20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Flash View, 9/12/2008 — Move, member, move: For Ailey dancer with Muslim name, rocky entrance in the Bosom of Abraham

By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2008, 2019 Omar Barghouti

To celebrate more than two decades of telling stories not told elsewhere , the DI has been revisiting its archives. Have conditions changed at all since Omar wrote this piece? For a Palestinian perspective, check Diana Butto’s recent article in The Nation, published ahead of  last week’s Israeli parliamentary elections, and her post-election report on Democracy Now.  To read our re-post of Aimee Ts’ao’s 2006 interview with Israeli-American choreographer Ohad Naharin, review of his Batsheva Dance Company, and lesson in his Gaga dance method, click here. To check Omar’s profile of  Palestinian dancer Sharaf DarZaid, click here .

JERUSALEM — Israeli security officers at Tel-Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday forced an African-American member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — by far the best-known touring company in the United States — to perform twice for them in order to prove he was a dancer before letting him enter the country with the company, the dancer told the Associated Press as reportred by MSNBC. But even after he complied, one of the officers suggested that Abdur-Rahim Jackson change his name. Jackson felt humiliated and “deeply saddened,” according to an Ailey spokesperson, particularly because his Arab/Muslim sounding first name, given to him by his Muslim father, was the reason that he was the only member of his company subjected to this typical Israeli ethnic profiling.

While still officially illegal in the U.S., ethnic profiling, described as “racist” by human rights groups, is widespread in Israel, at entrances to malls, public and private buildings, airports, etcetera. Israeli citizens and permanent residents with Arab names — or often just Arab accents — are commonly singled out for rough, intrusive and glaringly humiliating “security” checks. When I, an Israeli-ID holder, travel through the Tel Aviv airport, for instance, I always get stickers with the number “6” stamped on my passport, luggage and ticket. Israeli Jews, in comparison, get “1” or “2.” A “6” leads to the most thorough and degrading check of luggage and person. The smaller figures, in comparison, mean you get whisked through security with just an x-ray scan of your luggage. A couple of years ago, people like me used to get a bright red sticker, while Israeli Jews got light pink or similarly “benign” colors. Some astute Israeli officials must have been alerted that color-coding passengers according to their ethnicity and/or religion was too overtly apartheid-like, so they switched to the supposedly “nuanced” number coding. No wonder Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop and anti-Apartheid leader Desmond Tutu described Israeli practices as constituting a “worse” form of apartheid — it is far more sophisticated than the original version.

The Alvin Ailey troupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a multi-nation tour starting in Israel. Despite the above incident, the show was scheduled to go on as scheduled Thursday, and the company did nothing substantial to even protest this discriminatory policy to which one of its members was subjected, notwithstanding artistic director Judith Jamison’s statement to Haaretz newspaper that “We are here to irritate you, to make you think.” This only enhances Israel’s impunity. More crucially, by its very performance in Israel, regardless of whether one of its members was targeted by Israeli ethnic profiling or not, the group has violated the cultural boycott called for by Palestinian civil society since 2004 against Israel due to its persistent violation of international law and fundamental human rights.

Two years after that initial boycott call, a large majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers appealed to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world “to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency.” As with the boycott of South African cultural institutions during apartheid, international cultural workers and groups are urged by their Palestinian colleagues to “speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.” Many internationally recognized artists and intellectuals heeded the Palestinian appeal for boycott; those included John Berger, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, the Irish artists union, Aosdana, and Belgian dance company Les Ballets C. de la B. The latter published a statement  defending the cultural boycott as “a legitimate, unambiguous and nonviolent way of exerting additional pressure on those responsible.”

In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today, 60 years after its establishment through what prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes as a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population, still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies millions of Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.

Some may argue that, from their viewpoint, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy,  director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed on freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms… to the African majority… should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

Humanity — and above all human dignity — is at the core of many of the works of Alvin Ailey. His company, and indeed all other artists and cultural entities that care about human rights and realize that art and moral responsibility should not be divorced at any time, are called upon by their Palestinian colleagues and public at large not to perform in Israel until justice, freedom, equality and human rights are established for all, irrespective of ethnic, religious, gender or any other form of identity. This is what the arts and academic (Ailey co-directs a degree program at Fordham University) community did as their contribution to the struggle to end apartheid rule in South Africa. This is precisely what they can do to end injustice and colonial conflict in Palestine. Only then can dancers named Abdur-Rahim, Fatima, Paul or Nurit be viewed and treated equally, without any profiling.

