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El-Funoun changed its style over 25 years, but never its commitment to Palestine

When Palestine's el-Funoun dance company celebrated its silver jubilee in the newly established Ramallah Cultural Palace seven months ago, the occasion was notable on several levels.

In any country, it would be significant for a dance troupe to mark 25 years of creative activity. In Palestine, such an achievement is momentous. In the face of the Israeli military occupation and repression of everything Palestinian, including cultural entities, and despite the inhibiting role that lingering social traditions have played, el-Funoun has been able to not only persevere but grow, develop, experiment, challenge, resist and rekindle dreams of freedom, justice and peace.

It has become the embodiment of the paradigm of cultural resistance to oppression.

Speaking to the crowd packed into the theater for the silver jubilee, Azmi Bishara, the famous Palestinian politician who serves in the Israeli Knesset, offered the following words in his keynote address for el-Funoun: "While the occupier celebrates its monopoly over modernity and progress, it does not mind at all when our heritage is occupied by folklore and orientalism. I salute you for breaking this rule which they hoped to dictate upon us, after they had destroyed in the nakba a fledgling Palestinian project of modernization."

El-Funoun means "the arts." The full name of the company in Arabic is "Firqat el-Funoun al-Sha'biyyah al-Filastiniyyah," which translates literally as "Palestinian Popular Arts Troupe." The word "popular" sets the group apart from such established forms of dance as ballet, jazz and modern. Although the group's more recent and daring works clash with the connotation now, the name was selected back in 1979 to emphasize the group's folkloric roots.

El-Funoun began with a mission to revive Palestinian music and dance folklore as a manifestation of national identity. Its early productions drew on extensive research in Palestinian villages, celebrating centuries' old songs and dances, including the dabke, a provincial dance popular among Arabs of the Eastern Mediterranean, using traditional Arab instruments (such as oud, nai and tabla). Although el-Funoun never presented a vocabulary of folk dances verbatim on stage, it was unquestionably influenced by the themes, styles and character of tradition.

At that time, Israeli leaders routinely proclaimed that Palestine didn't exist as a nation. They attempted to destroy or confiscate indigenous Palestinian culture, heritage, tradition, history and identity, if not explicitly then through convoluted schemes and arbitrary laws. For example, flight attendants on board Israel's airlines El-Al were issued Palestinian embroidered costumes; the golden Dome of the Rock was prominently figured on Israeli travel brochures; hummus and falafel were served as traditional Israeli cuisine; a myriad of Arab and Palestinian slang expressions entered the Israeli lexicon and the colors of the Palestinian flag were banned in any shape, form or combination, even on paintings. Any assertion of Palestinian identity was punished.

It is little wonder, then, that el-Funoun's efforts to portray the roots of Palestinian dance and song was considered a dangerous form of subversion and punished accordingly. Several el-Funoun dancers and managers suffered various measures of persecution, including prolonged detention without charge, torture during interrogation and travel bans. Clandestine dance rehearsals were not uncommon for el-Funoun at times of military crackdowns. Performing in occupied Jerusalem was normally punished with a three-day closure of the hosting venue, a military order tacked on the door declaring a closure due to "illegal activities."

Nevertheless, with oppression came recognition. Soon after its inception, el-Funoun achieved much popularity among Palestinians, both in Palestine and in exile. The group's songs became household tunes and its dances spread feverishly, particularly among young people. When the recording "Sharar (Sparks)" was banned for its "nationalistic content" and all the cassettes confiscated, people ubiquitously and defiantly reproduced it on home recorders all over, making "Shahar" the most coveted cassette in Palestine at the time.

El-Funoun also challenged entrenched taboos and anachronistic traditions in Palestinian society. Women's rights, freedom of choice, the empowerment of youth, democracy, communication with the world - despite the siege - and addressing social themes were frowned upon by social traditionalists, but the community's firm support of the group fended off a backlash. Soon several new dance groups emerged, inspired by el-Funoun.

Throughout the 1980's and during the first Palestinian intifada, resistance meant nourishing the roots and expressing the attributes of Palestinian national identity that had been suppressed by the Israeli occupation. Starting in the mid 1990's, however, el-Funoun's mission has transformed itself. The group found that preservation and survival were no longer sufficient - to create and participate in forging a contemporary cultural identity became more urgent.

To this day, el-Funoun respects Palestinian heritage but also explores, absorbs and integrates modernity. The challenge is to intervene in the development of Palestinian identity, to critique stagnation, capitulation and despair, to envision a new, modern identity that is rooted, yet in dialogue with life, with progress, with universal rights and freedoms.

At first, el-Funoun suffered turbulent internal debates and a great deal of soul-searching until it established a crucial link between authenticity and contemporariness.

The context has not been easy. Years of forced isolation, travel bans, closures, arrests and killings have plagued Palestinian society for decades, crippling its economy, decaying its social cohesion, stifling its artistic development and denying its normal growth. The process of cultural rehabilitation must reckon with a multi-faceted and formidable challenge. Giving up or surrendering to apathy are not allowed. Palestinian cultural organizations such as el-Funoun, realize they must persevere against unfavorable odds.

For example, during the spring of 2002, for instance, when Ramallah was under lockdown, the members of el-Funoun decided to challenge the curfew and go to the studio to rehearse. They were preparing for their latest production, "Haifa, Beirut & Beyond." During this "illegal" rehearsal, a dancer's phone rang. A ringing phone during a rehearsal at the time was usually a bad omen (mobile phones are strictly forbidden during rehearsals, except during times of turmoil and insecurity, meaning most of the time). The dancer picked up his phone with trembling hands. The rest of the troupe froze, trying to interpret the news through his gestures. His pregnant wife was in early labor and all the roads from their village home to the city hospital were blocked by military barricades. He was stuck in Ramallah as his wife was about to give birth a few kilometers away. Feeling totally helpless, he cried.

Though the dancer's relatives tried to drive his wife to a hospital, they were humiliated and threatened at two checkpoints, and turned back. She was forced to deliver at home with no medical supervision.

She gave birth to a premature, perilously stressed but charming boy. A relative finally succeeded in driving mother and child to a hospital in Nablus, and after weeks in an incubator, followed by months in critical condition, the baby recovered, and his father was able to smile again during dance rehearsals. He never quit dancing or hoping.

One of el-Funoun's choreographers was in the middle of making a dance about a massacre that took place during the nakba when she was interrupted with news of her mother's death. She was shot repeatedly by an Israeli soldier while she was embroidering on her front porch in Nablus. No pretence. No apology. No explanation. After a period of shock and mourning, the choreographer returned to finish her dance.

El-Funoun has beaten the odds by focusing on artistic development, learning, experimenting and interacting with Arab and international dance artists. Artistic excellence has become an important objective. And as the need for Palestinian resistance has grown, so too has el-Funoun's will. But throughout its 25-year history, the group has maintained its commitment to re-humanizing the image of the Palestinians, asserting their inalienable humanity and expressing their dreams of a just and enduring peace.

 
 
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