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Dancing to the Inferno of Nakba

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By Fahad Faruqui
Writer and TV Presenter
hifa
Ila Haifa epitomizes the agony and struggle of the Palestinian people.
Ila Hafia play
"I felt the ecstasy of a person who had not emigrated. I felt as though I had not emigrated and that the time and geographical spans that had separated me from my family, friends, and people have been metaphorical, because I had always been there, for even when I had visited far-flung corners of the earth, my point of reference had always been there — my heart had been there," said Palestinian poet Mahmoud Derwish in an interview with a magazine when he visited Haifa in 1996.

Ghassan Kanafani's Ila Haifa (or Returning to Haifa) is a performance interpreted by Al Zaytouna London Dabke Group for a dance performance marking the Palestinian Nakba (or the day of catastrophe), when 418 Arab villages were reduced to ashes and some 800,000 people were displaced.

Based on the joyous folk-dance Dabke, the performance at Green Wood Theater in London consists of sequences showcasing the tragic tale of a couple who were torn away from their daughter who was left behind in Haifa.

Director Ahmed Mas`oud said that Dabke gives him the opportunity to gush his cultural identity and reconnect with his homeland in spirits. Another performer, `Alaa'-ud-Din Quran, who was raised in Ramallah, said, "Dabke is my Life." He said that the performance Ila Haifa makes a statement on such a sensitive occasion that the Palestinians have been able to preserve their dance, songs, and culture despite the occupation. Moreover, he is proud to pass his culture on to his daughters, Haleema and Salma. Haleema sat with the audience watching her father do Dabke.


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The Tragedy of Ila Haifa

The tragedy of Ila Haifa offers a narrative counter to the notion that the occupation has stripped away the identity of the Palestinian people. The novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby is a mind-boggling tale of a comic hero (Saeed) who is neither a pessimist nor an optimist. His character depicts the tug of war between fear and hope.

The performance Ila Haifa epitomizes the agony and struggle of the Palestinian people. What would it be like to open your eyes in an occupied territory, walk timidly through the checkpoints to go to school every morning, attain adulthood in a marred atmosphere of curfew and body searches, find love in the canvas of hatred, and have children who are likely to endure the same ordeal?  

There is no immediate answer to all these questions; however, the performance exhibits the cyclical life of the Palestinians in exile and how they long to return to their homeland.

The tragedy of Ila Haifa offers a narrative counter to the notion that the occupation has stripped away the identity of the Palestinian people. The novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby is a mind-boggling tale of a comic hero (Saeed) who is neither a pessimist nor an optimist. His character depicts the tug of war between fear and hope.   

Saeed is neither in control of his life nor capable of choosing a course of action for himself. In fact, he is someone who is being driven by his surroundings: the occupier. He is indeed a victim of his situation but a traitor who become an Israeli collaborator.

The protagonists of Ila Haifa are Sa`id and Safiyyah who were exiled to London. They returned to Haifa as soon as the borders opened to refugees.

Ila Haifa commenced with the performers clapping their way down the hall from both sides of the staircases and making their way to a modest stage with a pitch-black backdrop where the performers danced to the traditional melody of "Binzil" coupled with the Arabic lyrics of a love song.  

Everyone then sat on the floor to listen to Abu Mustafa, a local singer who played oud and sang for them, when Sa`id came looking for Safiyyah, who was with her friends. After their communion, the couple danced to "Simsim," (a song that hails the hospitality of the farmers) before they left the village for Haifa with their daughter Layla.  

Sa`id is originally from Haifa, and Safiyyah wholeheartedly embraces it as her home. People are dancing on the street, with an oud player singing a song, "Nizlin `Ala Al-Bustan" ("Off to the Orchard"), which is about the strong ties between the people of the city and those of the countryside.

The songs, the music, and the colorful costumes inspired by the stories of Alf Layla wa 

Dabke, the Palestinian folk-dance. 
Layla (or the Arabian Nights) represent the carefree life that the people of Palestine cherished until a day when the songs of love, hospitality, and strong relationships were replaced with gunfire and jackbooted soldiers marching into the city of Haifa. Suddenly, the joyous faces were filled with despair as the soldiers took their positions and overpowered the people of Haifa, who were subsequently expelled.

Safiyyah managed to find the bruised Sa`id in this turmoil, but they were ousted before they forced out of Haifa without their daughter. Safiyyah kept shouting "Layla! Layla!" a cry that was surmounted by the painful lyrics of "Min Sijin `Akkah" ("From the Prison of `Akkah):

My brother Yusuf, Take care of my mother And you my sister, Do not be so sad: I did not die in vain I died for home    Sa`id and Safiyyah were exiled to London. Sa`id went to work in his prim and proper suit holding an umbrella. Yet, despite the garb, he was unable to integrate with the homogenous society.

Back to The Occupied Palestine

As soon as he returned home from work, he took off his coat in rage and found comfort in wrapping around his Palestinian scarf, regaining his identity. Later that evening, Safiyyah and Sa`id reminisced about their home and the way they danced all night with their friends.

In the following scene, the couple returned to occupied Palestine. They both lined with other refugees to cross the checkpoint at the border. They felt disgraced at how the Israeli soldier treated the Palestinians and prevented some from entering their homeland, but they remained patient.

After crossing the border, Sa`id was enraged. He told Safiyyah:

"Finding true home means searching below the dust, but when we [Palestinians] look beneath the dust, we see more dust!"

In the city of Haifa, Safiyyah recognized her old home that has not changed at all. The Jewish woman who occupied their home opened the door. When Safiyyah and Sa`id inquired about their daughter, Layla, the Jewish woman told them that she is at work and allowed them in.

Layla returned home in a uniform none other than one of an Israeli soldier. She shunned Safiyyah, who was reaching out to embrace her. She told her that genes and DNA do not make one a Palestinian and that she was brought up to speak Hebrew, listen to Israeli songs, and accommodate only to Israeli dance and culture.

Listening to this, Sa`id and Safiyyah were reduced to tears, but they accepted that their daughter has died. She is nothing like them! After a series of discontentment, the couple rejoiced at the idea of returning to their homeland and danced like they did before the Nakba.

A performer explained the dissonant ending: "We are telling the people [audience] that no matter what happens to us, we will always be happy while we resist the occupation."

Related Links:
The Palestinian Nakba: The Resolve of Memory
Nakba Eyewitness
Nakba Day…"They Killed Anyone They Saw"

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