By Eric Reidy
Debke is an Arabic folk dance which is performed throughout the Levantine region. In Palestine, as Eric Reidy discovered when he met local dance troupe El-Funoun, debke is being reinvented as a means of preserving traditional culture and reflecting contemporary life in the Palestinian Territories.
As night slowly blanketed the southern West Bank village of Beit Omar on a Thursday in late summer, the town’s residents filed into the outdoor athletic space, sunk in beneath a high cement wall, at the local school. Those who did not find a place inside crowded behind a chain-link fence at the top of the wall or perched on rooftops with a view of the stage. The residents were gathered for a debke performance by El-Funoun, a popular dance troupe based just an hour and a half drive away in Ramallah.
‘In Beit Omar, they will speak about this performance until they die,’ says Anas AbuOun, a dancer and Funoun’s Activities Coordinator. The village is largely poor and does not have the resources to support cultural activities of its own. So, the debke performance was potentially a once in a lifetime experience for residents who cannot afford to travel to see cultural events elsewhere in the West Bank.
El-Funoun’s style of debke also differs greatly from the debke danced during festive occasions in Palestinian culture. Traditional debke only consists of 10 to 15 steps set to three songs. The performance in Beit Omar involved more than 1000 steps accompanied by songs El-Funoun has collected from Palestinian folk musicians, AbuOun says.
Change, especially related to culture, is often regarded with skepticism or fear in Palestinian society. Such negative reactions stem from the fact that Palestinian identity has come under sustained pressure throughout the course of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. ‘The Israeli occupation… is also more of a cultural occupation,’ emphasizes Majd Hajjaj, a contemporary dancer and Public Relations Officer at Sarreyet Ramallah.
‘The victim… will try with all his power, all his strength, to save his identity,’ AbuOun adds. ‘Debke is a part of this.’
‘[It] portrays our cultural heritage… be it traditional jobs like handcrafts, harvesting the crops, the making of food and bread, or the Palestinian wedding,’ Hajjaj continues.
As such, audiences are largely receptive when debke pushes social norms and conventions, as happened during El-Funoun’s performance in Beit Omar. The village, located close to Hebron, is in an area of the West Bank known for being more conservative than other parts of Palestinian society. El-Funoun’s performance was the first time women performed on stage in the village. However, the presence of women onstage was a subtext to the revelry of the crowd caught up in the stories of El-Funoun’s dances.
We are sharing the same ground. We are talking on the same level… If you look at Funoun’s performances and productions, it’s all about Palestine,’ AbuOun says, which makes people more receptive to change because they can relate to the stories being told on a collective level.
‘Debke is always societal,’ Hajjaj says. But, it is also important to tell individual and personal stories. ‘It doesn’t always have to be collective,’ she adds. ‘It can be, and we have better audiences when it has to do with representing Palestine.’