Syria: Raqqa Dance Troupe Branded Apostates

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Members of the Syrian dancing group "Gulanar" perform "The Syrian Stone" during the The Arab Syrian Culture festival in Baghdad on 24 June 2013. (Photo: AFP -Ali al-Saadi)

By: Firas al-Hakkar

Published Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Raqqa Popular Dance Troupe was established in 1968, the same year the Lebanese dance troupe Caracalla was founded by Abdel-Halim Caracalla. Specializing in folkloric dance, the Syrian troupe earned major successes and became widely known.

Its fame traveled beyond the Arab world, performing in theaters in London, Paris, and Italy. In 1986 the troupe earned first place in Paris for its show “Bourj Alia,” meaning Alia’s Tower, and was awarded a gold medal in a competition against 76 international dance troupes.

As its fame grew, its name became associated with important figures in the art world, including the artist Nouri Iskander, the Arab composer Zaki Nassif, the composer Charbel Rouhana, and the poet Mahmoud Zakhira who wrote some of the group’s most famous musicals.

The late writer, Abdul-Salam Ojeili, anonymously scripted most of the dance troupe’s theatrical works. He held this secret throughout his life out of respect for the feelings of the rural community from which he came.

Ojeili said, “The troupe’s members did not intend to take up art as a profession. They came from their schools driven by a love of music, dancing, and singing to follow up on their rigorous and persistent training under the management of this self-made artist [Ismail Ojeili], and worshipper at the altar of art, continuing to perform in the troupe throughout their youth.”

The founder and dance instructor of Raqqa Folklore Dance Troupe, Ismail Ojeili, spends his days now between Damascus and Beirut.

He told Al-Akhbar how he, along with members of his troupe, fled from the city of Raqqa after they were accused of apostasy. “We received several threats before armed Islamist brigades entered the city, and so we were awaiting our ‘just punishment.’ As soon as they entered the city, and while they were still preoccupied with collecting the spoils of war and divvying up furniture and machines from governmental institutions, we took the chance to escape the bullets and black smoke.”

Twenty-five male and female dancers fled in the middle of a March night to safer cities and provinces after the black flags of Islamist movements that conquered Raqqa pushed them out.

Ojeili lamented: “We left the city of Raqqa, which we had always been loyal to.”

Ibrahim al-Akhras, the troupe’s 60-year-old rebab player (a bowed string instrument), is also wanted for apostasy and is now living as a fugitive. But how long can this last?

He moves with his rebab from one house to another and from one city to another. They seized his car and arrested his son pending further investigations. Akhras, who inherited his beautiful voice from his mother, has been with the troupe since 1984. Now he keeps a low profile for fear of “divine justice.”

The troupe presented a beautiful panoramic portrait as its members hailed from all Syrian cities and provinces: Tartus, Raqqa, Qamishli, Latakia and Homs. Most of them were young men and women who joined the troupe while still in high school and stayed with it until they finished college.

In October 2008, the troupe performed in Palmyra in the presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the then-emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. They presented a folklore extravaganza titled “The Wedding” at the request of the emir who is enamored with Bedouin Syrian heritage.

The troupe has been receiving generous Qatari offers. Contacts are ongoing between official Qatari cultural institutions and Ismail Ojeili, the troupe’s trainer and instructor.

“We’ve been out of Raqqa now for five months and the Qatari contacts have not stopped. Major offers were heaped on us, contracts worth thousands of dollars. Salaries for all the members, social security and permanent work permits. Our answer was a categorical no,” says Ojeili. “It is impossible to shake a hand stained with the blood of our relatives and people even if the alternative is the disintegration of the troupe and its total collapse. Money does not make up for one’s country and the deeply-rooted Syrian traditions cannot b domesticated in vulgar cultures and societies.”

The only way to revive the troupe now is to find a sponsor. Ojeili does not know if the Syrian culture ministry has the desire to take on this role.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Would love to see this show. Dear Lord we have dangerous fools running the ME & even worse ones to come.

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