November, 29. Under curfew.
It happened last night. Ramallah was pitch dark and the breeze was cool and brisk. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was out during the night with my wife and two daughters, Areen, 8 and Nadine, 2. We were taking advantage of the lull in nightly curfews imposed by the Israeli military over the past year. We found ourselves in the midst of a crowd of over 300 cheering Palestinians. Between us and another group of a few dozen Palestinian youth were two United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representatives. The two representatives were clearly American, in looks and accent. A few of the Palestinians standing behind the UNDP representatives slowly walked up behind them and one pulled from a bag what looked like a one meter wooden bat. Our hearts beating, and before we could clearly make out what was happening, the Palestinian boy holding this object unraveled a most beautiful and colorful Palestinian embroidery piece. The embroidery was attached to a wooden rod and the Palestinian teenager proudly held it up and presented it to the two UNDP representatives as a gift for their support. This was the final few minutes in what was a moving and fabulous one-hour debut of the Palestinian Folk Vista, by Bara’em El-Funoun, a new generation of the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe.
Bara’em is Arabic for “buds”. El-Funoun is Arabic for “the arts”. Bara’em El-Funoun is the offshoot of the renowned El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe (www.el-funoun.org), a music and dance ensemble, inspired by universal elements of folk art and their particular expression in Arab-Palestinian popular heritage and folklore. Bara’em El-Funoun is the embodiment of a new generation of dancers, a generation that is determined to safeguard and advance Palestinian culture and heritage through dance, music and song.
We are in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan in Ramallah has historically been marked by joyous evenings during the cool and breezy nights following the breaking of daylight fast. This year is an exception, as was last year. For the last two years the Israeli occupation has stripped all evidence of normal life from Palestinian streets. Whereas the city centers would once have been open for business late into the evening to cater to Ramadan shoppers and holiday-goers, today only a handful of businesses venture to open their doors after nightfall, fearing the volatile security situation and realizing that their patrons prefer to not risk the surprise Israeli raids and patrols within the city.
Last night was different. Over 300 Palestinians were invited to attend the first performance of El-Funoun’s youth dance group. The mere invitation to such an event during these troubled times sparked a deep sense of defiance toward occupation in each of us. It was as if this youth dance group and those organizing them were calling for popular action to counter the Israeli military activities that have brought our cultural lives to a standstill. The action was clearly defined and well planned – a forceful demonstration by way of dance, music and song that Palestinian culture is alive and well, undamaged by Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and F-16’s that have permanently scarred each of our streets, neighborhoods and families.
We entered the Ramallah Municipality Hall along with dozens of other families. Parents, children, elders and many friends gathered together in public for the first time in quite a while to celebrate a positive and cheerful event. For us it was a special event too. My wife Abeer was a dancer with the El-Funoun dance troupe back in the late 80’s and my daughter Areen is currently training in dance at classes at the Popular Arts Center (PAC) with great hopes of one day being accepted into the Bara’em troupe and then graduating into the El-Funoun troupe.
This tribute to Palestinian culture came with a story, like most events in Palestine these days. Bara’em members rehearsed most of the Palestinian Folk Vista production during Israeli-imposed military curfews. On one occasion, they were all trying to reach the studio (at the PAC in Al-Bireh, ) when they suddenly saw an Israeli armored personnel carrier (APC) parked right outside the studio entrance. Khaled, the dance trainer, was with them, and he was terrified that troupe members would be hurt. He bore the millstone of responsibility. After all, it was he who had convinced the parents to let their children challenge the curfew to get to the rehearsals. He panicked, and suddenly, one of the Bara’em girls decided to walk to the entrance despite the presence of that APC. Everyone else followed and they made it to practice! The soldiers did not interfere this time, luckily.
Bara’em’s performance was stunning. The smiles of the dancers were refreshing. As Omar Barghouti, one of the proud choreographers, told me following the event: “Those children became real dancers with power, passion and a very convincing ability to convey the choreographed themes, to entertain and to impress. Our children are not reduced to mere victims, who solicit sympathy; they have a presence that demands solidarity and support. This has been El-Funoun’s direction for decades now, and we can finally take pride in passing it on to our next generation of El- Funoun members, Bara’em.”
In the middle of the performance my nephew, Yacoub, 14, took the stage to present a musical solo on the Qanun, a zither-like musical instrument with 26 triple courses of strings and one of the oldest oriental string instruments in Arabic music. As Yacoub fine-tuned his instrument, you could have heard a pin drop while the audience waited in anticipation. My two-year-old daughter seized the opportunity to yell out to her cousin from the middle of the hall, “Yacoub!” It was her way of expressing her excitement of the moment and she brought the entire audience to a warm laugh.
Dance after dance, these young boys and girls dazzled the audience with their agility and outstanding ability to synchronize with the traditional songs depicting the love of life that resides in all Palestinians, a love that appreciates the wonders of nature, respects land and refuses to forget those living in poverty and exile. Each girl dancer wore a traditional embroidered Arabic dress, full of color and full of life. The young boy dancers each wore a simple loose traditional garment reflecting those worn by Palestinian peasants and farmers for hundreds of years.
A scan of the audience brought sadness and hope. A friend, and one of the El-Funoun choreographers, Mrs. Lana Abu Hijleh, sat close to the stage and looked on with a bright smile. This performance was an accomplishment she had a right to be proud of. To see her smile brought hope, especially given that it was only a few weeks ago we paid our respects to her and her family after her mother was murdered by an Israeli solider in the Palestinian City of Nablus as she sat on the porch inside her home stitching an embroidery. I watched other friends enjoying the performance as well, knowing that many of their loved ones were missing from their sides. Instead of being in the audience watching their children culturally flourish, many fathers, brothers and sons instead were languishing in Israeli jails, part of the 7,000 Palestinians arbitrarily arrested over the past two years.
The UNDP, sponsors of this fabulous performance, accepted a gift of embroidery at the end of the event. In making his closing remarks, the UNDP representative was clearly moved by what he had seen – a drop of hope in a sea of despair.
While sitting and watching the performance with my youngest daughter on my lap violently clapping after every dance, I thought to myself, if only our Israeli neighbors could see and feel what we were seeing and feeling. If only the parents of those Israeli soldiers — not much older than the young Palestinian dancers on stage — patrolling and occupying our cities could see the energy and determination that was on stage and in the audience. If only my Israeli neighbors could remove the artificial blinders placed on them by their leadership, they would quickly realize that we are a people whose spirit cannot be broken by military occupation. A people whose culture and traditions are deeper than the roots of the olive tress that the Israel bulldozers continue to uproot. If they could only see! If they could only feel!
Before we reached home last night it was announced by the Israeli military that for the next two days Ramallah would be placed under 24-hr military curfew, yet again. It was as if the entire city was being collectively punished for the act of displaying Palestinian culture. Nevertheless, when the curfew is lifted we will send our daughter Areen for her next weekly dance lesson, for we have no time to waste in ending this occupation, so disastrous for us all. Maybe the dance weapon will succeed where everything else so far has failed.
SAM BAHOUR is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He can be reached at email@example.com.