Controversy over Israeli Dance Troupe in Kenya Backfires

A leader of the Jewish community here expressed satisfaction that Kenya did not bow to Arab pressure to cancel the performances of the Israeli Bat Dor dance troupe at the National Theatre. Ivor Davis, a former president of the Council of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and its public affairs person, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the troupe’s final performance (May II) that "the government of Kenya stood firm, that is the important thing."

Barry Swersky, general manager of Bat Dor, told reporters that "politically a great point was proved — the Kenyan government said no to the Arabs. The performances took place." A local critic, Nigel Slade of the English-language daily the Standard (circulation 58,000), praised the performance of the troupe, adding: "With greatly becoming dignity, the government quietly ignored (the calls to cancel the run), having made its stand clear."

Calls to cancel the troupe’s scheduled appearance in Nairobi after its performances in Zaire came from the PLO mission, the Libyan Embassy and the Arab League office in Nairobi, and were printed in only one of the three English-language dailies, the Nation. This newspaper, owned by the Aga Khan family, with a circulation of 100,000, attempted for an entire week to generate opposition to the performances by claiming "unconfirmed rumors" of wide disapproval and using strident front-page banner headlines and stories, plus editorials to highlight statements by the Arabs and local politicians.

All the Arab statements indicated that relations between Kenya and the Arab states would be damaged if the show went on. The PLO statement expressed "deep concern" over the "political implications" of the performance "at a time when the Afro-Arab relationship is growing steadily."

It called on the Israeli "mercenary multinational teams to bring with it some pictures of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila (camps) in Lebanon, and then everyone will believe in their skill of how to dance on the skulls of Palestinian and Lebanese women and children."

LIBYA TRIES TO EXERT PRESSURE

The first of two Libyan statements called the visit a "premeditated act aimed at provoking and humiliating the Libyan national (soccer) players" whose game with the Kenyan team was scheduled the same day as Bat Dor’s premiere. (The Kenyans won the match 1-0). The Israeli tour, continued the Libyans, will wreck "the bond of brotherhood and bilateral relations" between Kenya and Libya, "and pro-Arab relations in general."

In the second Libyan statement, which appeared in an interview with the Nation on the day of the troupe’s first performance, the Charge d’ Affaires, Taher Ettoumi, said that the good work Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi is doing as president of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) "was being undermined by the Kenyan authorities who allowed the Israelis to perform in Nairobi."

Along similar lines, the Charge d’Affaires of the Arab League Mission in Nairobi, Abdul Salaam Al-Azoumi, claimed that it was obvious that the visit "is a conspiracy to discredit the Kenyan government" and its support for peace in the Middle East.

Despite, or perhaps partly because of all the publicity surrounding the performances, the run in the National Theatre, which seats 500, was sold out, with two shows being added on to the originally scheduled five. Arrangements had also been made for several foreign companies to buy blocks of seats for free distribution to Kenyan students. Security at the theater was tight; people were checked by metal detectors, which picked up two pistols on one night and a knife on another.

FRIENDLY MEDIA REPORTS

The Bat Dor Troupe, Swersky said, had at the end of April signed a lease with the National Theatre. The theater followed the usual procedure of applying for and receiving a stage play license from the office of the Provincial Commissioner for the Nairobi area, Fred Waiganjo.

A news conference on April 24 by the troupe’s advance people led to what Swersky characterized as "fairly friendly reports" in the press and a 13-minute segment on the current affairs program of the government-controlled television station.

The Standard mentioned in its story that one of the works, "And After," choreographed by Black American Gene Hill Sagan was a "comment on war dedicated to a dancer friend who fell fighting in the Golan Heights during the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt." The Nation ran a similar description of this work.

The trouble began on April 30, when The Times (circulation 35,000), the English-language daily of the Kenya African National Union, the ruling political party, ran a story saying that "a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Minister has confirmed they (sic) are not aware of the circumstances under which the Israel dancing group Bat Dor was licensed to perform in Nairobi."

The same day, Swersky received a letter from the Provincial Commissioner cancelling the permit and telling him to stop transactions based on it. The letter was cancelled several days later, and the theatre told to ignore it. The Provincial Commissioner was quoted in the Nation on May 4 as stating, "we see nothing wrong in the group performing a cultural dance in Kenya."

PHRASE SEIZED UPON

The Nation was, at this point, well into its sensationalist coverage of the "rumors" of "pressure" against the troupe’s performance. Its initial stories and editorial stressed two reasons for the opposition to the performances. One was that the troupe’s artistic director, Jeannette Ordman, was a native of South Africa, a country she incidently left 20 years ago. The second was an

Asked about this phrase, Swersky said that no brochure using it was distributed in Kenya. A booklet in Hebrew and English for subscribers on the troupe’s plans, published in Israel, had used the words "yabeshet shechora," Black continent, which, he said, was unfortunately mistranslated into English as "Dark Continent."

The Nation editorial also cited the argument that "to allow cultural exchanges with Israel is to negate the severance of diplomatic relations." A later editorial changed its focus to opposition to the Arabs’ and Israelis’ "covert and overt efforts to drag us into their quarrels." The editorial said, "we do not intend to deny the Libyans and Palestinians their rights to spew off their hatred for the Israelis" or the Israelis "their right to champion their cause." But neither Arabs nor Israelis should "make political capital" from whatever relations exist between them and Kenya.

The widely respected Weekly Review, which is regarded as a kind of Kenyan Time or Newsweek, recapitulating the controversy, stated in an editorial that "Kenya would appear to be the next target" of the Israeli "diplomatic offensive to regain ties in Africa." But Israel’s" close links" with South Africa, the editorial continued, "are likely to make resumption of diplomatic relations between Israel and Black African states rather difficult."

POLITICIANS ENTER THE FRAY

Local politicians also entered the fray. The Minister for Culture and Social Services, Stanely Oloitipitip, stated that the troupe should be stopped, not only from performing in Kenya but also from coming to that country. A different tack was taken by Dennis Akumu, chairman of the Organization of African Trade Unions Unity. In words reminiscent of the second Libyan statement, he said that those who invited Bat Dor "intended to discredit and tarnish the leadership of Kenya and its president Daniel arap Moi, as OAU chairman."

The statements by Akumu and the Libyans, which mentioned the Kenyan president by name, triggered off a counter-attack by a Moslem MP from Mombasa South, Abdullah Ndovu Mwidau. A Provincial Commissioner and former Mombasa Mayor, Mwidau urged the government to close down the Libyan Embassy on the grounds that "they want to dictate to Kenya what should be done in its own internal affairs" and "who should be her friend."

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