Omar Barghouti is a freelance choreographer, cultural analyst and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel .

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CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN — SHARAF: THE FLYING DANCER FROM RAMALLA

omar-sharafLeft: Sharaf DarZaid in action. Photo courtesy Sharaf DarZaid. Right: Laila Boukhari and Sharaf DarZaid of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe. Photo by and copyright Osama Silwadi, courtesy El-Funoun.

By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2007, 2017 Omar Barghouti

(Originally published on March 29, 2007.  For an update on Omar Barghouti, check today’s broadcast of Democracy Now.)

RAMALLAH, Palestine — Anyone who attends a performance by the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe cannot miss his outstanding stage presence — and not only because of his revealing eyes, distinguished height, olive complexion, and charming smile. Above everything else, Sharaf DarZaid captivates audiences with his exceptional ability to dance as if playing the music with his entire body… and soul; it’s as if the music has possessed him or, rather, as if he has possessed it, with skill, with distinctive talent, with passion.

Sharaf, with whom I’ve worked as trainer and choreographer for El-Funoun, was named after Sharaf at-Tibi, the first student martyr at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. He grew up in a warm, caring family that cherishes Arab-Palestinian folk dance and music. During the 1948 Nakba, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were displaced and became refugees, Sharaf DarZaid’s family was uprooted from Beit Nabala, a village near Lydda. (Click here to read more about the Nakba.) Unlike the more than 400 villages that, by some accounts, were bulldozed by Israel at the time, Beit Nabala was spared — at least temporarily. The DarZaids and their fellow villagers paid regular, clandestine visits to their abandoned homes to recover whatever items they held dear. Sharaf’s great-grandfather, for instance, wanted more than anything else to retrieve his radio, one of only two in the entire village. In 1952, four years after the end of the war, Beit Nabala, along with other villages, was completely destroyed, effectively preventing refugees from returning and reclaiming their lands and possessions. As a twist of fate, the ruins of Beit Nabala later buzzed with airplanes flying from Israel’s main airport, which occupied part of its land, while one of the village’s sons, Sharaf, learned to fly in other ways — dancing!

Abruptly and violently cut off from their roots, their homes and their olive groves, the DarZaids settled in Ramallah, occupied by Israel since 1967, and had to start over. Ironically, their crushing sense of loss, injustice and devastation as refugees fuelled their sense of identity and triggered in them an inextinguishable desire for self-realization, for assertion of their humanity. Longing to return home was thus transformed from passive nostalgia into active energy, enhancing their self-esteem and transforming them from mere victims to conscious, self-determined subjects.

Sharaf’s father became a respected mathematics teacher in one of Ramallah’s elite schools; his mother graduated from Al-Quds Open University with a B.A. in social work. Together, they raised four special children, nourishing in them a profound awareness of their identity, a simple dream to become whole again, and a tenacious quest for freedom, equality and dignity. It is this particularly stimulating environment that nurtured in Sharaf his initial reverence for dance. Through dance, he narrated his innermost dreams; he counselled his tensions and fears; and he expressed his resistance to oppression, whether political or social.

Before becoming a dancer, Sharaf, like many Palestinian kids his age, growing up under the oppressive reality of colonial rule, felt a burning urge to participate in protest demonstrations against the Occupation. Only thus did he feel empowered… and free. Free to make his own decisions. Free to shout his guts out. Free to exercise his will in standing up to an overwhelmingly frightful foe. Free to prove to himself — and to his peers — that he would no longer accept the role of powerless victim.

Eventually, and after a struggle of sorts to convince him to quit the protests, Sharaf’s gravely concerned father convinced him to join his school’s traditional dance, or dabke group. (Dabke is a folkloric line dance characteristic of Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean region. It is based mostly on strong, lively and weighted stomps on the ground.) This did not deter him, however, from pursuing his street struggle. Sharaf, after all, has a natural inclination to be stubborn! Then talent and fate interfered. During the group’s first full performance, when he was just 15, Sharaf displayed all his exhilaration and flare, winning wide recognition as a dazzling performer, despite his then relatively diminutive figure. His father later told me that what touched him the most was “how Sharaf kept his head up all the time.” I was deeply impressed, too, but for more reasons. After consulting with my colleagues, I invited Sharaf to become a member of El-Funoun, Palestine’s leading dance company, enticing him by saying, “We shall waive the required audition for you to join!”

