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 inĀ 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.

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“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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Part of Your World: Cultural Appropriation vs. the Need to Connect

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As a non-native belly dancer, particularly a white, non-native dancer, the question of appropriation comes up a lot. Those of us of the pasty persuasion walk a thin line between respectfully participating in another culture and taking cultural features for our own ends without respect to the originators of that culture. There are even some who claim that white people have no place in belly dance regardless of the dancer’s intent, education, or respect for the culture.

I disagree with this premise, of course, not only as a white woman, but as a lover of anthropology and culture and a desire to learn about cultures not my own. I can understand some of the resentment from cultures who have been victim to Western Imperialism and systemic oppression by Imperialist powers currently or in the past, but cultural sharing has been occurring for as long as humans have been interacting with one another.

We come together, we share with each other our customs and traditions, our arts, our music, our dance. Watching a dance find its way onto the world stage where all races and ethnicities want to participate is a beautiful thing. Ballet, Latin dance, hip hop, contemporary, Raqs Sharqi. It’s wonderful to see different people come together to enjoy the art of a specific culture.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I beg you to hear me out regardless of what shade of paper my skin is.

Based on recent discussions I’ve been a part of, cultural appropriation seems to be a largely American talking point currently. Dancers from Europe claim that it is not really an issue talked about much in their countries. I would say there is a reason for that.

America is a young nation in the grand scheme of things. It is large and the culture of each state can differ wildly from the next or even within itself. We are known as “the Melting Pot” due to the sheer number of cultures that have congregated here over the past four to six hundred years. We spend a lot of time not cultivating our own culture, but instead romanticizing and linking ourselves, however tenuously, to the cultures of our ancestral lands.

The popularity of DNA testing in the last few years demonstrates that. We have a deep desire to know where we come from, to be able to connect to an older culture, perhaps because we lack a deeply rooted cultural identity of our own. Walk up to any American whose family has existed here for a few generations and ask them what they are. They’ll rattle off “Oh, I’m Irish, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Ukrainian.” American is not typically a response you get even though they have never set foot in these countries they mention.

We celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, or Mardis Gras which originally had nothing to do with America because we are desperately seeking to be part of something that isn’t just BBQ, Cowboys, and Old Glory.

I can say for myself that I have never formed any sort of national identity. I have never formed a deep-seated patriotism or attachment to my geographical location. I’ve always been baffled by people who are so passionately supportive of sports teams simply because they live in a place.

I live in my home town. I live in my state, but it wouldn’t really affect me much if I left it. This is the place I was born and raised, but I did not choose this place. I have no real sense of loyalty to it. It’s just a fact that this is where I exist at this point in my life.

Perhaps there are others who feel the same way, who feel drawn to other countries and peoples, to feel a part of a rich culture that fascinates them.

I have always been drawn to other cultures. American history has often left me cold. I never enjoyed those classes. I was always wanting to read about far off places, ancient histories, or crafting my own cultures so foreign to what I knew.

Perhaps I simply wished to escape the puritanical hostility that is so deeply rooted in American history. I want color and vibrancy, passion and music. I want to embrace the beauty of a passionate people, to find some sort of connection beyond existing on a piece of a map by pure coincidence.

Egyptian dance has been my gateway out of the dark hermitage of my room, where I hide away from the world, from the prudish hypocrisy that one often finds here, from the narrowly defined beauty ideals forced upon us from infancy, from the jaded cynical nature that has permeated our modern society.

It has been a long time since I have experienced such passion for a subject. Any subject really. The inclusive nature of this dance and the dance community as a whole has been very helpful to me, both for my mental health and my self image. I find myself fascinated by not only the dance, but the music, the art, the culture, the language, the people that birthed this magnificent expression into the world.

I beg natives of MENAHT cultures to understand that most of us aren’t wanting to rob you of your culture. We want to immerse ourselves in it. We want to bathe in its light, to breathe in that spark of the ancient we cannot always find within ourselves.

I never want to offend a native of the culture I desire to share in. Share your wisdom with me. I want to know. I am starved for that knowledge. I want to hear about your customs, your traditions, your expressions, your joys, your sorrows. I only want to honor it as well as I can, because there is something there that speaks to me. I would share that spark with those around me, particularly in this time when those cultures I seek to honor are often demonized by western media and government.

If you find me uneducated, teach me. I am a blank book ready to be filled.