Gilded Serpent presents...
Face to Face
Through the Expressive Arts
of Middle Eastern Women
On March 5,
2005, a unique conference called Daughters of Shahrazad: Face
to Face in Iowa City, Iowa honored International Women's Month.
Long time Near Eastern dance artist Marie Sage
(aka Maleeha and Artistic Director of Kahraman
Near East Dance Ensemble) conceived of this event as an opportunity
for students of Near Eastern dance and other members of the community
to open a dialogue with women from the cultures that these dances
come from. She led a group of women in planning and organizing
this event that celebrated the expressive arts of Middle Eastern
women, including music, cooking, textiles, dance, folk tales,
included the University of Iowa Women's Resource & Action
Center, Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble, University of Iowa
Department of Spanish & Portuguese, and International Programs.
A major source of funding, over $4,000, came from the University
of Iowa Year of Arts and Humanities Grant- this project was
by far the largest recipient of those who applied.
on information collected in a feedback form, the demographics
of the attendees included:
- 30% between
the ages of 18 and 40, 48% between the ages of 40 and 60
- 11% self-identified
as members of the gay/Lesbian/bi/transgender community
- 19% self-identified
as having a disability
- 33% affiliated
with the University of Iowa (students, faculty, staff)
- 92% white,
4% Middle Eastern/North African, 4% Native American
conference was held inside a former church in downtown Iowa City
known as Old Brick. The congregation moved from this church to
a new location in the 1970's, and a grass-roots community effort
at the time rescued the building from demolition. Today, it houses
a dance studio, an auditorium, and several smaller meeting rooms.
It was well suited for an event of this nature, which involved
some sessions of the entire assembly together, and also smaller
breakout session workshops.
Hejaiej, Ph.D. set the tone for the event with her keynote
address. She discussed how some of the Western portrayals of Shahrazad
in movies have missed the point through their portrayals of Shahrazad's
character. In Arabic thought, she is viewed as strong, courageous,
and clever, a leading feminist of her time who sought to put an
end to violence against the women of her day.
Monia's presentation, Marie Sage summoned all attendees to form
a line, and taught a simple debke step. The movement was helpful
in energizing everyone for the workshops ahead. People of all
levels of physical skill joined in the line - even someone on
crutches! The experience captured the essence of folk dance
as a social activity.
conference schedule set aside four time periods throughout the
day for workshops, each 45 minutes in length. At any given
time, there were 4-5 sessions in progress simultaneously. Certain
sessions were offered more than once during the day, making
it slightly easier to make choices about which to attend.
1 time period offered these four choices:
to Persian Dance. Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
Cuisine. Led by Dania Ajam.
& Rhythms of the Middle East. Led by Tim Moore.
- The Gentle
Art of Persuasion. Led by Monia Hejaiej,
chose to attend Tim Moore's session on drumming.
Tim is the percussionist for the band Salaam from Bloomington,
Indiana. He had brought with him several loaner drums to use for
his workshop, but I was glad I had brought my own darabukka because
there weren't enough to go around. He started at the very beginning,
introducing the "doon" and the "tek" sounds, then distributed
some handouts with rhythms shown in musical notation and proceeded
to teach how to play some of the rhythms on the drums.
slipped out before the drumming session was over, loaning my darabukka
to one of the participants who didn't have one. I wanted to take
pictures of the other workshops currently in session.
Being a former
church, Old Brick has a functional kitchen which was perfect for
the cuisine workshops. Dania Ajam offered a
demonstration in Lebanese cooking. Seating was tight for the
spectators, but the kitchen was able to accommodate everyone who
wanted to attend.
in the auditorium Robyn Friend was teaching an
introduction to Persian dance. The space was ample to allow for
both traveling steps and arm movements. The raised stage made
it easier for everyone to see. The 45-minute time slot wasn't
really enough to allow much depth, but it provided enough of a
taste to allow attendees to determine whether they might want
to return for Robyn's 2 ½ hour workshop planned for the next day.
one of the meeting rooms, Monia Hejaiej was presiding
over her session on the gentle art of persuasion. (Monia appears
on the far right of this photo, looking toward the camera.)
