This Israeli-Palestinian Dance Project Is the Epitome of Coexistence – but the Occupation May Destroy It

Evyatar Said and Yousef Hasasna are trying to keep alive their traditions by teaching them to others as part of a unique workshop. But politics keeps getting in the way

Shira Eviatar, left, Yousef Hasasna and Evyatar Said. 'Today, if you go to Yemenite parties or festivals, you’ll see a very dynamic dance culture.'
Rami Shllush

Evyatar Said and Yousef Hasasna are not professional dancers, nor are they teachers in any formal sense, but both have absorbed their cultural training naturally over many years. And not long ago, this Yemenite Jew from Kfar Sava and Palestinian from the outskirts of Hebron joined forces to lead a unique dance workshop they call “Steps from Sana’a to Hebron.” The knowledge they impart is instilled deep inside their bodies, and they are trying to convey it to the general public.

“The dabke is in every home and it’s an inseparable part of our culture,” Hasasna says of the Palestinian dance. “We’ve been dancing it at weddings, events, and family gatherings since we were little.”

Said speaks similarly about the dance of Yemenite Jews. “I had the privilege of learning about my culture and investigating it thoroughly through dance,” he says. He’s been watching people dance since he was a child. “I watch videos from events, I searched in archives and I would go to see my aunts and uncles dance.”

Said’s study of the subject became serious enough that he began to differentiate between the dance styles of Jews from various parts of Yemen. Variations between different areas were significant, he says. “My mother and my father came from different places, and from each side of the family I saw a different style that I had to adjust to. Later on I perceived the similarities and differences between the dance of Jews and Muslims. Jewish dance had a special style that came from a religious source.”

Said stresses that Jewish Yemenite dance continues to develop to this day in both Yemen and Israel. “It’s a living culture. People sustain it,” he says. “Today, if you go to Yemenite parties or festivals, you’ll see a very dynamic dance culture. There’s the classic ‘Yemenite step,’ which has several variations, and men also have couples dances that are really tribal, that work on upper body flexibility. They have lots of groove. Unfortunately, these are dances that are slowly disappearing, and I want to bring them to center stage. But the young people bring new things; they hold hands and do breakdancing like in an A-Wa clip,” he says, referring to the hip-hop group comprised of three sisters of Yemenite descent. “It reminds me of the dabke, standing erect and playing with their legs. I like that, too.”

Yousef Hasasna, left, Evyatar Said and Shira Eviatar. Perceived the similarities and differences between the dance of Jews and Muslims
Rami Shllush

Hasasna has also researched the folk dance of his people, the dabke, and makes sure to give some historical background before his classes. “The dabke is known from Bilad al-Sham – the area of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine before there were state borders,” he explains. “With the division into countries, the dabke started to develop a bit differently in each place.”

Hasasna started to teach the dance form in his own Hebron neighborhood. “I started groups, and some of the kids from the neighborhood really turned into dancers,” he says, excitedly. From that he expanded to teach city-wide groups. “One of them even performed for Sabri Saidam, education minister of the Palestinian Authority.” Hasasna says that with time he developed his own unique steps.

The connection between Said and Hasasna was forged when the two shared an apartment in Jaffa. At the time, Hasasna was teaching dabke groups at the Jaffa Theater as well as at local high schools, while Said performed Yemenite dances at various venues, including evenings organized by poet Adi Keissar.

At some point Keissar suggested that the two friends do a dance together at an event at the Tel Aviv Museum. “Yousef and I, two dancers who had never gotten any [formal] training, brought some live culture to the museum,” says Said. “The two of us danced a dabke on the museum stage. It was very powerful.” Hasasna agrees, but adds that when he donned his kaffiyeh, some people left the hall.

The Palestinian dabke is an inseparable part of Palestinian culture, among young people both in Israel and in the occupied territories, and as such its political significance cannot be ignored. “Israel doesn’t accept the notion that there’s a Palestinian dabke,” Hasasna says. “During the workshop we had at the Kelim Center in Bat Yam, I explained to the participants that they were learning a Palestinian dabke. One of them said, ‘What do you mean, Palestinian? The dabke is Israeli.’ So I asked, ‘Do you want to learn an Israeli dabke, or a Palestinian one?’ and he said, ‘Israeli.’ I answered, ‘So that’s not me. The dabke has been part of our popular culture as long as the Palestinian people exist.’”

A dance performance by Evyatar Said and Yousef Hasasna.

“The very notion that there’s Palestinian dance is outrageous,” adds Said, facetiously. “If there’s such a thing as Palestinian dance, it means there’s such a thing as Palestinians.” He says that the Hebron workshop is an opportunity to demonstrate it as a Palestinian dance. “We have videos from the 1970s in which you see the Palestinian women affiliated with the PLO in Lebanon, in their Afros and jeans, dancing the dabke. It’s a very secular dance.”

Mass protest

Hasasna and Said tell of a mass dabke dance protest that they organized jointly in Jaffa’s Clock Square, after Israel’s Islamic Movement issued a ban on men and women dancing together. “The dabke is something that brings people closer, that’s its intention,” says Hasasna. “When 10 people hold hands it brings them closer to one another.”

Neither the dabke nor Yemenite dancing are taught in any “serious” dance studio or school. They are seen as folkloric dances with no depth of movement. Anyway, is it even possible to teach something that is people usually assimilate into their bodies from their native culture?

Said and Hasasna think so, and to prove it, they developed a technique and a theory that allow for both Yemenite and Palestinian dance to be conceptualized in such a way that they can be taught to others. The first project Said participated in was a video work by artist Lior Grady. “Lior made a comparative film in which I and musician Liron Amram are seen dancing on the same screen, accompanied by the dancers who I taught the step to in two and a half days,” he says. “You really see the gap; you can see who received the cultural training [from childhood] that’s assimilated in the body. If you don’t have that groove, it’s hard to acquire it.”

Yousef Hasasna, left, Evyatar Said and Shira Eviatar. 'The dabke is known from Bilad al-Sham – the area of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine before there were state borders.'
Rami Shllush

Subsequently he met and worked with dancer and artist Shira Eviatar, with whom he created and that encounter resulted in his solo work “Eviatar/Said.” “We were forced to encode the language there, first of all for ourselves,” says Shira Eviatar. “We did it because we didn’t have a common language. We didn’t have the dance language because he had never trained professionally. So we created a movement dictionary, with dances that he knew, we coded Habbani dances [from eastern Yemen] and dances from Sana’a and we really conceptualized the dance technique.”

But politics keeps getting in the way, making it impossible to relate to this connection in an idyllic way. The reason that the workshops have gone on hiatus is that after Hasasna married, half a year ago, Israel began to refuse him permission to enter the country. That changed only recently.

“We have to live with reality,” he says. “In the reality in which we live, you are an Arab and you’ll stay an Arab, this racist thing will remain.”

Hasasna also owns a workshop that produces traditional Palestinian clothing, but being banned from entering Israel made it impossible for him to sell his wares here. “I used to market all my merchandise in Israel,” he says. “I almost shut down the workshop, and now I live mainly in Haifa and work in a restaurant. In the end, that’s the occupation. Either you deal with what there is, or you get a heart attack and die. The dabke is the only thing that really gets me out of all this depression. When I hear the sound of the dabke, I disengage from the whole world; I start to move my legs without even realizing it,” he says with a smile.