- Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine
Nicholas Rowe, a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, has written a highly readable and beautifully illustrated cultural history of dancing in Palestine. The bulk of Raising Dust is an exploration of the dynamics of negotiation and contestation of identity and on the best ways to embody nationalism through dancing. Rowe participated in this process through holding dance workshops and living on the West Bank for eight years. He also conducted extensive interviews with dancers, choreographers, scholars, and journalists, and he consulted much of the relevant literature on Palestinian folklore. Rowe's book is a valuable contribution to the ethnography of dancing in Arab societies, especially given the shortage of published work on the subject. Through nuanced analyses of adaptations made to local dances in response to international influences and political change, Rowe contributes to theoretical discussions in dance studies on memory and authenticity, the relative weighting of innovation and tradition in folk dancing, dancing as it relates to nationalism and identity, and dancing and the collectivization of trauma. In addition, Rowe provides information that counteracts Western stereotypes of gender and sectarianism in the region.
One of the book's major strengths is that it imbeds developments in dance in the history and politics of each period. We see how dancing responded to change over time, was appropriated to fulfill nationalist and regional ideals, and how changing understandings of authenticity and nation have been realized in dancing.
Rowe begins with what we know about dancing in historic Palestine, which now includes the modern state of Israel, parts of Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Discussion of inscriptions on clay tablets that depict dancers or refer to dancing (15-23) is followed by travelers' descriptions of local dances in the early nineteenth century (27-53). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this region was of particular interest to Biblical scholars and travelers who sought to find remnants of early Christian civilization. Their writings reflect an orientalizing disdain for local culture. Their presence, however, encouraged farmers, recently disenfranchised by the Ottoman Land Code of 1858, to earn money by performing their local dances for foreign travelers (35-42). This process required adding performative adaptations to events that were traditionally participatory.
During the British Mandate (1923-1948), several imported visions of modernity vied for the allegiance of the region's urban elite. Those who looked to the West could perform [End Page 97] ballroom dances in urban hotels (71-72). Simultaneously, many women of Jerusalem's elite performed belly dances at women-only parties (73). These were not indigenous but borrowed from Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Both Western dancing and belly dancing provoked a reaction from those who held imported politicized interpretations of Islam. They responded by condemning folk dancing, especially funeral dances (75) that featured women.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, with the consequent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, three separate movements appropriated Palestinian dances, especially the dabkeh (or dabka), to further their own nationalist aspirations and/or to assert their rights as Palestine's indigenous people. Israelis, not wanting to perform dances associated with their European oppressors and needing to legitimize their presence in Palestine, adapted local dances to develop a national "folklore" (81-91). Meanwhile, pan-Arab nationalists, like their counterparts in Europe, sought a basis for Arab identity in the traditional culture of rural peasants. As described by Salim Tamari (2004):
In a manner that replicated a similar tradition that emerged in central Europe (Poland, Hungary and Austria) and Scandinavia (especially Finland) half a century earlier, Jerusalem became the arena of an intellectual circle that regarded the peasantry as the soul of the nation—the salt of the earth, uncontaminated by radical intrusions of technology and a Westernising culture.(28)
Such attitudes were held by a largely Western-educated urban elite, who idealized rural heritage without necessarily sharing rural aesthetic sensibilities. Accordingly, Wadea Jarrar-Haddad and Marwan Jarar, Palestinian choreographer/teachers living...