In El-Funoun’s youth group, Sharaf’s skills were sharpened and his talent matured. Even his size underwent a dramatic change: he became a tall and handsome — though still slim — young man. Ultimately, Sharaf managed to reconcile his patriotic motives and unrelenting youthful bravado with what he perceived as a new, equally needed form of resistance: dance.

After he grew up to join El-Funoun’s adult group, Sharaf bumped into a new style of dance that not only tried his talent but also challenged his artistic taste. El-Funoun was — and still is — experimenting with what it terms contemporary Palestinian dance, a genre inspired by and rooted in Arab folk dance, but in dialogue with universal techniques and influences, including several Western forms. Sharaf’s visible irritation with this ostensibly alienating and unfamiliar contemporary movement terrain soon gave way to an unwavering resolve to absorb the new forms with diligence, persistence and, crucially, patience. With such determination, it wasn’t long before Sharaf proved himself in this more modern realm, too, as a virtuoso to be reckoned with. Still, his true love was for dabke.

My first encounter as a choreographer with Sharaf came when I created a flirtatious courting dance that included a relatively daring duet for which I selected him and a vivacious female dancer, Laila Boukhari. Both Sharaf and Laila, as well as the rest of the young dancers, had difficulty learning several parts of the larger dance. But, with the duet, things went unpredictably smoother! The two were asked to touch each other by their foreheads; turn, while still in contact; and then rest their heads on each other’s shoulders. Admittedly, I intended this moment to capture the audience’s undivided attention and to slightly push the limits of what is acceptable, or tolerable, for an average Palestinian spectator. To my utter surprise, Sharaf and Laila nailed the movement, showed brilliant chemistry, and perfected the required expressive content in just one rehearsal. Later, during performances, I was stunned that all the whistling, cheering and applause this intimate moment inevitably generated among audiences never loosened the couple’s focus or distracted their fixed gaze in each other’s eyes. After some time, I was embarrassed to learn that I was the only one in El-Funoun who did not know that the two had been infatuated with each other for quite some time!

Besides being one of the main dancers — all are volunteers — of El-Funoun, Sharaf, who is now 19, is a student of finance at Birzeit University. He also teaches dabke to youth in Saffa — a small, picturesque village to the west of Ramallah — as part of a program organized by the Popular Art Centre, a leading community arts organization, in cooperation with El-Funoun. When I saw the Saffa group, Handala, perform last year, I was moved primarily by how the young novices respected what they were doing. They took themselves seriously, without losing their spontaneity and authentic character. They looked up to Sharaf, who is practically their age, as a role model, particularly because he developed a remarkable way of reaching their minds and hearts, without undermining the significance of the process of creating dance. Sharaf’s own respect for dance and for communicating through dance was a source of inspiration for them. Although he may lose himself in dancing, as if bypassing the stage, the audience, and all the boundaries to reach the sky, Sharaf never loses his grip on the music or movement.

Stirred by Sharaf’s budding talent, and feeling that perhaps I can contribute, even modestly, to his professional development as a dancer, I decided to choreograph a dance based on his biography and that of his namesake. I called it “Sharaf,” which has a nice connotation and ring in Arabic. When he first performed the piece before a packed theater in Ramallah last December, many in the 800-strong audience were mesmerized by his agility, versatility, and the complex mix of emotions Sharaf seamlessly exuded: bereavement, exuberance, separation, love, phobia, defiance, vulnerability, hope, and, of course, honor. His exceptional sense of musicality and rhythm helped him express this amalgam of conflicting themes with skill and a degree of self-confidence that is rare for his age group. “Breathtaking” was a common response from quite a few to this demanding seven-minute performance. Frank Weigand, a visiting German dance critic, told me, “Sharaf… could carry the whole performance only by his presence. He is a dancer with a big potential — and I think that he could become a very complex and multifaceted performer.”

