Dancing the debka, with passion

Jaffa resident Ala Abudayeh believes that the revival of a traditional Arab folk dance will empower his city's residents and imbue them with pride in their culture

Ala Abudayeh 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Ala Abudayeh 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
At first glance, the weekly dance class Ala Abudayeh coordinates for residents of Jaffa looks like any similar gathering one might find in Tel Aviv, and is even reminiscent of an Israeli folk-dancing session.
However, with a Palestinian flag proudly flying in the makeshift dance studio inside the community center in the city’s Ajami neighborhood, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Israeli dance meeting.
Abudayeh, 21, is on a mission to reintroduce the “debka,” a traditional Arab folk dance that was commonplace throughout the city in the first half of the 20th century. Even though he did not grow up familiar with the dance, Abudayeh truly believes that if he can spread the knowledge and create excitement among current and future generations, he will be one step closer toward empowering Jaffa’s residents, who all too often, in his opinion, feel rejected and sidelined.
Jaffa’s Arab residents have complained over the last 60 or so years that compared to their younger, bigger neighbor, Tel Aviv, their city suffers from a poor education system, high crime rates and a lack of cultural activity.
Among a number of initiatives introduced by both outside organizations and the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Abudayeh is looking to change Jaffa’s image and bring back a sense of pride – through the medium of dance.
The debka is a group dance which involves people interlocking their hands to form a circle.
Headed by an experienced leader, the line of dancers stamp their feet in rhythmic fashion (debka means “stamping of feet” in Arabic) and sing along to the music, which often becomes upbeat. The dance involves working together and moving in unison, representing community and teamwork.
There are more than 10 main styles of debka.
While most of them are about love, others are dedicated to cities, and to culture. Most of the songs share the same rhythm, which easily allows dancers to perform the kicks and hand movements interchangeably.
Abudayeh explains that these classes represent much more than just a place to learn how to dance: They represent a people proud of their culture, who don’t want to forget who they are; a people unwilling to be sidelined from society.
Before 1948, he says, the debka was one of the symbols characterizing the people of the city.
“You would see it danced at festivals, weddings and any other happy occasion.
“After 1948, [the dance] was pretty much erased from the city and became more a symbol of the struggle. People these days don’t really know what it is, and in recent generations people have not been exposed to it all.”
A youth movement leader for youngsters in the area, Abudayeh does not see any reason why this, or any form of cultural identity, should not be brought back to the city he loves.
”In Arabic, there is a saying: ‘A tribe with no customs is a tribe with no culture,’” he declares.
Abudayeh explains that in other towns and cities with large Arab populations such as Haifa and Nazareth, the Arab residents are to this day familiar with the music and moves of the dance, with the current generation understanding its cultural significance.
“In places such as Haifa and Nazareth, you see people dancing the dekba at weddings and cultural events all the time, they just know how to do it. It’s standard for fathers to teach their children; in these places, there is no need for special classes.”
However, the story in Jaffa is somewhat different.
“The feeling of living in a ghetto and all the other issues connected with the events of 1948 really influenced the place, not just in terms of culture but also in terms of education,” Abudayeh says. “Jaffa used to be famous for its culture, but then people just stopped caring.
The time has come to reintroduce our culture.”
Education is a significant part of the struggle.
Abudayeh hopes that in generations to come, the groups he has taught will appear at events throughout the city, sharing the message of Arab unity and tradition. The roots of the dance do not have any religious influence, with Christians and Muslims sharing the experience together. The main theme is a shared Arab culture.
Having started the dance classes just over four months ago, Abudayeh is very proud of how the trend has grown in such a small space of time, and how much it has influenced local residents, old and young. Two different classes are taught each week, with young children learning in the early evening and adults taking over into the later hours.
When the classes started, only 10 young people and 10 adults attended; now there are more than 60 people in total who enjoy the experience.
“People like the songs and it is a good way for them to meet new people they wouldn’t usually meet,” says Abudayeh. “Even people from outside of Jaffa come to join in the fun.”
He is also proud of how the influence of the classes has spread throughout the city. There is now a teacher in every nearly every Arab school teaching the children how to dance the debka.
One man who shares in Abudayeh’s pride is choreographer and dance instructor Gamal Habiballah, who teaches folk dances at the weekly meetings. A colorful character who originally hails from a village near Nazareth, Habiballah believes just as strongly in the debka and says he will stop at nothing until every cultural and educational event in the city is filled with people dancing the folk dances he holds so dear.
He also is on a mission to educate the people of Jaffa about a culture he feels it is important to keep alive.
“The land is dry; there is no folk dancing here. I came here to create a dance group for Palestinian folk dancing, to reintroduce [debka] to the people,” he explains.
MANY OF the dance’s movements stem from traditional labor methods and sources of income. For example, one movement represents people harvesting in the field.
Habiballah says that there is one dance step, called “karadiya,” that he thought was a Turkish word; but then he was surprised to find out that it was actually a way of saying “harvest” in Arabic.
The folk dance is also connected to nature, and to the weather. The songs which originate in Beersheba are different from those in Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, which are by the sea.
The special clothes worn during celebratory performances are also connected to where the people are from.
In Jaffa, for example, the clothing style is connected to the sea and ships. In Beersheba, they wear patterns which represent the palm tree; and in Nazareth, the style represents olive trees and mountains.
Habiballah has been a professional debka instructor for the past 25 years, and has led dance groups all around the country, but after moving to Jaffa six years ago, his main aim has been to return the city to its former glory.
“Jaffa has been here for thousands of years, [while] Tel Aviv hasn’t even been around for 100 years; its a lie that Tel Aviv is more important,” he says passionately.
“My aim is to tell the Jewish world, the intelligent Jewish people, about the story of Jaffa; the sea, the culture, the buildings and so on.”
Nostalgically, he says that Jaffa’s story is one of laughter and tears at the same time. His passion for the cause can be seen in every move of his body, as he almost dances when he talks.
Although the municipality, and Tel Aviv residents too, are proud to group Tel Aviv and Jaffa together as almost the same city, Habiballah most certainly does not advocate this. Even though he did not grow up in Jaffa, he says it is important for him to show, through dance, how special Jaffa really is.
”Give me money and I will show you that there are hundreds of other Tel Avivs in the world, [but] find me another Jaffa.
There really is only one Jaffa.”
Habiballah’s believes that through the debka, he can spread the message of coexistence, love and equality.
“I am here to fight against humiliation and racism, to fight against extremism on both sides,” he says, adding that he would be willing to take one of his dance groups and appear in the middle of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba in an attempt to show them that he is an Israeli citizen.
”I am a Palestinian, but I am still a citizen. I fight for my rights, and I am a person just like anyone else, who respects all religions.”
By teaching the next generation how to dance the debka, Habiballah aims to prove that his culture has meaning and significance in Israel.
“I want to prove to the world that I am alive, I exist and I have the right to be here in my land, my village or my city. I am Palestinian; that’s my identity.”