A clip circulating on YouTube begins with two sets of feet stepping on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, defaced with a blood-red X and tossed on the ground. It soon becomes apparent that “dirty Asad” lies inside a ring of protesters, who circle the head shot stomping rhythmically — on the downbeat, in repeated or alternating steps that rock backward and forward, left and right — to a rollicking tune in the background. The video is captioned, “The Sweetest and Finest of Syrian Dabka.” [1]

Dabka is a highly stylized dance practiced widely in Syria, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Its origins remain undocumented, but many associate the circular line dance with pre-Islamic village life. According to myth, villagers would prepare for weddings by fashioning mud bricks for the roofs of the new households. Dozens of agile feet, tramping and grinding the watery soil into thick mud, made the job easy, especially when accompanied by improvised sung poetry, a mijwiz reed instrument and a large tabl drum.

The mass demonstrations of 2011-2012 against the dirty work of Asad have similarly been energized by the rhythms of popular song and dance. With the sights and sounds of dabka, protesters in Syria appeal to public sentiment in ways that evoke the anti-war ballads of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan or, closer to home, the recasting of classic protest songs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Outspoken, exuberant and youthful, the dancers subvert the staid, deeply ideological official culture that has afflicted Syria for decades. Their collective movement helps to sustain resistance to the state and to mourn the victims of its violence.

Nationalist Dabka

Dabka has long been tied to the political visions of the Syrian state. Nationalist politicians sought to appropriate the collective movement of the people, literal and figurative, as part of their efforts to construct a new order that sublimated religious and class differences. In an early example, the parliamentarian Akram al-Hourani described in a private letter how people arrived from every rural province and — “unable to contain their joy” — danced the familiar foot-stomp in the squares of Damascus upon the union of Syria with Egypt in the United Arab Republic on February 1, 1958. Al-Hourani recorded the slogan chanted by the masses: “We want Arab unity — Muslims and Christians — and social justice.” [2] He emphasized the dancer’s rural origins in order to harness the village dance to visions of agrarian land reform and mobilization. The dabka circle embodied pan-Arab unity and stood in for a sense of homeland shared among people from villages scattered across greater Syria.

The union with Egypt soon dissolved, but intellectual elites adapted the state’s early visions of culture to the narrower nationalist projects of the 1960s. State-sponsored cultural initiatives grew from study of the countryside. For example, Najat Qassab Hasan, a prominent lawyer and arts critic, conducted an ethnographic survey of folk dance in rural Syria before establishing the first state dance ensemble, Omaya, in 1958. One of the first books on folk dance, al-Raqs al-Sha‘bi, was published by the music scholar ‘Adnan Manini in 1961. This manual identified two main genres — dabka, the secular dance of villagers, and samah, a Sufi-derived idiom of sacred movement. Omaya and similar initiatives did not simply appropriate these local performance traditions; they developed them into national forms of identity that were modeled on Soviet-style socialist realism and shaped by historical processes of secularization and urbanization. The national subject was to be rooted in the rustic past, but transcendent of it, modern and not traditional, secular and not Islamic. It was an aesthetic tailor-made for the Baathists who first came to power in 1963.

The photograph depicts a young woman dancing solo in a gown of traditional weave. Behind her are members of the folk dance troupe Omaya. Here, the young female body becomes Syria on stage. She is exuberant in ways that belie the physical exertion of performance. She embodies the state’s promises to modernize agricultural production while preserving Syrian ways of life. As folklorist Ziyad ‘Ajjan writes, “Popular traditions depict multiple facets of society. They are a source of popular consciousness that is preserved through collective memory.” [3] By using the female body to represent performance traditions, the state fosters a sense of continuity between past and present and engenders national unity through projections of a Syrian homeland.

