Around a decade ago, Abdullah Damra – aka Vertex – was learning to memorize the Quran when an underground breakdance scene emerged in the refugee camps of Nablus city in the occupied West Bank.
“I come from a very religious family, so I wasn’t allowed to watch movies or even listen to music,” Abdullah, 22, told The Electronic Intifada. “So the first time I saw this dance, it was super new to me. I didn’t even think humans could move like that.”
Breakdancing took hold in the refugee camps of Nablus around the mid-2000s, and 13-year-old Abdullah “quickly became obsessed,” along with dozens of other teenagers who now form part of a dynamic breakdance scene in the northern West Bank city.
According to the dancers, breakdancing was first introduced into Nablus by Samir Samahneh – aka Abu Mosleh. Samir, now 35, and his brother Muhammad – aka Barges – were born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Askar refugee camp in Nablus in 2002.
Samir, who was a teenager at the time, lived in Jordan for a year, where he learned the dance style. When he returned to Askar camp, he began breakdancing and “popping” – a style where dancers jerk their muscles to the rhythm of the music – on the streets of the camp and at weddings.
Muhammad began emulating his brother.
“I was watching him, and I started to try some moves in front of the mirror,” the now 28-year-old told The Electronic Intifada.
Gradually their circle expanded.
Amir Sabra is also a resident of Askar and started breakdancing when he was 16.
“In the camp, it wasn’t like Abu Mosleh and Barges were giving classes,” the 24-year-old said. “It was more like all the people came together and we were all just learning from each other.”
The year 2006 saw the formation of what the dancers said was the West Bank’s first ever breakdance crew, Hawiya or ID card, a reference to the permit regime Israel operates to control the movement of Palestinians.
The group consisted of seven members, including Samir, Muhammad and Sabra.
Abdullah and his cousin Hamza Damra, who both live between Askar and Balata camps, began sneaking out of their conservative homes to practice their breakdancing skills in Askar.
“I was attracted to the dance because it was different. It was a completely different culture,” Hamza, 22, told The Electronic Intifada. He was 13 when he started.
Hamza said he found new freedom in a dance that allowed him to break free of many constraints, traditional and those imposed by Israel’s more than half-century military occupation of the West Bank.
“My family didn’t like what I was doing when they found out,” Hamza said, adding that in his family dancing is not considered acceptable for men.
“[But] breakdancing allowed me to be whatever I wanted to be and move however I wanted to. I started to feel something different. I felt happy. I found myself,” he said.
The dance spread throughout the city’s refugee camps and beyond, attracting curious teenagers from all over the area. Soon enough, dance groups began springing up around the city and competitions were organized.
Following the formation of Hawiya, other teenagers in Nablus also organized their own dance crews. Abdullah and Hamza established the Black Devils crew. Other groups included Outlaw, Street Mafia and Street Kings Forever.
Muhammad and Samir also began to give breakdance lessons to children in villages in and around Nablus.
“I wanted to tell people how you can tell your story through this kind of music, and through bodies and feelings,” Muhammad explained.
“We were teaching the kids that each one has a story to tell,” he added. “They don’t have to fight or hold a gun or throw stones. They can resist this situation through movement.”
Unknown to the young breakdancers in Nablus, a similar scene emerged in the Gaza Strip at around the same time.
Ahmed Alghariz – aka Shark – told The Electronic Intifada that his brother, Muhammad – aka Funk – was the first breakdancer in Gaza and introduced the dance style to children and youth around their home in Nuseirat refugee camp.
Ahmed, who was 15 at the time, and Muhammad established what is said to be Palestine’s first breakdance group, Camps Breakerz in 2004, with about 10 dancers.
In 2009, the group participated in a project with Save the Children where it used breakdancing as psychological treatment following Operation Cast Lead – the Israeli military offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 that killed at least 1,383 Palestinians, including 333 children, according to the UN.
Ahmed, now 29, said the experience made the dancers realize the power of dance as a tool to overcome trauma, and decided to send each member to a different region in the Gaza Strip with the goal of spreading the dance and to promote hip-hop culture in Palestine.
Putting Palestine on the map
It was not until 2011 when the dancers participated in a project in Amman, Jordan, with counterparts from around the world that the breakdance scenes in Nablus and Gaza finally discovered each other.
Owing to Israel’s more than decade-long blockade on the Gaza Strip, movement between the West Bank and the besieged coastal enclave is severely restricted and Palestinians living in either territory are not permitted to meet one another inside occupied Palestine.
Ahmed and other breakdancers in Gaza did later try to obtain permits to exit the Strip in order to perform with the dancers in Nablus. However, all of their attempts were, and continue to be, rejected by Israel’s military authorities.
To make up for one such thwarted collaboration, the breakdancers in Gaza instead made a video of their choreography and sent it to the crew in Nablus. The Nablus boys then learned the choreography and performed alongside a projection of the video from Gaza.
“So you can say that in the end we kind of performed together,” Abdullah said, chuckling.
Ahmed, who has resided in Germany since 2015, and other members of “Camps Breakerz” established the CB Crew School in 2012 to teach breakdance in the Gaza Strip.
