Syrian refugees in Jordan increase income and preserve culture through dance
AMMAN, Jordan (AFP) – Singing happily to drums, Syrian refugees who fled the brutal civil war perform traditional “Arada” dances in neighboring Jordan, honoring their home culture and earning extra income.
Their performances, featuring traditional dresses and swirling swords, have become increasingly popular in Jordan to mark festivities like weddings and parties.
“They add an atmosphere of joy to our celebration,” said Fahed Shehadeh, who hired the Bab al-Hara dance troupe in the capital Amman to mark the graduation of his two sons from university.
“I am Jordanian but of Syrian origin, and I brought the group because I admire their dancing skills, their music, their clothes and their songs,” said Shehadeh, 55, celebrating with his family, his friends and neighbours.
Traditionally seen at weddings, Arada’s popularity – rooted in Arabic for “performance” – has seen her songs altered to suit various celebrations.
A troupe usually consists of 10 to 20 dancers, wearing loose black trousers, white cotton shirts, embroidered waistcoats, white skull caps and a shawl wrapped around the waist.
Decorative swords and shields are carried, and the dance culminates when the members spin their blades through the air, before engaging in ceremonial combat.
Troupe leader Moutaz Boulad, 60, said Arada has grown in popularity in Amman, with daily events in the summer months and several engagements each week in the winter.
Boulad, who left Syria in 1988, says the shows have become an important means of earning money for some of those who fled the war that broke out in 2011.
“Some of the dancers weren’t good when they came to us, but they learned from my sons and I in order to improve their financial situation,” he said.
The war in Syria is estimated to have killed nearly half a million people and displaced millions; more than 6.6 million have fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Jordan hosts nearly 650,000 Syrians registered with the United Nations, but Amman estimates that nearly 1.3 million Syrians have arrived since 2011.
The UN said nearly 80 percent of Syrians in Jordan live below the national poverty line, surviving on three dollars a day or less.
Boulad said his dancers come from a variety of professional backgrounds.
“Most dancers have different jobs outside of Arada,” Boulad said. “Some are university students, accountants, restaurant workers, tailors and electricians – but it’s something that gives a sum of money to help cope with life.”
For dancers like Ahmed Abu Shadi, 43, who fled Syria in 2013 and works as a plumber, playing the Arada helps him raise his three children.
“With plumbing, there are days when I’m working and days when I don’t have customers,” he said. “For Arada, they pay me 15 dinars ($20) every time I go out to dance. Although it is a small amount, it helps in my life.
Another member, who worked in a medical laboratory and requested anonymity, fled the Syrian city of Homs in 2018.
The dance helps add about $300 a month to his regular $700 salary from the lab to support his family, while he waits for applications to be processed by the UN refugee agency.
“I applied for asylum through UNHCR and I hope we can start a new life abroad,” he said.
Despite displacement and financial difficulties, dancing the Arada remains a key part of Ahmed Abu Shadi’s life.
“This dance is a very important part of our Syrian identity, our heritage, our culture and our daily life – we must preserve it and teach it to our children and grandchildren,” he said.
“This art is in my blood, I love it, I can’t imagine my life without it.”
He dreams of dancing again one day on his native soil.
“I will continue to dance wherever I go,” he said.
“But of course, I prefer that the situation improves one day so that we can all return to our country, Syria.”