Today’s professional folk dancers similarly evoke the village as a site of cultural authenticity and popular consciousness. At a wedding 20 minutes outside of Damascus in 2008, guests danced the dabka through two evenings of merriment in the village square. One of the hosts was a professional dancer registered with the Syndicate for Syrian Artists, administered by the Ministry of Culture. Originally from Dir‘a, the southern town where the 2011 uprising began, he married a Palestinian woman from the Golan Heights who taught plastic arts at an elementary school in Jaramana, where the couple maintained their primary residence. His eldest son performed with another folk dance ensemble and another had taken up studies on the electronic keyboard. With four children and a second home in this village, comprised mainly of new construction projects, the dancer also kept a second job as a car mechanic. Despite their limited resources, his artistically inclined family maintained deep connections with their cultural heritage that reinforced a sense of cultural citizenship. Along with other professional members registered with the National Syndicate for Artists, they committed to “enhancing a moral conception of aesthetic value” [4] through their artistic endeavors.

The artistic director of a contemporary dance theater company was also committed to a Baathist aesthetic vision. Faced with hardships related to national economic decline, he turned toward commercial entertainment rather than what he considered artistic work. He lamented that audiences prefer splashy spectacles to traditional dance forms. Nevertheless, he tried to incorporate authenticity in his choreography by evoking the richness of Syrian cultural heritage: “Authenticity lies in the village, you know, like a wedding in Suwayda’ where the dabka steps are high. I am thinking of the female mutriba who sang in maqam Saba. She made me want to cry, she opened my heart so much. There, we have real emotion.” Sentimental ties to the soil and the homeland — la terre et la patrie — drive much of what it means to feel Syrian.

The Provincial Balance

The Baath Party has been particularly effective in developing a lexicon of symbols that posits national and regional attachments as mutually reinforcing. One of the most prevalent such symbols is the mosaic. The mosaic alloys cultural virtues of dabka, among other folkloric practices, to the Baathist political order by correlating stylistic traits with the different provinces of the modern Syrian state. The quick movements of dancers in cold, mountainous Hama, for instance, are contrasted with the steady, heavy patterns of motion in the desert climate of Dayr al-Zawr in choreographies staged by state-run folk dance ensembles or in educational programs disseminated by the Ministry of Culture. The mosaic creates an image of the nation as made up of distinct regions while erasing distinctions based on sect, class or religious affiliation.

Broadly speaking, the state’s cultural output operates within a nationalist ideological framework that seeks to address Syrian citizens “as social and moral agents rather than as mere consumers.” [5] Rather than producing commercial entertainment, nationalists are to deal with “serious” themes that confer a sense of belonging and foster a “national culture.” Many Syrians become educated on their national dance from the series “Pages from Heritage” on the state-run satellite television channel. One program installment entitled “Traditional Songs and Dances,” surveys the traditional performing arts and classifies each style by region. The final segment of this program provides a brief description of 12 types of dabka. These styles, the program narrators say, “naturally” emerge from specific climates that spawn distinctions of rhythm and movement. Although some types, such as dabka al-dal‘una (a cross-step line dance with a leg lift and foot-stomp on every third figure), are ubiquitous, each region’s style tends to retain a particular set of traits, reinforcing the state’s theme of diversity.

Regionalism and nationalism are linked to watchwords of state-sponsored cultural heritage such as “essence,” “authenticity” and “belonging.” These themes are taken up systematically at provincial seasonal festivals. Programs feature artists from a variety of disciplines, and often from other provinces, and range from traditional and contemporary art to commercial entertainment. In 2008, a festival organized by the city of Idlib presented artists from the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and Suwayda’ during its two-week run. Held in an open-air amphitheater in Basil Public Park near the city center, one evening’s program featured a “Mosaic of Popular Arts from the Province of Hama” that was attended by approximately 400 people. Included in the “mosaic” was a children’s folk dance ensemble from Hama, Firqat al-‘Asi, which presented a program entitled “The Wedding Season.” Like other productions of the Baathist state, this piece represented folk traditions as “a reflection of everyday life in local contexts that express the joys and sorrows of husbandry and manual labor.” [6] The young dancers staged a tale of springtime love between a girl and a boy in a rural village. In the final scene, they all erupted into dabka, including deep knee bends and full twists, as a euphoric celebration of community and the harmonizing effect of amorous relations.

