A dance of joy, mourning and violence

BEIRUT: The daughter of the Prophet Mohammad, wife of Ali and mother of his only two descendants, Hasan and Hussein, Fatima is one of the most venerated women in Islam. Like those of the male members of her family, hers remains one of the most popular Muslim names, appearing again and again over the centuries.The starting point for “Fatmeh,” a new dance performance opening at Masrah al-Madina at the end of the month, was the impassioned voice of Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress Umm Kalthoum, born Fatima Ibrahim.

Choreographed and directed by Ali Chahrour and performed by actress Umama Hamido and filmmaker Rania Rafei, the performance evokes generations of Fatimas “plagued by separation and death,” exploring traditional rituals and public expressions of sorrow and mourning in the Arab world.

“It started with Umm Kalthoum and the relationship between the body and religion,” Chahrour says. “Afterward Rania and Umama pushed the ideas to go beyond Umm Kalthoum’s singing ... toward something more personal.”

“What we found in Umm Kalthoum’s songs is that she sings for love,” Hamido adds, “but with grief, with extreme sadness. Extreme joy and sorrow are very close [to one another].”

Inspired by public rituals of religious devotion like Ashoura – when some Shiites mourn the death of Ali’s son Hussein with tears and self-flagellation – as well as wedding and funeral rites, Chahrour worked with the two performers to create a 50-minute performance that evokes the passion, anger, love and sorrow provoked by the death of a loved one.

“We started from tragedies,” says Chahrour. “From Medea. From Ophelia. My main influence was the videos that I saw on YouTube of women in the Arab world crying and wailing and mourning. So we started from this quality of movement that links directly to the Arab world. You can’t see this particular mode of expression elsewhere.”

Chahrour, who studied contemporary dance and has previously directed two performances starring professional dancers, says that he had to take a different approach when directing Hamido and Rafei, neither of whom trained as dancers.

“My research in dance movement was very important because I discovered that I couldn’t just plan a dance and then execute it,” he explains. “It had to be an organic work, where I followed the quality of movement of the dancers themselves. These movements of Rania and Umama ... were important because they were spontaneous, not the result of learnt techniques.”

The result is a unique performance imbued with raw energy, the dancers’ unpolished movements amplifying the work’s intensity.

“What I really like about this show is that it doesn’t try to imitate Western dance,” Rafei says. “It searches for its own Arab vocabulary. Modern dance comes from Europe and for a long time we’ve been trying to do it like them, so I’ve never seen something like this work, where you feel like the movements come from here.”

The performance consists of five chapters, beginning with the epilogue and ending with the prologue, to symbolize the never-ending cycle of birth, death and mourning. The opening scene lasts 11 minutes, during which time the two women violently pound their chests, entering into a trancelike state achieved by participants in Ashoura rituals.

“This scene seems painful but at the same time there is pleasure in it,” Chahrour says, “both for the audience and the one who is enacting it. This idea is very important because it shows how we build on sorrow and on mourning. It starts becoming a part of our lives ... You start to get your pleasure from this pain.”

As the two women move together, Hamido exudes anger, strength and determination, while Rafei appears more vulnerable, as though weighed down by sorrow.

This aspect of the performance was unintentional, they explain, but the result – seeing two facets of a single woman torn by grief – is visually powerful.

Asked if the performance aims to explore grief as it is experienced and expressed by women, or people generally, the team hesitates to reply.

“It’s sensitive,” Hamido says.

“I think that always present in this show is the sacrifice of the son and the absence of the man,” Rafei says, “which is very present in our society, because you see women mourning their sons or their husband lost in war all the time. So there’s something in this relationship between the man, the Prophet, the God – and the woman mourning and conveying this sadness.”

“For me it starts from a very personal level,” Chahrour adds. “It starts from my mother – also Fatmeh. She used to cry for years over the death of my father. We always have this idea that the woman is the one who mourns.

“It’s also women who express themselves through dance, particularly among young Arabs ... I would love to do this performance again with two men, it would be very interesting, but it’s not possible because there is no culture of dance and the body language is different. They are used to keeping themselves under control.”

During the performance Hamido and Rafei are dressed in simple black garments. Cleverly designed (by Beirut brand Bird on a Wire) to transform from flowing skirts to full-length black dresses, they also serve as veils for the hair and face. The black fabric swirls and flutters through the air as the dancers move in an ecstasy of rage and sorrow.

Sequences that begin as dances of celebration gradually transform to become a physical and emotional outpouring of sorrow, anger and pain. Some may find these climactic moments reminiscent of Sufi practices, many of which employ ritual movement to propel practitioners into a trance-like state.

The performance closes with a burst of song by Hamido, her voice shaking with emotion as she sings the words of a poem attributed to Fatima upon the death of the Prophet Mohammad.

The performers explore the similarities between wedding and funeral dances. Veering from celebration to sorrow, belly dancing too becomes something darker.

“It transforms from something a little bit sexual, seductive,” says Rafei, “to this state of mourning, of sadness and of violence. I think in the Arab world we are all this time on this line between sexuality, extreme expressions of joy and extreme expression of violence.”

“Fatmeh” will run from Jan. 30 until Feb. 2 at Hamra’s Masrah al-Madina. For more information please visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 23, 2014, on page 16.




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