Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)

Ahram Weekly

We are our homelands

Nora Amin reviews the Syrian-German dance production Hadra Hurra


Hadra Hurra
Hadra Hurra

As a frequent traveller, I was happy to have Hadra Hurra frame my trip from Bahrain’s Al-Sawari Festival to Egypt’s Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre. It gracefully placed me on a journey to re-explore the idea of homeland while I was in Bahrain, then it softly received me as I literally experienced returning to the homeland in Cairo.   

Hadra Hurra is a Syrian-German dance production funded by the German Foreign Ministry. Performed by a fantastic team of young dancers, it was choreographed by Mohamed Diban, with video and technical design by the brothers Majd and Osama Hafiri. The production was presented in Bahrain at the Cultural Hall, and in Cairo at Miami Theatre. The production’s team followed the same itinerary as I did, and it was a unique experience seeing this young troupe travelling and changing dancers on the way with a production that is itself about displacement and the search for an internal homeland. It was travelling along two paths: inwardly, through the topic and the performative act choreographed; and outwardly, as a result of the working conditions and the troupe’s movement across the Arab world. The two modes of travel are intrinsically connected, since the team created the piece based on their real experience fleeing Syria to Berlin. They were inspired by real-life events which they transformed into a very special dance before submitting to their destiny as travellers once again, touring in Bahrain and in Egypt.

Bahrain being the first Arab country to receive Hadra Hurra, it feels as if the young artistic diaspora has to go around the fringe of the Arab world before reaching the centre, nearer home. What is equally surprising is that the visit of a troupe with a majority of Syrian artists should be funded by Germany. It is Germany that is supporting their homeward passage, and it is in Germany that the piece was created. Therefore, Germany as the place of production acquires significance as an alternative homeland sending back new citizens as visitors to a culture to which they once belonged. Or do they still belong to it?

Hadra Hurra is a performance that captivates you from the very first glimpse. The stage design, the lighting, music and costumes are all unique. The scenography puts you in a state of emotional openness where you feel transported to another dimension. This feeling is exactly what the performance works towards achieving via different aspects and elements. The dancers start their first scene like embryos, wrapped in cloth, which covers their whole bodies including their faces. The fabric is flexible and soft, so they can move inside it and take different shapes. The image of an embryo is strong, nevertheless there is a moment when the fabric looks suddenly like a shroud and the hidden bodies seem to be trying to free themselves of it. Within this paradox the signature of the performance is imprinted: the womb (of the motherland) is also the grave. Though I opted for the optimistic interpretation that they were being resurrected, or born of a dead body.

The bodies continue with their seemingly collective journey. We see several group dances but they are choreographed in a way that respects the individuality and physicality of each dancer. The dancers are fully human here, they have faces and identities, even if they are performing in unison. Very quickly the figure of the suitcase is presented on stage. On the one hand this satisfies our expectations of what the Syrian diaspora might present, and on the other it gives us the easiest and most decodable symbol. On first impressions I thought the suitcase was a little superfluous since many other elements conveyed the same meaning, I feared that the suitcase would bring me back from the dimension where I’d been emotionally transported, to the current and everyday symbols of easy art. Nonetheless, as the performance progressed I felt grateful for the presence of the suitcase because it was there on stage to help me return from painful moments of nostalgia, transcendence and pain. The miserable suitcase was my liferaft at moments when the hadra took me too far away, far enough for my soul to need an earthy and concrete everyday object to hold onto.

Diban, Hafiri and all their brilliant team designed a homeland-recall ritual in dance. While hadra is a Sufi term for the gathering in which God is invoked by chanting and/or dance, Hadra Hurra — which translates to “Free [Invocation] Gathering” — is an artistic equivalent in which the object is not God but the homeland. The ritual targets not only the physical and cultural homeland of Syria itself, but also the internal and emotional homeland carried within Syrians who have left. In this way the show liberates the homeland within, embodying it as the most spiritual of dances.

Throughout the one-hour performance, you cannot disconnect from that powerful feeling of belonging. For some spectators it could be belonging to a community, for others to a specific country or language. For me it was belonging to a worldview that retains a measure of beauty, bonding and humanness. The homeland can be a space in time. For the performance tells us not to follow its narrative — it has many narratives, or none — but rather to follow our hearts. The performance functions as a gateway onto what we — the spectators — see and long to reach. And like spiritual rituals, Hadra Hurra relies on our belief in the ritual, and rewards us with a journey, a transformation and a revelation.

In this context, it is impossible to write about Hadra Hurra as a dance or theatre performance, it is only possible to respond to it as ritual. I could also add and describe it more specifically as a “performative ritual”, but then aren’t all rituals of a performative nature? This time our ritual is not religious, yet it is still Sufi in the sense of Sufism as a cultural, spiritual and artistic style, a vision of the world and a philosophy. Hadra Hurra is not restricted to the (Muslim) members of one or another Sufi order, as a hadra usually is. It is a universal hadra open to anybody seeking to re-connect with home. And it is in this sense that it becomes hurra (or free).

The unforgettable Sufi chanting, the Oriental rhythms and the video projections fused with live moving bodies created an alternative world that was so complete and mesmerising it lifted us softly and powerfully onto a transcendent plane. This transcendence is certainly one of the principles of Sufi practice, including Mevlevi whirling. But in this situation it also became a principle for healing the pain that emanates from Syria’s deep wounds. Although Syria is never directly mentioned, since this is a physical, not a verbal performance, no one could escape the dramatic presence of the Syrian tragedy. This is due to the fact that the young troupe have nourished every scene and image with their souls, producing a testimonial performance in which even non-Syrian performers partook in the same feeling.

When the strongest scene took place, and you could see the whirling dancers convey their ecstatic message, we were already in tears, probably because the whirling had become synonymous with being home. I personally felt liberated at that moment, as if I’d been whirling with the performers. I felt this liberation was a home for me. I felt the embryo, the metaphorical image at the beginning of the performance, could break out of the womb-grave dilemma and create a third path, flying on its own, with or without roots nourishing the path of art.

Hadra Hurra took us on a difficult journey reviving wounds, ours and theirs, and accompanied us very gently and professionally to go from one state of consciousness to another until each had reached their own transcendence. For those who were coming home from Bahrain to Egypt, or anywhere else, the transcendence at Miami Theatre involved to relocating the Egypt that once was, our Egypt within, while sitting in the spectators’ seats watching the Syrian magicians whirl on our behalf. But for those who will forever live in the diaspora — and who will need the figure of the suitcase to bring them back to the concrete world at tearful moments — the whirling will never take us back home. It will simply and happily affirm our bodies as our headquarters. In diaspora, one’s body is one’s homeland, the centre of the world.

This is the revelation which will keep me company as a frequent traveller who once attended and travelled with Hadra Hurra: We are our homelands.

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