Researching how contemporary dancers in Beirut address social and political matters in their dance practices

Travel scholar, 2013

From 15 September till 14 December 2013, I carried out fieldwork in Beirut as part of my research master’s program Middle Eastern Studies. My research centered on the question if and how contemporary dancers in Beirut address social and political matters in their dance practice. In this report I will reflect on my experiences.

I had visited Beirut once before, in April of the same year, to attend the dance festival BIPOD (Beirut International Platform of Dance) and the Arab Dance Platform. This short travel (five days) functioned as a pre-fieldwork visit, providing me with an initial idea of the field I would be researching in depth later that year, and with great inspiration and enthusiasm for the upcoming fieldwork.

When I was about to depart for Beirut in early September however, the safety situation in Lebanon had become very precarious due to the threat of a retaliation attack by the US against those responsible for the gas attack on Syrian civilians on the 21st of August. My university then initially withdrew permission for my departure. After careful deliberation and discussion, I decided that I wanted to leave for fieldwork after all. The university accepted this decision – for which I am still very grateful – on the condition that I would be in touch with the international coordinator every week. Soon however it turned out that the retaliation attack would not take place, and instead the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was made. Obviously, this development could not lift the tension that has been plaguing Lebanon since the outbreak of the civil war in neighboring Syria, nor the anxiety about the absence of a legitimate government during that period.

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During my fieldwork, I kept a diary in which I wrote accounts of my general experiences. On the 25th of September, when I had been in Beirut for ten days, I wrote the following while sitting on a bench on the Corniche boulevard: “I hear birds, feel the sea breeze (temperatures have dropped a little this second week, less hot and humid, making it much more comfortable to walk around, and giving us a huge shower of rain yesterday, flooding the streets and making everyone wet to their underwear in two minutes). Of course, cars are continuously honking, tires are screeching, and I hear sirens, though not as much and as penetrating as in Hamra or Gemmayze. I can smell the sea and hear its waves breaking on the shores. It’s really good to escape from the fuss of the inner town. While I sit here writing I smell a lovely perfume of – I figure – one of the two adolescent girls sitting next to me on the bench. I finally find the courage to ask them for the brand. It’s Victoria’s Secret.”

Obviously, not all my notes are as dreamy and relaxed as these. Actually, I experienced some difficult times during my stay, related to the challenges of doing fieldwork, and to the problematic situation of the country I found myself in, painfully evident through, among other things, the alarming amount of (child) beggars on the streets. This situation was also regularly commented on by the dancers whom I had conversations with, though their dance practices were not inescapably dominated by this. At this stage of my analysis it is too early to offer some preliminary conclusions on the subject I studied. Based on what I have learned so far, I can however suggest that while many dancers have the same concerns regarding their society, some of them address these in their dance practice, while others more or less deliberately choose not to do so and who are instead inspired by other sources, ranging from Greek mythology to love and from Shi’a burial rituals to inquiries of mobility. Still others explained how they are (sometimes even unconsciously) affected by particular aspects of having grown up and living in the context of Lebanon (which features, that are both similar and different to every dancer, will be carefully explained carefully in my thesis), and how this in turn shapes their dancing.

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Pictures of dancers from Beirut Dance Company, on display in their studio, located near Sin el Fil

Unfortunately I cannot show too many pictures of the field I researched, since the dancers preferred me not to take photos during rehearsals. I have photo material of two dance venues, however

To give some insights in the practical sides of my stay: during the first month of my fieldwork I stayed in Saifi Urban Gardens, a nice and clean hostel in the district Gemmayze, with tasty affordable dishes in the restaurant. The atmosphere was less ‘hostel-like’ than I was used to, meaning that there was no common room or common kitchen, and that it was hard to connect with other guests. The restaurant also served for guests not staying in the hostel, and this did not contribute to the degree of cozy-ness. Though in general Saifi is a great place to stay – so far the only one in Beirut of these standards – and the staff was very friendly and helpful.

The other two months of my stay I lived in an apartment in the area of Aicha Bakkar in Verdun, that I had found through a Dutch friend who lived there. I shared this apartment with my friend and one other flat mate. I The flat was well-maintained and well-equipped, and my room was nice. We had a large living room and several balconies.

With regard to language, I planned to take a language course in Lebanese Arabic at the Saifi Institute for four weeks and maybe during my whole stay. However, after two weeks I realized that it was too hard to combine learning a language with my research, and I had to quit classes. Luckily, most Lebanese speak, apart from Arabic, a certain amount of either English or French or both, and this was especially true for my research group. However, it was sometimes hard to explain to taxi drivers where I wanted to go…

Next to my research, I also had a social life during my stay in Beirut. Café and restaurant life is buzzing in the city, with young people gathering in and – preferably – in front of stuffed cafés in order to be allowed to smoke. I occasionally went out for dinner and drinks, but my research required a lot of energy so I didn’t go out too often. However, I enjoyed the conversations that I had with the dancers so much that I felt I was in a pleasant social circle anyway. To relax a bit between my research activities, I also went on some trips to different parts of the country, such as Byblos and the Qadisha Valley, which were wonderful experiences.

All in all, my stay in Beirut has been extraordinary fruitful with regard to research experience and personal development. This has partly been made possible by the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation, which generously supported my project, for which I am highly grateful.

In one week I will start out for yet another wonderful experience: I will attend the dance festival Dansfabrik in Brest (France), where three of the dancers from Lebanon whom I interviewed in Beirut will perform their work. Also, no less than three dance films of Lebanese dancers have been selected for Cinedans, and will be shown this weekend in film museum Eye in Amsterdam. The coming half year I will be writing my thesis and doing an internship at the Prince Claus Fund, to experience the different spheres involved in dance practices worldwide.