Article 2014 The Year in Review

Capoeira in the Levant: The impact of a black-Atlantic cultural space on displaced communities in Syria and Palestine

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian performative practice that includes elements associated with dance, martial art, music, theatre, and oral history. The capoeira game ( jogo de capoeira) itself, that is, the nonverbal dialogues improvised between two players, are normally enacted inside a human circle (roda) and is accompanied by a live percussive orchestra. [I]ts lexicon of movements, as well as its collection of rhythms, lyrics, tales, symbols, and actions, has been historically associated with the presence of Africans in Brazil and their desire to (re)shape their intersubjectivity beyond “scenes of subjection
-From Cristina Rosa’s “Playing, Fighting, and Dancing: Unpacking the Significance of Ginga within the Practice of Capoeira Angola.”

In this work I want to offer some thoughts on the significance of the black-Atlantic cultural practice of capoeira as it has recently been employed by communities in Syria and Palestine to mediate the effects of widespread displacement and violence. Communities in the Levant (Al Shams in Arabic) have been devastated by violence in the region(in both direct and structural forms) which stems from a myriad of socio-political causes (colonisation, despotism, international sanctions, military occupation, etc) and many have been forced to migrate for survival. Some cross borders and checkpoints, some flee to cities seeking safety with relatives, and many amass in sprawling refugee camps when movement has become too dangerous or simply no longer an option.

The conflict in Syria, which has been raging since 2011 has resulted in over 4 million internally displaced persons(IDPs). In Palestine, a more than 60 year-long Israeli occupation has created upwards of 7 million refugees worldwide, and results in new displacements on a daily basis, adding to the almost 250,000 Palestinian IDPs living in the Occupied Territories. In these settings, capoeira has been taken up by groups who are mobilising this art-form’s political philosophies to draw connections between struggles against domination; past, present, local and global, and using its strategies of movement to address the psycho-social trauma of displacement.

But why capoeira? Why have the practices and ideas of capoeira, born out of the seemingly disparate conditions of colonial Brazil, found application and meaning in the Levant? Are there aspects of the ‘dance-fight’ which transcend culture and geography and offer real strategies to those displaced and oppressed half a world away?

Tarek Alsaleh is the founder of Bidna Capoeira(Arabic for ‘We Want Capoeira’), an organization which teaches capoeira to young refugees in Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. Alsaleh says that ‘capoeira works in the communities that we work with because it was born from a similar need.’ To look further into the specific shared needs of displaced communities in Syria and Palestine, and how capoeira is being used to address them, it might be useful to first understand capoeira through the lens of the black Atlantic, and assess what needs gave rise to this tradition among Afro-diasporic communities in colonial Brazil.

The exilic-space of the black-Atlantic

The black-Atlantic, a concept put forth by British scholar Paul Gilroy has been used to describe the cultural and political strategies created by African communities displaced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A living archive and repository for Afro-diasporic culture and experience, the black-Atlantic has been elaborated over time, continually shaped by slavery’s legacy and the black experiences of physical and social exile within our globalised world.

One of the strongest themes to come out of Gilroy’s writing is that within the black-Atlantic there is a consistent tradition of creating expressive culture which cultivates resilience and resistance from within alternative spaces existing apart from those of the dominant society.

What is important about these sub-cultural spaces is that while the reigning oppressive societal structures(imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc) work to marginalise and exclude communities from full, autonomous participation in life, these alternative spaces are where the disenfranchised and oppressed can create the human meaning and dignity that is not afforded to them by the wider society.

These alternative spaces, termed exilic-spaces by Jamaican Scholar Obika Gray, are those social sites where the marginalised can seek refuge in order to engage in the work of ‘cultural repair’. It is in these spaces that the socially-exiled can engage in personal and community development under conditions of displacement and alienation, and mobilise these developments towards social transformation. Think of the impact of such black-Atlantic cultural phenomena as Afro-diasporic syncretic religions, music such as Jazz, Blues, Reggae, Disco, Hip Hop, etc, and the radical black politics of the American Civil Rights era: all developed from within black-Atlantic spaces.

Capoeira originated from such spaces, as oppressed and marginalised groups in colonial Brazil created spaces(both imagined and physical) to seek refuge from, and to mediate the experiences of violence and social exclusion wrought by the slave system and its legacy. Let’s take a closer look at this.

Capoeira: a short history of a Brazilian exilic-space

It was an early imperial political strategy in the Portuguese colony of Brazil to permit slaves the ‘diversions’ of song and dance in hopes that it would suppress dissent and rebellion. But what occurred was quite the opposite. In perhaps what were the only autonomous spaces permitted to them, early slave communities elaborated the artistic elements of their varied African cultures and infused them with new nuanced codes of resistance and practical self-defense strategies mandated by their life in bondage. What emerged was an acrobatic system of movements which masqueraded as dance but was in fact a truly unique form of resistance training.

