The Syrians Dancing With an Israeli Troupe in Berlin

The effort by Syrian refugee artists to integrate into life in Europe begs the question of whether to preserve their cultural heritage, or to adopt Western forms of expression

A photo from the Nir de Volff dance troupe TOTAL BRUTAL's "Come As You Are," a performance featuring three Syrian dancers.
Bernhard Musil ®

The Berlin-based troupe of Israeli dancer and choreographer Nir de Volff has three new members – Medhat Aldaabal, Moufak Aldoabl and Omar Karkout, all Syrian refugees. The three encountered De Volff and his TOTAL BRUTAL dance company totally by chance.

After fleeing his homeland and wandering around Berlin in late 2016, Aldaabal told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper in an interview, he happened upon the sign of a troupe called Sasha Waltz and Guests. The name of Waltz, a noted choreographer – who among other performances appeared in Israel six years ago with her show “Korper” (Body) – was familiar to Aldaabal, who comes from As-Suwayda in southern Syria and had studied dance in Damascus before the civil war erupted.

“I imagined myself entering the office and asking to join the troupe,” said Aldaabal, but, he added, he had been too embarrassed, and instead of knocking on the door he sent Waltz an email. Shortly afterward, he received an invitation to an open dance performance by Waltz's dancers. He didn't take part in that performance, but the rest, as they say, is history: He met Waltz and her husband who decided to sponsor him and also introduced him to De Volff, who taught him modern dance for free. De Volff then brought him and his two dancer friends into his successful TOTAL BRUTAL troupe, which, according to its website, "is located on the edge of dance, but refuses to be categorized unambiguously."

Of course Aldaabal and his friends are not the only Syrian artists who have managed to pave their way into the European art scene. Little is known about the lives of many Syrian refugees in exile on the Continent. What is published generally depicts poverty and absorption difficulties, and encounters with many manifestations of racism in the host countries – and, on the other side, the economic and cultural burdens the refugees impose on European taxpayers.

A Syrian journalist living in Berlin told Haaretz recently that it’s hard to report on Syrian refugee success stories.

“Every such story raises fears among the Germans that thousands of more refugees will come because they see Europe as the land of unlimited possibilities,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s very important for us to cultivate cultural expressions of all types, because they expose the citizens of Europe to the suffering and culture of human beings, which generally arouse compassion only from afar.”

In some cases, such expressions hit the mark. This was the case, for example, with the play “Two Refugees,” staged by Syrian refugees Ahmad and Mohammad Malas. The Malas twins arrived in France in 2012 and found refuge initially in Grenoble, where they had to live from hand to mouth, eating in soup kitchens and sleeping with friends. They wrote their play in Arabic first, but shortly after translated it into French. It was staged this year at a small Parisian theater before an audience of Syrians and Frenchmen.

“I am foreign, but I am human; I am strong, but I’m not a criminal,” the actors say in the play, which is packed with pearls of bitter humor, by means of which they describe the intricacies of France’s multilayered bureaucracy, the wonders of traveling on the Metro and the complexities of the French language.

Another success story is that of Syrian hip-hop singer Omar al-Gharab, 27, who fled from his homeland to Lebanon three years ago, and from there went to Egypt before landing in Berlin. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he explained that he composed his protest songs when he was still living in Syria. He couldn’t perform them for local audiences because they included harsh criticism of President Bashar Assad and his regime. Today, in Berlin, he performs in clubs that attract thousands of Syrian young people, who come to enjoy the music and the lyrics in the Aleppine dialect, along with many Germans who come to hear Arabic hip-hop even if they can’t understand the words.

Less survival lit

Along with performance art, literature created by refugees in Europe and elsewhere is also developing and has produced several novels and documentary works describing the hardships of exile. Such works are gradually replacing the reading materials that characterized the refugees’ initial period of acclimation in recent years – namely, guides aimed at preparing them for their new lives and helping them deal with the local bureaucracy. Now it is possible to move to the next stage, in which deeper observation takes the place of survival literature.

The refugee artists who have succeeded and no longer have to worry about where their next meal is coming from are thus preoccupied now with new, troubling questions. These involve several issues, one of them concerning language: Should they, for example, adopt the language of their host countries to draw new audiences or readers that will boost their economic success, or should they adhere to creating work in their mother tongue, which limits their audiences but preserves their heritage and the ethos of the national struggle against the regime?

Another issue, relating to dance: Should the refugees cooperate with local artists, like the Syrian trio appearing with Nir de Volff's troupe, and develop a new language of movement that will be consistent with Western trends – or should they preserve their traditional dance, even if they add some modern elements to it?

“The problem is that none of these artists know how long he will be able remain in Germany or another European country,” the Syrian journalist told Haaretz. “They are exploiting their artistic freedom as much as they can and are coping with the culture shock, but one day they will have to ask themselves if they’re Syrians or Germans – whether to return to their homeland or remain in Germany and adopt their culture.”