Serving ‘the lord of dance’

Nepali caregivers find an outlet for the stress of their work by letting their ‘hearts fly like a bird’ as they compete for a prize in South Tel Aviv.

Nepali dance 311 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Nepali dance 311
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
In the past several weeks, Israel’s Nepali community has hosted a flurry of events to entertain and support its workers. Nepali artists performed at two of the events put on by Namaste Entertainment, a Kathmandu-based organization that aims to give migrant workers temporary relief from difficult circumstances while promoting Nepali performers and culture abroad.
“It’s a well-known saying: ‘Music is a medicine for all,’” begins Namaste Entertainment’s mission statement, which goes on to discuss the stress and pain of working overseas.
Programs provide temporary “peace of mind” by making workers “feel at home.” The organization also hopes that events will serve as a platform for local Nepalese to meet and build a stronger community.
Palden Sherpa, events manager of Namaste Entertainment, said, “We are trying to entertain Nepalese workers, to give them strength.” His organization is also connected with Kathmandu’s Disabled Rehabilitation Center (DRC). Profits from events organized by Namaste Entertainment are donated to the DRC.
On a recent Friday night, more than 200 Nepalis, and a handful of Israelis, attended a Nepali dance competition held in South Tel Aviv.
The event, which took place at the Ellen and Walworth Barbour Cultural and Youth Center in South Tel Aviv, was sponsored by the Nepalese Workers’ Helping Forum Israel, Kathmandu-based Sunrise Bank, and Om Indian Store – The Taste of India and Nepal.
The first of its kind to be held in Israel, participants competed for a cash prize of 700 shekels.
But the evening wasn’t just about dance. Standing outside the auditorium, co-organizer Ritu Giri explained that the event served the dual purpose of bringing the Nepali community together and providing an outlet for the stress of demanding work.
“All the people here are caregivers,” Giri remarks. “We are working 24 hours with our employers… We need a little time to enjoy [ourselves].”
Idit Lebovitch, caregiver’s coordinator at Kav La’Oved, explains that the Nepali community faces unique challenges. Unlike Filipinos and Indians, Nepalese speak little English, leaving them ripe for exploitation.
Before new government regulations effectively ended the flying visa scam in 2009, Nepali workers were disproportionately victimized – losing thousands of dollars in mediation fees for jobs that didn’t exist. Although flying visas are no longer a problem, the language barrier continues to be a handicap. Issues with employers often go unreported. And cultural taboos also prevent Nepali workers from seeking help when they need it.
Comprising less than 19 percent of Israel’s 60,000 legal caregivers, the Nepalese make up one of the smallest groups of migrant workers. The community is almost exclusively female and they tend to work for Arab employers.
LEBOVITCH ADDS that because Arab families tend to be bigger and often include several generations in the home, caregivers face additional demands. “Usually [working for an Arab employer] means working for the entire family,” she explains.
Inside, the audience awaited the dancers. Women – some in saris, most in Western clothes – sat in tight clusters, chatting and snapping photos of each other. Sofia, a caregiver Metro had interviewed for a previous story, gave this writer a warm welcome. She served as an impromptu translator, giving Metro a taste of the gossip, culture and music that filled the evening.
“I have a lot of stories to tell you,” Sofia began. “How hard it is to be away from my family, from my son.” She clutched her hand to her chest as though she might massage her heart through her lowcut, bright-red top.
Sofia, 27 and divorced, also has concerns in Israel. She leaned her head in conspiratorially as she discussed her love life.
Before beginning the show, the co-organizers lit oil candles. “This is part of our culture,” Sofia said, her chin tipped in pride, explaining that it invokes a blessing for the performance.
Pointing to the banner that served as a backdrop, she added, “This is the lord of dance.”
The image depicted the Hindu god Shiva perched on one foot, wrists turned mid-flick. Encircled by flames, the deity was also flanked by Israeli and Nepali flags.
THERE WERE other touches of home. Tourist posters of Nepal were taped to the wall next to the stage. A Hindu country with a large Buddhist minority, the panoramic scenes included Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and a UNESCO world heritage site. The crowd stood, hands over hearts, to recite the national anthem.
The MC joked that he was going to give a lecture, and the crowd screamed, “No!” Nonetheless, a lengthy roster of speakers followed. Sofia combed a friend’s hair. As this writer observed the audience’s inattentiveness, not so different from her own, she noted several women wearing necklaces bearing the Star of David.
At last, the dancing.
“0-Saani,” a widely popular Nepali pop song, blasted over the speakers as the first participant popped onto the stage. Wearing red high-top sneakers, white short shorts, and a black ‘80s-style T-shirt, she bounced about – hip-hop spiked with Eastern moves. As she swiveled her hips, the crowd shouted.
When the act ended, the two judges critiqued the dancer a la American Idol.
The next act was traditional, Sofia commented. The participant, a slight woman with delicate arms, wore a jeweled gown. Sky blue and specked with rhinestones, it glimmered as she flitted about on stage, her bangles tinkling.
Over the audience’s cheering, Sofia offered a summary of the song’s lyrics: “Where there is love, there is enjoyment,” she said. As the dancer tapped her fingers, Sofia added, “She is counting the days until [her lover] comes.”
The dancer held her hand out before her face, as though she were looking into a mirror. “She wants to look nice for him,” Sofia said.
The crowd’s enthusiasm swelled again as the next participant emerged from the wings. The high-energy number – full of generous, sweeping movements – was augmented by the dancer’s vibrant, red velvet top. The dancer’s skirt was made up of silk panels, alternating purple flowers on a black background with blue petals set against red. Her bare feet were rimmed with vermillion powder. She had large red circles on the tops of her feet and backs of her hands.
Sofia whispered that the markings were for luck. If she was a married woman, she would also put a streak of red powder on her hair part.
For another traditional act, the audience sang along and clapped, showing their preference for the songs and dances most firmly rooted in their memories. “Our heart wants to fly like a bird,” Sofia translated as she smiled. Despite the irrepressibly upbeat atmosphere, there are a few troubled faces.
Amarita Suwal, the mother of a 14-month-old son, remarked, “We will have to go soon,” referring to the imminent deportation of some 400 children, along with their parents, undocumented migrant workers. Suwal lives here with her husband and their Israeli-born child, Amiram. “I gave him a Hebrew name,” she said.
A registered nurse and college graduate, Suwal arrived in Israel five years ago to work as a caregiver. In English peppered with Hebrew, she explained that she lost her legal status –and her job – after she had her son. One of the Nepali community’s few mothers with children in Israel, Suwal said, “I feel so lucky that I gave birth to him, that’s the most important to us.”
While Suwal and her husband would like to stay in Israel for their son’s sake, Suwal seemed a bit homesick as she spoke to Metro.
“We stay in Tel Aviv, all the time we’re with Israeli people,” Suwal said. She gestured toward the stage. “This is Nepali taste. This is the typical Nepali dance, typical Nepali culture. We feel like we are at home.”