2/19 | Syria’s Fraught Balance: Movement, Politics, and Dabke Performance


Syria’s Fraught Balance: Movement, Politics, and Dabke Performance
With Shayna Silverstein, followed by a conversation with Deena Chalabi

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 | 5:00-7:00pm
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley

Co-sponsored by Arts Research Center, the Music Department, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department


Within the deep pessimism of the Syrian conflict remain moments of joyful action – performances of collectivity, commitment, and unity, however fleeting. I explore this tension through the ethos of movement – ḥarake in Syrian Arabic ­– as a marker of semantic, embodied, and political domains. Through an analysis of how embodied tactics negotiate power and space in authoritarian and repressive regimes, I focus on the popular dance music practice known as dabke. I draw on specific aesthetic motifs and forms of the practice, including flow, balance, and its circular form, as heuristics for social analysis in order to examine how bodies in motion performatively constitute relations of self and society. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, I argue that dabke is not only a metaphor for social (in)stability, it also generates societal divisiveness, socio-economic inequity, and intergroup conflict. I analyze this fraught balance of power and difference in Syrian society by demonstrating how dabke, as a movement-based domain of performance, has paradoxically contributed to the isolation and fragmentation of Syria at the moment of its undoing.


Shayna Silverstein is an assistant professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research examines the politics and aesthetics of sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East, with a focus on Syria. Her recent publications include essays in Music & Politics, Remapping Sound Studies (Duke Press), Punk Ethnography (Wesleyan Press), Islam and Popular Culture (University of Texas Press), and an audiography in [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image. Her current book project analyzes body, performance, and culture in prewar and wartime Syria through an ethnography of popular Syrian dance music. Her research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, and Buffett Institute at Northwestern University. 

Deena Chalabi is a writer and curator whose work explores relationships between individual expression, critical thought, and public imagination. As the Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Dialogue at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2014-2019), she devised and co-curated Public Knowledge, a multifaceted initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that looked at the changing city and knowledge in the digital age, in partnership with the San Francisco Public Library. Deena was also the founding Head of Strategy at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, which opened to the public in December 2010. She was a Columnist in Residence at Open Space in the summer of 2019 and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley (2019-20). She lives in Oakland and is working on her first book.