The crucial fire

IssueMarch - May 2004
Feature by Omar Barghouti

As a Palestinian dance choreographer working in the midst of conflict, I am often asked: what is the rationale of your artistic engagement under the circumstances?

If “engagement” with something is interpreted in a passive sense, as a mere relation to that thing, then the question implies a certain degree of volition in deciding whether or not to relate to issues of conflict and trauma. I personally do not think that in a situation of conflict artists have a choice of whether or not to reflect the impact of conflict on them and on their society. Their only choice seems to be whether to go beyond this reflection stage, by actively engaging in the conflict situation in order to contribute to its change.

Those who opt to do so can be called conscientious/progressive artists, or those interested in progressive social change, if we agree on some spacious definition of “progressive”. Their choices lie in the visions, the methods, the approaches and the diverse means of realising (vocalising,articulating, visualising) those respective visions. At the other end of the spectrum, ivory-tower artists, who are supposedly producing “art for the sake of art”, can be perceived as also reacting to the conflict--albeit in an extreme way--attempting to isolate themselves from its repercussions,its trauma and its stigmas. Far from being disengaged from the conflict, they essentially express a distinct attitude to the conflict, therefore entering into a specific relationship to it. Escapism, aloofness, and retrograde indulgence in folk-lore are but some of the possible manifestations of such counter-engagement by such artists.

Conflict, it seems, has its own way of touching everyone within its reach, irrespective of one's actual involvement in it or will to get involved in it.

Dancing the conflict

The fact that I am a dance choreographer, for example, does not, indeed cannot,negate or even dilute the other aspects of my identity. Nor does it in any meaningful way mitigate the direct and in direct impact of the simmering Palestinian Israeli conflict on me, my family, and all my significant others, not to mention my society at large. I personally had a close encounter with death when three Israeli tank shells hit my building on 7 April 2001, virtually destroying my apartment, but miraculously sparing me--for the time being. Six months later, unconsciously, and without any preconceived plan, I choreographed a dance around the theme of siege,where people are trapped in a circle, and battered from all directions, while trying,as much as possible, to remain steadfast. The blows increase in intensity and impact until the surrounded people drop on the floor, not without putting up massive, yet passive, resistance. Only after the music stops, with the bodies lying on the floor, a few shaking arms start emerging from the pile of bodies, slowly, faintly,yet with resilience and determination, ultimately making defiant fists in the otherwise death-filled air. Although Jmy main inspiration was the brutal siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, now, in retrospect, I see this dance as also intrusively describing my little siege in an apartment under fire, waiting to die,yet refusing to give up.

It seems to me that even if I try to escape from the conflict, it will inevitably catch up with me, and when it does it will hit me even harder, with vengeance, so to speak. I do not have a choice then not to engage it; all I can decide is how to and towards what ends.

Transient artistic engagement

Having said that, I also believe that artistic engagements vary to a large extent in their degree of affecting evolutionary change in a situation of conflict. And by this change, I do not mean transient escapism from the misery of being oppressed, nor the ephemeral pleasure of living a fantasy that allegedly promotes hope and happiness, for these constitute medicine for the sore symptoms of oppression, not the root causes of it.

They can be effective, indeed indispensable, if accompanied by some parallel regard to the true causes of oppression. Otherwise, they can be quite dangerous, since they briefly elevate the recipients' level of hope, leaving them to crash on the hard ground of reality a moment later. Physics and common sense tell us that the higher your expectations float,the deadlier your collision will be when they are frustrated.

Another danger in such transitory artistic experiences is that they encourage forgetfulness, which often translates into mental submission to injustice.

On the contrary, artistic engagements that challenge an unjust reality by provoking praxis (reflective action), in Paulo Freire's words, or by taking the audience into a “deeper medium”--in Mary Ann de Vlieg's words--of thinking about their reality are not just effective, they are absolutely necessary in any conflict situation. From my experience, nothing can imitate the profound, transformative effect of an art that impacts the hearts and the minds of the oppressed.

Evolutionary artistic engagement

I believe that an evolutionary art form cannot but emphasise process rather than product. It is always seductive to look for products, timely results, concrete out-comes in any artistic engagement, yet these are far less important than the processes launched by such engagements. The former are more easily quantifiable and detectable--therefore fundable!--but they are less enduring and not quite as effective as the latter.

Moreover, for an artistic process to genuinely contribute to conflict resolution, it needs to reconcile the ostensibly incompatible tendencies of authenticity and universality. But is there an inescapable opposition between the two? From my experience, this dichotomy is anything but given. Artistic engagements can share some universal aspects while maintaining their unique character, I think.

El-Funoun's latest production, Haifa, Beirut & Beyond ... is an instance of that. It is more than anything else an evolutionary artistic engagement that triggers processes of thinking and action in regard to a particularly sensitive dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict: dispossession and exile. Asked to introduce this important work in El-Funoun's brochure I wrote:

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.

