaa (which means “to create something out of nothing”) is currently completing its second U.S. tour. The group of 25 talented teenagers from the Dheisheh refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank breezed through Sacramento’s St. Ignatius Loyola Parish Center on Arden Way last Friday night and blew the pants off the standing-room-only crowd.

The show started with the act Al-Mutakal (“political prisoners”), which reenacted the oppression these kids feel every day in the camps: An Israeli guard clad in trademark green army uniform and dark glasses bullied a group of Palestinian men, women and children. Without dialogue, the humiliation and anguish of the performers, and their communities back home, were communicated effectively via heart-rending body language and practiced gestures. Young heads were blindfolded and bowed, women were pushed to the floor, and fingers were crushed under black army boots.

While performing, these kids showed a maturity that defied their youth and the teen-speak interjections of “yanni”—the Arabic equivalent of “like”—that littered their informal conversations. Their expressions could convey the grief of decades. But I guess that goes with the (occupied) territory.

The evening progressed through two more acts, hampered by annoyingly distracting sound and lighting reminiscent of a second-grade school play. Still, flashy folk costumes, spirited music and lots of bouncing around—think Russian Cossacks meet Riverdance, with some raise-the-roof-style arm movements tossed in—got the audience clapping along.

The evening ended with an over-the-top Palestinian-flag-waving number that elicited Les Mis flashbacks from me, but it brought the supportive crowd of more than 750—mostly Arab-Americans and a lot of white liberals—to its feet.

The media may focus on Palestinian suicide bombers, but these kids just wanted to show us damn Yankees that they’re not all terrorists.

“We don’t want to kill anybody,” said 17-year-old Manar Faraj, her eyes flashing passionately. Her friend Tamara Abu Labar added, “We are coming here to fight, to struggle, but in our way—without violence.”

And what did they think of Bushie’s yellow-brick-road map for peace? As fellow dancer Mohammed Rabee, whose house in Dheisheh camp was stormed and trashed by Israeli soldiers, put it, “It doesn’t do anything for us refugees. [It lets the] Israelis do whatever they want.”

So, now they’re dancing like they’ve never danced before.