Tag: Palestine

Beyond Belief: The Holy Land, part 3

 Part 3 – Dance & More Dance

Almost a year ago, I flipped on CNN and caught a short feature about a dance educator in Palestine. She is an entrepreneur who founded the Ramallah Ballet Center. I immediately sought her out on Facebook and sent her a friend request. She could not have been more open and we became fast friends. When my Fulbright ended a few weeks ago, I knew I had to go to meet her and her students.

So I went.

First day of the new term at Ramallah Ballet School and Dance Center.

And on the way, I met old friends and new in both Palestine and Israel. And I learned that dance and more dance is vibrant on both sides of the wall. On all sides of the politics.

In the heart of the old part of Tel Aviv is a complex of buildings dedicated to dance. The illuminated old square holds performance space, rehearsal space, workshops and administration for two main companies, Inbal Pinto and Batsheva. Both companies are world-reknowned, and favorites of mine. The theatre there also brings in international performances constantly. I didn’t stay in Israel for long because I was already familiar with traditional Israeli dances from my time in Chicago and was aware of the work of the main companies. But I had little knowledge of what was happening in Palestine.

On the mountains of Bethlehem are four enormous modern buildings, being built by the Russians. They will hold arts classes and other services, but unlike other constituencies helping boost Palestinian programming, they will be competing with Palestinian civil society organizations. This is a growing concern and controversy.

On those same mountains of Bethlehem are buildings for the Palestinian civil society organization, Diyar Consortium. One of their divisions offers free dance and football (soccer) lessons and clubs. Soon they will also offer art and music classes. The Diyar Dance Theatre  is their flagship program. There is a semi-professional adult group, all volunteers, along with a junior troupe. This is a diverse group of Christian and Muslim Palestinians from different economic backgrounds. Some dancers come from a nearby refugee camp. I saw them perform in a church in Chicago. Amazing. Mixing traditional Palestinian dance (dabkeh) and powerful dance theatre.

Their words describe the work much better than I ever could…

“The Diyar Dance Theater believes ardently in the value of preserving the culture of the Palestinian people. Passing along culture through the visual and performance arts, food, and literature has been a primary means by which Palestinians have held on to their identity, values, norms, and traditions, not only in the occupied territories but also in the Diaspora. Protecting this culture is essential in the struggle for independence, for it is a source of hope, a fuel propelling the Palestinians from the past into a more promising future. It reminds them they are more than their present circumstances: there is vibrancy in who they are as a people.

For Palestinian youth in particular, dance and theatre are important vehicles not only for cultivating cultural identity but also for creating and sustaining mental and emotional health. As tools of expression, dance and theater become outlets for those wishing to release the stress accumulated from years of living behind concrete walls. Working out issues through art builds self-awareness, and dancing away the week’s worries aids with self-esteem. At Diyar Dance Theater, youth can create movements for justice and gender equality that are more powerful than rocks and angry words.

But perhaps most importantly, coming together to produce a performance piece teaches youth how to mobilize themselves around a shared vision… At Diyar Dance Theater, youth are catalyzing change in themselves and in their community….What happens on stage tethers the two in a way discourse and debate often cannot.”

During my visit, I had the honor of teaching workshops and classes both at Diyar Dance Theatre and the Ramallah Ballet Center. 10 children in one begining ballet class, 25 teens in a swing and musical theatre class, and 10 adults and young adults in an “Intro to Jazz Dance” workshop. All joy.

With Diyar Dance Theatre in Bethlehem

The day after, I received the following message from one of the teen dancers:

hello  i ‘m from Dyiar dance theater …. i wanted to thank you for the amazing dance lesson ! AWESOME !hah
very nice meeting you
lots of love ,

In the city of Ramallah, there is an organization called Sareyyet Ramallah (First Ramallah Group). Every April since 2006 they have produced the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival with the help of the regional Masahat Contemporary Dance Network which includes not only Sareyyet (Palestine), but Maqamat Dance Theater (Lebanon), The National Center for Culture & Performing Art (Jordan), and Tanween Dance Theatre (Syria). According to its mission, “the Festival aims at promoting dialogue and cultural exchange between the Palestinian people and the peoples of the world. It also aims to introduce a variety of contemporary dances to the Palestinian people and to develop the capabilities of those who work in the dance field in Palestine. The Festival targets the Palestinian public in general and the youth sector in particular.” During the Festival, there are performances, workshops, a Dance & Society conference and an International Dance Day celebration. This is much more progressive and put together than anything I’ve seen in Egypt.

Sareyyet Ramallah also provides dance classes (Dabkeh, ballet, contemporary) for about 120 children. Beginning as a Scouts organization, they now also do basketball, swimming, summer art camps, theatre, karate, clay and wall painting, football (soccer), and much more. Every year they host the Martyrs Basketball Tournament.

