Syria's Arada dance helps refugees make ends meet in Jordan

Performances have become popular at weddings and parties

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Singing joyfully to the beating of drums, Syrians who fled to neighbouring Jordan from their country's civil war perform Arada dances to honour their culture and earn extra income.

Their performances, featuring traditional robes and whirling swords, have become increasingly popular for occasions such as weddings and parties.

"They add an atmosphere of joy to our celebration," said Fahed Shehadeh, who hired the Bab Al Hara dance troupe in Amman to mark his sons graduating from university.

"I am Jordanian but of Syrian origin, and I brought the group because I admire their dancing skills, music, clothes and their songs," said Mr Shehadeh.

The popularity of Arada — rooted in the Arabic for "performance" — has had its songs modified to fit various celebrations.

A troupe typically comprises 10 to 20 dancers who wear loose-fitting black trousers, white cotton shirts, embroidered vests, white skullcaps and a shawl wrapped around the waist.

They carry swords and decorative shields, and the dance culminates in the performers spinning their blades in the air before engaging in ceremonial fighting.

Troupe leader Moutaz Boulad, 60, said Arada had grown in popularity in Amman, with daily events in the summer months and several engagements each week in winter.

Mr Boulad, who left Syria in 1988, says the shows have become an important means to earn cash for some of those who fled the war that erupted in 2011.

"Some of the dancers were not good when they first came to us, but they learned from my sons and I in order to improve their financial situation," he said.

Syria's war is estimated to have killed nearly half a million people and displaced millions; more than 6.6 million fled to neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Jordan hosts almost 650,000 Syrians registered with the United Nations, but Amman estimates close to 1.3 million Syrians have arrived since 2011.

The UN said close to 80 per cent of Syrians in Jordan live below the national poverty line, surviving on $3 per day or less.

Mr Boulad said his dancers came from various professional backgrounds.

"Most dancers have different jobs beside the Arada," he said. "Some are university students, accountants, restaurant workers, tailors and electricians — but this is something that gives an amount of money to help cope with life."

For dancers like Ahmed Abu Shadi, 43, who fled Syria in 2013 and works as a plumber, performing the Arada helps him raise his three children.

For Arada, they pay me 15 dinars every time I go out to dance. Although it is a small amount, it helps in my life
Ahmed Abu Shadi, Syrian refugee

"With plumbing there are days when I work, and days with no customers," he said. "For Arada, they pay me 15 dinars [$20] every time I go out to dance. Although it is a small amount, it helps in my life."

Another member, who works in a medical laboratory and asked for his name to be withheld, fled the Syrian city of Homs in 2018.

The dancing adds about $300 each month to his $700 salary to help support his family while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed through the UN refugee agency.

"I have applied for asylum through the UNHCR and hope we can start a new life abroad," he said.

Despite displacement and financial challenges, dancing the Arada remains a key part of Ahmed Abu Shadi's life.

"This dance is a very important part of our Syrian identity, heritage, culture and our daily life — we must preserve and teach it to our children and grandchildren," he said.

"This art is in my blood, I love it, I can't imagine myself, my life without this."

He dreams of one day dancing again on his home soil.

"I will continue to dance wherever I go," he said.

"But of course, I prefer that the situation improves one day so that we can all return to our country, Syria."

Updated: July 08, 2022, 9:01 AM