Ramallah Refuses to Dance to Hamas' Cue

Militant group tries to spoil Contemporary Dance Festival, claims it is 'dancing on the blood of martyrs.'

Half an hour later than scheduled, the lights were dimmed and the audience quieted down at Ramallah's packed Kasbah Theatre. City luminaries, humble villagers and Europeans garbed in smart suits sat side-by-side to watch a performance by the Italian dance troupe, Bottega. For an instant, one might have thought that the well-dressed crowd had assembled in Tel Aviv or a European city. But the large number of smokers who filled the mezzanines revealed the event's actual location.

Khaled Elian, the organizer of the Contemporary Dance Festival, took to the stage. He looked emotional and perturbed. In the past week, a number of articles calling for the festival to be canceled have appeared on television channels and Web sites run by the Islamist group Hamas. One article claimed the event was akin to "dancing on the blood of the martyrs." Another argued that Islamic law forbids women and men from dancing together. Others argued that organizing a dance festival at a time when battles are raging in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, was treason on the part of its rival Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority areas in the West Bank.

Well aware of the criticism against him, Elian rebuffed his critics. "There are people who say art is forbidden these days," he emotionally declared from the stage of the packed theater in Ramallah. "To them we respond, so is lying. The people who organized this festival are the same that lead the resistance against the occupation. The festival will continue!" The crowd burst into a round of applause.

A tale of two cities

In the past few weeks, unknown Islamists have blown up a women's hair salon, an internet cafe, a library belonging to a Christian organization and have even tried to damage the famous restaurant at the Al-Deira Hotel located on Gaza's beachfront. These attacks on "Western symbols" seem to be gathering pace, though the Hamas government does not support them outright. Meanwhile, the third annual Contemporary Dance Festival in Ramallah started 10 days ago, and the 14 dance groups from Europe, as well as 12 Palestinian dance groups, found themselves in the middle of a political and theological tempest.

The manager of the Italian group last night addressed the audience immediately after Elian. "I would like to say a few things before we begin," he told the crowd in English, and then greeted them good evening in Arabic. "Ana mabsut bi Ramallah (I am pleased to be in Ramallah)", he said. His heavy accent raised a few smiles in the audience. "We are proud to be in Palestine and present our show," he then said, in English. "We are dancers and dancing is our life. It isn't just entertainment, but our way of supporting Palestine and Palestinians. Tomorrow we are going back home so shukran (thank you)."

The performance began. Six dancers in minimal dress came on stage, including a scantily-clad dancer that the brochure says symbolizes ostro (the north wind). As she kisses the dancer next to her, she breathes life into him. The crowd does not seem either shaken or enthused by the sensuousness displayed. Ana, a 27-year-old woman from Spain, said she was surprised by the act's risque. "It's different from what people in Ramallah are used to," she explained.

Ana is wearing a kaffiyeh, a traditional headdress for Arab men, to show her support for the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the show, which incorporates break-dancing and improvisational moves, hip-hop and touches of classic ballet, continues. One of the youths in the crowd, Amal, explains in fluent Hebrew that she heard about the festival through the media. A short inquiry reveals Amal is from Haifa. "I heard that Hamas rebuked the organizers because of events in Gaza and I came to show support," she said. "I think it's important to preserve art for those who oppose the occupation. They have to be educated and enlightened and not entirely focused on military issues. The religious people can pray and do whatever they want except tell us secular people what we can or can't do."

Toward the end of the performance, the music becomes more up-tempo. The dancers ask the audience to clap their hands, and the audience responds by clapping loudly. Jamil, a dancer of the debke dance that originated in the Levant area, said after the show that art must not be neglected. "It's true that we come from a traditional society but we have to look ahead," he said. "Contemporary dance is a new concept for most of us, or at least for me, but I like it."