In the middle of our regular dance rehearsal, our second after the end of the latest Israeli assault, a group of Belgian artists quietly sauntered into our well-lit, yet cozy, studio in Ramallah, some for the first time. Unmistakably surprised by what they saw and heard — I had chosen a track from Brave Heart for the improvisation segment that day, our European friends started shooting — with a video camera, that is — and taking notes, incessantly. Most westerners cannot hide their bemusement when they see a group of Palestinian dancers — from both sexes — diligently learning a new elaborate Palestinian choreography. The scene is somewhat surreal to them. Dance in the midst of “war”!
During the brief rehearsal break I usually give the dancers, after two hours of hard, sweaty work, one of the visitors, a filmmaker, interviews me. He asks with some hesitation, “After all this war and destruction of basic infrastructure, how do you convince yourself and the dancers to persevere in doing what you are doing? Isn’t dance a very low priority in time of war?” I never asked myself that question. Do we have to stop creating dance, music, art and literature to join the battle of ‘reconstruction’? Is reconstruction only applicable to devastated buildings, roads, water pipes and electricity poles? How about shattered dreams and shaken identities, don’t they need reconstruction as well? I could not but recall John Stuart Mill’s definition of humans as “unique,” “self-creating,” and “creative individuals” who are “culture-bearing.”
During the latest punishing re-occupation of Ramallah, days had passed without electricity, running water and with food shortages, but that did not deter me from listening to Fairuz, Vivaldi and Munir Bashir, or my wife from listening to Asmahan, Abdel Wahab and Umm Kalthoum — yes, we do have substantial pluralism in our music preferences in the family. My older daughter still had to practice the violin daily, the exact hours depending on when it was quietest. The neighborhood kids still invented new games and new causes of quarrel along with them; all of them were strongly urged by their parents to allocate some mandatory time for studying every single day. Our humble collection of literature books– from Naguib Mahfouz to Isabel Allende, and from Abdel Rahman Munif to Ahlam Mistaganmi — suddenly became a “public” library for the neighbors.
Several of us read, wrote, wept every once in a while, cringed at particularly gory footage, argued with each other on every imaginable political issue– an idiosyncratic feature of average Palestinian life– joked, shouted at times, rationed the precious little water we had (mainly collected from rain drainage) between our desperate plants and ourselves, shared rare moments of intimacy and mutual vulnerability; … in short, we lived as “culture-bearing” beings do.
Perhaps our neighborhood is different from the next, but most of what we did to survive the onslaught without paying a dear price in our sanity was common virtually everywhere, at least in all the places where roofs remained standing where they should be, and where death had not visited.
But even where roofs literally fell on top of innocent inhabitants, as in the midst of the despondent devastation in the Jenin refugee camp and in the Nablus casbah, a nagging concern of parents and community leaders was to make sure that schools were rehabilitated as quickly as possible to be able to function normally. One cannot imagine, perhaps, how a deeply traumatized tent dweller, surviving an appalling atrocity, left with a profusion of loss, desperation, and anger, and a scarcity in basic needs, could possibly worry about his/her children’s education. Insight into the innermost scars of Palestinian refugees, however, could elucidate this mysterious Palestinian obsession with learning as a means of identity formation.
The “Nakba generation” — as the Palestinian generation that suffered the brunt of the initial dispossession in 1948 is commonly called — is haunted with guilt for what it perceives as its mortifying failure to resist the Zionist onslaught then. The essential culprit in their mind has always been their “limited consciousness” at the time — a recurring theme in that period’s oral history — which in this context is understood as a combination of ignorance, illiteracy, being deficient in necessary skills, as well as lacking a clear sense of identity. Culture — which learning is a vital part of — is therefore venerated as the key to their salvation from repeated victimization and exile.
In contexts of colonialism, cultural expression acquires particular eminence in shaping the collective identity. This is mostly due to the role played by the colonist in influencing the native’s identity. As Jean-Paul Sartre once described the French settler-colonist in Algeria,
“[H]e has come to believe that the domestication of the ‘inferior races’ will come about by the conditioning of their reflexes. But in this he leaves out of account the human memory and the ineffaceable marks left upon it; and then, above all there is something which perhaps he has never known: we only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.”
Immersing themselves in cultural praxis, the natives expand the “ineffaceable marks” left upon their human memory. Despite the widespread devastation caused by the Inexorably Destructive Fascists, otherwise know as the IDF, Palestinians cannot afford not to integrate cultural rehabilitation and identity reformulation into their overall battle of reconstruction and struggle for emancipation. Our very humanity has been restricted, hampered, battered by the relentless dehumanizing efforts of our tormentors. As a reaction, the process of de-colonizing our minds assumes crucial precedence. Restoring our humanity, our dreams, our hopes and our will to resist and to be free, therefore, becomes even more important than mending our infrastructure. Thus, we dance.
Frantz Fanon described this process saying, “[Decolonization] transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose of history’s floodlights upon them. … Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men.” The self-worth, which has been subjected to unremitting abuse at the hand of the colonists is here given the opportunity to be resurrected, radically, without losing sight of the fact that our fetters do not disappear with the end of our subjugation to the colonist. We’ve always had some form of chains, cultural, social, that have also hindered our assumption of our due position in world development. In our cultural struggle, we cannot but address those fetters as well.
Cultural expression to us, then, serves dual purposes: self-therapy and expansion of the “free zone” in our collective mind, where progressive transformation can thrive. In response to all the attempts to circumscribe our aspirations, we must push on, dreaming and being creative, boundlessly. Thus, we dance.
Omar Barghouti is a dance choreographer and trainer of El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, in Al-Bireh (Ramallah). He is also a doctoral student of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org