Resistance Through Art: Challenging Repression and Tradition

In our travels to the West Bank late last summer, we met artists who are activists in their own right. Dina Awadd, Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne, Abeer Qazim and Abdelfattah Abusrour are all on different creative paths, all which focus on freedom of expression and challenging repression. Art through music, dance, crafts and illustration have long been used in resistance movements to expose injustices. Artists often break out of society’s status quo by creating alternative forms of expression – rap, graffiti, modern dance and jazz. Many of these art forms were created to challenge repressive policies, racism and conservative social expectations that prohibit creativity and artistic expression.

Palestine young people, particularly women, are also breaking with tradition through different art forms. Their artistic resistance not only challenges occupation, but also challenges their own societies, particularly the role of women.

Music

Music of resistance is everywhere in Palestine, and it offers a double entendre and double goal of addressing the obvious oppression of the occupation and the more subtle oppressive features of Palestinian society itself. Like most artistic forms of expression, and perhaps more than others, music knows no boundaries and crosses the walls – all the walls – of separation and prejudice.

Under her hijab, Abeer Qazim’s enthusiasm and style have impressed us (see the recent blog) In addition to offering a humbling personal view on what a veiled Muslim girl might think of men and love, Abeer revealed a mature and refined expression of her femininity and aspirations. Like many young Palestinian women we met, Abeer is engaged in a double struggle — as a Palestinian struggling against the occupation, but also as a woman facing the many constraints of a patriarchal society. Beneath her hijab lies the passion of a true artist.

Facing the obstacles imposed by her society, Abeer has chosen to confront and overcome them through the musical arts, a form of resistance that will always be one of the most powerful mean to free individuals from both internal and external chains. She is part of a musical group called “Stars Way,” formed by Muslim and Christian youth who are creating dance music about everyday life. The initiative is a form of multi-cultural self-expression that hopes to break persistent myths and stereotypes around religious and cultural polarization in the region. Abeer enthusiastically discusses the group’s ideas in this short interview:


Palestinian Rap

Rap music, which developed over two decades ago by African-American youth living in urban poor communities, was a form of rebellion against a socio-economic order that kept them in the margins of American society. The genre has spread across the globe, translated and adapted by marginalized and dispossessed youth resisting repression by exposing injustices using intensely rhythmic music structured around shout-and-scream lyrics, reflecting both anger and power. Palestinian rap plays precisely that function.

One of the first groups that achieved global popularity was DAM, formed in the late 1990s by Palestinians from Lod in Israel – Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Their powerful lyrics, delivered both in Arabic and Hebrew, gave the group immediate access to the music underground of Tel Aviv, where they have been hailed and celebrated as heroic rebels. DAM’s musical example led to a proliferation of Palestinian hip-hop and rap groups in the West Bank and Gaza, many whom gathered secretly, especially in Gaza. Unable to reach out to audiences through traditional concerts, they reached their fans through YouTube.

Slingshot Hip Hop, a fascinating documentary by female filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum, offers a vibrant testimony of the everyday lives and challenges of DAM’s young rap artists. DAM offers artists multiple platforms of resistance – against occupation and also against conservative traditions often imposed on youth, especially women. Young female rappers like Safa’ Hathoot performs in an environment where protest rap is unusual for women, even scandalous. In “Freedom for My Sisters”, Safa’ sings: “The Arab woman is like a wounded bird in the sky, afraid to land and to be shot by hunters, imprisoned in her own house, dying of the thirst of freedom, but only able to drink her own tears – how can they dare ask me why I cry?”

These young Palestinian female singers and musicians are pioneers in their society and offer a fresh face of new youth who are courageously embracing femininity, resistance and freedom of expression.

Theater

Theater and dance are two powerful instruments of liberation for youth and women. Under the British mandate, theater was broadly used as a vehicle of political expression and resistance in Palestine. In the aftermath of the Nakba in 1948, theaters, like many other cultural institutions, witnessed a dramatic setback that lasted decades. The revival of theater in Palestinian society has been slow to emerge. However, in the 1980s and onward, there was a revival by several families of actors and directors, and the birth of the first Palestinian contemporary theater troops.

In the 1990s, international donors began supporting cultural projects as part of the efforts of the international community to support the peace process. Artistic endeavors seemed less politically charged to foreigners, which could explain why many artistic projects attracted funders’ attention. Palestinian actors and directors often trained in Europe, the U.S. and sometimes in Israel began to open cultural centers and theaters.

Youth perform in a stage production of "The Gaza Monologues" at the Al Rowwad Camp in Bethlehem.

