Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – When 50-year-old Jorge Goia first came to the West Bank, he immediately realised that there were deep-rooted links between the historical origins of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art to which he is deeply devoted, and its potential uses here in the occupied territories.
“This was really bringing capoeira back to its roots, supporting and preparing people who were under oppression to resist,” he told Al Jazeera.
When African slaves arrived in Brazil during its colonial rule by Portugal, their new owners would immediately break up families and communities, a strategy designed to reduce the risk of revolt. For the same reason, self-defence and fitness training was also prohibited.
But slaves found creative ways to resist, developing a martial art practiced to the sound of African music and disguised as a form of traditional dance. Capoeira was born.
Goia, a Brazilian based in the UK who has studied capoeira for many years, first came to the West Bank to work with an international NGO running capoeira workshops in refugee camps. As the NGO’s funding dried up, he and a fellow Canadian capoeirista known as Peruca launched the Capoeira Freedom Collective-Palestine, which from August 2013 has been running regular workshops in Ramallah introducing the martial art to a new Palestinian audience.
There was no capoeira in the West Bank, and we wanted our own Palestinian group to represent us.
This was not the first grassroots Palestinian capoeira group. Mohammad Zugheir has been practicing capoeira for four years, at first with Israelis in Jerusalem because there were no Palestinian groups. “But then we left and started our own group in the Old City,” he said. “There was no capoeira in the West Bank, and we wanted our own Palestinian group to represent us.”
One of the initial projects of the Capoeira Freedom Collective was to coordinate a tour, bringing capoeiristas from around the world to the Palestinian territories. The aim was to raise the profile of the sport through workshops and performances in various cities, as well as showing the capoeiristas the political realities faced by Palestinians.
Mariam Dagher from Ramallah had never done capoeira before, but joined one of the tour’s collective workshops in the city’s Orthodox Club. “I am interested because it seems a wonderful sport and dance, and in some ways I am linked to Latin America. I have an aunt in Brazil, and I would like to go there and carry a Brazilian dance with me.”
Having read about the history of the sport, Dagher also sees the links to the Palestinian political environment but is unsure how useful capoeira could be as a tool of resistance today. “Here in Palestine, we are struggling against all kinds of Israeli oppression, so it’s similar in some ways to capoeira’s history,” she said. “As a form of resistance it could be useful for us, but I don’t think it would be as strong as it was before.”
While enthusiastic and dedicated, Mohammad believes that as a martial art form, capoeira would face very different challenges in Palestine today from those it faced in Brazil hundreds of years ago. “Now is not like before, because the slaves were struggling against knives and sticks – but now we are struggling against Israeli bombs and guns.”
African slaves prepared themselves for escape attempts with capoeira. They trained vigorously, confident in the knowledge that if they had to defend themselves they would have the skills with which to do so. For many Palestinians today, resistance is the goal – not escape. Could capoeira have applications more relevant to this struggle?
Goia says capoeira as originally practiced in Brazil was not only focused on self-defence: “They did not just use capoeira to fight; they used capoeira to bring people together and prepare them to change the social environment where they lived in order to develop the community. People here often talk about the next intifada… but when the real fighting begins there must be a strong community behind it.”
Interestingly, capoeira has a large following within Israeli settlements as well as within Israel itself. The Capoiera Freedom Collective sees this issue as part of a wider discussion that must be opened up. Peruca explained: “One of the aims of the tour was to bring the capoeira world into the discussion about Palestine. The tour was a starting point and now we can begin to discuss how the politics of capoeira relate to the issues of Israeli settlements and Israeli apartheid. We didn’t want to impose our personal views on tour participants but we introduced them to Palestinian activists, took them to see the situation here, and gave them the space to discuss and think amongst themselves about what this meant in terms of capoeira.”
Many tour participants were deeply moved by what they learned and shared in Palestine. Ideas for international capoeira dances, known as “rodas”, in solidarity with Palestine were suggested, and the traditional chants to which the sport is performed were adapted to include chants of Palestinian solidarity. Could this work lead towards a more concrete political position from the capoeira community?
Peruca believes there is much work yet to be done as the sport has such a huge following in Israel, yet is still largely unknown in the Palestinian territories. “This is a starting point, and there’s lots of work to be done, but I hope that maybe one day we could take up a similar position to the cultural boycott campaign.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is based on a set of principles established in 2004 that calls for a boycott of Israel until it complies with international law regarding the Palestinian territories.
While Goia says it is too early for a collective position to be adopted on the issue, he is clear on where he stands: “If there are people oppressing other people, there comes a time when you must take a stand. You must jump to one side, and I believe that the capoeira community must jump to the Palestinian side. I know the realities here, and because of that I would not play capoeira in Israel now. Others do, but maybe they don’t know the realities yet, or don’t want to know.”