The 45 minutes
ended all too soon, and it was time for people to seek out the
locations for their second workshops of the day. The organizers
had done an excellent job of posting signs around the building
indicating which way to go to find each of the meeting rooms,
so it wasn't too difficult to navigate.
for Workshop 2 offered:
Call It Bellydance: An Experiential Introduction to Traditional
Women's Dance. Led by Marie Sage, MFA (aka
Cuisine. Led by Badri Rezai.
Music of the Middle East. Led by Dena El Saffer.
& Reveal: The Art of Beauty Through Dress. Led by Jean
ya Khat: The Evolving Tension Between the Persian and Islamic
Elements of Iranian Culture. Led by Robyn Friend,
chose to attend Robyn Friend's session on Persian
culture. (She is the person on the right in this photo.) She
used a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate her discussion of
Iranian history and culture. All too often, history books present
the past as a series of wars and rulers, and this session offered
a refreshing cultural perspective. Robyn focused on the daily
lives of people: nomads versus farmers, Arabs versus indigenous
Persians, Pagans versus Muslims, sun calendar versus moon calendar,
and how these contrasting cultural influences came together to
create the unique Persian society. She spoke of the uneasy balance
that exists today, offering as one example the fact that the current
Muslim government attempted to ban the celebration of Nowruz (the
Persian New Year), which has its roots in Pagan culture, but the
Persian people refused to let the establishment deprive them of
this major holiday.
Maleeha was teaching an introduction to traditional
Oriental dance in the auditorium. She led participants across
the floor in some traveling steps, and also taught some in-place
the kitchen, Badri Rezai was leading her session
on Persian cuisine. (She's the one standing in front of the open
cupboard door.) I wasn't able to linger to find out what she
was making, but it smelled wonderful in there!
El Saffar, the viola player for the band Salaam from
Bloomington, Indiana, led a session on women's music of the Middle
East. (In this photo, she is the one standing off to the right.)
For her session
on the textile arts of the Near East, Jean Newkirk arranged
several dresses from the region on mannequins. She brought each
one forward in turn as she described the garment, its place of
origin, and pointed out interesting construction details. She
explained how the looms influenced the shape and style of the
garments. The display included garments from Egypt,
Syria, the Arabian Peninsula,
For her session on the textile arts of the Near East, Jean
Newkirk arranged several dresses from the region
Break and Panel Discussion
lunch break followed the second workshop sessions of the day.
Some people lingered in their sessions, gleaning additional bits
of information from the presenters, while others returned to the
auditorium and investigated the items for sale along one wall
as we waited for lunch to arrive.
On the grand
piano in the auditorium, Badri Rezai had set
up a ceremonial table typical of those that Persian families set
up in their homes in honor of the holiday Nowruz. It is known
as the sofreh-ye haft-sinn, the cloth of seven dishes.
The seven dishes represent health, life/rebirth, beauty, happiness,
prosperity, joy, and patience. A typewritten sheet of paper next
to the display offered a detailed description of the significance
of each item.
day's falafel lunch was catered by a nearby restaurant called
Oasis. Once the attendees had gone through the lunch
line, they settled into their seats for the panel discussion.
The panel consisted of four women from Middle Eastern and North
African cultures. In this photo, from left to right, are the
moderator Denise Filios, Gulçin Aydin
from Turkey, Monia
Hejaiej from Tunisia,
Dena El Saffar an ethnic Iraqi who was raised
in the U.S., and Khadija
Bounou from Morocco.
The panelists responded to questions posed by the audience. Representing
four different Near Eastern cultures, each had a different perspective
from the others on the issues discussed.
afternoon allowed time for two more workshop time slots. Some
of the morning programs were repeated.
