Kurdish dancer HUSSEIN SMKO talks to Dana Naomy Mills about how he’s shaping a truthful response to Islamophobia in his new work
FROM Donald Trump’s notorious Muslim travel ban, through the recent assault outside the Finsbury Park mosque and acid attacks on Muslims by right-wing terrorists, Islamophobia has been in the news far too often, with a 13 per cent spike in such hate crimes in Britain over the past year.
In this country and the US, those incidents and statistics are galvanising many to rethink the way we understand and fight against Islamophobia and one young Kurdish dancer is setting an intriguing example of ways to raise consciousness through dance.
Hussein Smko, 24, was born in Erbil, Iraq. The story of his life has been one of war and conflict but it’s also been one of a passion for dance, which started when a US soldier showed him dance clips on his iPhone.
The only war to which he is now devoted is in defence of humanity. “An artist is only a soldier of Mother Nature,” he says. His dancing can’t be expressed through words —“You have to see me dance, that shows how much I love the art form” — and he’s about to demonstrate that passion in his new work Islamophobia which debuts at the Battery Dance Festival in New York.
Smko recognises that Islamophobia is a “very delicate” subject, “so I’m trying to give a different view of religious beliefs and our convictions — every race is bound by the knowledge that we receive and what matters is how you use this power. The inspiration for the work is the Quran and how much knowledge it brings to our political challenges.”
The dancer has been living and working in New York this year with the renowned Battery Dance, a company creating groundbreaking work in combining dance with issues of social justice for more than half a century, and he’s the first beneficiary of the company’s Adel Euro Campaign for Dancers Seeking Refuge.
“We aspire to make dances that stir the emotions and spark thoughtful consideration of issues that may be difficult to put into words,” Battery’s artistic director and founder Jonathan Hollander says. “I have paired Hussein with Riyadh Mohammed, a brilliant journalist from Baghdad, a political asylee in the US, who experienced the ravages of war in a very personal way.
“Through spoken word and dance, presented by two very admirable and inspiring Iraqis, we hope to remind our audience of the talent and beauty that grows in the Middle East and to create a sense of fellowship and common humanity that is too often painted over by the fear generated by terrorist acts and extremism.
“Through the abstraction of art, hearts and minds can be touched in a way that cuts through the partisan divide. Our world is being swept by hate speech and heinous attacks against individuals and communities and the cultural heritage is being destroyed.”
There’s a new level of urgency, he stresses, to “reach out beyond our own enclaves and to listen, observe, learn and create together” and recent Battery productions have involved collaborations with artists from India, Iraq, Romania, Syria and Tunisia in addition to addressing refugee integration in Germany and arts empowerment in the US heartlands, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Smko echoes those aspirations. “Islamophobia is everywhere in the world in different forms,” he stresses. “We as artists must take these situations and turn them into what we believe the most crucial things in life — harmony, love and, most importantly, peace.
“We can make an impact on the mind of an individual, inspire hope in each other and grow from there.”
Smko’s challenging and inspiring words are a reminder that that there is no end to the impact the human body in movement can make in passing on a sense of love to other moved and moving bodies. As that First Lady of American dance Martha Graham once said: “Movement never lies.”
Let’s hope we get a chance to witness that truth in Britain.
Hussein Smko: Islamophobia, runs from August 13-18 at the Battery Dance Festival in Robert F Wagner Jr Park, New York, details: batterydance.org