Capoeira, the common denominator of Brazil that unites Palestinians and Israelis

AL BIREH, West Bank, and BNEI BRAK, Israel — Mohannad Shehadeh is a Palestinian, Muslim and lives in the West Bank. Miki Chayat is Israeli, Jewish and lives in Israel. At first, the two would have nothing in common, other than the fact that they are not Brazilian. It is when they enter a capoeira circle and see Pé de Vento and Gafanhoto that the passion for the sport in Brazil brings to light the common denominator between citizens of two nationalities who are almost always in opposing camps.

Brazil is successful on both sides of the wall that divides Palestinians and Israelis. In many countries, it is common to hear bossa music in the background of restaurants or comments about the Brazilian national team. In the geographical region between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, passion goes even further. Funk, footvolley and Havaianas sandals are so present in Tel Aviv that they have already been incorporated into the local culture. Many Israelis have been to more than one city in Brazil and are scratching Portuguese. But it is capoeira that won the hearts of both peoples.

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Mohannad had his first contact with the sport when he saw a Brazilian playing capoeira on the beach in Tel Aviv.

— I asked: “What is this?”, and he just said “capoeira, capoeira”, but I only spoke Arabic, I didn’t speak Portuguese, I didn’t understand anything — says the Palestinian, who now gives interviews in Portuguese and is known in the city of al-Bireh, in the West Bank, as “Foot of the Wind”.

for little brazilians

In addition to having learned to perform the movements of the sport like the legitimate capoeiristas of Bahia, Mohannad decided that he wanted to go further and pass on his knowledge – not only about capoeira, but also about Portuguese. Today he runs the group Menino Bom, from Jerusalem, which teaches on Sundays in al-Bireh to students who cannot enter Israeli territory.

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— Here in Palestine, children have a lot of energy, but they cannot travel like everyone else, nor do things that children do elsewhere. Capoeira helps to release their energy. It’s the best thing there is in Palestine for children.

While swaying, jumping and clapping to the sound of the berimbau played by Pé de Vento, the children sing the “paranauê”, count the numbers in Portuguese and start spouting words: tambourine, ginga, benção, cocorinha.

— My mother saw that there was capoeira, and I liked it! I wanted to try. I like the movements, especially the half moon from the front — says Sabrina Yousseff, 11, who was not born in Brazil, but came into contact with the sport through her mother.

The students, boys and girls, are children of Brazilians who now live in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Brazilians have a different profile from Brazilian immigrants in other countries.

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— They are little Brazilians and little Brazilians, children of Brazilians who were born in Brazil, usually in the South or the Midwest, descendants of Palestinian families who migrated back to Palestine, got married here and had children — says ambassador Alessandro Candeas, from the office of the Brazil together with Palestine, which supports the Menino Bom group. — Many find it difficult to speak Portuguese, they know little about Brazil, so the idea is to reconnect this new generation with Brazil through sport, through capoeira.

Miki Chayat (with the berimbau) with students from the ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak: ‘I was at risk and capoeira helped me’ Photo: Paola de Orte

redemption by berimbau

Seventy kilometers and a wall separate the Palestinian city from the ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, in Israel, where Miki Chayat opened the first branch of what is now a network of academies dedicated to “orthodox capoeira”.

Passionate about the sport since he was 8 years old, when an uncle was in Brazil and passed the basics on to his nephew, Miki used capoeira to overcome personal problems and today he wants to help other children find their paths.

— Capoeira saved my life — he says in Portuguese. — I was a child at risk, and capoeira brought new life to me. It was the first environment where I felt like I had a place where other people could look and say “this is a good kid”. At school, the teachers told me “get out, get out, get out”.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews live in closed communities, without internet or smartphones. The school Miki attended was Yeshiva, where practically only religion is taught 12 hours a day, “no math, no English history”. The objective, according to him, is not to leave “not even a minute” of the day for students to have other activities, such as music or sports: “Only torá and yeshiva all day”.

Not everyone adapts to the system. Miki felt isolated and started to leave there to meet other children on the street and make “mess”.

“In our community, if you don’t go her way, you’re out. When you’re abroad, you don’t have qualifications, you don’t speak English, you don’t know how to deal with the world, you don’t have a profession, what can you do? Going into crime – he says, confessing that he was involved in crime in his youth. — I realized how good it is for children to have this feeling of belonging, of having self-esteem, confidence, community, the ability to succeed in something, to have value. That’s how capoeira helped me to feel.

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To enlist students for the Abadá-capoeira group, which he helped to form with the support of the Brazilian master Camisa, Miki had to face another challenge: opposition from parents and rabbis. He started by placing advertisements in newspapers, but says that today, some rabbis already recommend that parents take their children to the gym — although they do not admit it.

— I know how capoeira can help children, because it helped me to grow. I was on the streets, in a bad situation, and she helped me. I had this opportunity. She took me from the lowest place I’ve ever been, a place I don’t wish for anyone.

Fourth place in the world capoeira championship, Miki has been to Brazil seven times, participating in social projects in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, where he met a drug dealer who was delighted with the existence of “kosher” phones in ultra-orthodox communities — old phones , no internet access or GPS — and even wanted to place an order.

remarkable presence

Leader of the “orthodox capoeira” movement in Israel, Miki is just one of dozens of masters of the sport in the country.

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— The presence of Brazilian culture in Israel is remarkable, in several aspects, but especially when we talk about Brazilian music and capoeira — says the Brazilian ambassador to the country, Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas, who promotes events to encourage the practice of sport at the Brazilian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. — Capoeira is an extraordinary channel for the dissemination of the Portuguese language in Israel.

Despite criticisms of the way the Orthodox deal with children, Miki values ​​the feeling of community and religion. In their gyms, girls take classes separate from boys. He himself prays three times a day, keeps Shabbat and managed to eat kosher food when he was in the favelas of Brazil. The secret, for him, is knowing how to open his eyes to see that the “kosher path” is not the only one of value, which also made him set up capoeira projects to unite Orthodox and secular, Jews and Arabs.

— These populations break the walls between sectors using capoeira movements, playing together, singing, this brings people together, it’s like magic.

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