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Oriental dancer, 1916. Postcard. Orientalism? Note her seductive languor, sheer gauze, Western colors. Are we Orientalists?

Orientalism is an old term that's received new life in our field lately. As our dance grows and evolves here in the US, and as our dance community continues to contribute to it, we dancers may be asked whether we are Orientalists.

All of us who study raks sharqi, and who are from the Western world (the Occident), are Orientalists. As artists and scholars, we are among those who interpret and even re-interpret the world of North Africa, the Levant, the Middle East.

Orientalism in scholarship and the arts has appeared for two hundred years throughout the West: in painting and sculpture, clothing styles, politics, anthropology, literature. The fashion designer Erte was an Orientalist; so, arguably, was the artist Henri Matisse, as well as the copywriter who created a romantic Oriental ad campaign for Murad Turkish cigarettes in the early 1900s. The ballet, Scheherezade, was Orientalist. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, founders of modern dance, were Orientalists. Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, is even considered an early Orientalist. All of us are Orientalists.1

Orientalism: a term redefined

In 1979, a literary scholar named Edward Said published a book called Orientalism. Said's text took a look at the mindsets of European writers throughout history and their creation of an imagined Middle East. Said's book stirred wide interest (he's worked with Yasser Arafat; he's been featured in Time magazine) and his ideas have been taken up by writers, Middle East advocates and activists in Islam. He defined Orientalism in two ways: first, as mentioned above, he agrees iwth the classic academic definition of the term. Those who teach, write about, or research the Orient are Orientalists. This encompasses everyone who takes or teaches dance class, Habibi and Jareeda magazine contributors, those, like Aisha Ali, Sah-ra and Shareen el Safy, who do original research in the Middle East, and indeed, all of us who study that world, and all of us who perform raks sharqi.

But Said also defines Orientalism as a mindset which focuses on the difference between East and West, and therefore creates an Orient which doesn't really exist.2 This is the Orient of languorous women, dangerously seductive men, Ali Babas, brutish (or helpful) native servants. We don't have to accept this definition, but we may possibly encounter it. And it plays a role in our development as dancers. After all, we're fueled not only by research, but by our hopes and wishes, by the images we wish to share with others, and by the misinformation that has been shared with us.

Postcard, Egypt, 1900-1910. Eastern cigarette, Egyptian attitude, Western arm pose. Which kind of Orientalism is this?

The following description of dervish dance in Constantinople, written by John L. Stoddard in 1897, is factual, and does not embrace the negative connotations of Orientalism:

Imagine, in the centre of a room containing galleries for visitors, an old man standing motionless, surrounded by a score or more of younger men, who have saluted him and patiently await a signal from his hand. When it is given, one of the dervishes begins to spin around like a top, resting on the heel of his right foot, while propelling himself with the left. Another quickly follows his example, then another and another, until the entire company is in motion. The skirts of their long robes, belted at the waist, soon stand out from their bodies like so many bells. . . .(p. 87)

But the following description of dance in Port Said, from the album Port Said: Music of the Middle East, by Mohammed el-Bakkar and his Oriental Ensemble (1957), reflects the Orientalism that none of us like to recall:

Port Said is a place in which every individual can find something to suit his or her taste. . . . There are open markets where one can buy--and be fleeced--almost anything one wishes from soda pop to an oriental dagger or opium pipe. There are dancing girls who will perform their ancient ritual for a few modest coins (and for little more will take you into their tent or hut for more enjoyable entertainment). . . . Some of [this music] harks back to the ancient slave market, when maidens performed sensuous and provocative dances to the accompaniment of native bands of musicians. It is untamed and raw, but orthodox.

Note the many references to Eastern decadence: opium, a weapon, prostitutes, slaves. Note the descriptive words: "untamed," "raw," "sensuous," "provocative." And remember Nejla Ates, the dancer on the cover? Those blue pasties? Enough said.

Safira Zeki. Western 1940's gloves are a tribute to Amani, a dancer from Lebanon.

And maybe West inspires East

Those who question Orientalism ask us this: do Occidentals convey a Middle East that really exists, or one that we make up? And even more, what goes into the making-up: our fears and prejudices and our desire to control others? The wish to stereotype? Are we--can we be--strictly accurate, or must we infuse our selves into the purely authentic?

And how do we separate Orientalism from culture? The veil, for instance, is a strong symbol, and not only to Western imaginations. It is also both part of the culture and the imaginations of people in the East. The veil work that was so popular in 1970s America is now seen as American raks sharqi, a Western interpretation of the mystery and undulating movements of the East. But Eastern dancers also use the veil, some quite extensively, raising the question that inspiration may travel both ways. And the veil has always been a symbol of mystery within the East itself.

Western contemp. photo recreates hand design of Moroccan Guedra dancer.

Symbolism and vitality

Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi's short story, "Eyes," about a young woman who must veil, typifies the Eastern fascination with this part of the face: "While she was reading, her eyes peered through the two narrow holes in the black cloth, moved around the mummies and statues, and fixed on the face of [a small statue, a figurine, that had not been there the day before]. The features were carved in a strange way. Strangest of all were the eyes. . . . She returned to reading . . . but her eyes, peering through the two small holes, were attracted again to the face of the statue and its eyes that moved so strangely. . . . " (p. 26)

Orientalism, whether that of Hollywood or the Cairo film industry, whether advertisement or vaudeville, has given our art a tremendous vitality that continues to re-export itself from country to country, from Europe to the US and even back to the Middle East. Ozel Turkbas's LPs in the early 1970s reflect an Orientalism that has had a rich and positive result. At first glance, How to Belly Dance for Your Sultan seems to echo the passive-woman stereotype, but those early days of our dance were not passive at all--they were filled with excitement and determination and the adventure of learning something rare and worthwhile. And Ozel was a genuine advocate and teacher. Perhaps sincerity is, after all, the strongest foundation for knowledge.

Notes: --------

1 Edward Said, in Orientalism, writes, "the most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one. . . . Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient . . . is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism. . . . Related to this academic tradition . . . is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass of writers . . . have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient" (1-3, 5. From Orientalism: A Brief Definition). Ontological and epistemological refer to the nature of being and the validity of knowledge. He's saying that Orientalism can refer to a field of study--or it can refer to a mindset which creates an "us" and "them" and reflects an existence which isn't present in the real Orient.

2 Perhaps this terminology will help us understand and identify the Orientalism within Orientalism: in the movies, both Hollywood and Egyptian, in advertisements, in vaudeville, at the Chicago World's Fair and Coney Island. And perhaps in our own work.

Learn more about Orientalism:

  • el Saadawi, Nawal. "Eyes." Index on Censorship 2:89, pp. 25-28.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
  • Stoddard, John L. John L. Stoddard's Lectures. Vol. II: Constantinople, Jerusalem, Egypt. Boston: Balch Brothers, 1898.

And on the web:

Images in this article are from Safira Zeki's private collection