In my last blog post, I wrote about genocides. I believe the arts have are a mighty tool in both preventing and reconciling genocide. Recently came across this project and found it intriguing. http://www.artstoendgenocide.org/stomp-out-genocide.html Maybe I should reach out to them.

Yes, dance is almost everywhere. Yes, dance is mighty. Yes, we need collaboration more then competition.

Yes, we need more dance that brings together Israeli and Palestinian citizens, Jewish settlers, and Palestinian refugees. Somehow. Let’s do it.

Keep dancing.


Previously posted… Part 1 – Pilgrims & Settlers and Part 2 – Halves & Holes

You can view the full photo album on Facebook.




Beyond Belief: The Holy Land, part 2

Part 2 – Halves & Holes

What Muslims, Jews and Christians share is a descendancy from Abraham. And his tomb lies in Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic), half inside a mosque, and half inside a synagogue.

Palestine is currently the Gaza Strip (where I am not able to go) and the West Bank (which is actually east of Jerusalem). The West Bank has three main areas. Only 3% of it is considered Area A (under full Palestinian civil and military control). Both Ramallah and Bethlehem are Area A. But there are checkpoints to get in and out of the different areas. A friend’s mother, an American, was going through a checkpoint this week. She recently had hip surgery and has a metal rod. This set off the metal detector and she was made to take off her pants. I can only imagine being in her place.

27% of the West Bank is Area B (Palestinian civil control, Israeli military control). But 70% of the West Bank is Area C (full Israeli control). Hebron is considered both Area C and Area A in almost an apartheid system.

I didn’t know any of this info before this week.

There is a wall around the West Bank, along the Armistice “Green” Line. I was told the Wall is actually illegally built quite a distance in to the Palestinian territory, making their diminishing portion of the land nearly 10% smaller. Not sure how accurate that is. Usually the Wall is clean on the Israeli side, and full of amazing and colorful street art on the Palestinian side. Most notably, some Banksy works. There is even a Banksy shop near the wall in Bethlehem.

Israel has both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Both amazing and welcoming cities. Great public transportation. Signage in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Unlike Cairo and Ramallah, there is extreme law and order. But that law and order oddly feels like it might erupt. Today is Election Day in Israel. We’ll see how right they go.

Oh Jerusalem.

The talk is that the Israeli government is trying to build-up Ramallah so that Palestinians dismiss their dreams of a Jerusalem capitol. Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah is built over water to show that it’s a temporary placement. His last wish was to be buried in Jerusalem. And until the Israeli authorities allow that, there he lies.

I’ve been thinking a lot about holes in people’s stories. On both sides. Holes in the tapestry of history. What if we weaved them together?

Would this weaving reveal something helpful? Maybe the guide to the Holocaust Remembrance Museum and the “Tourist Guide to the Occupation” could be distributed together. Or maybe those on different sides of conflicts could collaborate on remembrance museums and gardens.

We must remember those who died in all genocides.

And that got me thinking about a dear friend of mine who survived a concentration camp in Bosnia in the 1990s. A guy near my age who suffered real torture. I read his biography and the horrors are beyond belief. Horrors reflective of those I saw in the Holocaust Remembrance Museum in Jerusalem.

Last March, I was in Dachau, Germany and visited the Concentration Camp Memorial Site there. Absolutely stunning. Especially if you go bald as I did and feel the chilling, solemn winds on your naked head. Standing amongst the barracks. In the center of the museum complex is a large sculpture by Yugoslavian artist Nandor Glid. The title of the sculpture is “Never Again.”

But genocide did happen again. In the ex-Yugoslavian land called Bosnia… In the small Northwest Bosnian village of my dear friend.

He and others in the area are working toward remembrance museums, plaques at the sites of the concentration camps and mass graves, days of remembrance. But the mayors of these towns are not allowing any of this.

There is a global Stop Genocide Denial campaign I highly recommend where you can get more information.

I spent my last couple days in Palestine enjoying bread with olive oil & thyme, seeing the workshops of the craftsmen making olive wood figurines, seeing the spectacular views from the Bethlehem mountains, touching the spot where Jesus was born, and asking my friends questions.

I learned that most schools in Bethlehem have Fridays and Sundays as their weekends (respecting both the Muslim and Christian students). The private schools have approximately 20-25 students per class, but the government schools have 40-50.

I learned that there are three refugee camps in the area around Bethlehem, with one right in the center of town. The camps looked to me to be walled-in slums with vibrant political graffiti.

I learned of recommended readings I have yet to read: “I Saw Ramallah” by Mourid Barghouti and “Jerusalem: The Biography” by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

And I learned that time and time again, dancing gets us out of this complicated, messed-up darkness.


