Firm footing

Traveling El-Funoun ensemble has flourished in its promotionof Palestinian culture through traditional and contemporary dance

By Janice Steinberg
November 13, 2006

For today's geo-quiz, can you name a city in the Eastern Hemisphere that has cosmopolitan art galleries, bustling cafes and a lively dance scene?

In the production "Haifa, Beirut, and Beyond," El-Funoun recounts recent Palestinian history interms of the fate of one village.

The city's El-Funoun dance troupe won praise from The New York Times for the dancers' “sweet and determined fearlessness” when they performed at Lincoln Center last year.

Need more clues? El-Funoun is Arabic for “the arts.” The company's full name is El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe. And it's based in ... Ramallah.

Ramallah, less than 10 miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, entered many Americans' consciousness as a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The municipality of 290,000 is where the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained confined to his compound for four months in 2002, and it continues to be the site of clashes.

All of that makes Ramallah sound like a war zone. Yet, Ramallah is also a thriving arts center – “It's a place of mass contradictions,” said Bassemah Darwish, one of the local Palestinian-American organizers bringing El-Funoun to the East County Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.

A contradictory mix of art and politics also characterizes El-Funoun. “We don't want to be placed in a political box,” said Omar Barghouti, the company's trainer. “It's really important for us to be judged on our own merits as dance artists.” As Barghouti described it, however, even the founding of El-Funoun in 1979 was a political act.

“(Former Israeli Prime Minister) Golda Meir boasted that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people,” said Barghouti. “We did not exist in the eyes of the colonizers.” Meir's 1969 statement, published in The Sunday Times of London and The Washington Post, was, “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?” Although Meir later said she'd been misquoted, the comment was seen as reflecting an attitude held by much of the world. And the handful of artists who founded El-Funoun set out to prove that they indeed had a national identity, giving even their most lighthearted dances a political purpose.

True to the Palestinian tradition of using dance for celebration, the troupe's earliest productions evoked weddings and harvests. The choreography included folkloric forms such as the dabkeh, a line dance found throughout the Middle East; baladi, which became known to Europeans as belly dance; and sahji, a line dance with a poetic call-and-response.

“At that stage, (El-Funoun was) dancing our identity, reviving our roots,” said Barghouti, whose brother, Nasser, is one of the San Diego event organizers.

Over time, El-Funoun incorporated a wider range of the forms its artists encountered in the global cultural marketplace.

Barghouti, for instance, spent 11 years in New York, earning a bachelor of arts and master of arts in engineering at Columbia University, and performing with a contemporary Palestinian dance group, before he moved to the West Bank and joined El-Funoun in 1994.

He's part of the company's current roster of 70 members, which includes dancers, musicians and administrators, virtually all of them volunteers. There's also a youth group, and members of the company teach in a variety of settings, including refugee camps.

The group's current U.S. tour – its fifth – brings 22 dancers to Boston, Chicago and Detroit, as well as San Diego. Although company musicians are not traveling with them, the recorded music includes songs by noted Lebanese artists Marcel Khalife and Ziad Rahabani.

El-Funoun's eclectic combination of folkloric and contemporary dance has resulted in a distinctive style. “Professional dancers from Europe who see us tell us they can't categorize us,” Barghouti said.

The more profound development that's taken place, he said, is in El-Funoun's themes – going beyond connecting with the artists' roots to asking, “What type of modern Palestinian identity do we want, as progressive, secular artists who wish to live in an open, free, democratic society?” That has meant challenging strictures within their own culture, especially involving the repression of women – although Palestinian society, with its mix of Muslim, Christian and secular Arabs, is relatively tolerant of women dancing. In contrast, the Iraqi national dance company no longer performs at home, fearing fundamentalist reprisals against women displaying their bodies onstage.

Inevitably, El-Funoun also addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and recent work has reflected the members' experiences of living under occupation and sometimes under siege.

Barghouti, who lives near Jerusalem with his wife and 10-and 13-year-old daughters, choreographed a dance in which “people are trapped in a circle and battered from all directions, while trying, as much as possible, to remain steadfast.” El-Funoun's program in San Diego will include a tribute to Beirut and Gaza, and a dance in response to the U.S. abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Politics have also affected the company members' lives outside of the dance studio. The troupe's founders experienced travel bans and random arrests, Barghouti said.

El-Funoun has joined with many Palestinian organizations in calling for a boycott of Israeli arts groups and academics unless they denounce the occupation, and they would insist on a similar condition before working with any Israeli dance company. “We see that as giving a deceptive image of harmony despite oppression,” he said.

The company has not denounced acts of violence on the Palestinian side. Barghouti cited the difference between Israeli government policies versus acts by independent Palestinian groups: “There is no symmetry between oppressor and oppressed,” he said.

“Having said that,” he added, “it is crucial to emphasize that El-Funoun strongly subscribes to and practices civil resistance.” However one feels about El-Funoun's position, they're advancing it peacefully, through words and dance. That's a significant reason that the organizers of Wednesday's concert – many of whom, like Darwish, have participated in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups – are bringing them here.

“Growing up in the U.S. (from the age of 3), I was bombarded with images of my people represented as terrorists,” said Darwish, who experienced Ramallah's arts scene firsthand when she took a leave from her El Cajon school last year and taught at Birzeit University.

“A lot of Palestinians grow up with this burden, this conflict of trying to be proud of who you are and afraid your people are hurting people,” Darwish said. “This dance company will bring the beauty of Palestinian culture and ancestry.”


  • Janice Steinberg is a San Diego dance critic.