Of all the touching moments in “Sharaf,” nothing quite strikes me as much as when Sharaf jumps so high that it’s as if he’s flying, soaring above all the wounds, the phobias, the injustices, and the fetters, into the promising horizon.

CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN — SHARAF: THE FLYING DANCER FROM RAMALLA

omar-sharafLeft: Sharaf DarZaid in action. Photo courtesy Sharaf DarZaid. Right: Laila Boukhari and Sharaf DarZaid of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe. Photo by and copyright Osama Silwadi, courtesy El-Funoun.

By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2007, 2016 Omar Barghouti

(Originally published on March 29, 2007.)

RAMALLAH, Palestine — Anyone who attends a performance by the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe cannot miss his outstanding stage presence — and not only because of his revealing eyes, distinguished height, olive complexion, and charming smile. Above everything else, Sharaf DarZaid captivates audiences with his exceptional ability to dance as if playing the music with his entire body… and soul; it’s as if the music has possessed him or, rather, as if he has possessed it, with skill, with distinctive talent, with passion.

Sharaf, with whom I’ve worked as trainer and choreographer for El-Funoun, was named after Sharaf at-Tibi, the first student martyr at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. He grew up in a warm, caring family that cherishes Arab-Palestinian folk dance and music. During the 1948 Nakba, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were displaced and became refugees, Sharaf DarZaid’s family was uprooted from Beit Nabala, a village near Lydda. (Click here to read more about the Nakba.) Unlike the more than 400 villages that, by some accounts, were bulldozed by Israel at the time, Beit Nabala was spared — at least temporarily. The DarZaids and their fellow villagers paid regular, clandestine visits to their abandoned homes to recover whatever items they held dear. Sharaf’s great-grandfather, for instance, wanted more than anything else to retrieve his radio, one of only two in the entire village. In 1952, four years after the end of the war, Beit Nabala, along with other villages, was completely destroyed, effectively preventing refugees from returning and reclaiming their lands and possessions. As a twist of fate, the ruins of Beit Nabala later buzzed with airplanes flying from Israel’s main airport, which occupied part of its land, while one of the village’s sons, Sharaf, learned to fly in other ways — dancing!

Abruptly and violently cut off from their roots, their homes and their olive groves, the DarZaids settled in Ramallah, occupied by Israel since 1967, and had to start over. Ironically, their crushing sense of loss, injustice and devastation as refugees fuelled their sense of identity and triggered in them an inextinguishable desire for self-realization, for assertion of their humanity. Longing to return home was thus transformed from passive nostalgia into active energy, enhancing their self-esteem and transforming them from mere victims to conscious, self-determined subjects.

Sharaf’s father became a respected mathematics teacher in one of Ramallah’s elite schools; his mother graduated from Al-Quds Open University with a B.A. in social work. Together, they raised four special children, nourishing in them a profound awareness of their identity, a simple dream to become whole again, and a tenacious quest for freedom, equality and dignity. It is this particularly stimulating environment that nurtured in Sharaf his initial reverence for dance. Through dance, he narrated his innermost dreams; he counselled his tensions and fears; and he expressed his resistance to oppression, whether political or social.

Before becoming a dancer, Sharaf, like many Palestinian kids his age, growing up under the oppressive reality of colonial rule, felt a burning urge to participate in protest demonstrations against the Occupation. Only thus did he feel empowered… and free. Free to make his own decisions. Free to shout his guts out. Free to exercise his will in standing up to an overwhelmingly frightful foe. Free to prove to himself — and to his peers — that he would no longer accept the role of powerless victim.

Eventually, and after a struggle of sorts to convince him to quit the protests, Sharaf’s gravely concerned father convinced him to join his school’s traditional dance, or dabke group. (Dabke is a folkloric line dance characteristic of Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean region. It is based mostly on strong, lively and weighted stomps on the ground.) This did not deter him, however, from pursuing his street struggle. Sharaf, after all, has a natural inclination to be stubborn! Then talent and fate interfered. During the group’s first full performance, when he was just 15, Sharaf displayed all his exhilaration and flare, winning wide recognition as a dazzling performer, despite his then relatively diminutive figure. His father later told me that what touched him the most was “how Sharaf kept his head up all the time.” I was deeply impressed, too, but for more reasons. After consulting with my colleagues, I invited Sharaf to become a member of El-Funoun, Palestine’s leading dance company, enticing him by saying, “We shall waive the required audition for you to join!”

