Hillel Schenker

Palestine House in Tel Aviv

Warehouse 2, an alternative space at the rejuvenated Jaffa Port complex run by the Israel Choreographers Association, recently hosted a rousing and colorful performance of three Palestinian debka groups, the 3rd activity of the new Palestine House in Tel Aviv. Whoever was there on Thursday evening May 15 witnessed an exciting and very varied performance by three Palestinian dance troupes, from East Jerusalem, Qalqilya and Ramallah. Anyone who thought that debka dancing (or dabkeh in Arabic) is repetitious, set motions, learned in the opening set by the energetic and youthful troupe from East Jerusalem that this was not the case. Boys and girls in very colorful costumes – my assumption is that they were late high school teenagers – performing some exciting and innovative choreography. The second set by an all-male troupe from Qalqilya was closer to the stereotypical expectation, while the third and oldest student troupe from Ramallah went beyond all expectations, with a combination of traditional debka, modern dance and what looked to me like Irish river dance. Both the East Jerusalem and Ramallah troupes also reminded me of folk dance performances at kibbutz holidays. I couldn’t help noticing that the first troupe had boys and girls facing each other and intermingling, the second troupe was male only, and the third troupe had young men and women doing hands on-shared dancing, probably reflecting sociological differences in East Jerusalem, Qalqilya and Ramallah, which is sometimes know as “the Tel Aviv of the West Bank”. Palestinian debka dancers holding hands

Getting to know the Palestinian cultural heritage and aspirations

The evening was opened by Palestine House in TLV Director Ashraf Al Ajrami, a former Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoner Affairs and a very active member of the Fatah Committee for Communication with Israeli society. He welcomed the audience to “enjoy themselves, have fun”, a welcome which was accompanied by a feast of Palestinians refreshments that was brought by the dancers to the performance. In a a paper he circulated about the initiative, Al Ajrami wrote that “most Israelis hardly have a clue about what motivates the Palestinian society, its tradition and cultural heritage, its aspirations and sentiments.” He added that “our objective in launching Palestine House in Tel Aviv is to address this failure. As a Palestinian cultural center functioning in Tel Aviv, right in the midst of the Israeli space, it is designed to provide knowledge and generate awareness towards Palestine and the Palestinians…” Al-Ajrami’s partner in the initiative, Ilan Baruch, former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, was beaming throughout. He also introduced me to…Ilan Baruch, the artist, who was in the audience. Demonstrating the old adage that the more Ilan Baruchs the merrier.

Mahmoud Darwish at Beit Bialik

When the evening ended, I rushed over to Beit Bialik (Bialik House) in Old Tel Aviv, just barely 10 minutes away by taxi, where an evening devoted to Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish was taking place. The occasion was the publication of a book of Hebrew translations of Darwish’s poetry by Prof. Reuven Snir, a project initiated by poet Prof. Rafi Weichert and  Keshev Poetry Publishing House. There was something very profound about hearing poems recited in Arabic, followed by translations in Hebrew, in the home of the Israeli national poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, the father of modern Hebrew poetry. The fact that Beit Bialik and the Tel Aviv Municipality were capable of hosting such an evening cannot be taken for granted. One speaker said that while in the spirit of medieval poet Yehuda Halevy, our hearts may be in the East, but just to make sure, we also look westward, and Israeli poets tend to be more aware of and inspired by Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot than they are knowledgeable about the heritage of Middle Eastern and Arabic poetry. However, to balance things out, it was noted that Darwish, who appeared on the national and eventually international stage with his dramatic poem Write down, I am an Arab! in 1964, was also inspired by Whitman and Elliot, and towards the end of his life, grew tired of being a national symbol, and preferred to be considered simply a human being. He also never rejected or negated the Israeli side of his identity, his youthful Jewish girlfriend, and the Israeli inspiration to study literature.

Darwish – “Write down. I am an Arab!”

One of the most jolting elements of the evening was the reference by one of speakers to “the words of the most influential poet in Israeli life today.” I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one expecting to hear a quote from Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, or Roni Somech who was one of the speakers at the evening. But no, the speaker was referring to the immortal words uttered by poet Benjamin Netanyahu just two months ago – “The Arabs are swarming to the polls, and the left wing organizations are busing them in.” This was Tel Aviv, so everyone laughed.

Hope against despair – “Make music, not war”

And to think that these two events, Palestine House in Tel Aviv, and an evening devoted to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, were taking place a day before May 15, Nakba Day, the day the PA has set aside to remember the tragic creation of the refugee problem in 1948. And three days before the controversial Jerusalem Day. when some people celebrate the so-called unification of a very divided Jerusalem. But maybe the young energetic dancers from East Jerusalem reaching out to the audience in Tel Aviv can teach us all something about hope for the future. The next day, Friday, on my way back from the weekly Dizengoff Center Food Fair, I saw an unexpected sight: a young Israeli teenage girl playing on what looked like Caribbean drum, accompanied by a young Israeli officer in uniform playing on a flute. Both were sitting on the pavement, reminding me of the buskers on the New York subways or the London Underground. I asked the soldier what he did in the army, and he said I command new trainees. So I said “Make Music, Not War”, and he said “I totally agree.”

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv