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El-Funoun: Dance as Resistance

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

March 2005

Celebrating 26 years of Creativity and Rootedness

El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe was established in 1979 with a mission to revive Palestinian music and dance folklore as a manifestation of national identity. Its early productions were the result of extensive research in Palestinian villages, preserving centuries-old songs and dances, including the “dabke,” a traditional dance form popular among Arabs of the Eastern Mediterranean, using traditional Arab instruments (oud, nai, and tabla).

Although El-Funoun never presented folk dances verbatim on stage, it was unquestionably influenced by the themes, styles and very character of those dances. Doing that was considered no less than heroic by many.

At the time, Israeli leaders liked to think and to publicly announce that Palestinians did not exist as a nation; and, to fulfil the prophecy, they attempted to destroy and/or confiscate the indigenous Palestinian culture, heritage, tradition, history and identity, if not explicitly then through convoluted schemes and arbitrary “laws.” Flight attendants on board Israel’s airline El Al were issued Palestinian embroidered costumes; the golden Dome of the Rock was prominently flashed on every Israeli travel brochure; hummus and falafel were served as traditional Israeli cuisine; a myriad of Arab-Palestinian slang expressions entered the Israeli idiom as native talk; and of course the colours of the Palestinian flag were not allowed to be combined in any shape or form, even on a painting. Any slight assertion of Palestinian identity was severely punished. Little wonder, then, that the group’s struggle to portray the roots of Palestinian dance and song was considered a dangerous form of subversion by the illegal Israeli military occupation, and was punished accordingly. Several El-Funoun dancers and managers suffered various measures of persecution, including prolonged detention without charge, torture during interrogation and travel bans.

Clandestine dance rehearsals were not uncommon for El-Funoun at times of military crackdowns. Performing in occupied Jerusalem was normally punished with a three-day, red-wax closure of the venue that had the audacity to host the show, and a military order hung on its door declaring that it was closed for conducting “illegal activities.”

Nevertheless, with oppression came recognition. Soon after its inception, El-Funoun achieved unprecedented popular renown among Palestinians, both in Palestine and in exile. Its songs became household tunes, and its dances spread feverishly, particularly among the youth. When one particular music recording, “Sharar,” was banned by the occupation authorities for its “nationalistic content” and all the cassettes confiscated, it was ubiquitously and defiantly reproduced on available home recorders all over, becoming by far the most listened to music tape in Palestine at the time.

With its safety cushion of popularity, El-Funoun was able to also challenge entrenched taboos and anachronistic traditions in the Arab-Palestinian society. Needless to say, the group was indirectly attacked by some traditionalists who felt that its message was shaking the established wisdom. Women’s rights, freedom of choice, the empowerment of youth, democracy, communication with the world — despite the siege — and addressing social themes were all frowned upon by those. A backlash was only averted due to the firm community’s endorsement of the group. Soon enough, several new dance groups, clearly inspired by El-Funoun, were formed; with that, the group’s cultural and social agenda also propagated to distant localities, further spreading its messages.

Through the 1980s, including the main phase of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), resistance meant nourishing the roots and uninhibitedly expressing the attributes of Palestinian national identity that had been suppressed by Israel’s illegal military occupation for far too long.

From the mid 1990s onwards, though, this mission has undergone a transformation. It was no longer sufficient to preserve and to revive; it has become even more urgent to create and to participate in forging a contemporary cultural identity that respects the heritage, yet explores, absorbs and integrates modernity. Palestinian identity was no longer denied, yet every attempt was made by “the other” to reinvent it, to mould it in a way that would accommodate historical injustice and defeat, while isolating it from its Arab context. The challenge was to intervene in identity development; to critique stagnation, capitulation and despair; to contribute to envisioning a new, modern identity that is rooted yet in dialogue with life, with progress, with universal rights and freedoms. El-Funoun underwent turbulent debates and soul-searching processes in this period until it was able to move on, to go forward while maintaining the crucial link between authenticity and contemporariness.

This new phase encouraged El-Funoun to focus on artistic development, learning, experimenting and interacting with Arab and international dance artists. The most important characteristics of El-Funoun’s approach to artistic creativity and activism in this phase were its unwavering commitment to its own form of resistance to oppression, its ability to foster cultural bridges between cherished tradition and contemporary ambition, its progressive social agenda, especially regarding democracy, women’s emancipation and youth rights and its sincere opposition to agitation-propaganda art as well as to artistic works that tend to portray the Palestinians as nothing more than pitiful victims waiting for a saviour. The bottom line was, to grow and to reach universality they had to excel in what they did with their own particular character. Artistic excellence became an objective of sorts.

In parallel, the need for civil resistance has grown, and so has the group’s will to resist, in its own way. The last four years of comprehensive colonial oppression have inspired El-Funoun to invest even more energies in communication with the world, learning, teaching, debating, dialoguing, sharing, dancing, writing … and, throughout all of that, rehumanizing the image of the Palestinians, asserting their inalienable humanity and expressing their unfettered dreams of a just and enduring peace.

The opening paragraph of the introduction to El-Funoun’s latest production captures this essence:

“Can you dance your tragedies

Can you dance your dreams

If you are Palestinian, you almost have no choice but to try doing both, for if you do one without the other, you choose to indulge in obsessive victimness or naïve illusion.”

For 25 years, El-Funoun has indeed danced Palestinian tragedies, challenges and dreams.

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