The dance-fight saw much of its early innovation in the rural maroon settlements, or quilombos. In these refuges for those who fled slavery in the cities and plantations, capoeira generating the physical and mental modes of resistance that supported the maroons’ continual effort to maintain autonomy as they faced constant threat by colonial forces.

The practice would go on to take prominence amongst the racialised underclasses of Brazil’s 19th century urban centres. In the growing cities of Brazil, a greater sense of socio-ethnic diversity existed along with a multi-tiered system of racial classification which delineated social opportunities for those of African descent (both free and enslaved). In this setting, capoeira would be taken up by groups of young Afro-Brazilian men. Facing consistent unemployment, criminalisation, and social exclusion, they formed itinerant gangs of capoeiristas to provide the support networks and spaces-of-belonging not afforded to them in the wider society.

In the 20th century the strategies and histories of capoeira would be taken up by those in Brazil wishing to engender a particularly Afro-centric political and aesthetic stance within a wider context of Brazilian nationalism and identity politics. Capoeira would be used to carve out a space within both history and memory, highlighting and valorising the African elements of Brazilian culture and imbuing their stances with the liberatory vision rooted in the remembrance and experiences of slavery.

In the 1970’s Capoeira entered into a period of mass globalisation and the practice was widely taken up in North American and European cities and spread by the Brazilian diaspora elsewhere. As capoeira’s index of movements were spread throughout the world, so too were its particular inclinations towards critical history and an world-view, heavily informed by themes of Afro-diasporic exile and resistance.

Now let’s turn our focus back to Syria and Palestine to see how capoeira’s unique format of exilic-space is being adapted and deployed to mediate displacement in these contexts.

Capoeira in the Levant

In 2007 Tarek Alsaleh, began teaching Capoeira to youth in the streets of Damascus. ’We started teaching capoeira in the parks in Syria, and there were all the time children around me, so we just started providing free capoeira lessons for free” Soon after, he and fellow practitioners expanded their program to Al-Tanf refugee camp on the Syrian/Iraq border, holding classes for youth(many of whom had been displaced from Palestine). In 2010 Tarek with co-founder Ummul Choudhury and others formed the Bidna Capoeira organization(a registered UK charity) and established projects in Ramallah and in several refugee camps in Palestine.

There are others who are mobilising and spreading capoeira from within Palestine itself. The Capoeira Freedom Collective Palestine(CFCP) was formed in Ramallah as a transnational collective of capoeiristas, novice practitioners and advocates of the art-form. The group meets weekly for capoeira classes, runs a blog which posts news about upcoming rodas, as well as deeply insightful articles and communiques from capoeiristas in Palestine and elsewhere. In 2013 they organised the first international capoeira event in Palestine. The event included ’a tour of resistance from slavery to occupation” in which Palestinian and international capoeiristas travelled around the occupied West Bank, holding rodas, workshops and discussions about the significance of capoeira for the Palestinian struggle.

Histories of resistance

One of the most important ways that capoeira is impacting these displaced and occupied communities is through its role in articulating a specific understanding of history. History has always played an important and active role in capoeira, giving the physical movements the ‘gravity’ necessary to create social meaning from engaging in its practice. Capoeira historian Matthias Assunção emphasises the role of history in the dance-fight writing that:

History is paramount in contemporary capoeira practice. Not only do capoeira songs invoke famous players long dead and call to mind epic fights of the past, but they also refer to more embracing historical institutions, such as slavery and the resistance against it[.] Not only the songs, but also the entire practice constitutes a ‘commemorative performance’.

In Syria and Palestine(as in other global contexts), the performed ‘histories of resistance’ have widened to encompass forms of oppression beyond the context of Brazil. Simultaneously rooting their perspective in local and global systemic struggles, Palestinian capoeiristas draw strong analogies between the historical development of capoeira under conditions of slavery and the structures of oppression that they see as intrinsically linked to their own struggle for freedom. On their blog, the CFCP states that their group:

takes capoeira’s history of resistance against slavery and racism in Brazil seriously, and in so doing, strives to create a dynamic in which the constant struggle for freedom remains at the core of our practice. In this sense, we acknowledge that capoeira is itself a political act, and that by practicing capoeira we are identifying with a set of values that rejects oppression no matter who it involves[.] To play capoeira is to identify with a philosophy of freedom from oppression. That struggle for freedom is at the core of our practice.

Here we see an understanding of history in which the oppression that served as a catalyst for capoeira’s initial development in Brazil, is seen within a wider context of generalized oppression and domination. Through capoeira’s lens, an exilic-space has been carved out within history itself, and created a discursive space to surmount the endlessly cyclical(and obstructive) arguments over historical blame and responsibility connected to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

And while the CFCP does not mince words about the Israeli occupation of their communities, they are clear in expressing that structures of domination and oppression are not unique to their local setting but are indicative of a larger global pattern of social violence. Here the Palestinian struggle has found a sense of belonging through an understanding rooted within a larger historical and global framework of domination and resistance.