In Haifa, Beirut & Beyond..., El-Funoun dances the essence of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of dispossession in 1948, when most Palestinians were uprooted and turned--almost overnight--into refugees. We dance it,not in passive reminiscence, but in a spirit of catharsis, change and progress. But to do that, we are compelled to dance our dreams as well. No less challenging a task, for sure.

In the process, we realise that dancing our tragedies can help us rehabilitate our injured souls, to heal our buried collective trauma, and to make peace with our past, with all its pain, remorse, and haunting guilt. And in dancing our dreams, we can take the process a step further, to fulfil our aspirations for justice, peace and dignified living.

This project has indeed involved a process of growth, of learning, engaging,experimenting, failing, standing up again, analysing, critiquing, being critiqued (severely!), and ultimately of succeeding in having an unmistakable impact on the discourse related to the plight of refugees and the struggle for justice and enduring peace. El-Funoun has carried evaluations at several levels:internal and external, with officials, intellectuals, students, workers, women activists, business people, artists involved. Several columns were written in the papers to evaluate the “uniqueness and beyond-ness” of this work. Only a few,however, had the insight and experience to delve into the processes involved in the work, rather than indulging the immediate outcome that is convenient to detect,and to interpret.

Of those few, Hanan Ashrawi had this to say about it:

”I'm extremely proud (at the personal and collective levels!) of the troupe in all aspects. As a Palestinian, I feel that this is precisely what is lacking in our public presentation--an artistic, cultural endeavour of the highest calibre that would render our reality comprehensible and place it in the middle of a human expression of creativity that makes it recognisable in a multi-faceted manner.”

Negotiation vs dialogue

Part of the universality of an evolutionary artistic engagement involves communication with the “other”. Promoting understanding, sharing, combating stereotypes,and co-learning are among the most obvious objectives sought in such communication. I fully subscribe to the views of

Carlos Fuentes, the distinguished Mexican writer, who wrote: “No culture [...] retains its identity in isolation; identity is attained in contact, in contrast, in breakthrough.

”However, in an asymmetrical relationship (one involving power disparity), dialogue is not possible at first. Any communication is within the realm of negotiation. Only after both sides have challenged preset attitudes and stereotypes can the relationship become more equitable, more balanced; and only then can true dialogue evolve, and thus the possibility for sincere collaboration. Dance, identity and conflict Going back to the main question raised, whether artistic engagement is possible in conflict, I think that the answer is almost straightforward, at least to someone immersed in the situation of conflict: in conflict, art is simply a necessity.

The following shows why.

Intrigued by the particular form of resistance my colleagues in El-Funoun and I have chosen, a visiting Belgianfilmmaker once asked me with some hesitation:

”After all this war and destruction of basic infrastructure, how do you convince yourself and the dancers to persevere in doing what you are doing? Isn't dance a very low priority in time of war?”

I must admit that until then I had never asked myself that question. But my words nevertheless came out promptly,almost spontaneously:

”Do we have to stop creating dance,music, art and literature to join the battle of `reconstruction'? Is reconstruction only applicable to devastated buildings, roads, water pipes and electricity poles? How about shattered dreams and shaken identities, don't they need reconstruction aswell?”

I could only recall John Stuart Mill's definition of humans as “unique”, “self-creating”, and “creative individuals” who are “culture-bearing”.

In contexts of colonialism, cultural expression acquires particular eminence in shaping the collective identity. This is mostly due to the role played by the colonist in influencing the native's identity. As Jean-Paul Sartre once described the French settler-colonist in Algeria:

”[H]e has come to believe that the domestication of the `inferior races' will come about by the conditioning of their reflexes. But in this he leaves out of account the human memory and the ineffaceable marks left upon it; and then, above all there is something which perhaps he has never known: we only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.

”Immersing themselves in cultural praxis, the natives then expand the “ineffaceable marks” left upon their human memory. Despite the widespread devastation caused by the illegal Israeli military occupation, Palestinians cannot afford not to integrate cultural rehabilitation and identity reformulation into their overall battle of reconstruction and struggle for emancipation. Our very humanity has been restricted, hampered, battered by the relentless dehumanising efforts of our tor-mentors. As a reaction, the process of decolonising our minds assumes crucial precedence. Restoring our humanity, our dreams, our hopes and our will to resist and to be free, therefore, becomes even more important than mending our infrastructure. Thus, we dance.

But our fetters do not all disappear with the end of our subjugation to the colonist. We've always had some form of shackles, cultural, social, that have also hindered our assumption of our due position in world development. In our cultural struggle, we cannot but address those restraints as well.

Cultural expression to us, then, serves dual purposes: self-therapy and expansion of the “free zone” in our collective mind,where progressive transformation can thrive. In response to all the attempts to circumscribe our aspirations, we must push on, dreaming and being creative,boundlessly. Thus we dance.