Fact and Fantasy: Anthropology and Orientalism

The last couple times I’ve gone to visit Evryn, she has taken me to this beautiful Utopia known as Half Price Books. The last few years, I’ve been trying to mostly stick to e-books, as my physical library is fairly large and extremely daunting to move. But, I can’t resist a bookstore, especially one with discounted volumes.PicsArt_08-07-02.37.00

Last time, I walked out with three different volumes. This time, I walked out with four. I bee line it for the history and anthropology sections, hunting for volumes about different Middle Eastern cultures. My primary objective is Egpytian material, but this time I grabbed a few different things. An ethnography from Morocco, one from Iraq, a book on the Sahara, and Orientalism by Edward Said.

I am especially interested in Orientalism. It’s a complex topic, particularly in relation to the study of Middle Eastern dance. I mean, we call it Oriental Dance, and I believe a large part of Western interest in belly dance is fueled by remnants of Orientalist fantasy. I would wager that many come to the dance with images of slinky, sensual harem women twirling through their heads. It’s often a delightfully decadent fantasy, one that I’m not immune to myself.

Those images were perhaps what drew me toward belly dance. It wasn’t until I got here that I began to delve into the culture surrounding it. I was still studying anthropology in college when I started dancing, but it wasn’t until the last couple years that I became moderately obsessed with Egyptian culture. Discovering Journey Through Egypt was an absolute blessing, and reignited my passion for studying foreign cultures, as well as cemented my primary area of study.

Dancarina-de-harem-(Harem-Dancer)-176225-large
“Harem Dancer” by Gaston Guedy. My favorite Orientalist painting.

Orientalism as a movement, whatever its faults, is still interesting from a historical perspective, and I will not deny that I adore Orientalist art. I enjoy the fantasy, the romance, even if I know that it is largely false. But, at the same time, that fantasy makes me all the more interested in learning the truth about these things, and that fantasy is what led me down this path to begin with.

I can say with certainty, this will not be the last I speak of Orientalism. It’s a fascinating topic and close to the heart of this dance, whether we necessarily want it to be or not. I’ll definitely let you know what I find in the course of my studies.

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