“Ya Zareef at-Tloo waqqif ta qullak
Raayih ‘al-ghorbeh wiblaadak ahsanlak
Khaayif ya zareef itrooh o titmallak
Wit’aashir el-gheir o tinsaany anaa
Oh Zareef at-Tool stop so I can tell you
You are going abroad and your country is
Better for you
I am afraid that you will get established there
And find someone else and forget me”
These lyrics come from a traditional Palestinian song linked to Palestinian folkdance, known as Debka. Originally, the song expressed the pain of two separated lovers. After 1948, the lyrics came to express the pain of the Palestinians in Diaspora, separated from their homes and loved ones. (Yafa Center Our Voice magazine)
Debka troupes abound in Nablus. Most community centers in the city and in the surrounding refugee camps offer Debka training for children and youth. For many young Palestinians, participating in a Debka troupe creates the chance to preserve Palestinian heritage and also to teach the rest of the world about Palestinian culture and identity. If you meet a young Palestinian who has traveled to Europe or America, it’s likely that she went there with her Debka troupe for an international culture festival or show.
The word debka literally means “stamping of the feet.” The dance started when the roofs of houses were made of wood, straw and dirt. The dirt roof had to be compacted, so household members would gather to stomp the roof down together. This stomping eventually led to the rhythmic songs and movements of Debka.
Debka is a line-dance in which the dancers hold each other’s hands tightly as a sign of unity. They loudly stomp the ground to indicate the strong connection between Palestinians and the land. Debka dances often portray pastoral scenes, such as peasants tilling the soil, planting, harvesting, celebrating the rain, or coming home after a long day in the field. An elegant and joyful expression of Palestinian culture, Debka is often danced at important events, such as weddings, festivals, national holidays, and private celebrations. Debka performers wear traditional costumes that are made from bright, shiny materials. The women’s clothes are often decorated with traditional Palestinian embroidery.
The following are excerpts from an interview with 24-year-old Debka choreographer and dancer Marcel Rabayy’a. Marcel leads a young Debka troupe called Akalil, which she started in 2007. Akalil has 25 dancers, roughly half boys and half girls, whose ages range from 12-25 years old.
What is the definition of Debka?
From my perspective, Debka is an expression of humanity and the soul. Debka is also an expression of Palestinian heritage, which we got from our ancestors and which we are still developing.
Does debka have a specific message? Palestinian heritage is our identity, and we are people for the sake of our identity. That is the message.
Do your dances tell specific stories? Yes…each song we use tells a story about the Palestinian people, whether about their heritage or about their national struggle. We choose our dance moves according to the lyrics of the music. Through our bodies, we try to portray the lyrics of the song.
Can you describe one of these stories?
Besides heritage dance topics like the harvest, the rain, and other seasons, the songs describe important events, like weddings. We just finished a dance called “Horses have Fallen Down.” This dance portrays how Palestinian weddings were in the past and how they are now. It shows how a groom and a bride met, the proposal, the marriage, and their life after the wedding with their children. We also dance to national songs that talk about people who have died and famous people such as Abu Ammar [Yassir Arafat].
Have you faced challenges because you are a woman who dances? All women face problems if they dance in public, especially girls. In other provinces, such as Bethlehem or Ramallah, it’s normal for a girl to dance, but in Nablus people are like, why are girls dancing like this on a stage in front of strangers?
How do you deal with these challenges? Slowly things change, the percentage of people who accept what we’re doing will grow. Show by show, people will see us…and then they will want us to dance.
Is there a special connection between debka and youth in Palestine? According to youth, debka represents the Palestinian cause. Youth want to defend their culture, rights and heritage, and through debka they can do that.
What’s the message that you want to send to people outside of Palestine?
I hope that people understand the situation of Palestinians, that they see how we live, that we are happy, but that every family has problems. We want them to know that, and to know the reason [for these problems], and we hope that they play a role in finding a solution for our current situation. We want people to be happier here.
Do you want to add anything?
Our heritage is thousands of years old. It comes from our ancestors…to keep that heritage, we struggle, continue and build our future. We have hope.
 Dalia Cohen and Ruth Katz, Palestinian Arab music: A Maqam tradition in Practice, University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 271