Theaters were often founded in refugee camps as part of youth empowerment initiatives and to offset the destructive impacts of life in the camps. Such examples include Al Rowwad Center in the Aida Camp in Bethlehem, founded by Abdelfattah Abusrour, and the Jenin Freedom Theater, founded by Juliano Mer Khamis, a Palestinian Israeli actor. The Theater “is committed to the principle that, for artist, spectator and listener, the creative process is one of embracing the unknown and rearranging reality, and that this is the first step to imagining and accepting alternatives.”

Unfortunately, these artistic initiatives are far from being widely accepted by the communities they challenge, Mer Khamis has often received death threats, and there have been several criminal attempts at setting fire to the Jenin Freedom Theater – initiated by residents of the Jenin refugee camps.

Dance

Liberating the minds and voices of young women through theater is already a courageous and dangerous step forward, but liberating their bodies an altogether radical step in a society that closely monitors the ways young women are supposed to behave. Dance appears to be one of those “final frontiers” that Palestinian youth choose to navigate and cross in defiance of moral taboos and obstacles that permeates Palestinian society.

Traditional dance is of course not the issue, as the revival of folk dance poses no threat to society and, on the contrary, has been considered an essential feature of cultural resistance to the occupation. Mastery of traditional dance forms offers young Palestinians a solid cultural education and understanding of their identity. Participation in alternative and Western dance forms (tango, salsa, modern and jazz) risks open a Pandora’s box of what is seen as free bodies and therefore free sexuality. Oriental dance such as belly dancing is one of the most sensual and provocative dances in the world, but it in many Middle Eastern countries, it is only practiced among women where they indeed enjoy dancing in all freedom far from men’s “lusting” eyes. How can young people liberate all dance forms in Palestine so they can be recognized as respectable and public artistic forms for all audiences, both male and female?

Two young people we met are ready to meet that challenge – Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne from Jenin, and Dina Awwad from Bethlehem.

Ahmedd studied English literature in the U.S. where he developing a strong interest for ballet and modern dance. In Jenin and Nablus, he teaches English, but he is determined to open a dance school. He explains,

“I would fight my own society the same as they fight the Israelis. I will in no way or condition accept their hypocrisy of fighting against an occupation enforced on them, while at the same time attempting to occupy my own mind, soul, and body.”

In Jenin’s conservative society, expression through dance is rarely seen. Ahmed is not discouraged and believes that he will find a way. In the absence of being able to offer dance classes, Ahmedd includes “controversial” topics into English language lessons such dance, sexuality, openness to other religions, traditions and national experiences, and how stereotypes and judgmentalism are always misleading. He is trying to get young people to think independently and challenge societal norms.

Evenutually, Ahmedd wants to acquire a degree in dance and establish his own dance company in the West Bank. Alternatively, Ahmedd thinks that organizing a dance school project with foreign and domestic dance instructors is also a worthy endeavor, and he acknowledges that it will take some fundraising. In either scenario, Ahmedd says his dance education is meant to be free to the students “to let nothing stand between the passion and the art.”

Dina Awwad has Italian style sensuality, à la Sofia Loren. She told us of how she wants to free the bodies and minds of her fellow Palestinian sisters from decades of repression. Dina has dreamt this for years and realizes that what has held her back is fear: fear of what people will say and what people will think. This realization hit her while attending an innovative workshop on leadership in 2010 organized by the Holy Land Trust, a forward thinking organization in Palestine in the area of social transformation. After this transformative experience, Dina believes that nothing is impossible, “you just need to believe in yourself and find the courage from within.”

Dina Awadd welcomes us to her family's historic home in Bethlehem. Like many young women in Palestine, she straddles the parallels of traditional society and freedom of expression.

Dina is embarking on a path that she believes will lead to freedom for women in Palestine. She is not talking about political freedom – she goes much further than that. Dina refers to a much more fundamental level of liberation: she is talking about sexual freedom, social freedom – just being who you are and exploring yourself and your body, something which is taboo for women in Palestine.

When Dina talks about romance, she explains how there seem to be only two possible choices for women in Palestine; follow the traditional way like your mother and grand mother (marriage, children, home); or, accept that you will intimidate men and risk being single, perhaps for life.

Dina refuses to see her life as offering only these two extreme options. She believes there is another path and another way — her way. She is prepared to create her own choices and help women realize their personal goals using dance as a method to unlock the societal chains that imprison many of the young women of Palestine.

Many thank to Dina, Abeer, Ahmedd and Abdelfattah for introducing us to their work and allowing us into their homes, communities and creative spaces.

by Anne Marie Codur
(edited by Vanessa Ortiz; photography, video editing and layout by Vanessa Ortiz)

Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne can be reached at zakarne@gmail.com or at facebook.com/ahmedd.zakarne

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