Raised by a sportive family, Tarek al-Turk dreamt of representing his country Palestine in acrobatics on the international stage ever since he was a child. But first the restrictions of traveling out of the Gaza Strip and then the war in Syria delayed his dreams.
Tarek, 30, enjoys an international reputation with his “vertical dance” that combines contemporary dance with acrobatics. A refugee in Germany since 2015, he is the founder of the dance troupe Flyscrapers, which brings together an international group of dancers and acrobats to dance on top of skyscrapers and high buildings across Germany.
The young Palestinian, nicknamed “the Arab Spider-Man” by the German media, is also known for the work he has done with Syrian and other Arab refugees, such as giving contemporary dance lessons where he uses corporal expression as therapy and a means of self-expression, so that they can cope with their new reality and assimilate into the German community.
Tarek, who uses his first name on stage, was introduced to the world of gymnastics when he was five years old by his father Jawdat al-Turk, a gymnastics trainer, and his mother Amal al-Najjar, a fitness instructor. He won the junior division’s national gymnastics tournament in Palestine when he was nine years old. Although he won many school and regional competitions, travel restrictions prevented him from participating in international competitions.
Tarek moved to Damascus in 2005. He resided in the Yarmouk refugee camp with his mother’s family and studied English literature at the University of Damascus. In 2009, he joined Enana Dance Theater. After the Syrian war started, he moved to Qatar with the troupe in November 2012. From there he toured the world with Enana, performing in Russia, Canada and the United States for two months.
But once the shows were over, he could no longer stay in Qatar or return to Syria. “I tried to find a more stable home in an Arab country, but I was not able to get a visa,” he told Al-Monitor.
Settling in a European city was also impossible. “I felt that my future was doomed one way or another,” Tarek said. “In mid-2013 I received an invitation by Cirque du Soleil — a world-renowned brand in the world of circus — and I filled out a visa application. However I couldn’t get one even though I had been in Canada and the United States just one year before performing with Enana.”
Tarek traveled to Egypt in September 2013 and sought out ways to immigrate to Europe, which led him inevitably to the human traffickers in Alexandria who take people across the Mediterranean Sea. He made a deal with a trafficker, but failed to get to the boat on time, which sank on its journey later. This didn’t stop Tarek from trying a second time, however. On Nov 2, 2013, he boarded a boat to Italy.
It was a dangerous journey. Tarek was trapped in the cramped boat for nine days during which he was exposed to the bitter cold. Upon arrival in Italy, he and the other people on the boat were met by the Italian coast guard. He got on the shore in Catania, then traveled to Milan. From there, he traveled to Germany — again illegally. He was denied asylum, but was finally granted refugee status in August 2015.
Tarek learned the German language quickly, and even worked as a translator helping Arab refugees in Stralsund, a coastal city in Germany. But his aim was to return to his dancing career. He started working with German dance groups and met in 2015 Mellow Mark, a German artist who shared his passion for contemporary dance. Mark, a famous rapper who defends refugee rights, asked Tarek to dance the lead in a video that was produced to welcome refugees. The video was released in January 2016.
Tarek organized a number of theatrical dance shows in various German cities to shed light on Arabic, Palestinian and Syrian music and culture as well as Arab culture and heritage in general, in an attempt to connect with the German community.
In February 2017, Tarek founded his own group that focuses on combining dance and acrobatics in their performances on top of buildings and skyscrapers. “My brand of dancing combines contemporary dance and acrobatics as well as flying-off-walls techniques,” Tarek said.
He added, “As we dance we try to create beautiful visual images. We were called the Flyscrapers by the late Palestinian singer Rim Banna. Our group is a multinational team of 14 people from the United States, Italy, Portugal, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, Spain, Canada and Thailand.”
Tarek has trained dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, defying stereotypes that Arab men do not dance. His trainings include contemporary dance, fitness and gymnastics. Some of his students have joined him on stage in plays performed by refugees before a German audience.
Raed Mufleh, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee who moved to Sweden in 2013, joined Tarek in Germany in early 2016, to help create the new dance troupe. The two men were colleagues in the Syrian Enana group. Mufleh is currently Flyscrapers' production manager, and he was one of the first people to support Tarek in his quest to establish a troupe.
Mufleh told Al-Monitor, “I was with Tarek since the beginning. Some thought that creating a group headed by a Palestinian refugee was hard in a European country, as he would not be familiar with the culture and the public. But Tarek presented strong shows in German cities and we managed to represent the voice of refugees in our performances.”
He added, “In the beginning we had few resources and faced financial problems, but we are well-known today," he said. "We have preserved our Arab identity and we continue to defend refugees’ rights in Europe. We believe refugees can be creative in European countries — like we have shown.”
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