This week in PALESTINE – Artist of the month

Sharaf: The Flying Dancer from Ramallah

Anyone who attends a performance by El-Funoun cannot miss his outstanding stage presence – and not only because of his revealing eyes, distinguished height, olive complexion, and charming smile. Above everything else, Sharaf DarZaid captivates audiences with his exceptional ability to dance as though he were playing the music with his entire body … and soul; it’s as if the music has possessed him or, rather, as if he has possessed it – with skill, with distinctive talent, with passion.

Sharaf was named after Sharaf at-Tibi, the first student martyr at Birzeit University. He grew up in a warm, caring family that cherishes Arab-Palestinian folk dance and music. During the 1948 Nakba, Sharaf DarZaid’s family was uprooted from Beit Nabala, a village near Lydda, which was completely bulldozed by Israel in 1952 to prevent refugees from returning and reclaiming their lands. In a twist of fate, the ruins of Beit Nabala later buzzed with airplanes flying from Israel’s main airport, which occupied part of its land, while one of the village sons, Sharaf, learned to fly in other ways – dancing!

Cut off from their roots, the DarZaids settled in Ramallah and had to start over. Ironically, their crushing sense of loss as refugees fuelled their sense of identity and triggered in them an inextinguishable desire for self-realization and assertion of their humanity. This particularly stimulating environment nurtured Sharaf’s initial reverence for dance. Through dance, he narrated his innermost dreams; he counselled his tensions and fears; and he expressed his resistance to oppression, whether political or social.
Before becoming a dancer, Sharaf felt a burning urge to participate in protest demonstrations against the occupation, like many Palestinian kids his age growing up under colonial rule. Only thus did he feel empowered … and free. Free to make his own decisions. Free to shout his guts out. Free to stand up to an overwhelmingly frightful foe. Free to prove to himself – and to his peers – that he would no longer accept the role of powerless victim.

Eventually, Sharaf’s gravely concerned father convinced him to join his school’s dabke (traditional dance) group. Then talent and fate intervened. During the group’s first full performance, 15-year-old Sharaf displayed all his exhilaration, winning wide recognition as a dazzling performer, despite his then relatively diminutive figure. His father later told me that what touched him the most was “how Sharaf kept his head up all the time.” After consulting with my colleagues, I invited Sharaf to become a member of El-Funoun, enticing him by saying, “We shall waive the required audition for you to join!”

In El-Funoun’s youth group, Bara’em, Sharaf’s skills were sharpened, and his talent matured. Even his size underwent a dramatic change: he became a tall and handsome young man. Ultimately, Sharaf managed to reconcile his patriotic motives and unrelenting youthful bravado with what he perceived as a new, equally needed form of resistance: dance. At age 19, Sharaf is now not only one of the main dancers of El-Funoun, but also a student of finance at Birzeit University. In addition, he teaches dabke to youth in Saffa – a village near Ramallah – as part of a programme organized by the Popular Art Centre and El-Funoun.

Stirred by Sharaf’s budding talent, I decided to choreograph a dance based on his biography and that of his namesake. I called it “Sharaf,” which means honour in Arabic. When he first performed the piece before a packed theatre in Ramallah last December, many in the audience were mesmerized by his agility, his exceptional sense of musicality and rhythm, and the complex mix of emotions that he seamlessly exuded: bereavement, exuberance, separation, love, phobia, defiance, vulnerability, hope, and, of course, honour. “Breathtaking” was a common response to this demanding seven-minute performance.

Of all the touching moments in “Sharaf,” nothing strikes me as much as when Sharaf jumps so high that it’s as if he’s flying, soaring above all the wounds, the phobias, the injustices, and the fetters, into the promising horizon.

By Omar Barghouti

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