On their third U.S. tour the Palestinian youth dance troupe, Ibdaa, performed Palestinian folkloric dance to raise money for Ibdaa projects in Dheisheh refugee camp.
Ibdaa, which means “to create something out of nothing,” is a grassroots organization that provides social, educational and cultural programs for over 1,500 youth and women of Dheisheh refugee camp, located outside of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. On less than one-square km of land are over 11,000 residents -- 6,000 of whom are children. Dheisheh is one of 59 refugee camps. In 1948, Israeli forces expelled approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their land. Mid-May marks the Al-Nakba, the Catastrophe for Palestinians, and the creation of the Jewish state, Israel.
In 1949, people forced to flee from 45 villages west of Jerusalem formed Dheisheh. The camp began with clusters of refugee tents on jagged terrain. Now, Dheisheh is a congested sea of stone homes surrounded by razor-wire fences and concrete wall.
“We will never forget our homeland,” Ziad Abbas said. “We have keys to our destroyed houses and we believe they are the keys of our paradise, the keys of our peace.”
Abbas is Ibdaa’s co-founder, who established the organization over eleven years ago. Born and raised in Dheisheh, Abbas explained that the people “…are struggling not to die there.” Through employment and Palestinian embroidery projects Ibdaa provides income to over 60 Palestinian families. Abbas said that the people need a democratic system that protects the people no matter if they are Jewish, Christians or Muslims. He hopes that Ibdaa’s artistic expression transfers into a message understandable to American public opinion. “We use the music, the dance to reflect what is inside us,” he added.
While the Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation, 70-85 per cent of the people in Dheisheh are unemployed. The wall prevents the people from working inside Israel. On this U.S. tour there are ten boys and ten girls -- ages ten to thirteen. One boy explained that he came to the U.S. to meet the supporters of peace. Another troupe member explained why she came to the U.S.
“We come to learn about Americans and to teach Americans about Palestinian life,” she said. “I’m coming to learn why the U.S. Government supports the occupation that kills us. I’m coming to teach how the Palestinian people live day-to-day, how we cannot move with the checkpoints.”
For the dance troupe to travel from Dheisheh to the U.S. required numerous luggage searches at Israeli checkpoints. Although a commute time from Dheisheh to Jericho is about 75 minutes, with checkpoints it can take a minimum of five hours to an entire day for travel between the two locations. While commuting in vans in the U.S., Abbas explained that the boys and girls were surprised at the ease with which they reached destinations because there are no checkpoints.
For all of the children, it is their first time traveling outside the West Bank. Earlier in the day, they traveled to Chicago’s lakefront. While in their clothes the children splashed in the cold water because it was the first time they touched a large body of water beyond the size of a bathtub.
When asked about what their lives are like at school, the boys and girls explained that there are two schools: one for boys and one for girls. With classroom sizes ranging from 43 students to 54 students the schools are crowded. In 2002 and 2003, Israeli invasions of the camp caused damage to one of the schools that it almost collapsed. There are no parks or playgrounds, but they explained there is one play lot. However it does not meet the needs of all of the children. While visiting Chicago in full autumn the youth explained there are no trees in the camp.
Even though Ibdaa is important to the people of Dheisheh, the most important requirement for youths’ continued participation in the organization is high grades. The youth practice after school two -– three days per week for three -- four hours each session. In the month prior to their departure, training was more intensive. Some Ibdaa members from previous dance generations are studying cinema, engineering, medicine, and social development in universities worldwide. Many of Ibdaa members from previous dance generations study in local universities, with financial assistance from the organization.
Abbas said that the Middle East Children’s Alliance Founder and Executive Director, Barbara Lubin, followed the dreams of the children and helped nine of them continue their education. Lubin is traveling with the dance troupe. On a five-week tour the troupe is into the second week of performances. They will perform in Texas, New Mexico, Washington State, and several cities in California.
Ibdaa performed three pieces titled The Will, Political Prisoners and The Tent.
The Will depicts life for Palestinian farmers pre-1948 and after Al-Nakba. It consisted of five dance segments. In the beginning of the performance the festive music celebrates Palestinian life and culture. Along with the music is the jump-kick, step-skip steps of debkeh. Pauses in-between keep “in step” with the tempo and rhythms of Arabic music.
The primary instruments in Ibdaa’s dance music are the oud (Arabic fretless lute), the nay (flute), drums, poetic recitations, and song. Whether they are in a ring circle, moving line or in pairs the children move in circular movements while a narrative voice booms overhead. Although the claps, arm sways and hand gestures may appear simple, the coordination and timing of upper body movements with the footwork is what makes debkeh dance intricate. The dancers transition from one kind of debkeh to another and they maintain it with ease. They demonstrate their knowledge of the dance’s form.
When I asked Abbas if the boys and girls took jazz or modern dance classes, he explained that Ibdaa has had some exposure to modern dance with other dance troupes. The youth absorb what they see but they maintain the traditional debkeh dance.
What I liked about the girls’ dancing was the graceful movements of their hands and arms, which gives the movements on stage a floating-on-air quality. Suddenly, flashing lights and chaotic movement on stage reflect the arrival of Al-Nakba and the death of one of the farmers.
When I asked one of the girls how she performs to this segment of the piece she said that it comes from the heart. When they pat the ground, then their hearts and motion to the sky their artistic expressions are the epitome of the Palestinian narrative.
Since 40 per cent of the Palestinian male population has served time in Israeli detentions and prisons, the piece Political Prisoners sheds creative light on an issue that oppresses the people collectively. They showed the brutality the Palestinian people experience from Israeli soldiers. Through live performance American audiences have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Palestinian youth witness at the checkpoints.
In The Tent the sounds of an oboe solo and singing birds brings the audience back to the days of pre-Nakba. Within twenty minutes the youth dance the narrative of Palestinian modern history. The tilling of fields is interrupted by the rain and wind Palestinians refugees endured when expelled from their villages. The static, chaotic movements of the youth expressed the feelings and experiences of their ancestors with creative clarity.
Despite the current violence,
poverty and water shortages caused by the military occupation Ibdaa
conveys to people their desire for peace, justice and freedom in their
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