As I put together my eBook of past blog posts from my now-defunct Bellydance Paladin blog, I came across an entry that I wrote telling the story of how I got into Middle Eastern studies and belly dance.
An Orientalist Childhood
In that post, I reveal that as a child I was always fascinated by things that appeared to be “Middle Eastern.” The tales of 1001 Nights. The “Arabian Coffee” divertissement in The Nutcracker. Magic carpets. Scheherezade. Genies. Disney’s Aladdin. When I look back with the hindsight of over 20 years of academic study—a degree in Near Eastern Studies, and a second degree in Dance Studies—I see a childhood rife with Orientalist fetishism.
There’s even an image of me, age seven, in a genie costume, complete with billowing sheer pantaloons and a pink face veil. The year was 1987. My mother, while being a self-taught expert on Western European and Californian history, knew little of Orientalism, and wanted to make her daughter happy. She made the costume because I wanted it. I wanted it because… honestly, I don’t know why. I just know I wanted to be that genie every damn year. Today, that costume would get a lot of side-eye.
Now, I’m sure some people will read that post and attempt to call me out on it.
But I’m going to call myself out.
Calling Myself Out
I fully admit that my early interest in the “Middle East” was based on Orientalist fantasy. Every image and idea I had of the region was filtered through the imperial gaze.
When I started to dig deeper, however, I realized that the images and archetypes that I had seen were, in fact, not real. I even felt a little betrayed.
At around age 13, I became very interested in the art of animation. When Disney’s Aladdin was released, it was a perfect combination of my latent Orientalist fascination and my love of the expressive and moving drawing. Disney released a companion book, Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film, which I immediately bought for myself.
In the chapter on the film’s overall look and feel, one of the background artists, originally from Iran, traveled to Tehran and Qom to take sketches and photographs. The author also tells of how the other artists were inspired by the sweeping swirls of Islamic calligraphy.
As a young teenager, just beginning to learn about the world, I had no idea that Islamic calligraphy, let alone Islamic art, was even a thing. I had heard about Islam in passing, but I knew no name for the intricate geometric designs and flowing script until then. And I wasn’t completely unaware of it before; being southern Spanish, I was somewhat familiar with the Alhambra and “Moorish” art. Keep in mind that I was only about 12 years old.
But when we can name a thing, we can contextualize it, and learn more about it. And it took a film—one so obviously problematic, and that rightfully got a lot of flack from the Arab community upon its release—to get me there.
Using Orientalism as a Springboard for Deeper Inquiry
Because I had an insatiable curiosity, I decided to dig deeper. I began researching. When my parents and I made our annual trip to Washington, DC, to visit my grandparents, I insisted that we visit the Freer and Sackler galleries, where a temporary exhibition of illuminated Qur’ans from the Mamluk period in Egypt were on view. The beauty of these rare codeces captivated me so much that I bought a copy of the exhibit’s promotional poster, which I still have.
Through Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, I began discovering music from the region. When I bought Passion: Sources—recordings of songs from North Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia, and Central Asia—I listened to that CD (remember those?) over and over and over again. In my junior year of high school, I bought Shaabisation, a somewhat subversive recording of music from Morocco. Soon after, I picked up a copy of From Luxor to Isna, by The Musicians of the Nile. This was before I even started learning belly dance.
Through music, I began learning about the different cultures in the region. Teenage me learned, one song at a time, that they were not one big monolithic conglomerate, as the imperial Orientalist gaze would have.
20 Years Later…
Back then in the mid-1990s, the internet was barely a thing. We still called it the World Wide Web, and time online was billed by the hour, if you were lucky to have internet in your home at all. Researching anything back then was much more difficult, but I feel that I did what I could with the resources I had.
Back then, the US had just emerged from the debacle of the first Gulf War, and still reeled from rash of attacks on commercial airliners. The failed truck bomb attack at the World Trade Center had just happened. Most people in the US hadn’t heard of Al-Qa’ida. But they soon would, and Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who looked “exotic” would bear the weight of a new, violent American Orientalism.
For the average (white) American, the Middle East was shifting from a passive land of sensuality and sand to a nest of radicalized and irrational terrorists. Unfortunately, that image has not changed much, despite our greater connectivity to information and other cultures.
Whether it be the lack of visibility of Arab culture in the United States at the time, the rising fear of Islamism, or the failure of the US educational system to expose junior high students to the rich cultures of the Middle East, 12-year-old me did not have the resources to understand the region the way that 37-year-old me does today, or that 47-year-old me will in the future.
Moving Away From Orientalism
Today, I can look back and see that that my early interest in of Middle Eastern art, music, and culture, and realize was all filtered through an Orientalist lens. While I cannot change my past, I can make more informed decisions in my present and future.
Since then, I’ve made efforts to learn more, understanding that I am forever a guest in Arab and wider Middle Eastern cultures. I have seen the late Edward Said speak in person. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve visited many of the sites that captivated me as a teenager: the Alhambra, the Great Mosque in Córdoba, the Citadel in Cairo, Topkapı Palace. I’ve become an Ambassador blogger for ArabAmerica.com, which seeks to share Arab culture with readers around the world. I’ve made efforts to demystify the Middle East for other non-Middle Eastern people who might not know where to start. I’ve scowled at Bernard Lewis in person. I stood beside my Arab and Muslim friends when they received threats after September 11.
I am still learning.
I am not perfect, and I am absolutely not a savior. My point is that we can, particularly if we belly dance, give back to the culture from which our dance comes.
And, of course, I will never know what it’s like to be Arab or Middle Eastern in North America, particularly in today’s political climate. I leave that to my friends of Arab descent to tell their stories.
Admitting Mistakes and Learning From Them
If you are a belly dancer not from the Middle East or North Africa, chances are that you’ve had similar experiences as mine.
Like me, you probably made some artistic choices that are a bit, well, cringe-worthy.
It’s important to be able to look back at our decisions and not only understand that some of them might not have been the most sensitive or educated, but also that we can learn from them. Instead of getting defensive and saying that what you did was “in the name of art” or that it’s “personal expression,” maybe take a step back and see how what you did might seem hurtful today. Would you make that same choice now?
Also, as you explore and self-reflect, understand that not everyone is at the same point in their journey as you are. Some people might just be learning about Orientalism. Some might have the lived experience of being Arab in North America. Some might be experienced historians, anthropologists, or sociologists in the field.
Respect where others are on this lifetime of exploration, and allow others to join the conversation. Allow people from the culture to speak. And when they do, listen.
Stay humble, and keep learning.
Do you have resources to share with dancers who might just be learning about these issues?
Share in the comments!