Traditional Palestinian dance is called debka, a centuries-old spectacle of movement and joy that’s regularly performed at weddings. Rap music, by contrast, isn’t traditional in Palestinian culture. And rap music performed by teenage girls? Very untraditional. Especially in public.
Which is why the Shoruq Debka Troupe’s show on March 19 in Oakland -- attended by hundreds of people inside Oakland Technical High School’s theater on a Sunday afternoon -- was a cultural bellwether of the changing arts scene in Palestine.
Debka dancing, naturally, was on the bill. But it was the original rap songs of 15-year-old Dalya Ramadan and other female troupe members from the Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, that reflected a generational change -- a change that Ramadan says is challenging cultural stereotypes of Palestinian girls, and giving them a new outlet to voice their feelings about their lives as young women, the economic disparity they encounter, and Israeli military impositions on Palestinian land.
In the song "Freedom" from the group’s release called The Journey, Ramadan, Nadeen Odeh, and other Shoruq members channel the kind of lyrical depths that many singers -- including rappers, but also folk singers and rock ’n’ roll sages -- have mined throughout music’s evolution as popular entertainment:
“All I need in this life is to be free / Free from this cage, but I need a key / A key for a life, yeah, waiting for me”
Speaking with KQED Arts an hour before taking the Oakland stage, Dalya Ramadan rapped part of a song about feminism as school employees listened from a nearby room. Ramadan was completely at ease in front of strangers, punctuating the air with Arabic words that another troupe member, 16-year-old Dina Alayasa, translated for KQED and those within earshot.
“My existence doesn’t hurt you, I’ll help you achieve your goals / To work, and to live, and to get your message out there / To know the meaning of your life / I’m the healing to your hurt, I'm the beautiful world.”
“I use rap as a way of expression,” said Ramadan. “I take what’s inside of me and put it in those words. I talk about problems and issues I face -- whatever it is, bad or good. I try to send a message to the world through this.”
To open the 90-minute performance that followed, the Shoruq Debka Troupe did a debka piece that spotlighted the Palestinian diaspora in the wake of Israel’s 1948 founding. The group also danced a performance about the protests at Dheisheh during the first intifada, when the Israeli military almost entirely fenced in the camp. Then came Shoruq’s rap performances, where the singers wore casual clothing -- not the traditional debka dress. From their seats, the audience shouted encouragement to the girls, and some parents let their small kids dance in front of the stage, chasing them as needed in a timeless familial ritual that helped give the performance an even more memorable atmosphere.
Mohammad Azmi, who spearheaded The Journey's release and has served as a rapping coach of sorts for the troupe, passed on his own skills, which he first learned in 2004. Now 25, Azmi is part of the rap group Palestine Street. He’s also a volunteer with Shoruq (“sunrise” in Arabic), the five-year-old nonprofit organization in Dheisheh that gives legal help to residents, and provides a cultural hub for teenagers and others.
About 13,000 people live in Dheisheh, which sprang up in 1949 and was supposed to be temporary -- like other Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. Three generations later, “temporary” has given way to something very different, with severe travel restrictions, checkpoints, and regular raids that Ramadan says have turned Dheisheh into “a prison.”
Rapping, Azmi tells KQED Arts in a Skype interview from Palestine, is a way to use art as a creative outlet, and one way to steer Palestinian youth away from ideas of violence. Azmi first began teaching Palestinian girls to rap in 2009; the first U.S. tour took place in 2015.
When Azmi himself began rapping as a pre-teen, he kept it “secret” for two years, out of fear he would offend other Palestinians. Many Palestianans had misguided impressions of rap, he says.
“Hip-hop is completely different from Palestinian culture and Palestinian music,” says Azmi, who was born and raised in the Dheisheh camp and lives there now. “Using this kind of art was a little bit risky for us as children. People said to us, ‘What are you doing?’ There’s a stereotype about hip-hop culture and hip-hop art – that it’s ‘bling-bling,’ and abuses women, and the ‘gangsta’ thing. So people thought that if you’re doing hip-hop you’re doing this. But when we showed them our lyrics, where we talk about issues, there was a transformation.”
Teaching Palestinian girls to rap took another level of acceptance -- and a few more years -- but when it happened, Azmi says, “The girls were better than the boys on stage.”
Oakland's performance was one of 10 stops that the Shoruq Debka Troupe is making around the United States, in part thanks to a sponsorship from the Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance. The organization’s program manager for cross-cultural programs, Ziad Abbas -- also from the Dheisheh camp -- joked on Sunday about his gray hair, as he spoke during a break between dances. “I knew some of these kids,” he told the audience, “when they were babies!”
The 18 Shoruq dancers on tour are all between 12 and 16 years old. When their Sunday performance was over, and they stood on stage before the crowd, three of the young female dancers flashed the peace sign with their fingers. At that moment on Sunday, the theater’s background lighting -- which had changed throughout the performance -- was lit in orange and red. Yes, it was the color of a sunrise. And, yes, it seemed like a reference to Shoruq’s name, and to the hope that these dancers are trying to convey at a time when there is so little of it in the Middle East.
Those who were there in Oakland won’t soon forget that color, nor the dancers, nor the rap music. Even if these performances don’t change policies, they’re raising greater awareness of Palestinian art forms and Palestinian lives. And Azmi says there’s a loose connection between Shoruq’s tour and the White House ascension of Donald Trump, whose presidency is altering the formulations for peace in the Middle East. Art, Azmi says, can be a way out of isolation and anguish.
“We became more afraid when Trump won because of his hate-speech toward everyone,” Azmi says, adding: “You can achieve by art. You can raise awareness by art. You can build new generations by art. You can protect new generations by art. Art can lead you to a way of loving everyone. Not like hate. Hate will make you tired -- believe me.”