Since 2000, shifts in funding have advanced contemporary forms of public culture that are slowly displacing socialist realist forms with world-class arts facilities and cultural programming. Cultural entrepreneurs increasingly pursue the monies on offer from international and regional foundations. Corporations, NGOs, embassies and the Syrian Ministry of Culture sponsor annual music festivals including “Jazz Lives in Syria,” “World Music Nights” and “Oriental Landscapes,” as well as thriving film and theater scenes. The contemporary vibe has come to dance as well, with the companies Sima, Tanween and Ramad (now defunct) pushing artistic boundaries. Local breakdancing and capoeira groups have brought global street style onto stages and to urban street festivals.

Artists recognize that this cultural ferment is largely limited to the major cities. In 2008, Ramad traveled to the northeast provinces to present a provocative work. Artistic director Noura Murad of the Leish Troupe took her 2009 production “Congratulations!” to four sites around the country in order to engage with new audiences. She tackled issues of gender and power in the institution of marriage and the general double standard facing women in Syrian society. A reviewer commented that Murad’s work plays on ideas of authenticity: “The most important [Oriental custom of the marriage ritual] is the circle of dabka. The circle embodies a truism in which the beginning is the end; likewise, if the concept of marriage itself turns in a circle, we intellectuals are transported back to old, tradition-bound ways of thinking through this institution.” [7] What these projects suggest is that artists and audiences are searching for ways to represent traditional Syrian culture while challenging social and cultural norms. Yet these efforts are circumscribed by a repressive state that polices the cultural mediation of all types of ideas.

From Weddings to Funerals

The Syrian uprising of 2011-2012 started in Dir‘a, a rural town in the Hawran plain that is typical of underserved regions, and then spread to all areas of the country. It cuts across class lines, having gained support from many urban professionals and part of the business establishment. Though many Syrians perceive the regime to have favored the ‘Alawi community, and sectarian incidents have multiplied, the revolt continues to include people of all communal origins. Regime claims that the state protects its citizens from sectarianism and tribalism ring hollow in light of the brutal manipulations of state security. State-run media, of course, absolve the regime of accountability by pinning blame for violent incidents on “terrorists” or foreign interference. This narrative, however, is continuously undermined by flash protests in the capital, processionals in provincial towns and student demonstrations at Aleppo University, among other forms of resistance. Using social media and more old-fashioned means, including song and dance, solidarity networks have stood firm against the polarization strategy of the regime and its sympathizers.

Drawing on traditions of improvised sung poetry, such as mawwal and dal‘una, demonstrators chant defiantly in local dialects. In several cities, the tune of the well-known folk song “Damascus of the Jasmine” has been adapted to the dal‘una song form, a genre typified by upbeat rhythms in duple meter and rolling melodies in maqam Bayati: “‘Ala dal‘una / When we want freedom / They kill us.” [8] Protesters in Idlib evoked triumph with the phrase, “Freedom happened at our gates,” sung to another famous composition and accompanied by a popular local dance. In the al-Khalidiyya district of Homs, the “youngest singer of the revolution,” a boy under the age of six, recited poetry for over five minutes in a YouTube performance that included the slogan “Get out, Bashar!” (yalla irhal ya Bashar) made legendary by singer Ibrahim Qashoush. [9] Qashoush, from Hama, was found murdered, presumably by security forces, in July 2011. His larynx had been cut out.

Protest songs appeal not only to those familiar with Syrian folk songs but also to other Arab resistance movements. The opposition in Dir‘a adapted a Palestinian song, modifying the lyrics as follows: “Revolutionary, revolutionary, revolutionary / Bashar will step down / How dare he challenge us.” This widely known song was also heard among the rebels in Libya. Traditional Iraqi styles of mawwal, improvised sung poetry characterized by wit and wordplay, are especially popular in the city of Damir in the Douma region of greater Damascus: “In your cry we do not find the rule of Asad but we do find freedom.”

