Arab Heritage: Dancing around the Subject

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter-  Arm in arm, the five boys rhythmically move around their teacher, stomping in perfect unison every few steps. Most the time anyway. They’ve been practicing dubke, an Arab folk dance, all morning and they are getting tired.

With the big show just a few weeks away, they’ve worked out most of the glitches and feel increasingly confident.

Annas Khalaifeh, the 11-year-old captain of the group has been dancing dubke at the Arabic Saturday School at School 9 in Paterson, N.J., for five years.  The son of Palestinian parents but who has lived his whole life in the U.S., Annas believes this year will be the most impressive performance yet.

“We’re going to pump it up,” he said.

The event on Dec. 15 will be a showcase of all the work that the approximately 150 students have done throughout the semester. Alongside the dubke, traditional Arabic embroidery, pottery and calligraphy will also be on display. There is no age limit at the school but the vast majority of kids are between six and 13 years old.

As the dubke continues on stage, Ekhlas Nadi, 40, teaches a pottery class from the back of the dining hall. She is one of eight teachers at the school and has been working at the Arabic Saturday School for 9 years.

She has the cool hand of someone who has been teaching this class for a while. Earlier while spray-painting the pots for the children, she wasn’t so careful. Ripples of gold paint now glisten off her trousers. “I paint my pants too, I’m going to paint them gold,” Nadi said jokingly to the class.

The Saturday School has been running for 14 years and is supported by the Arab-American Civic Organization and Paterson’s Board of Education. The program runs for three hours every Saturday during the term and aims to provide students with a grounding in Arabic reading and writing as well as giving them an insight into Arabic culture and tradition. The class is decidedly about Arab culture and not about religion. In fact, several kids of non-Arab descent also attend the Saturday School. The classes are open to all who wish to learn about Arab culture and language.

Mahmoud Attallah, 51, who is an advisor to the School believes that these types of initiatives are vital in changing how many Arabs are perceived in America. “We want to change this stereotype of Arabs,” Attallah said. “Come see what their culture is all about.”

The school program, which does not charge students fees, relies on the annual $30,000 budget provided by the Paterson Board of Education, according to Attallah.

Hatim Elassal, 12, watches Annas and the dubke dancers from a distance. He didn’t make the team this year but he isn’t too concerned. His passions lie in numbers rather than in dance.

“I want to have my own laboratory with a chalkboard full of equations. Really hard ones,” Hatim said. “It’s like a big puzzle and it’s really easy for me.”

Although he won’t be in the spotlight, Hatim knows that the event is important to the Arabic Saturday School. Members of the Board of Education should be making an appearance. Hatim has done the math.

“If they see we’re not doing a good job they’ll probably cancel the programs and not give us any more funds,” he said.

While Nadi firmly believes the members of the Board of Education will be delighted with what they see, she agrees that the students need to impress. “Feedback we will see when they give the budget.” Attallah said that the school is growing in popularity and there are even plans of extending the program for older students. The organizers hope to have an extended program for teens set up next year.

The Principle of the Arabic Saturday School, Dr. Koran Korach, 56, is not surprised that the program is growing. He believes that it is important for the Arab-American community to have kids both immerse themselves in American life while keeping their Arabic heritage alive, especially the language. He feels that his school is effective in doing that.

“The 21st Century philosophy of education. When you have music, painting, all of that, it makes it easy to learn language,” Korach said.

Olfat Jamhour, 32, has four children that attend the Arabic Saturday School. She also thinks it’s vital for her kids not to lose touch with their roots.

“It’s the most important and they can speak in the house and for families overseas,” Jamhour said.

Yet, she said that the education the school provides isn’t thorough enough and has to teach her children at home too.  “It’s the basic stuff. I want my kids to learn the whole package.”

She is also concerned that currently there is no program running that’s designed for older children. “If they learnt it there should be more stuff to keep studying,” Jamhour said. “What’s the point if you’ll forget it?”

However, Annas, the youthful captain of the dubke team, dances to a different beat. He feels that if the student is enthusiastic, he or she won’t lose the language skills.

“If the kid would want to learn Arabic he comes with all his heart he won’t forget.”







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