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Postcard of "Bedouine"
Gilded Serpent presents...
One Banat
An Exploration of Some Belly Dance Costuming Origins

by Tasha Banat

Recently, I received a note and photo asking if I knew anything about a group of dancers (here, in the U.S.A.) who dressed in wide and colorful print skirts, shirts and vests styled like pirate outfits, and who covered their faces. They billed themselves as Authentic Traditional Middle Eastern Dancers!  Actually, I liked the costumes depicted in the photo, and I have to admit that they may have been indicative of a real place located somewhere, in Africa, or perhaps the costumes were recreated from something seen on a postcard. 

At the first Belly dance conference held in California, I recall Jamila Salimpour stating in her lecture that she got her ideas for the form of costuming she called "Ballady Tribal" from postcards—and not from authentic sources. 

I have no objection to any form of dance from any part of the world that is creative and flattering, but in this particular case, the costumes are not really an indication of anything from the Middle Eastern culture from which I came, which brings to my mind certain misconceptions and disagreements.

good old Lawrence

Defining " Middle East” and the origin of that term:
We may properly define the Middle East during the time of Lawrence of Arabia, back in the early 1900s.  At that time, it was part of the colonization of Asian Arabia by the British, primarily, and was the Western counterpart also known as “Greater Syria” --or what my people termed B'lad E'Shaam which encompassed Mandated Palestine, Jordan, Syria, parts of Iraq and Lebanon.  It did not include Egypt or any other African countries. 

Furthermore, a reporter in the U.S. wrote an article initiating the actual term “Middle East,” in an article about the mandating of Palestine to create a state named Israel, also known as the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Brits involved in the Balfour Declaration

It may have come into existence during the Sykes Pico Accords, which were supposed to limit the number of Europeans making their homes in any occupied (mandated) land.  The term “Middle East” appeared around that time in American newspapers and the name spread after that article.

Since the establishment of Israel, the definition of the term “Middle East” seems to have changed and now has come to refer to a conglomeration of a number of unrelated countries in the Asian and African parts of the hemisphere. I have heard that the Middle East includes countries whose people do not speak Arabic nor which have Semitic people living in them.  The only common connection that I can discern is Islam, which is a worldwide religion, and, as such, is not exclusive to Arab people alone—even though the Koran is in the classical Arabic language.

The main reason I even mention any of this is that I hope to explain from where commonly held ideas may have originated. I certainly do not blame people in the West for believing that the fantasy Middle Eastern dance costume is traditional and true to reality.  In dance and costuming, some part of the fantasy may be, in fact, close to accurate. 

map from 1900
Click for enlargement

Please keep in mind that:

  • Middle Easterners are Asian Arabs and/or displaced Arabs from Asian Arab descent.
  • Middle Eastern Dance is as vague a term as American Dance and therefore, needs a description such as Middle Eastern Debke or Middle Eastern Belly dance. 

If that is still not clear, think about Country Western Dance, Disco, American Rock N Roll, etc., all of which names types of American Dances, but by itself, the term “American Dance” does not describe any of the dances I mentioned.

To end on a light note: even my own surname, Banat, should also have something else in it, such as Al Banat (The Girls) or Raks Banat (Show Girls) but it has always been an unadorned Banat or Bannat—by the American and Arab legal definition of names.  My daddy was always called Abu Banat” (Father of Girls), which he sadly was—in his Middle Eastern point of view; so don't feel bad that you have may have believed that Middle Eastern Dance was a complete description, when I am only one Banat—plural.

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Ready for more?
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