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Syrian folk dancers stomp their way into Egyptian society

Syrian refugees who formed a dabke troupe four years ago are increasingly popular at Egyptian weddings, birthdays and other celebrations.
Members of an Arabian group perform a traditional Dabke folk dance during the African-Chinese cultural festival, organised by Egypt's Ministry of Tourism, on the historic Moez Street, in Cairo, Egypt July 25, 2016. Picture taken July 25, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - D1BETSEAVPAA

In recent years, Syrian dabke, an Arab folk dance native to the Levant, has became a popular feature at Egyptian events, largely due to a Syrian dancer, who, fleeing war, landed in Alexandria.

Mahmoud Abu al-Ezz arrived in Egypt four years ago from Damascus, where he was born and raised. Like so many other Syrians, he and his family fled for their lives to escape the Syrian civil war. They did so at the risk of losing their careers, which in Abu al-Ezz's case had began in the alleyways of the Syrian capital.

Not wanting to abandon his dance career, Abu al-Ezz recruited a group of Syrian refugees to form a folk dance troupe. He named it Saif al-Sultan, after his group back home.

“I started the dance troupe around four years ago,” Abu al-Ezz, told Al-Monitor. “At first, we were only around 12 members, all male, all Syrian refugees, including a 5-year-old. I trained all of them, as some had never worked with a dance group before.”

The training included singing, playing instruments and dancing dabke, which requires that all or most of the dancers move in unison while holding hands with the person on each side of them. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we were able to develop our talents and the quality of our performance,” said Abu al-Ezz.

One problem Abu al-Ezz ran up against was finding proper Syrian dabke attire. He explained, “We did not have Syrian costumes to perform in, so I obtained an outfit from my dance group in Syria, and we sewed one for each member here in Egypt, copying the same design and colors.”

According to a report by UNESCO — “Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for 2016-2017 in Response to the Syria Crisis ” — nearly 120,000 Syrians have registered with the Office of the Commission in Egypt, including 52,000 children, who receive assistance and care from the Egyptian government. Abu al-Ezz views Saif al-Sultan not simply as a source of income or livelihood in Egypt, but also as a way to introduce Syrian heritage to Egyptians.

In Syrian dabke, a line of dancers holds hands and slowly moves in a big circle, led by the dancer at the front of the line. To the beat of Syrian songs, they walk, jump into the air, sometimes landing in a squat and bounding back into an upright position, stomp their feet rhythmically in unison, and proceed to walk again until the next jump, and so on. In some instances, one dancer hops on one foot while tapping out a rhythm with the other foot, and the other participants continue to dance in a line or around him, stomping to the rhythm of his hopping. Dabke, as danced by Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians, is more or less the same in that the steps are identical, but they vary in tempo, beat and fluidity. 

While performing at Syrian events in Alexandria, Saif al-Sultan is becoming increasing popular among Egyptians, who hire the troupe for all sorts of celebrations, including weddings, birthdays and restaurant openings. In addition, Saif al-Sultan performs at cultural events and plays at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast cultural center, where mixed Syrian and Egyptian audiences typically end up joining in the dance.

“Egyptians are awe-struck when we enter with music,” said Abu al-Ezz. “It takes them a few minutes to be drawn into our music and performance. Although people love us, some feel we charge a bit much compared to Egyptian dance groups.”

As for the songs he chooses for performances, Abu al-Ezz said that “Ya Mal al-Sham” (Oh Precious Damascus) is closest to his heart, and audiences love it. He remarked that such traditional songs, expressing nostalgia for the homeland, remind people of Syria, and everyone who sings them keeps Syria alive wherever they are.

“I want to go back to Syria no matter what, but my family and young daughters would never allow it,” said Abu el-Ezz. “I just hope our homeland will be as great as it once was, and I pray to God that I will be able to go back once the war and destruction are over.”

In the meantime, Ahmed Fayez, an Egyptian, is preparing for his wedding and has hired Saif al-Sultan to add to the celebration's liveliness with Syrian music and dance.

“I saw the group perform at a Syrian shop opening in my neighborhood, and my fiancee and I were really impressed with their dancing skills, their clothes, and the songs they were singing,” said Fayez. “I immediately rushed to the street to get their contact information so I could hire them for my wedding. When we set a date, I came to meet with them and planned how they would perform the Syrian dabke at the wedding.”

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