Oriental Dancing in The Eyes of Arab Immigrants in North America
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
It seemed that everyone in the audience was enveloped in rapture as the dancer twirled around the floor of the Sijilmassa Restaurant-Nightclub in Casablanca – Morocco’s largest city. She blended well into the surrounding picturesque Moorish-Andalusian architecture, creating a captivating scene from an oriental fantasy world. Western tourists, surrounded by the opulent of Morocco and wealthy visitors from the Arabian Peninsula, feasting their eyes on the ravishing dancer, applauded every time she made a seductive movement.
Beautiful and gorgeous in body and with a permanent smile, she was a ideal picture of womanhood of which a good number of men dream. Even more than the foreign tourists, the Arabs in the audience appeared to be under her spell.
As I watched this lovely creature sway and glide back and forth, my thoughts raced back to the Arab immigrants in North America and how they viewed female dancers such as her. I tried to draw a clear picture in my mind, but only a confused panorama of women in the Arab world of entertainment emerged. It was a vision of desire, joy, rejection and fantasy – a spectacle of confusion and make-believe.
There is little doubt that the Arabs, like other North American immigrants carry, for at least one generation, a view and way of life acquired in their homelands. The Middle East from where most of the Arab newcomers came during the first part of this century was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In the society of that land, which for a hundred years had been considered the `sick man of Europe’, women were segregated and there was little contact between the sexes. Only in the large urban centres did men and women occasionally get together outside of marriage and, this usually included ladies of easy virtues.
Men lived in a world of Oriental illusions, like that found in the stories of the Arabian Nights. Dancers only entertained in the villas and palaces of the wealthy or in the seedy night spots of the large cities. In the towns and villages, from where most of the immigrants came, the art of professional dancing was virtually unknown.
During my youth, I often heard talk about Arab merriment, especially singing, but I do not remember any immigrant discussing Oriental dancing. It was only later, after belly dancing became the ‘in thing’ in Egypt during the first part of this century, that the early Arab immigrants and their offspring began to take interest in this form of entertainment whose history goes back to the days of ancient Mesopotamia. Babylonian bas-reliefs have been found showing dance movements, duplicated today by belly dancers.
In the Arab medieval world Oriental dancing was a widespread art. During those centuries of Muslim learning and opulence, trained dancing girls and singers were to be found in every large Arab city from Baghdad in the East to Cordova in the West. They were respected, especially in the upper strata of society, and often married prominent men. However, with the decay of Islamic learning and power, not only dancing but most of the arts drastically declined. Only in the homes of the sultans and pashas did a faint remnant of the refined dancing girls remain.
Egyptian dance and film star Tahia Carioca doing belly dance. 1942. Cairo, Egypt
Hence, when belly dancing became the vogue in Egypt and, to some extent Lebanon – a natural legacy re-kindled after centuries of slumber – the Arab immigrant community took on this art with a vengeance. They became so intrigued with women dancers that every hafla (party) held had a graceful performer, labelled Arabic, Oriental, Middle Eastern or belly dancer, as the main attraction. Today, at almost all Arab parties, an evening of entertainment without a shimmering enchantress is out of the question.
Yet, no matter how much the modern Arabs are fascinated with Middle Eastern dancing, both in their homelands and the mahjar (emigrant lands), in the main, they have ambivalent feelings toward this art. During a performance, both men and women clap and whistle when the dancer makes a seductive movement. Many seem to be in another world as they ogle starry-eyed, often inviting the dancer to do her bit atop their tables. Representing a world of rousing but unattainable desire, she is the jewel of the evening – the El Dorado of womanhood.
In the mahjar, to the ones in the audience born overseas and who usually do not know Arabic, her dance is what they have come to see. The songs are incomprehensible to these sons and daughters of immigrants. Consequently, they talk and move around during the performance, creating an annoyance to those who are listening. Only when the dancer enters do they quiet down and begin to enjoy themselves. Arab culture to these first and second-generation immigrants means Oriental dancing and, only to some, joining in the folkloric dabkee dance.
On the other hand, most of the modern Arab newcomers, even though they enjoy the show, try to shy away from admitting that belly dancing is part of their culture. When asked their opinions about Middle Eastern dancing, some will say, “It’s not Arab! It’s Hawaiian”. Others will positively assert, “It’s Greek! or It’s Turkish!” However, this is only an outward facade. Hypocritically, they harbour a yearning for the fantasy world of beautiful dancers.
“Would you want your sister to be a dancer?” is a question the new immigrant asks when one praises Middle Eastern dancing and, this is being brought up more often than it was a decade ago. With religious fundamentalism on the rise in both East and West, not many will admit that belly dancing has been the core of Middle Eastern entertainment since time immemorial. Nonetheless, no matter how much the modern Arabs talk about and try to downgrade Oriental dancing, they continue to seek this type of diversion. It is a world of fantasy for which they yearn yet outwardly reject.