Next part of the Beyond Belief series… Part 3 – Dance & More Dance

Previously posted… Part 1 – Pilgrims & Settlers


You can view the full photo album on Facebook.

Beyond Belief: The Holy Land, part 1

Part 1- Pilgrims & Settlers

Sitting in Amman airport during the layover from Cairo, I saw at least fifty pilgrims. Men in simple, draped white cotton forming the effect of a wrapped towel around the lower body and a sort of shawl around the upper body. And plain leather sandals. Mind you, other people in the airport had on winter coats and boots. They looked to be heading to Mecca. For the Hajj perhaps. I have seen pictures of my friends in this robe, but never up close in person. I felt oddly at home.

When I landed at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv and made my way through the airport, I also felt strangely at home. No, I am not Jewish. I grew-up Lutheran and became Agnostic after September 11, 2001. But while I was living in Chicago for eight years before coming to Egypt for the Fulbright, I taught dance on Sundays in West Rogers Park. If you know that area of Chicago and that day of the week, you could guess that a majority of my students were Orthodox Jews. I taught children, teens, and choreographed an all-female, Orthodox version of Seussical which raised funds for the necessary alternative 911 service for Hasidic Jewish families.

Throughout my eight years teaching in this community, I learned about gender restrictions for performances, appropriate costuming, Kosher birthday parties and backstage snacks, all about Yom Kippur and Purim. I made friends. In terms of movements, I learned that shoulders can go up & down, but not forward and back. No hip rolls. I also learned that married Orthodox women cover their heads with either hats or nice wigs. I learned of their good spirit, big families, love of dance, and dedication to the community.

So when I landed at Ben Gurion and saw the wigs, black skirts, kippahs and borsalinos, I felt at home. Like someone in front of me would turn around any minute and hug me as a friend.

But then I accidentally said Shukran instead of Todah to the guy who gave me directions. He gave me the eye.

I was coming to Israel and Palestine just to see. To see friends. To see if there might be future partner organizations for dance projects. To see what is happening. I can’t go into the Right to Return or Israeli Defense. That’s not what this blog is about. I decided to venture into The Holy Land with an open heart and write my personal experiences.

In Tel Aviv, I stayed one night with a good friend I knew back in Chicago. She’s been living in Israel for years now. A liberal, an artist, a compassionate gal. She’s been an inspiration to me ever since I met her in 2005. And her mother is also a wonder. They showed me the magic and history of the Tel Aviv. They shared family stories and showed me the Muslim cemetery, near the beautiful beach.

Then I got on a bus to Jerusalem. Visited Mount Herzl. Back in Chicago, I worked with children at Theodore Herzl Elementary School. The student population at Herzl is over 95% African American and nearly 100% low income. The school in a desperate moment of plight, turnaround, and transition. When I think Herzl, I think of last year when we brought the poorest children there Christmas gifts. So when I got to Mount Herzl to see the breathtaking Yad Vesham Museum (Holocaust Remembrance), I was shocked to realize Theodore Herzl was a big-time Zionist thinker. And the building next to the museum is for the World Zionist Organization. I became uncomfortable.

I started to think about the differences between Pilgrims and Zionists. Pilgrims and Settlers.

And I saw the sights in Jerusalem that pilgrims flock to:

The place where Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ascended to Heaven. — ‎at ‎القدس -فلسطين‎.‎

Jesus’ tomb.

Western Wall (The Kotel), the only remnant of Judaism’s holiest shrine, where the second temple once stood. — ‎at ‎ירושלים‎.‎


Two of my Palestinian friends who live in Bethlehem have wanted to go to Jerusalem, as pilgrims, but have not been able to. They must apply to the Israeli Government for a special 20-day pass, valid during the Christmas season only. This is the first time in over 12 years they have succeeded in getting approved.

After Jerusalem, I went to Hebron (Al Khalil). It was one of the oddest place I have ever been to. Tense. Icky. A Jewish settlement right in the middle of town. The Wild West. Israel has no constitution, so I’m not sure how its citizens get rights, or what rights the Palestinians have under their care. But anyhow, I just don’t know. What I do know is that many of the Jewish settlers acted like cowboys heading to the hills, to the real estate with Arabic writing, to the land God promised them. I could be very wrong, but that was the impression. They kept to themselves, didn’t talk to us or anyone, but felt the need to carry M16s to synagogue even though the Palestinians on the other side of the fence are frisked everyday by the military, go through metal detectors to get to and from home, and aren’t allowed weapons. It was entirely odd to me. It was beyond belief.

And I somehow still felt at home. Maybe because this is The Holy Land and whenever I sneeze here, it feels beautiful when someone says, “Bless You.”


Coming soon…

Part 2 – Halves & Holes (Ramallah and Bethlehem and more from Hebron)

Part 3 – Dance & More Dance


You can view the full photo album on Facebook.


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