Workshop 3 time period, these four choices were offered:
to Persian Dance. Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
Cuisine. Led by Khadija Bounou.
- Women's Music of the Middle East.
Led by Dena El Saffar.
- Shahrzad's Sisters: Wisdom &
Wise Women in Folk Tales. Led by Monia Hejaiej,
decided to attend the folk tales workshop, and enjoyed it very
much. Monia Hejaiej is the author of a book titled
Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis,
which is a compilation of women's folk tales from Tunisia.
Monia set the stage for the workshop by describing the role that
folk tales and the people who tell them play in Tunisian society.
She distributed some photocopied pages from her book that contained
a couple of her stories, then read the stories to the group as
we followed along. I enjoyed it very much, and was sorry when
the time came to wrap things up.
out of Monia's session just in time to snap a couple of photos
of Khadija Bounou cleaning up after her workshop in Moroccan cuisine.
For the Workshop
4 time period, these sessions were offered:
Cuisine. Led by Gulçin Aydin.
- Drums and
Rhythms of the Middle East. Led by Tim Moore.
- From the
Cedars of the Lebanon
to the Cedar River: A Tale of Immigration. Led by Jean
- Shir ya
Khat: The Evolving Tension Between the Persian and Islamic Elements
of Iranian Culture. Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
to attend Robyn Friend's session a second time.
The first time, I found it to be packed with wonderful cultural
insights, and I felt that a review would be valuable. The room
was packed entirely full, with people seated on every square inch
of floor space. It was worth a second hearing, to reinforce what
I had learned in the morning.
in the kitchen Gulçin Aydin was demonstrating
how to make baklava. It was very tempting to linger in hopes of
getting to taste the result! Gulçin, from Turkey,
is currently a student at the University of Iowa.
Amosson offered a different kind of perspective on the
Middle East. There is a large Lebanese population living in the
vicinity of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brought by a wave of immigration
from 1895 through 1945. The original immigrants sought to escape
the oppressive rule of the Ottoman empire, and set the stage for
others from their village to follow, eventually creating a thriving
Arab community in Iowa. Jean served as chairperson for creating
an exhibit titled "The Lebanese Among Us: Americans for a Century"
at the Carl & Mary Koehler History Center museum. In her
session, Jean spoke of the experiences of this immigrant community.
the fourth workshop period of the day, everyone reconvened in
the auditorium for the closing assembly and the "face to face"
part of the program.
For this part
of the day, we were counted off into four small groups. Each
small group was assigned to one of the Middle Eastern women who
had been a presenter during the day: Jean Amosson
and her daughter Michelle, Gulçin Aydin
(in this photo) and her sister Nurçin, Dena
El Saffar, or Monia Hejaiej. The point
of these breakout sessions was simply to allow conference attendees
to converse directly with someone from Middle Eastern culture.
There was no structure - the members of the group were free to
ask any questions they wished. After some time had elapsed, the
groups rotated to speak with the next person. This continued
until each group had had an opportunity to talk with each of the
closed the day with a gentle movement exercise, a "cool-down"
for the mind. All attendees stood up, and she led the group through
some simple hand/arm exercises. This concluded the conference
part of the weekend program. Everyone dispersed, and those who
were attending the evening dinner show went home to freshen up
and prepare to return.
evening dinner show featured live music played by the band Salaam
from Bloomington, Indiana, with dancing by the Kahraman Near
East Dance Ensemble and guest artist Dr. Robyn Friend.
I arrived early to ensure I'd get a good table near the stage
so I could take pictures. Almost immediately, I encountered Pauline
Costianes (Ghalia) and Mary Weed (Za'hra),
a pair of dancers from Detroit, Michigan who had flown in for
the conference, show and Persian dance workshop scheduled for
the next day. Marie had introduced me to both earlier in the
day, and we decided to sit together for the show to enjoy the
opportunity to become better acquainted.
