Ahmed Ghraiz is wrapped up warmly against the cold. It’s dark inside the dance centre in which he sits, the occasional teenage voice echoing loudly in the background. There is no electricity and little light, while a car battery has been wired up to his laptop in an attempt to generate power. The moment the internet router is turned on, the battery dies. “I tell you, I’m really suffering in this situation,” he says with exasperation.
Sporting a trademark beanie hat, Ahmed is doing his best to sound upbeat. Sometimes he succeeds, other times demoralisation creeps in. “You know, if I wasn’t a dancer I wouldn’t be alive,” he admits. “When I walk in the street I see people around me who are not alive. Their lives have the same routine, the same tedium. This is what the situation in Gaza has done to them. It has worn them down.
“Dancing is inside me, but every dancer will never be complete. Every person should learn new things every hour and every day and even if I think I’m complete as a dancer and I don’t need to learn, the opposite is true. I need to learn. I have to learn and this is what frustrates me about our situation in Gaza. We aren’t learning. We are on our own.”
At 26 Ahmed is older than many of the other members of the Camps Breakerz Crew, a group of breakdancers and body poppers who first came together in 2003. Formed primarily as a reaction to the harshness of life in Gaza, the group has attempted to forge a new lifestyle for itself and for the teenagers it teaches in the Nuseirat refugee camp; one that is based on peace and love rather than violence. Mixing breakdance moves with drama and elements of self-expression, Camps Breakerz is essentially resistance through hip hop.
It is also the world’s most cut-off B-boy crew. There are no teams for them to battle against, foreign crews are not allowed to enter the strip, and no international companies will sponsor them. Even the other three elements of hip hop culture – rap, graffiti and turntablism – are all but absent, with only a handful of practitioners scattered across the occupied territory.
Yet in a similar fashion to other proponents across the Arab world, the crew upholds the original tenets of hip hop culture by promoting unity, peace, love, truth and respect, although as a Western form of expression within a conservative Arab society, it hasn’t been easy. Community scepticism, isolation, despair and the destructive forces of war have all formed barriers, with the group’s original training space – a rented dance studio in the central Gaza Strip – bombed and demolished during the war of 2008-2009. Perseverance, however, led them to successfully crowdfund for a new dance centre in 2012, and it is within this centre that Ahmed now sits.
“It’s easy to get upset and for my crew members to get upset, because sometimes the community is not paying any attention to us and to our dancing. The world too,” says Ahmed, who is also known as B-boy Shark. “We were in touch with companies like Red Bull – because they organise B-boy events around the world – but they ignored us. Do you know what they said? They wanted us to go to Israel. They wanted us to have a battle there and to join the international competition. I told them, ‘do you know that I can’t even get out of the Gaza Strip and go to Jerusalem?’ They think we can just get into a car and drive to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, like it’s no problem. It is not like this. We live in a giant open prison.”
Marginalised and disenfranchised youth the world over have turned to music and dance for some form of salvation and solace. In Gaza, however, marginalisation doesn’t even come close to describing the situation in which they live. The unemployment rate in the strip is 40.8 per cent, while youth unemployment stands at more than 50 per cent, with its frustrated youth often caught between despair and revenge and the lure of armed resistance. Densely populated and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade on goods and people, the situation has only worsened since last summer’s war, with the erosion of Gaza’s economy compounded by the destruction of hundreds of factories and the crackdown on the network of tunnels that fuelled the territory’s black market.
The sense of despair felt by Gazan youth was articulated by a group called Gaza Youth Breaks Out back in 2011, when it released a manifesto for change that went viral. “We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community,” it read. “We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16’s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this situation we live in; we are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom. We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.”
For Camps Breakerz, breakdancing is a form of escape or release from much of the pressure mentioned above. It is also a demonstration of capability and flair, which many of those living within Gaza City initially believed inhabitants of the camps did not have, according to Ahmed’s brother, Mohammed Ghraiz. It is one of the reasons why he established the crew 12 years ago.
