Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine, Nicholas Rowe, I. B. Tauris, 256pp, £30 (hardback)
At the 2003 ‘Dance and the Child International’ conference in Brazil, the author, Australian choreographer and dancer Nicholas Rowe, gave a keynote speech on the obstacles faced by young dancers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: ‘Halfway through my speech, just as I was explaining how colonisation and military occupation affected these children and their artistic choices, an Israeli delegate stood up and angrily called out, “This is a conference about dance and children, not a platform for politics!” and stormed out.’
The delegate’s public indignation echoes the chastisement the author received following his first visit to Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory in 1998. Invited by the Israeli Ministry of Culture to critique the annual showcase of Israeli contemporary dance, called (without irony) ‘Curtain Up: Zionist Movement’, he added a workshop in Ramallah, West Bank, onto his trip. In the subsequent published review, Rowe commented on the peculiarity that none of the stories of military oppression from a city one hour’s drive away were told through performances at the Israeli festival. The furious response of the Israeli cultural attaché in London was: ‘“Why did you have to go and get political?”’ It is a question that artists from dance collectives in occupied Palestinian territory might ask the Israeli military. Dancers have been arrested regularly at performances, folklore festivals censored and disrupted, and dance promoters subjected to interrogation, imprisonment and physical abuse, with the consequence that ‘being a dancer in such a group became perceived as a heroic act of resistance against the occupation’.
Raising Dust looks at the cultural history of dabkeh, ‘the most publically promoted form of dance in the contemporary West Bank’, which has its origins in local centuries-old dance practices, and is one of the significant aspects of Palestinian cultural heritage. The book is lavishly illustrated with a number of captivating black and white and colour photographs of dance-related events over the last century. Rowe writes that in the post- 1967 era, the cultural status of dabkeh has shifted ‘from being simply one of several local, rural dance practices to an emblem of Palestinian national identity’. Dabkeh means ‘stomp’ in Arabic and is a communal dance performed at weddings and other celebrations, where the participants stand in one line, their arms linked, and make the same moves with their legs, feet and upper body. Movements include rhythmic stamping, kicking and hopping. Rowe credits anthropologists’ accounts from Ottoman times with indicating the diversity of functions that dance had across Palestine: ‘More than just a celebratory activity at weddings, stylised physical expressions were integral to male-female interaction, expressions of religious piety, reflections of (and possibly preparations for) battle, expressions of personal anguish at tragedy and the collectivisation of trauma’.
By the late 1800s, there were at least 20,000 European pilgrims and tourists annually, many in search of a timeless, rural Palestine of biblical lore. In his account of a public dance performance presented to tourists in Bethlehem in 1875, American traveller Charles Dudley Warner expresses initial revulsion at the Bedouin women dancers: ‘Creatures uglier and dirtier than these hags could not be found,’ but goes on to betray a grudging admiration for their spirited dance: ‘one of the songs is altogether belligerent; it taunts the men with cowardice… it declares that the women like the sword and know how to use it, and thus and thus, lunging their swords into the air, would they pierce the imaginary enemy’.
The cultural history of dabkeh reflects differing perceptions of the role of women in Palestinian society. They have played – and continue to play – an active role in the struggle against occupation, and several thousand female political prisoners have been held in Israeli detention centres in the decades since 1967. Yet Rowe describes ways in which some nationalistic Palestinian folklorists have reduced women’s participation in increasingly gender-segregated practices, presenting dabkeh as a men’s dance.
According to this view, women traditionally engaged in ra’as (or bellydancing). However, historians generally claim that there was no bellydancing in local folklore and that it was only later imported from Lebanon and Egypt. The Chairman of the Palestinian National Dabkeh Committee, Abdel Aziz Abu-Hadba, has contended that men and women never danced together while holding hands, something disproved by another local folklorist, Sherif Kanaana, who was able to point to historical precedents. Contemporary productions have in fact allowed for more experimental local ideas. In 2004, the Ramallah dance project produced Mamnou al- Obour (Access Denied), a collage of satirical dance scenes reflecting artists’ physical experiences under military occupation. The popular response to the project indicated that dances beyond expressions of folk culture enjoy considerable community support.
Rowe makes an attempt to gain a greater understanding of ‘local Islamic attitudes towards dance’, which have been influenced by the modern Islamic reform movement. During the course of his research the author met with several ‘leading sheikhs’ in the West Bank. One of his interviewees, Sheikh Fadel Saleh, argues that Islam ‘respects women as human beings… [it] is against using the women’s bodies as a commodity, where they are used as the attraction, to sell a certain product… This is part of correcting art. There is no rejection, but Islamisation’. While there is a strong ethical argument against commercial exploitation and sexism, the sheikh’s notion of ‘correcting’ art needs to be understood as an attempt to excise the erotic from dance, and to deny women autonomy over their bodies and modes of artistic expression, and not as contributing to a ‘refinement of cultural ideas’, as Rowe suggests. It is not surprising, therefore, that Rowe found a ‘disinclination among both Islamic scholars and dance scholars to intensify public debate’ on the relationship between dance and religion.
