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Celebrating Mothers in Shatila

March 29, 2009

The much-sung stresses of public transport in Beirut: nightmare traffic; shared taxi (‘service’) drivers that take you half-way round the city to your destination instead of a more direct route; being overcharged because of ones foreingness… Bref, hassle and lateness, combined with wind and rain, severely dampening my Friday morning.

But my spirits were immediately lifted by the pulsating bass and rhythmic clapping that floated out from the third floor of the Najde centre. The beats got louder as I hurried up the stairs and finally emerged into the big room decked out for the occasion with a low wooden stage at the front, over a hundred chairs and a booming sound-system blaring out Arabic beats. Mother’s Day celebrations in Shatila refugee camp.

There was not a free seat in the house, and almost no space to stand either. Women and children of all ages seemed crammed into every available cubic inch: perched on each others’ laps, balanced on the backs of chairs, cradled on hips. And all but the youngest newborns were contributing to the music with their hands and feet, while attentively following with enjoyment the movements of the young dancers on the stage.

There were eight girls and boys, no more than seven years old, decked out in silken shirts the colours of the Palestinian flag and black and white kuffiyehs. Their movements were out of synch, sometimes clumsy, and I could see the ones in the back row attentively watching the movements of those in the front in order to know what was coming next. They stamped their feet and moved their hips to the throbbing beat of the music, occasionally throwing in a twirl and a waving of the kuffiyeh.

Now, I think that it is impossible for a kid to not look adorable when their dancing, no matter how technically imperfect the performance. And these little debutants were no exception. In fact, their charm was multiplied by the infusion of energy coming from the audience. The enjoyment of their spectators translated into their own pleasure in their performance, played out on their faces as the concerted effort one makes to not let concentration be disturbed by a smile.

After the dance, there was a short skit  performed by some older girls, aged between 11 and 13. They were dressed in long black jalabiyyas with bright red, orange and green hand-woven embroidery round the collar, products of Najde’s handicrafts programme. Some lingered in the background, imitating women’s household chores of sweeping, cleaning and cooking, while others read out passages praising the hard work of mothers, and women in general. Their efforts, commitment and sacrifices, the girls reminded us, should be remembered not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

More dances followed, one by a different group of girls similarly dressed in embroidered robes, and then another by a group of 12-13 year-old-boys, clad in black and white checkered t-shirts with matching kaffiyyes wrapped around their heads. The music started with an empty stage, and as the beat progressed, one at a time the boys hopped on the stage from infront, each of them wiggling on stage in a way that way half-dabke and half-hip-hop, until they were all taking turns getting down, to the great pleasure of their spectators, who continued clapping in rhythm.

Half-way through the performance, a member of the audience joined the boys on stage, waving a red and white kafiyyeh round her head in circles. After a few seconds, it was obvious that she was the mother of one of the boys, as her attention was focused mostly on him and she encouraged him with endearing gestures. Very soon after, she was joined by another woman from the audience, also a mother of one of the dancing boys, and the two women proceeded to gyrate their hips, twirl their hands  and wave their checkered scarves energetically, while the boys wiggled around them.

The vitality of the dancing was contagious. At the mothers’ intervention, the audience went from enthusiastic to wild, some women rising from their seats to clap and stamp their feet, others covering their mouths with their hand to wave their tongues back and forth in their mouths and formulate the iconic ‘u-lu-lu-lu-lu’ syllables of celebration.

Between my own clapping and laughter, I thought about how wonderfully different this series of children’s performances was from all that I had ever staged in primary school. My head was flooded by images of my young self and my companions at our devastatingly British schools in that far-away Caribbean colony: bleached white polo shirts, navy blue trousers and skirts; all stood in utmost obedience in a regimented line; orderly taking turns to articulate some perfectly memorised, formulaic phrase. And the soft, proper clapping of our parents, fit for a golf tournament, as they satiated themselves in our groomed, disciplined behaviour. All of that worlds apart from the veritable festivities now frolicking before me.

It was all so imperfectly passionate, so spontaneous. The lines between audience and performer were porous, their relationship symbiotic, one giving life to the other according to  the unpredictability of inspiration. The performance came to be one in which script was negligible and impulse was everything, in which mothers and sons laughed and danced together on a stage but not as a spectacle; their places there were as entertained as well as entertainers, as subjects in their own enjoyment as opposed to objects in the enjoying eyes of others.

But I did not have long to reflect much more on such things, because Maissa, the director of the Najde centre at Shatila, was pulling me by the arm up onto the stage, where the boys and their mothers had been joined by at least 10 more people, adults and children alike. My feigned reluctance was inadequate to prevent myself being hauled amongst the jiving crowd, where I tried in vain to shake my hips in similar smoothness to those of my colleagues’, to little avail and the amusement of much of the audience. But I harnessed my embarrassment, tried my best to keep in rhythm with the drums blaring out from the speakers, and grinned along with all the smiling faces around me.

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