In El-Funoun’s youth group, Sharaf’s skills were sharpened and his talent matured. Even his size underwent a dramatic change: he became a tall and handsome — though still slim — young man. Ultimately, Sharaf managed to reconcile his patriotic motives and unrelenting youthful bravado with what he perceived as a new, equally needed form of resistance: dance.

After he grew up to join El-Funoun’s adult group, Sharaf bumped into a new style of dance that not only tried his talent but also challenged his artistic taste. El-Funoun was — and still is — experimenting with what it terms contemporary Palestinian dance, a genre inspired by and rooted in Arab folk dance, but in dialogue with universal techniques and influences, including several Western forms. Sharaf’s visible irritation with this ostensibly alienating and unfamiliar contemporary movement terrain soon gave way to an unwavering resolve to absorb the new forms with diligence, persistence and, crucially, patience. With such determination, it wasn’t long before Sharaf proved himself in this more modern realm, too, as a virtuoso to be reckoned with. Still, his true love was for dabke.

My first encounter as a choreographer with Sharaf came when I created a flirtatious courting dance that included a relatively daring duet for which I selected him and a vivacious female dancer, Laila Boukhari. Both Sharaf and Laila, as well as the rest of the young dancers, had difficulty learning several parts of the larger dance. But, with the duet, things went unpredictably smoother! The two were asked to touch each other by their foreheads; turn, while still in contact; and then rest their heads on each other’s shoulders. Admittedly, I intended this moment to capture the audience’s undivided attention and to slightly push the limits of what is acceptable, or tolerable, for an average Palestinian spectator. To my utter surprise, Sharaf and Laila nailed the movement, showed brilliant chemistry, and perfected the required expressive content in just one rehearsal. Later, during performances, I was stunned that all the whistling, cheering and applause this intimate moment inevitably generated among audiences never loosened the couple’s focus or distracted their fixed gaze in each other’s eyes. After some time, I was embarrassed to learn that I was the only one in El-Funoun who did not know that the two had been infatuated with each other for quite some time!

Besides being one of the main dancers — all are volunteers — of El-Funoun, Sharaf, who is now 19, is a student of finance at Birzeit University. He also teaches dabke to youth in Saffa — a small, picturesque village to the west of Ramallah — as part of a program organized by the Popular Art Centre, a leading community arts organization, in cooperation with El-Funoun. When I saw the Saffa group, Handala, perform last year, I was moved primarily by how the young novices respected what they were doing. They took themselves seriously, without losing their spontaneity and authentic character. They looked up to Sharaf, who is practically their age, as a role model, particularly because he developed a remarkable way of reaching their minds and hearts, without undermining the significance of the process of creating dance. Sharaf’s own respect for dance and for communicating through dance was a source of inspiration for them. Although he may lose himself in dancing, as if bypassing the stage, the audience, and all the boundaries to reach the sky, Sharaf never loses his grip on the music or movement.

Stirred by Sharaf’s budding talent, and feeling that perhaps I can contribute, even modestly, to his professional development as a dancer, I decided to choreograph a dance based on his biography and that of his namesake. I called it “Sharaf,” which has a nice connotation and ring in Arabic. When he first performed the piece before a packed theater in Ramallah last December, many in the 800-strong audience were mesmerized by his agility, versatility, and the complex mix of emotions Sharaf seamlessly exuded: bereavement, exuberance, separation, love, phobia, defiance, vulnerability, hope, and, of course, honor. His exceptional sense of musicality and rhythm helped him express this amalgam of conflicting themes with skill and a degree of self-confidence that is rare for his age group. “Breathtaking” was a common response from quite a few to this demanding seven-minute performance. Frank Weigand, a visiting German dance critic, told me, “Sharaf… could carry the whole performance only by his presence. He is a dancer with a big potential — and I think that he could become a very complex and multifaceted performer.”

Of all the touching moments in “Sharaf,” nothing quite strikes me as much as when Sharaf jumps so high that it’s as if he’s flying, soaring above all the wounds, the phobias, the injustices, and the fetters, into the promising horizon.