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Asserting our humanity

“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 naive illusion” [From the introduction to El-Funoun's latest production]

On 9 March 2004, El-Funoun will celebrate its Silver Jubilee. For a quarter of a century, El-Funoun has indeed danced some of the Palestinian tragedies and dreams, challenges and ambitions. But above all, it has embodied cultural resistance to oppression.

El-Funoun literally means “the arts”. The full name in Arabic is “Firqat El-Funoun Al-Sha'biyyah Al Filastiniyyah”, translated literally it means “Palestinian Popular Arts Troupe”. In Arabic, it identifies the group as a “popular arts” group, as opposed to ballet, jazz, modern, etc. This name was selected back in 1979 to emphasise the nature of the group as a folklore inspired troupe.

El-Funoun began with a mission to revive Palestinian music and dance folklore as a manifestation of national identity. Its early works 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).

Dangerous resistance

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 implicitly. As a result, the group's work was considered a dangerous form of resistance by the illegal Israeli military occupation, and was punished accordingly. Several El-Funoun dancers and managers suffered various forms of oppression, including imprisonment, torture 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 courage to host the dance performance, 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.

Create and participate

In the 1980s, resistance meant nourishing the roots and uninhibitedly expressing the attributes of our national identity that had been suppressed by the military occupation for far too long. From the mid-1990s onwards, 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 communicates with the world.

But years of forced isolation, travel bans, closures, arrests, and killings have plagued Palestinian society for decades, crippling its economic structure, decaying its social cohesiveness, stifling its artistic development, and denying its normal process of growth. This dire reality meant that the cultural rehabilitation process had to reckon with a multi-faceted and formidable challenge. Giving up or surrendering to apathy or desperation were simply not allowed. Palestinian cultural organisations, including El-Funoun, realised that they must persevere against hugely unfavourable odds. This new phase encouraged ElFunoun 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: 1 Its unwavering commitment to the struggle against the illegal Israeli occupation; 2 Its distinctive blend of authenticity with modernity, fostering cultural bridges between cherished tradition and contemporary ambition; 3 Its progressive social agenda, especially regarding democracy, women's emancipation and youth rights; and 4 Its earnest opposition to agitprop art as well as to artistic works that tend to portray the Palestinians as nothing more than pitiful victims waiting for a saviour.

While our existence as a people is no longer in question, we have nevertheless been systematically dehumanised, especially after 11 September 2001. This newest phase will in all certainty compel us to invest even more energies in communication with the world, learning, teaching, debating, dialoguing, sharing, dancing, writing and throughout all of that rehumanising our image, asserting our inalienable humanity and expressing our unfettered dreams of a just and enduring peace.

Khaled Katamish is Director of the El-Funoun Dance Troupe