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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Women aren’t just victims, IV: From Gaza to the World Stage — Nidaa Badwan’s Freedom-forging Odyssey

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Nidaa Badwan in her room transformed into studio in 2015. Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

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When we last checked in on Palestinian artist and photographer Nidaa Badwan in 2015, she’d just created the photography project 100 Days of Solitude, in which she’d transformed her nine-square meter room in Gaza into a pin-hole camera with a kaleidoscopic view, the 28-year-old’s response to Hamas’s releasing her from jail after eight days only after she signed a statement agreeing to only go outside with her body fully covered and accompanied by her father or brother — using imagination to spark creation and sequestration to produce liberation. (Badwan remained in this self-imposed quarantine from late 2013 through early 2015.) “This space,” she told the television station France 24 at the time, “gave me the freedom that I couldn’t find outside — a freedom from the dullness and ugliness of Gaza, from the Israeli siege, from the impositions of the men of Hamas.” If this inventively courageous response was not a complete surprise — Badwan even refused to leave her home during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the happy ending that followed was.

Nidaa rooster smallDescribing the impetus behind what she considers her most important photograph, part of the series 100 Days of Solitude, Badwan explains: “In Arabic symbolism, the rooster represents the man. It’s a masculine energy that wants to silence me. I have an Oud with me, a Middle-Eastern instrument. With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.” Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

If Israel had refused to authorize her to leave Gaza to attend an exhibition of 100 Days of Solitude organized by the Institute Française in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Badwan was eventually able to depart, in September 2015, when the Italian municipalities of Monte Grimano Terme and Montecatini Terme invited her to share her works and protest and, later, when she expressed her concern about her security if she returned to Gaza, welcomed by the tiny Republic of San Marino.  In April of this year, the Italian municipality of Monte Grimano Terme offered her own atelier to create art and to organize animations for the public.

Badwan’s artistic itinerary since leaving Gaza, meanwhile, has included, in 2016 alone, collective and individual exhibitions in Denmark, Berlin, the French commune of Couthhures-sur-Garonne (for the Festival Internationale du Journalisme Vivant), Dubai, Miami Beach, and New York’s Postaster Gallery, often in group shows where she’s been surrounded by a choice selection of the leading young Arab (and young, period) artists. Meanwhile, the World Bank  in Washington acquired six of her works. She capped the year back in San Marino by participating in an evening dedicated to the theme of autism in which she displayed four paintings created by Abood, her autistic brother, and four of her own inspired by him, part of a planned  solo exhibition on the theme featuring more work.  “Along with me,” she recounts, “there was an autistic boy, very young, who played Chopin. It was an indescribable and marvelous evening.” Badwan’s comments to the assemblage should be required reading for every Beaux Arts student:

“My brother is nine years younger than me, has autism, and lives in Gaza. Stepping into this world and exploring it from within is a rich and unique experience. To penetrate the meanderings of this situation is neither difficult nor easy. Abood needs nothing. He doesn’t need words — he only needs a piece of paper and a pencil. He draws his own world, and usually he asks me: ‘How do you find it?’ To his question, I spontaneously reply: ‘Nice! I want to see more.’

“As time went by, I started to observe and interpret what his drawings revealed. In his works, there are many crying faces, usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by curvy patterns. A sole fragment of a painting can harbor the contradiction between sadness and happiness. Abood has battled with solitude, the same feeling I experienced for two years. During my isolation, he would wait by the door to make me a surprise with a handful of drawings he made around midnight. Every time he saw me crying, he would give me a new painting. He knows that this makes me vibrate. I imitate what he does; I can follow the curvy patterns and draw like he does. I needed more of these sketches, and even more. I became autistic just like him, learning how to walk through his world. I learned how to speak to him, how to make mistakes in the sentences’ structures and to mutter when I speak. This world is very rich, if the poor ones like us know the truth.”

nidaa badwan new room smallNidaa Badwan in her studio in the Italian village of Monte Grimano Terme: “New Room.” Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

Since the beginning of this year, Badwan has already participated in two exhibitions in Italy, taken part in a collective exhibition in the United States, and addressed the UNESCO conference “Cultural Heritage and Identity: an Arab Youth Perspective” in Carthages, Tunisia. She inaugurated her studio in Monte Grimano Terme in May, in the presence of the mayor, the former education and culture minister of San Marino, and Palestine consul for Italy Nidal Thawabi. In June she participated in both the White Nights of the University of San Marino, creating a sculpture in real-time on the theme of femininity, and the collective exhibition “Ri-crazioni” in Prato, Italy. Through January you can catch her exhibiting with (fellow) revolutionary Arab artists in Valencia, Spain, at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and at the “En Rebeldía” and, currently, in a touring version of this show on display in Berlin’s Gorki Theater.

This flurry of activity doesn’t mean that Badwan doesn’t miss her nest in Gaza, where her family still lives. As for  the butterfly emerged from its cocoon, the outside world can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. “When I was in Gaza,” she tells me, “I had a small space, my little world, but I had an infinity of ideas in my head. I could only spin the world with my mind.” She was confident that “this was my world, and I could do what I want. Now, paradoxically, I have all the freedom I want to turn and create in a vast space, like the world, but I do not have my ‘world,’ ‘my’ space where I can be quiet no one can tell me to ‘go away’ if I do not pay rent,” and does not have to think about things like changing her immediate environment.

Still, I can’t help but think that Badwan’s changed circumstances must be liberating. If her previous situation inevitably made her simple act of creating art be perceived as an act of ‘defiance’ by journalists (not to mention polemicists), she’s now escaped from the box and free to find her path without the constraints of her politically loaded identity. All the better.

“I do not define myself as a political artist,” she says, “and I would not like to be. I prefer to leave politics to politicians and to the Press. Of course, I personally have my own ideas, but art and politics should not be confused, though sometimes this may happen. For me art speaks of experiences directly lived, interior and exterior. That particular experience came to me. If anything else had happened, I might have talked about something else or in another way.”

For more information on Nidaa Badwan, including more examples of her work — and to keep up with her ever multiplying cavalcade of exhibitions — check her web site.