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'My gun is my body', says Syrian dancer Nidal Abdo

Syrian dancer Nidal Abdo
Syrian dancer Nidal Abdo

For a Palestinian-Syrian-Ukrainian who grew up in the largest refugee camp in Syria, becoming a dancer doesn't strike me as the most obvious career choice. Yet of the three main dance companies in Syria, the choreographers that founded them were all Palestinians who were born and raised in Yarmouk camp.

"This gave a lot of motivation for the men and women who live in Yarmouk camp to continue and discover this kind of new art," says Nidal Abdo.

"I was feeling a little bit shy to talk in Damascus in the real city and say that I am a dancer, more than in Yarmouk because in Yarmouk, when you said, I'm a dancer and dancing for this company, they were really proud of you. They were like, yeah, you guys are Palestinian Syrians and you're showing a very nice image about us, you're taking us to a different level. I had a lot of support."

Today Nidal and his colleague Khaled Alwarea will play a DJ set as part of "Syrien n'est fait", a Syrian cultural festival being held in Paris from 10-12 September, which will host concerts, film screenings, workshops, live street art, calligraphy and more.

It's a place where French people and Syrians living in France can gather and meet around artistic events, says Emeline Hardy, a volunteer at the festival. "The idea was also to show how the Syrian artistic scene in exile was very rich and dynamic and how they were using art to show what was going on in Syria and to protest and to raise their voice against the regime and the extremist groups. How they were carrying the voice of the Syrian population."

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Nidal took part in the festival in 2019 and 2020, when he performed as part of his dance collective, but this year the festival is struggling with funding and there wasn't a venue for the dancers to perform in, so he found another way to present his work to the audience.

He describes his and Khaled's music as "electronic, techno, and oriental," and says the festival is an opportunity for Syrians to share their work with European audiences:

I feel that it's very important to show different sides of the story, not only the refugees passing through the sea, or living in tents or these kinds of images. We want to show that we have a very rich culture and a huge knowledge about music and the arts.

"A lot of good French people who are really supporting the project attend all the events and talk about them," he adds.

From the age of nine to 15 Nidal studied classical ballet at the Theatrical Institute for Damascus and then attended the Higher Institute for Dramatic Art. In the Syrian capital alone there were four big dance theatres and companies and an opera house and whilst some parts of society supported the dance scene there, others refused to watch it or talk about it. "As always there were many different faces of society," says Nidal.

"We were really travelling a lot and presenting our work in the Middle East and all around the world," he says of the different dance companies he went on to perform with. "At the higher institute of dramatic art there were good teachers and good people trying to share the best of the knowledge that they have to the new generation and supporting this kind of art and pushing it further."

Nidal left Syria for Lebanon when he was 20, after he was called up to do military service. "For me as a dancer and an artist it was not my thing at all. I don't know how to carry a gun. My gun is my body."

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He stayed in Lebanon until 2016 when he left as the political and economic situation there deteriorated, came to France, and founded the Collectif Nafass, a group of artists from different backgrounds drawn together by exile and loss: "Nafass in Arabic means to breathe," he explains. "I felt that that's our situation because we really get born into life with the first breath and we leave life with the last breath. So, I felt it really touched my kind of ideas about talking and finding topics about life."

Nidal earns money in several different ways besides dancing, including DJing in bars and at private parties and giving ice hockey lessons. "I'm a good roller blader," he tells me, adding that he also composes music and plays the piano, inspired by his mother who was a piano teacher. "Life is not easy. We have to fight to survive."

As a Syrian living in Europe, I ask him what he thinks about Denmark's decision that parts of his home country are now safe to go back to and that as a result Copenhagen will try to deport them.

"I think this is absolutely not right because everyone can see what the situation there is. It is obvious that Syria is not a safe territory to go back to and I don't agree with this kind of decision. It's very hard to imagine how those Syrians are feeling right now."

Emeline says that in France there was more interest in Syria in 2015, around the time of the refugee crisis in Europe. Even NGOs are holding fewer and fewer events about Syria, she adds, whilst this year's festival was close to being pulled after funding was cut. However, it is now run by volunteers and thankfully it survived.

"This is why we find it important to keep doing this, even to just remind people that there are still people suffering in Syria, that this is not over, and there are still people fighting for freedom. The festival is one of the last things that remains, and people are very attached to it."

Nidal and Khaled's DJ set will be played at Petit Bain in Paris from 9.30pm to midnight on Saturday 11 September.

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