November 16-22, 2005

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The Byrne Report

Freedom Dance

By Peter Byrne

On Monday evening, Nov. 21, some of the most oppressed children in the world are coming to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building to dance into our hearts. Hailing from the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank of Palestine, the Ibdaa Dance Troupe is composed of 20 Palestinian boys and girls, ages 10 to 14. The beautifully choreographed program, which I witnessed in a past performance, is part folklore, part Isadora Duncan, and is overtly political.

The dances, however, are not inspired by Islamic fundamentalism, patriarchal fascism or terrorism.

The dancers do not even vaguely resemble the standard Western image of refugee-camp kids as glassy-eyed, suicidal, kifiyah-wearing robots controlled by Hamas theocrats. Of course, the nasty old Hamas men do brainwash some teenagers into blowing themselves up. But those religio-fascist ideologues fail to realize that terrorism--whether perpetrated by Palestinian militias, Jewish settlers or such militarily organized states as Israel and the United States--is totally unproductive as a strategy for achieving national liberation or sowing seeds of peace and genuine democracy.

But the children--oh, the absolutely millions of Palestinian children who have flourished as human beings despite the stunting influence of poverty and occupation without end--no, they are not robots. They are coming to Santa Rosa to show us who they are--and, perhaps, who we are, too.

(It is worth noting that since it is illegal for Palestinians to fly out of Tel Aviv airport, the troupe had to sneak past Israeli soldiers and drive to Jordan to catch an airplane.)

I spoke by telephone with Ziad Abbas, the founder of the Ibdaa Dance Troupe. "Ibdaa is Arabic for creating something out of nothing," he says. Abbas was a political prisoner, held without rights inside Israeli dungeons for many years. When he got out, he made dances. A major theme of the Ibdaa dances, which the children perform with flair and artistic discipline, is what the Palestinians simply call the "Catastrophe." This refers to the forcible expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their ancient land in 1948 by the new state of Israel, as is well-documented by Israeli historians using public records unsealed a few years ago. As a result of the Catastrophe, several generations of Palestinians have grown up in foreign countries, part of a diaspora.

Closer to home, so-called refugee Palestinians have grown up inside the 59 camps that the Israeli state forced them into as it seized their villages, farms and water rights. Dheisheh concentrates 11,000 people into a sealed-off area less than half a mile square. With assistance from foreign benefactors, the people of Dheisheh have established a cultural center for their children. There is a library with 1,000 books, a treasure trove in Palestine. There is a nursery, so that mothers can try to find some work or food despite the periodic Israeli blockades.

Nonetheless, the camp has seen its share of bombs and bullets; 21 people have died from Israeli attacks on the camp since 2002. But it is remarkable to witness, through the Ibdaa dances, the self-reliance and love of freedom that has blossomed in Dheisheh despite the daily grind of living under the gun of jailers and the collateral damage of jihad.

In the dance "Political Prisoner," freedom is personified by a girl dressed in white who is stepped on by an Israeli soldier. A girl waving the Palestinian flag appears behind him. She frees the prisoners as he stands unharmed. My arm hairs stood on end watching the dance of freedom, in which naive joy is interwoven with sadness leavened with nationalistic resolve. These kids are optimistic. They believe that hell will give way to its opposite, creating a land in which oil profits are nothing compared to the lives of all Semitic children. (Yes, both the Israeli and Palestinian people are Semites.)

Abbas hopes that watching Ibdaa dance will show Americans "that we are human beings who desire only equal rights with other human beings." Is it too much to expect the majority of Israelis to treat the Other as they themselves would be treated? They certainly have had every chance to do so for nearly 60 years. Perhaps they will embrace that which they most fear next year. Or, if we have the courage to listen to the children of Dheisheh, perhaps we will act to change history. When American taxpayers stop funding the occupation and insist that Israel treat the dispossessed Palestinians as people, not targets, then that mercy will be reciprocated without a doubt. Of course, power concedes nothing without a demand, as Frederick Douglass, a liberated American slave remarked.

Ibdaa perform on Monday, Nov. 21. Michael Franti appears. Santa Rosa Veterans Building, 1351 Maple Ave. 7pm. $35. 510.548.0542.

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