Liberation, encoded in space, encoded in the body

However, the impact of capoeira for its practitioners in Syria and Palestine goes far beyond the ability to connect them with global understandings of history and with the networks of solidarity, affinity, and hope that accompany these global narratives of domination and resistance. Perhaps the most important aspect of capoeira’s role in mediating the violences of displacement is found in its engagement with an individual’s psycho-social and physical well-being, through the principles conveyed in its aesthetics and movements.

In considering the practice of capoeira under conditions of oppression and occupation, there are specific aesthetic elements of the art-from which merit close attention. Cristina Rosa, a student, scholar, and practitioner of dance, capoeira, and ‘decolonial thought’, explains how the relational aesthetics of capoeira’s distinctive ambulating set of movements(the ginga), convey a set of values encoded in the body, which dynamically transform social and psychological space. Rosa describes capoeira strategies of mobility and sociality as such:

Beyond losers and winners, this practice recuperates-cum-invents a particular way of organising ideas corporeally and moving across time and space; of perceiving others in relation to oneself; and of constructing one’s own processes of self making in front of a participant audience. Circles of capoeira [..] may be approached, furthermore, as protective and permissive arenas, inside which players haggle, break down, mock, and surprise one another, seeking to tilt or revert the asymmetrical negotiations of power relations in their favour[.] In the process of constructing flexible choreographies of (self) identification, players also become active participants in the communities they imagine for themselves.[C]apoeira’s choreographed improvisations in general, and ginga aesthetic in particular, may be understood as non-hegemonic techniques of the self with which to deconstruct, or rather decolonize, the shame, lack of self-esteem, and sense of inferiority inculcated in the players’ bodies through colonial mechanisms of power.

When performing the ginga within the context of the roda, the player engages in an ecology of movements characterised by cathartic individual creative expression, as well as a non-dominatory social participation. In the roda, individuals are able to exist ‘as they are’, and participate in collectively forming the basis for a new constructs of belonging and meaning.

Not only does capoeira create a collectively constructed event, but structures participation along egalitarian lines. This forms an atmosphere of inclusivity and respect. All of this, works to re-code notions of conflict, belonging, and socio-political participation in a world where these themes too often find their expression through violence and exclusionary politics. At the intersection of being young and displaced, the importance of a context in which one finds belonging, and cultivates a sense of self-autonomy coupled with community cannot be overstated.

All of this makes capoeira a powerful socializing force, and here I mean more than simply gathering people in a social setting. Capoeira has the ability to socialize individuals and whole communities into new modes-of-being and interacting. A teacher at a school in Amari refugee camp in Palestine sees the impact of capoeira’s impact on the youth saying, ‘the children are less violent. They are actually listening now – they pay more attention, adapt better, and learn to accept each other.’

Return for a moment to the earlier discussion of the black-Atlantic and its foundational use of exilic-space. What seems to be encoded in black-Atlantic cultural forms is the capacity to create a refuge from surrounding conditions of oppression, marginalisation, and the stressors and pressures of social violence. As an 8 year old capoeira student in Syria states, ‘In capoeira, I forget the war’.

As the crippling social violence of daily life is temporarily suspended, the work of personal and community development can be undertaken, and the social structures which normally hold the oppressed in a state of exclusion and marginalisation can begin to be questioned, deconstructed, and overturned with new expressions of sociality and culture. It is in the bringing of bodies together within an exilic-space, and then exploring new ways to be in that space together without reproducing domination that capoeira poses its most fierce challenge to reigning social structures of control and dominance.

Moving Forward

Today, we are witness to the intense criminalization and outright vilification of those in the Levant(especially young men) who might seek stability, autonomy, and belonging by aligning themselves with various political and military factions. We might ask ourselves; are these desires so outrageous? We might also ask, if the solution to the region’s violence will really come from further political or military endeavours? Time and time again we have witnessed the cycle of violence repeat itself, as one oppressed group struggles to gain power, only to reproduce oppression and violence once power is won.

With this in mind, the lessons and solutions provided by groups such as Bidna Capoeira and the Capoeira Freedom Collective Palestine are instructive and should be raised up. Some might dismiss the potential of projects like these as only being capable of changing conditions on a hyper-local level. Social transformation simply at the level of the individual and small communities.

But isn’t it in these local spaces that all of us are socialised to reproduce the violent and oppressive narratives and repertoires that we are shown by the dominant society. Perhaps it is also in these small spaces, that new social narratives can be developed and new repertoires can be performed. Maybe we only have to find enough courage to step into the circle and play.

Sources for further reading

Capoeira:The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art, by Matthias R Assunção

Bidna Capoeira, 2013 A, ‘Capoeira in Palestine’,

Bidna Capoeira, 2013 B, ‘Why Capoeira Works’,

Capoeira Freedom Collective Palestine, 2013,

The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy.

Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica by Obika Gray

Playing, Fighting, and Dancing: Unpacking the Significance of “Ginga” within the Practice of Capoeira Angola by Cristina Rosa

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