“We wanted to show the people of Gaza City that the camps do have talent and skill, because some people in Gaza City believe we are uneducated and closed-minded,” says Mohammed. “In the beginning we used to dance in a small sports club where we hid ourselves, improving our levels and thinking how we should spread this new culture between the communities of Gaza. Our dancing became mixed with drama and art in order to explain ourselves better to the people. This way we became connected with the community.”
That connection goes relatively deep. The crew, which numbers nine, teaches children dance and carries out workshops with NGOs, while it recently sought funds for another academy in northern Gaza, with its Indiegogo (a crowdfunding site) target of $7,500 reached a few days before the campaign closed on 26 February. With the money it plans to open a dance centre in Shuja’iyya in the northwest of the Gaza Strip, one of the areas most devastated by last summer’s war and the scene of the Battle of Shuja’iyya, one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war between Israel and Hamas.
The crew’s goals are to establish dance academies across Gaza and the wider Middle East; to create exchange programmes with breakdancers around the world; to spread equality and women’s rights in Gaza; and to build an international network called Dance Gaza.
Isolation, however, comes with a price. The group is self-taught, with Mohammed first discovering breakdance through B-boy videos on MTV. Everything the crew performs has been learnt from the internet, with spins, stabs, flares and top-rocking performed well given the circumstances, but only interaction with the outside world will enable them to improve. Ahmed in particular is frustrated, with the ability to master more complex moves currently beyond their reach.
“We have been trying to bring over breakdancers from the US because we need something positive,” he says. “To jump to another level. Because when we practice it’s the same thing, the same guys, the same levels, the same moves. We need new people, we need new faces, we need psychological support from breakdancers who will come to visit us. We need that push up. That’s why we’re trying to organise a tour for our team in Europe this summer. If we do this it will be amazing. We will come back to Gaza and we’ll be fresh and have clean minds.”
“If there were no siege we would be travelling and learning a lot about dancing,” adds Mohammed, who is known as B-boy Funk. “We would be performing all year, around the world, but we can’t travel and get out of Gaza.”
Limited to local shows and performances, without access to other crews, and with no meaningful interaction with the outside world, the crew is essentially treading water.
“Our minds think of life, surviving, money, then dancing,” says Mohammed. “We do not put dancing first in Gaza because we need life to dance. We fight and struggle finding life to dance. All this because of the siege that’s been here even before Hamas took over Gaza. We are educated and graduated from school and universities in Gaza, but there are no jobs for any of us. We have to find ways to make a living.”
For some that has meant leaving Gaza, Mohammed amongst them. He is dancing, studying and teaching in the US, while another member – Belal Abu Shaweesh – has moved to Norway with his family to find a better life. Both still represent Camps Breakerz.
“There is not enough food in Gaza for dancers to eat well and gain enough energy,” says Mohammed. “There are no jobs, so we have to take care of our students by receiving donations every now and then so we can cover their needs as dancers. There are no embassies in Gaza for us to get visas. The border with Egypt closes more than it opens. We are Palestinians and counted as terrorists by governments no matter what we do or believe.”
What do you believe?
“We believe people need peace and human rights in Gaza and that dancing is the way. We teach our students how to live in peace and to respect others’ rights and religions.”
Theirs is a basic existence. All the trappings usually associated with breakdance and hip hop culture simply do not exist. Sound systems, decent venues, DJs, beatboxers and the urban clothing worn by breakdancers worldwide are conspicuous by their absence. This is breakdancing stripped to its bare essentials. Videos of them online show the crew performing on pieces of cardboard stuck together with masking tape amidst the rubble of their former dance centre home. Others are minimalist and amateur in production but their skills as breakdancers are evident.
“Whoever you are and whatever you believe in, we are on the same line as you,” says Mohammed. “We are people who want to have options to live as equally as you do. Our problem is not Hamas or our communities. Our problem is that we are victims of political games that are being played in the name of God and religion. We are just humans, but we love living in Gaza and fighting to make changes. Please stand by us and support us anyhow you can.”
* A version of this article was published in Emirates Man, April 2015