Members of Irish dance community seek freedom for Palestinian friend

Choreographer Ata Khattab arrested by Israeli soldiers six weeks ago

Ata Khattab: has been denied access to his legal team for prolonged periods. Photograph: Akram Khan Company

Ata Khattab: has been denied access to his legal team for prolonged periods. Photograph: Akram Khan Company

 

When Palestinian dancer Ata Khattab concluded his solo piece on a Galway stage in 2017, the audience jumped to their feet and offered roars of approval and tears of emotion at a performance that was later described as being at once both stunning and heartbreaking.

The piece was based on the dancer’s memories as a small child of the frequent and prolonged absences of his father – Mohamed Ata Khattab, one of the founders of the El-Funoun Dance Troupe – who spent years in prison cells, targeted, his family say, for his work promoting Palestinian culture and identity.

Six weeks ago Ata Khattab was to meet the same fate as his father.

At 4am on the morning of February 2nd, Israeli soldiers crashed into his home in the West Bank city of Al-Bireh and Khattab was blindfolded, handcuffed, bundled into the back of a Jeep and driven to the Al Moscobiyeh detention centre.

Since he has been detained he has been denied access to his legal team for prolonged periods, kept in solitary confinement and has been “interrogated using methods defined as torture”, said Sahar Francis, director of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, an NGO that supports political prisoners.

‘Well spoken’

Members of the Irish dance community who got to know Khattab (31) when his troupe was in residence at NUI Galway and on Inis Oírr on the Aran Islands are now helping to co-ordinate an international campaign for his release, joining forces with several leading dance companies across Europe that have previously collaborated with El-Funoun.

Catherine Young, a choreographer, said the Palestinian troupe was held in very high esteem in western dance circles and on a personal level Khattab had made an extremely positive impression when he was in Ireland.

“He was really articulate, very well spoken on things in a very positive way, in terms of bringing people together. I really liked his ethos. It was about coming together,” she said. “So, there is that sense that he’s a good guy and everybody wants to help out.”

Dr Ríonach Ní Néill, who invited Khattab and his troupe to Ireland when she was dance artist in residence in Galway, said apart from being an acclaimed dancer in his own right she had also been deeply impressed with Khattab’s work as head of choreography and training with the company, where he teaches more than 400 young people the traditional Palestinian folk dance, Dabke.

“He’s a cultural leader, an entrepreneur and just a real gentleman,” she said, adding that the Dabke dance school set-up was similar to the Irish dancing system where children can start learning from a young age and go all the way up to professional level.

“It was a really beautiful cultural exchange but it was also an eye-opener about the conditions that they have to live in to do the work that we take so easily for granted here,” Ní Néill said. “So, we’ve kept in touch and actually we had plans to do a collaboration, a new piece together. Obviously, everything is now on hold because he’s been taken.”

The Israeli embassy in Dublin said Khattab “has been arrested on criminal charges and is under investigation . . . The investigation is still under way”.

“Any request for extension of detention will be brought before the courts,” a spokeswoman said.

No charges have been filed against Khattab to date, his legal team said. He last appeared in court last Monday, when the prosecutor requested another eight-day extension to his detention.

Addameer’s director Sahar Francis called the arrest “arbitrary” and said that Israeli military orders have “criminalised many forms of political and cultural expression, association, movement, and any other acts that might be considered opposing the occupation and its apartheid policies”.

The Addameer group said there are currently more than 4,400 political prisoners in Palestine, many of whom they claim are held without charge or trial.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of the case and were “monitoring developments locally” through Ireland’s representative office in Ramallah.

‘Cultural resistance’

“Ireland has consistently made clear our view that detained Palestinians, in line with Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, should be afforded the same protections and conditions that Israel affords its own citizens when detained,” he said, adding Ireland provides financial support to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs who are active in bringing these issues to light.

“The overall human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory remains a priority for Minister [for Foreign Affairs Simon] Coveney.”

The Dabke traditional dance form is often seen “as a form of cultural resistance”, Young said.

“It’s their identities. It’s when you take people’s culture, that’s when things begin to erode away. So, keeping your sense of identity and a sense of culture through your dance and music is really important.”

Remembering back to the evening when Khattab graced the Galway stage chasing images of his absent father, she recalled the dance piece was “so moving, so vulnerable; it was stunning”.

Even though Khattab was 28 when he performed that solo, “you could see what a child’s view of living like this” and longing for his father’s return was, Ní Néill said.

“And then to think that four years later Ata is now in the situation his father was, and his family is suffering, it’s heartbreaking.”

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