Abdullah, Hamza, Sabra and Muhammad Samahneh went on to establish the breakdance group Stereo 48 in 2014.
In 2016, Abdullah traveled for a competition in Denmark. He recounted a moment when one of the other dancers asked him where he was from.
“I told him: ‘Palestine.’”
“What is that,” Abdullah said the dancer asked in response.
“I asked him, ‘Do you know Israel?’ And, of course, he did. So I explained to him that Israel is occupying my country.”
“After that, I started to realize that what we’re doing is really important. We’re putting Palestine on the map,” he said.
While many of the youth around the camps and villages in Nablus fell in love with the hip-hop and breakdance scene, it was not readily accepted by the dancers’ families or the wider community.
“I think all of us have this feeling that our families are ashamed of us,” Sabra said.
With social pressure on families to ensure good careers for their children around which they can build families, dancing is not seen as a viable option for the future, he added.
“In Palestine, there is this showing-off culture,” Sabra told The Electronic Intifada. “My mom is a teacher, and when she goes to the teachers’ lounge, everyone is saying: ‘My son is an engineer’ or something else. So it’s hard when my mom has to say, ‘My son is a dancer.’”
“We put them in this situation,” Sabra conceded.
Abdullah, who grew up in a strict and conservative household, and his 17-year-old brother Nasrallah – aka DNA and the youngest member of Stereo 48 – face daily criticism from their father because of their chosen lifestyles.
Abdullah recounts an incident when his father attempted to convince him to give up dancing.
“He told me to come work at his shop in the Old City, and that he would give me a good salary and buy me a car.”
Abdullah protested: “Even all of my friends are dancers. If I gave it up, what would I speak to my friends about?”
His father replied: “Just change them. You will find better friends,” Abdullah recalled, as the dancers laughed.
“Every man here has the dream of building a house and getting married,” Sabra added. “But we quit this dream. We are addicted. Even when I’m riding in a taxi, I’m thinking about dancing. If I gave it up, what would I even think about?”
“I don’t think I could live if I couldn’t dance.”
Community vs. “Western culture”
The breakdancers have worked to introduce elements of the traditional Palestinian dabke into breakdancing in order to “try and connect with the community,” Sabra said.
But they often face community objections and difficulties finding spaces in Nablus to dance, and if they try in public, according to Ameed Sayeh – aka Sai, 19 – police often stop them.
“They will tell us to stop and move on, and that we are not allowed to do this on the street because it’s not allowed in our culture,” he said.
In Gaza, meanwhile, “Camps Breakerz” incorporated issues and stories relevant to the Palestinian struggle into their performances to push for the dance to become better accepted among the local community.
“The community didn’t start to support it, but they came to accept it,” Ahmed told The Electronic Intifada. “In the beginning, they were always saying that this is Western culture and not our culture. But with time, we put on more and more shows. This was the way we spread dancing in the Gaza Strip.”
The dancers also gained more trust from the community after they repurposed their dance school into a shelter to house some 50 people who had fled their homes to escape Israel’s airstrikes in the 2014 Gaza assault – which resulted in the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians, 551 of whom were children, and more than 100,000 were made homeless.
Owing to the indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes, many families fled their homes for schools and other institutions, believing them to be safe spaces.
“After this, the community began to trust us,” he said, and even allowed girls to be trained in the breakdance style, creating a new generation of girl breakdancers in the besieged territory.
The dancers agree that a powerful attraction to the dance is the ability to express everyday frustrations, but leaving it up to interpretation. According to Sabra, Palestinians are “depressed” and “tired” of constantly speaking about the Israeli occupation.
Dancing is freedom
Occupation is the defining characteristic of Palestinian life, Sabra said, but “we are not just occupied. I also want to speak as a human, and I want people to be able to relate to me. And we do not want people to feel sorry for us.”
“Palestine is not the best place,” he added. “We don’t live in Switzerland. But we still experience happiness and we have normal lives. Like people adapt their lives around snow, we have adapted our lives around occupation.”
For Sabra, it is important for artists to explore many issues in their daily lives, and not just reduce Palestinian life to a one-dimensional experience of occupation.
“With dancing, we have a chance to speak about these things, without actually speaking,” he said. “People get bored. Everyone knows what’s happening, so why tell us again?”
“But with dancing, I felt a lot of freedom. I can express anything, even personal issues that no one wants to hear. And I feel good because I expressed it, and the audience feels good because they saw whatever they wanted to.”
The breakdancers, both in Nablus and Gaza, have continued to organize dance classes in cities, refugee camps, villages, and even abroad. Abdullah, who heads the workshops for Stereo 48, says he focuses on giving Palestinian children “a feeling of hope.”
There are many “bad habits” in refugee camps, some of the dancers pointed out, including substance abuse and a variety of mental health issues. Owing to the restrictive conditions placed on young Palestinians, both from their society and the occupation, people feel trapped.
“Dance is a form of freedom of movement,” Sabra said. “No one can really control how you move. And this is what we [Palestinians] need.”
“Dancing gives us freedom.”
Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.