On Fridays across the country, demonstrations occasionally break out into what might be called radical dabka. At 10 am on December 11, 2011, men and women in Aleppo chanted and rhythmically stomped their feet “in homage to Homs” for over half an hour. [10] Homs has suffered some of the worst of the army’s artillery bombardments; Aleppo, along with Damascus, is usually portrayed as quiescent or even in the regime’s corner. In Khalidiyya and Qusayr, people have formed lines and grasped each other by the shoulders while jumping and singing in response to the musical calls of the protest leader. [11] Full dabka sessions have taken place in the province of Idlib, such as in Binnish in December 2011, when approximately 40 boys and men — bound by the shoulder in a circle — side-skipped to the beat of a live tabl drum and the percussive toot of a plastic horn. [12] Surrounding the circle were dozens of fellow protesters doing call-and-response chants and holding up anti-regime placards. A month earlier in Kafr Rouma, ten men staged a dabka set with live accompaniment by a singer, reed player and two drums (darbouka and tabl). The video is captioned, “The Holiday of Cursing Hafiz’s Soul,” in reference to Bashar al-Asad’s father, who ruled with an iron fist from 1971 to 2000. [13] The ensemble costumed themselves in robes dyed green, black and white, the colors of the pre-Baath Syrian flag, making an appeal for a kind of Syrian unity unsullied by corruption and state terrorism. The awwal, or dance leader, tied a long green-black-and-white band around his head and burst into the center of the circle to perform deep knee bends. The corps dancers clasped hands tightly in an upright posture and repeated a typical six-step line pattern while spectators cheered from balconies and waved banners.

Today, the mass movement in Syria is increasingly disconnected from the armed insurgency, as social conditions worsen and the economy slowly collapses. Yet the effervescence of the Syrian revolt is akin to that of the consummate dabka dancer — one who appears to float above the incessant battery of the drum line while anchored by a foot stomping on the ground and the line of dancers who step in cadence. Radical dabka is first and foremost a claim staked upon a popular art form that was usurped by the state for ideological purposes. This Baathist emblem of rural and non-elite identities is now reclaimed by the resilient movements of anti-regime protesters in the countryside. In this vein, the creators of the online puppet show “Top Goon” have explained that their black humor is akin to “chanting, dancing and doing the traditional dabka. It is a form of sarcastic protest. How can this cruelty be countered otherwise?” [14]

Radical dabka is also a form of play and social interaction used to make meaning out of historical events. It demonstrates how Syrians have taken back the streets, as well as the cultural symbols of their national heritage. And, crucially, protesters are not performing dabka at festive occasions such as weddings and dance parties. Rather, they are performing dabka at the funerals of martyrs. The euphoria of collective movement emerges in the wake of trauma. In her last Facebook status update before being detained on April 8, a young dissident drew upon the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The means we use to achieve our goals must be as pure as our goals.” To perform dignity amidst suffering is a radical means of both enacting and embodying protest. As an act of freedom, the dabka stomp leaves the imprint of the Syrian uprising.

Endnotes

[1] The clip can be seen at: http://youtu.be/t6Se-RrtMYE.
[2] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 201. The quote is taken from al-Quds al-‘Arabi, May 29-30, 1999. The paper serialized al-Hourani’s memoirs.
[3] Maha Shariqi, “Musical Heritage and Its Influence in Contemporary Music: In Dialogue with the Artist Ziyad ‘Ajjan.” al-Wahida, November 17, 1999. [Arabic] [4] Cécile Boëx, “The End of the State Monopoly Over Culture: Toward the Commodification of Cultural and Artistic Production,” Middle East Critique 20/2 (2011), p. 140.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ziyad ‘Ajjan, “Ataba, Mijana and Zalghuta: Sensitive to the Touch, Tender of Heart,” al-Wahida, February 26, 2004. [Arabic] [7] Inas Houli, “Cry of a Rebel in an Oppressed Society,” Esyria, July 31, 2010. [Arabic] [8] These and other chants are documented by Arjwan Suleiman, “Syrians Create Protest Songs from Their Traditional Heritage,” Elaph, January 11, 2012. [Arabic] [9] The boy’s performance is at: http://youtu.be/0n8OALVj248.
[10] The dance is recorded at: http://almokhtsar.com/node/27067.
[11] The Khalidiyya episode is at: http://youtu.be/OGccWk_KPIk; Qusayr is at: http://youtu.be/0a3noOFOf-0.
[12] This session appears online at: http://youtu.be/d3kkzuOe-zw.
[13] The clip is online at: http://youtu.be/LkD-fGl5Az4.
[14] The National (Abu Dhabi), February 18, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Shayna Silverstein "Syria’s Radical Dabka," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).
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