Gilded Serpent presents...

Tamalyn Dallal's DVD
40 Days and 1001 Nights
review by Barbara Sellers-Young

Tamalyn Dallal author of They Told Me I Couldn't: A Young Woman's Multicultural Adventures in Colombia embarked in 2005/2006 on a journey of 40 nights each to five Islamic areas including, Banda Aceh and Indonesia, Siwa Oasis, Egypt, Zanzibar, Jordan and Xinjiang, China.  The inspiration for the trip was an Arabic proverb “If you stay among a people 40 days, either you affect them or they affect you”.  She also was concerned that the average Islamic person was in the global media being portrayed as an extension of Islamic terrorists.  She therefore created a tripartite project—film, book, concert—each titled 40 days and 1001 Nights to demonstrate the diversity of Moslem culture through music and dance.  This review considers only the DVD’s of film and concert as the book is at the time of this review yet to be published.  

With her film, Tamalyn Dallal enters the field of documentary that one might find on the Travel, National Geographic or Discovery channels.  As the world has become smaller and people have gained more access to visual media, it is a form that has been critiqued by specifically nonwestern writers for the commercialization and exotification of the native; a position that consistently places the native in a position of needing the external observer for their very existence.  For writers such as Edward Said and Frantz Fanon and others, such programs are just a continuation of colonialism.  And yet, to dismiss Dallal’s project as just another colonialist venture seems to me to not acknowledge the impact of the twenty-four hour news channels and their limited portrayal of Islam and the real need that exists for another portrait that moves the public discourse towards a more balanced perspective.

The film of version of 40 Days and 1001 Nights begins in Banda Aceh and Java Indonesia and from South East Asian traverses to the Siwa Oasis of Egypt, Zanzibar, Jordan and finally the Xinjiang province of China. 

It is a filmic journey in which the people do not speak even as they are waving at the camera; instead, their voice is represented by a sound track. This combination of image and music continues through the entire film.  

Beautiful boy in Zanzibar

Watching the collage of images pass before my eyes, I realized how important it is for me to get the ‘sense’ of a place to participate in the sounds of an environment from the street vendors to the silence of the desert or a deserted house.  Instead of sounds of the environment, there is a labeling of spaces with an on screen text as Bedouin tent, bathroom, olive oil press, etc.  This filmic method only further distanced me from the context and the people within it.  The latter was combined with a lack of knowledge by the individual holding the camera of how to tell a story with visual images.  Thus there are lots of moments when the camera strays across the landscape for no apparent reason or moves in sporadic jerks from one visual moment to the next.  

The combination of lack of integration of local sounds of the environment with camera technique required on the part of the viewer an enormous concentration and resilience to stay with the film.

 However, the strength of the approach is that it is akin to reality television in that it allows the viewer to contemplate a series of images and in the process to reflect on their meaning to them as individuals.  Consequently, I found that at the end of the film I was contemplating the variety and diversity of people of Islamic faith that live, laugh, make music and dance.

Thus, the film did expand my visual awareness.  Now, did it deepen or extend my understanding of what that diversity implied?  My response would have to be no. 

The DVD of the dance concert Dancing Across The Lines incorporates the music of 101 year old Zanzibar company Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club and the music of Bahda Achech’s singing star Rafly.  The concert and its proposed international collaboration raises a series of questions related to the complex positioning of performing ensembles that use music and dance vocabulary from specific regions.  For example: to what extent do they replicate or attempt to replicate the dance and music from a particular location?  In an ever changing world how does music and dance represent history and tradition while at the same time existing within a context of social/cultural change?  Who is responsible for maintaining the authenticity of the tradition?  What are the issues with regards to access to the positions of power that allow for distinct artistic voices to be heard?  

The DVD concert is in two acts. Act one features a set of solo and group pieces to the music of the Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club that are technically exciting and beautifully performed by Tamalyn Dallal, Amar Galma, Bozenka, and the Middle Eastern Dance Exchange.  The second act combines New York style popping by Hypno and Tiny Love, with a poignant mask piece by Kaeshi Chai, a touching modern dance piece by Elisheva in tribute to the victims of the tsumani, bowl dance from Xinjiang by Montserrat, a rendition of the Zaar by Hanan, followed by a Alexandra and Timoteo’s version of a Saidi style debke, and Dallal’s choreographed version of women celebrating.

Street scene in Kashgar, Xinjiang (Islamic China)

Man dressed as woman dancing at a wedding in Ramtha, Jordan

Although there was a nod to Islamic countries, in total, the concert lacked the deep presence of the Islamic countries represented by the concept of ’40 days and 1001 nights.’ 

As a viewer, I was anticipating a revelation of the Arabic proverb that had inspired Tamalyn Dallal, and kept asking myself as I viewed the tape, How was Tamalyn Dallal’s artistic identity transformed or changed by her experience in these countries?

Beyond dancing to the music from the country, I did not see evidence in the choreography, costuming, or the staging of the dances the use of ideas of the local movement vocabulary, landscape, architectural styles, or language in the way one might in the work of other contemporary artists such as Ping Chong or Ralph Lemon who have made similar journeys. Nor, did the concert provide the artistic vibrancy of concerts which represent specific cultural groups such as Egypt’s Festival of the Nile.  Thus, while I really enjoyed the concert I found it difficult to make a definitive connection between the DVD as documentary and DVD as concert. 

On reflection, I am left with the question which cultural critic Susan Bordo poses in Unbearable Weight, whose body is this? Or phrased another way, what is the ethical position of the artist in an increasingly globalized world in which ideas, images and dances move quickly across the cyberspace of Youtube. 

What I personally appreciate about such projects as the one Tamalyn Dallal has undertaken is that they place such questions in the public domain and cause us to think and reflect on how we as individuals and artists contribute to this global conversation.

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