Robyn Friend opened the show with a performance of a dance from
Uzbekistan in the Ferghana
style. It was choreographed for her by the great Uzbek dance master,
Viloyat Akilova. It is based on a poem by the
great classical Uzbek poet, Ali Sher Navoi, the
lyrics to which are sometimes also sung to the music. The poem,
and the dance, depicts a young woman meeting her lover in a garden.
She searches for him, but he does not appear. Suddenly, she sees
him and is so happy, but she soon realizes it was just an illusion,
and becomes resigned and despondent. The poem is said to be a
Sufi allegory for our relationship with God, the Beloved. Munajpt
is the best-loved Uzbek dance - the music for it is played at
every Uzbek wedding, and the guests dance to it spontaneously.
brought the band Salaam in from Bloomington, Indiana to conduct
some of the workshops during the day as well as play for the show
at night. The band members who played for this show were Dena
El Saffar on viola, Tim Moore on percussion,
and Hakan Toker on kanoun, piano, and accordion.
All three are talented musicians with extensive experience playing
Western music as well as Near Eastern. I think my favorite piece
of the evening was when they decided to play a Turkish longa.
Hakan sat down at the piano and played the song on the keyboard.
His fingers moved so fast I was certain he was going to set the
keys on fire, and after an improvisational riff I suddenly realized
the melody line he was playing was no longer the longa, but rather
a segment from Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Franz Liszt!
I was delighted. Seamlessly, he returned to the longa for the
finale. As a long-time pianist myself, I was highly impressed.
the band was warmed up, two members of the Kahraman Near East
Dance Ensemble performed the playful Khaleegy (Persian Gulf) dance
raqs al-nasha'at. In this photo, from left to right, they
are Janet Maurer and Fritha Coltrain.
The next dance
performance in the program was a second piece by guest artist
Robyn Friend which was improvised in the Qajar
style, in an early-mid 19th century-style costume. This dance
was in three parts. In the first part, Robyn performed a bit of
Jahelli style in which she depicted a tough guy. Part two was
raqs-e bazak, the make-up dance. Part three was a return
to part one, the Jahelli style.
to the stage to perform a traditional Moroccan dance known as
the schikhatt. In this photo, the dancers are Janet Maurer,
Marie Sage, and Fritha Coltrain.
performance in the evening show was an Oriental solo by Maleeha
(Marie Sage), the Artistic Director of Kahraman
and organizer of the event.
concluded with Salaam playing music for open floor. The dance
floor was quickly filled with Americans, Jordanians, Egyptians,
Syrians, Lebanese and Moroccans all dancing together for a festive
ending to the event.
enjoyed this event very much! All too often, our U.S.
dance community is very disconnected from the cultures that spawned
our dance form. Although many U.S.
dancers will perform for Arab weddings, Persian Nowruz, and other
ethnic occasions, it's rare for us to organize events whose purpose
is to introduce our students and colleagues to a deeper understanding
of these cultures. I applaud Marie Sage, the organizations she
worked with, and the individual volunteers who supported this
event for their hard work and dedicated effort in pulling it together.
be excited to see another event like this in the future. And
I know I'm not alone. I was able to obtain a copy of the feedback
forms received by the Women's Resource & Action Center,
and here is a sampling of the comments:
- "This was INCREDIBLE!
It was one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences
I've ever had. I bonded with a drum, and learned SO much!"
- "This was a
fabulous event! I loved meeting the speakers, talking about
the various topics, and networking with others. Keep up the
conceived feast for the senses and intellect."
- "The large
and small group interactions were very informative."
- "I liked
the diversity and the different choices we were able to make.
Each topic was interesting in its own right."
- "Super gathering
of like-hearted spirits. Wonderful!"
- "THANK YOU
- I have been transformed."
consider having this event again next year - word of mouth will
spread the joyful news!"
I only wish
every student and teacher of Near Eastern dance could attend an
event of this nature, and absorb from it a bit more knowledge
of the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.
a comment? Send us a
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