How a Palestinian troupe resists the Israeli occupation
Founded in 1979, El Funoun, which means “Art” in Arabic, is no ordinary dance collective. Since their creation, they have mainly given themselves the mission of resisting the genocide of their people and their culture.
It has been a task full of dangers and challenges. One of their members, Ata Khattab, was imprisoned by the Israeli authorities on February 2. He is being held in a prison without charge.
Noora Baker, head of artistic production at El Funoun, said: “Unfortunately, the arrest of Palestinians is a common phenomenon. People are arrested simply because they are Palestinian and defend our culture and our identity. Ata is vocal about the treatment of our people, and he works to carry on our traditions, while being popular with the community and the youth, he has committed no crimes.
Dancing in Palestine could literally mean life or death. The Israeli authorities view any expression of Palestinian culture and heritage as a threat, and a threat that could cost you everything.
Noora says: “In Palestine, you are imprisoned for your ideas and your values.
El Funoun is committed to being a diverse community that includes men and women, children, Christians and Muslims. They are made up of volunteers and currently have 230 members.
|In Palestine you are imprisoned for your ideas and your values|
“The dance performance deliberately involves a large number of dancers, as it is part of the message of collective action, creativity and unity,” says Noora.
Their activist ethos means they push boundaries. “We are an inclusive group,” says Noora. “We recreate folk songs and produce our own choreography based on Arab-Palestinian folklore. We adapt them to represent Christian, Muslim and minority communities in Palestine, and we always have women front and center.”
“Our dances have roots in Palestinian folklore, and many of them have traditionally been performed at celebrations and weddings. The dance styles have their own histories and origins that date back even to pre-Islamic times. The dance has always been present in our community as a form of everyday action. In traditional societies, movements would be inspired by working the land and the natural environment,” adds Noora.
El Funoun incorporates these traditional movements, but adapts them to deliver a current message.
The style and content of music strongly influences dance moves. In more recent history, Palestinian songs are strongly rooted in political resistance. Women feature prominently in the songs and are portrayed as strong and ready to fight for their land (literally).
|Palestinian songs are strongly rooted in political resistance. Women feature prominently in songs and are portrayed as strong and ready to fight for their land|
Noora says, “We see our movement as a rebirth of Palestinian heritage. Any culture evolves over time, and that’s what we try to be part of with El Funoun. We don’t want to stagnate; we appreciate and respect our traditions, but we want to appeal to a younger audience and reflect our reality today.
“In the diaspora, there is more need to preserve culture and freeze it in time. As we live our culture on a daily basis, and we want it to evolve.”
El Funoun is well known in Palestine and has a large following. They are a symbol of hope for the people. Before the coronavirus hit, they performed in venues across Palestine and had between 1,000 and 3,000 spectators. However, travel across the country is extremely difficult, even without the additional restrictions caused by Covid-19.
The Israeli authorities are making it very difficult, but this group is not easily deterred by the Israelis or by the Covid-19. The practice continued as smoothly and safely as possible.
|We use the stage to show that we exist and to preserve our history|
El Funoun has adapted to virtual dance sessions, which are not always accessible to everyone due to online connection barriers. They continued a limited face-to-face dance practice with smaller numbers and everyone wearing a mask.
El-Funoun is looking forward to returning to performing live and spreading his message across Palestine and the world. Unfortunately, the return to “normal” life seems even more distant for the Palestinians. While Israel is celebrated around the world for its fastest vaccination campaign, the Palestinian people are being actively denied vaccines by the Israeli authorities.
I’m sure the story of how Palestinians were treated during the pandemic will find its way into El Funoun’s dance and music repertoire. As Noora says, “We use the stage to show that we exist and to preserve our history.”
Nadia Khan is a historian and writer. She is the founder of Golden Threads: a project exploring shared history, culture and art across the Islamic world and beyond.
Follow her on Instagram @nadia.khan30