Published in Gulf Times on August 14, 2002

From heart to heart

Inspired by the audience's response to the Palestinian dancers performing for the Qatar Summer Wonders festival, LENA LIEW goes backstage to learn why they are such a hit.

A lull in the shababah's melody belies the nearing of the song's climax. But the crowd knows. Their singing and rhythmic clapping rise to a crescendo; their deafening cheers build up into frenzied shouting and wolf whistles.

Suddenly, the half-a-dozen dancers break into rapid stamping with fancy, effortlessly synchronised footwork. The makeshift stage shudders. The charismatic troupe leader interacts with the packed audience as he sings; and they respond with an invisible impassioned embrace.

A boy is perched on his father's shoulders. In his hand is an adult-sized Palestinian flag, which he waves back and forth in the air seemingly without effort.

The dancers dancing to the Palestinian beat

Someone jabs me from behind. I turn to find youths spontaneously holding each other by the elbows or shoulders, with arms outstretched as they gradually form a crescent-shaped line. Their feet stamp and thump to the beat of the durbhakegh, some more confidently than others. Minutes later, the line has grown.

The audience is mostly made up of families - tiny tots, boys and girls, young men and women, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties, grandfathers and grandmothers.

Despite not understanding a word of Arabic, I find myself overwhelmed by their fervour.

I can't help but marvel at the rock concert-like atmosphere of this traditional folk dance performance in one corner of a shopping mall.

"Support for the Palestinian cause is very strong in Qatar. And it's not just from the Palestinians residing here. Among our most ardent fans are Qataris, Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese ... other Arabs," troupe leader Mahmud Abu Ghareeb tells me, through an interpreter, as he takes a breather in between sets.

"In fact, we are hardly having the meals provided at our hotel ... because we keep getting invited by the local Arab families!" he adds with a shy grin.

The crowd apparently starts gathering from 5.30pm even though showtime begins only at 7.30pm. Those who are determined to have VVIP seats at the very edge of the stage turn up as early as 3.30pm. And mind you they bring their own chairs from home, or drag over benches from other locations in the City Center!

So strong has public demand been, that the organisers of the Qatar Summer Wonders festival decided to allocate a particular stage exclusively to the Palestinians.

At least half the crowd stay on till the last performance finishes around 10.30pm. Then the dancers are mobbed by "groupies" as they descend from the stage after their final curtain call. Despite the beads of sweat on their faces, they look barely worn out. In fact, they seem to be glowing with unspent vigour.

"No, we don't feel tired" even after having only three very short breaks in between three hours of singing and dancing, Mahmud says. "The more we dance the more energetic we feel; because the audience gives us energy, through their spirited support.

"We are performing from our hearts and souls; the audience knows and appreciates that," he adds.

"We are here for a cause, not for fun. We are here to showcase the suffering of our people.

"Unlike the other delegates, we have come not only to present our culture but to reclaim our heritage, which has been hijacked from us.

"We hope that by promoting Palestinian dabka, young Palestinians will learn more about their heritage, and other people will know what is truly Palestinian tradition and culture and sympathise with our cause."

The hardship that Mahmud and his troupe faced in getting here on time for the festival undoubtedly contributed to the "fire" in their hearts.

"It was a very difficult journey we undertook to get to Doha, because of the Israeli blockades and curfews. It took us four days just to get to Amman, when before it was only three hours' drive away from Jenin.

"Some of us had to detour through the mountains, some of us had to be 'smuggled' out to Amman. Only from Amman did we board a flight for Qatar.

"Naturally, we are all the more inspired for the hardship we have had to go through," Mahmud explains.

There are 23 members in Mahmud's all-male troupe, and their ages range between 18 and 30 years.

Prior to their stint in Qatar, they were shuttling back and forth between their homes in the West Bank town of Jenin, and work in Jordan.

This is the first time they are performing beyond the borders of Jordan. "We are very grateful to His Highness the Emir and to the government of Qatar for inviting us to take part in this festival," Mahmud adds perfunctorily.

Needless to say, the main theme of their songs and dances revolves around the Palestinian cause, along with a yearning for peace and family members, friends and homes lost.

No doubt, a common understanding and shared solidarity among the audience is the key reason for the Palestinian troupe's popularity.

None of the other shows by performers from other countries elicited such adulation from the audience.

Among the 'regulars' who turn up almost everyday is a 17-year-old Qatar-born Palestinian girl who wanted to be identified only as AR.

I ask if she and her family bring chairs from home.

"No, we stand. Three hours standing is no problem!

"It's everything about them that I find inspiring - the songs, the dancing, the dancers.

"It's a very nice, special feeling. Maybe because for the first time, I am seeing 'live' what my family elders have been telling me about all this time.

AR says her grandmother taught her the lyrics to the songs, so she knew some before she started coming to watch the Palestinian performers.

"But my seven-year-old little brother didn't know any of the words before; now he is singing these songs and dancing at home all day!"

Likewise for Sara Al Abidle, a 20-year-old Qatari kindergarten teacher who turns up nearly everyday for the Palestinian performers showtime.

"I have seen the performances from the other countries. This is without a doubt the best," she declared.

Adds AR: "Everytime I come, I plan to go and see the other performers. But always I find myself stuck here until closing time!"