Raising Dust demonstrates the extent to which dance – as cultural practice – incorporates and reflects the Palestinian political experience. As Rowe states, the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, was a ‘major stimulant in the politicisation of folk dance’ and that this political dimension was ‘further stimulated by the appropriation of indigenous items of intangible culture by Israeli institutions.’ Before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Zionist choreographers had searched for ‘appropriate cultural roots that might authenticate their political vision of a Jewish State in an oriental land’. In the early 1940s, one of the pioneers of Israeli dance, Vera Goldman, concluded her account of a local peasant dance performance held in one of the Arab villages with the suggestion that immigrant European Jews felt an innate connection with these dances: ‘“the ‘Deppka’, the Arabs’ shepherd-dance, is danced with spontaneous gaiety by the youth of our settlements. Perhaps, in some of these customs, occidental Jews felt as if they might have known them once in the forgotten past and recognised them now.”’ In this way, indigenous Palestinian dances were presented as Zionist dances that helped to promote an Israeli cultural identity to the international community. Some of these dance pieces glorified settlement conquest, and Yes, They Will Lose, performed by hundreds of Israeli soldiers at the first Independence Day in 1949, ‘mimicked acts of attack and final triumph over the local indigenous population’. Rowe also picks up on a familiar Zionist obsession of crediting Israeli ingenuity with ‘making the desert bloom’ or creating something from nothing, and thereby cleansing the national collective memory of the colonialist process of appropriation. It is a conceit that leads one contemporary Israeli choreographer to muse: ‘“How can one create purposefully, artificially, folk dances […] Only a miracle can bring this about. But, after all, the same is true for the rebirth of the Jewish nation.”’
Rowe acknowledges that while his cultural history of dance begins in the wider region, it narrows to the West Bank as it approaches the present day. Although the West Bank is populated by the descendents of the indigenous population from across Palestine, he explains that ‘a distinct West Bank indigenous social grouping’ has been created by restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupying forces since 1967, and intensified since 1991, when Israel revoked the general exit permit and required Palestinians seeking to leave the West Bank and Gaza to obtain individual permits from the military. As Meron Benvenisti wrote in his seminal article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in January 2010, ‘United We Stand’, ‘The Palestinian people have been fragmented into five splinters over the last three generations. They have not merely been crushed by force, but have taken upon themselves split identities and have surrendered to agendas dictated to them’. Rowe’s revealing and detailed narrative of both the evolution of and internal divisions amongst dance collectives in the West Bank, such as El-Funoun founded in 1979 and Sareyyet Ramallah formed in 1985, has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the invisibility of the inhabitants of the isolated Gaza Strip. Only a quarter of all Palestinians live in the West Bank, but the focus of this contemporary cultural history elevates them to the status of the primary representatives of a displaced indigenous people.
In 1994, a co-production of Romeo and Juliet that subsequently toured Europe and was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cast Jews as Montagues and Arabs as Capulets in an absurd metaphor that ‘suggested the conflict was simply based on an ancient ethnic and religious tribal hatred’. The Israeli/Fatah signature of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 post-Oslo had heightened international cultural exchange but subsequent international tours and participation in cultural festivals remained limited as members of Palestinian dance troupes were subjected to travel restrictions by the Israeli military. As the Palestinian cultural boycott of Israel intensified at the end of the 1990s, several Israeli dancers and institutions expressed their interest in cultural encounters with artists in the occupied territory. Acknowledging that Palestinian artists are unable to remove themselves from an unequal power dynamic, Rowe created a proposal demanding that the Israeli artists accept certain preconditions. Their subsequent rejection of these preconditions indicated to him that in the face of the boycott ‘they were not willing to sacrifice their participation in the Zionist colonial project’. Omar Barghouti, a choreographer who has gone on to play a leading public role in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, launched in Ramallah in 2004, has described the impetus behind this boycott – ‘A slave can never dance with his master, regardless how nice that master might seem’ – and he urges dance artists across the world to ‘boycott all Israeli dancers and dance performances until Israel withdraws from all the lands it illegally occupies’. To date, a number of internationally-renowned literary figures and musicians have cancelled performances in Israel and Paul Ben- Itzak has argued recently that the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company tour beginning in September 2010, with its support from the Joyce Theatre in New York, is itself ‘a political act, and it is thus appropriate to respond to it with the political act of boycott’.
Nicholas Rowe’s experience demonstrates that politics cannot be kept out of art in the context of military occupation. The final chapter of his remarkable book on the history of dance in Palestine underlines the urgency of a principled stand against an aggressive ideology: recounting an attack on a group of young Palestinian dancers in which the author was caught up in 2003, he concludes that the behaviour of the Israeli soldiers ‘seemed to erupt not from a freedom to treat the indigenous population with such contempt, but with an obligation to do so… A glorious national history pushed their boots and rifle butts forward and into the skin of anything that appeared to contradict it.’