Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

2. Intifada dance


In this blog, I plan to post impressions and thoughts from my travels in Israel-Palestine that didn’t quite fit into the book, Our Way to Fight.   A book is a finite thing, a limited number of words stuffed between covers.  This blog is my chance to stretch the covers, to introduce a few more people engaged in the long struggle for justice, freedom and peace in Palestine and Israel.   For example:

Willowy lithe, the young debkeh dancers seem airborne, unbound by gravity.  They kick and stomp, punctuating the music with breathy shouts that echo in the narrow hall, “Hye!”

Assirk Assaghir, the Nablus Circus School, is one of very few sport facilities in Nablus open to both female and male students; in fact the school encourages bi-gendered classes.  Some of the women wear hijab, the traditional head scarf.  The men’s dark hair is trimmed short.  In their late teens to early twenties, both sexes wear jeans.  For their public performance tonight they’ll change into debkeh gear, satin shirts belted at the waist and baggy black pants tucked into boots for the men, light, loose robes over black pants for the women.

Their energy is dazzling.  It’s mid-afternoon, close to 40 C, no air-conditioning, no windows, and they’ve been fasting since sun-rise for the Ramadan holy month, rehearsing since noon.  They sway to the side and then forward in a graceful arc from the waist, to sweep the earth with a reaching hand.  Interpreting a traditional Palestinian tale, at this point they are harvesting wheat.  Their faces shine with sweat.

This is intifada through dance, a movement of resistance.  If, as many Palestinians have come to believe, the ultimate goal of the occupation is to erase Palestine from the map, these young people refuse to be erased.  Their dance is at least as old as their city.

Over thousands of years, occupiers have come and gone, most recently the Ottoman Turks, the British, the Jordanians, and now the Israelis.  All have left their mark, in one way or another.  But the Nablusis remain.

With roots in this land as ancient as the olive tree, the music that drives the debkeh dancers is woven from the mandolin-like oud, the cry of the yarghul, a sort of double clarinet, and the booming goblet-shaped derbakkeh drum.  The intricate stop-start rhythms are rendered visible in the dance.

Even as they defy gravity they also demonstrate sumud, steadfast perseverance or rootedness, a quality some Palestinians consider their deepest and most abiding survival tactic.

It is rooted in a long view of history, a peasant’s view from the ground, and the knowledge that in time all occupiers pass away, but people of the land remain.  Palestinians also know from the bitterest experience that, perhaps for the first time, instead of wanting them available as slaves or cheap labour as previous occupiers did, the present one actually wants them gone, one way or another.  They also know that if they leave, even temporarily, the chances of being allowed to return are close to zero.

A crescendo of leaps, kicks and twirls, and the debkeh concludes.  The troupe’s lead dancer calls a five minute break, tapping her watch.  Dancers mop their glistening faces on towels and sleeves.  No power drinks here – the Ramadan fast excludes both food and water until sundown.

They take their places, and begin again.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

2 thoughts on “2. Intifada dance

  1. The scene you describe conveys such a powerful sense of vitality, resistance and determination. Dancing is living joyfully, almost, against all odds.


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