Choreographer Strikes a Pose for Palestinian Identity

Dec. 7, 2005 — -- Omar Barghouti doesn't tiptoe around anything. As one of the choreographers and the trainer of a Palestinian dance troupe currently touring the United States, this engineer by training tackles his multiple jobs and passions with purpose.

"We are on a cultural mission; that is what drives us," Barghouti said while juggling rehearsals, last-minute show details, and the U.S. tour, which includes stops in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dearborn, Mich.

The group's visit is meant to showcase two dozen traditional and contemporary dances highlighting Palestinian roots and identity.

The El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe has no specific political agenda, but Barghouti said that because of the Israeli military occupation, politics had crept into all aspects of Palestinian life.

"Freedom from occupation becomes everyone's agenda," he said.

Dancers wear jewel-tone, embroidered costumes with traditional scarves and keffiyehs -- the checkered head covering held by a black rope. Many pieces are inspired by weddings, which involve lots of whirling and line dances with step combinations and foot-stamping accents.

Since he joined the dance troupe, Barghouti, 41, has been able to unleash his creative talents and political acumen.

A number of the dances illustrate beatings and rebellion with a drumlike beat that symbolizes pain and mourning. In one piece, a barefoot dancer vanquishes his repression by kicking aside a military boot that sits in the middle of the stage. The piece was inspired by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, where U.S. soldiers allegedly smothered prisoners by stomping on them with their boots.

Going Home

Barghouti was born in Qatar and grew up in Egypt, but his parents fled the West Bank before he was born and he always longed to live in the village they had left.

It took awhile to make that dream come true. He studied engineering as a college and graduate student in the United States. When he was finished, he entered the business world here, but soon found something was missing.

"There was a vacuum in me, I could not feel anchored," Barghouti said. "I grew an attachment to a piece of land where we couldn't live," he added, explaining that his parents now live in Jordan. His mother fretted that her son would abandon his comfortable lifestyle in the United States to start from scratch. "She kept asking me: 'Are you sure?' " he recounted.

"There is not a rational reason I went back," Barghouti said. But in 1993 -- at the age of 30 -- Barghouti packed his bags and moved with his wife to Ramallah, in the West Bank.

The engineer soon embraced his new surroundings. He continued his engineering work but became particularly interested in a folkloric dance group that strove to revive Palestinian music and dance.

Social Purpose

Dance has always been a passion, Barghouti said, and despite his lack of professional training, he joined El-Funoun.

El-Funoun, which means "the arts," was founded in 1979 as a way to resist Israeli occupation by preserving provincial Palestinian dance and music.

El-Funoun's efforts to portray Palestinian culture didn't go over well with Israeli authorities, according to Barghouti. He said authorities made rehearsals difficult through harassment, canceled performances and curfews. But the public clamored for the colorful, joyful dances, elevating El-Funoun to the heights of popularity among Palestinians.

Despite the troupe's success, Israel still sees El-Funoun as a "threat" because of its quest to express an independent Palestinian identity, according to Barghouti.

The group might be called a Mediterranean equivalent of the Irish "Riverdance" company, but with a pointed political message.

"We view our work as cultural resistance," Barghouti said. "By dancing 'Tragedies and Dreams,' [the theme of the U.S. tour], we are transcending our status of victims."

Over the years, Barghouti abandoned dancing and became the troupe's choreographer and trainer. He relishes the role but also finds time to work as an engineer. He is also pursuing a doctorate in ethics at Tel Aviv University and contributes to newspapers in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The dance troupe's mission also transformed in the late '90s. The group wanted to go beyond victimization and define a Palestinian cultural identity. "We wanted to widen the spectrum," Barghouti said. "It's no longer about proving we exist, but how can we participate in creating a modern entity."

Solidarity Tour

At the New York performance, held at the United Nations and at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, Barghouti showcased some of his modern pieces. In one number, he updated a traditional male dance, called a dal'onah, by using women disguised as men to lead the dance.

"We challenge all social issues and that's an example of attacking a sort of oppression head on," Barghouti said.

In regard to the current situation in his homeland, Barghouti lends no credence to peace plans, saying little has changed on the ground as more colonies and settlers creep up. "This land is indivisible. I think of a more-inclusive solution where Christian, Jews and Muslims can live in harmony."

That's why he strives to raise attention to the Palestinian cause through the arts, saying, "In a sense, we're asking for solidarity -- not sympathy -- so that people take action."

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