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Gilded Serpent presents...
Arab Defamation in the Media:
Do Unwary Dancers Add Harm to the Mix?
by Najia Marlyz

Something is wrong with typical Hollywood movie images of Arabic people! The stereotypical Arabs that Hollywood most often presents are embarrassing and harmful because they may contribute to some of the errors in judgment that some of our key political leaders make.  These erroneous images, seemingly funny to some, may encourage our leaders to promote unrealistic expectations and erroneous assumptions while negotiating with the various predominantly Muslim countries. Consequently, realistic expectations for a positive outcome of sensitive negotiations may be ruined.

For example, we might re-consider how we can possibly expect a female Secretary of State, or any other high government position, to be effective in office. Any woman would have an extremely difficult time attempting to operate politically in predominantly Muslim countries overseas that hold the value of womanhood in a vastly different regard than we in any of the western countries do. Setting that impasse aside, let us take our exploration just a little closer to home—into the world of Belly dancers as they find themselves involved in negotiations with Middle Eastern people, their culture and values:

Dancers (along with everyone else who has ever enjoyed Hollywood movies) have learned that the images of the fat pasha, wily dessert sheik, or the big-nosed, mustachio-ed conniver and the shifty-eyed thief are pervasive and difficult images to counteract! 

Increasingly, the Arab Anti-Defamation League in the U.S. appears to struggle more visibly to eliminate, or at least mitigate, such common written phrases as the epithet “terrorist” which follows the appellation “Arab”  (sometimes “Palestinian”) in writing and in the entertainment media. As a result, the League sometimes appears overly aggressive in its response to what is often nothing more than Western naïveté, regarding to its lack of understanding Arabic ways of thought and religious values.  Belly dancers become mixed into this situation inadvertently, helping promote cartoon-like, negative images movie and television scriptwriters promote in the name of comedy or drama. We cannot risk playing into an eventual conflict that might have hideous repercussions for our children’s future.

Over a decade ago, I listened to an intense discussion among a group of Belly dancers who, apparently, were outraged with the television portrayal of a sparkling cabaret dancer appearing in a smoky nightclub scene, dancing alongside a full-sized hog.  At the time, I thought it strangely over-the-top that the dancers would raise their hackles over a few fleeting seconds of unimportant television airtime.  That is, I thought so until I chanced to tune into a re-run of the show. Then, I saw the young woman, a fairly well known American Belly dancer, performing near that immense, pink porker! 

I thought, “Well, what else might we reasonably expect?”  Media roles for Belly dancers are extremely few and far between here in America!  Besides, the dancer is competent and good-looking—what harm could it do? However, the reality of the image struck me quite differently than I had envisioned when I had merely listened to the conversation about the scene!

When I saw the bit, I viewed this lovely dancer and her piggy companion with new eyes. As a bit of background color, the pairing seemed accidental and unnecessary to the script’s plot.   

The entire scene struck me as irrelevant—until I mentally questioned why the pairing had been so prominent.  Why were the hog and the dancer paired and featured?  Why not just get a character actress with no discernable dance technique, or better yet, a pole dancer-- forget about hiring an animal handler and the hog? (Hogs must be quite difficult to transport and more expensive to hire for stage work compared to most Belly dancers. Why not require her to dance with a snake on her shoulder—or a parrot (as I once saw a real Arabic dancer perform)?

I believe the answer lies in the subtle anti-Arab perception of the Hollywood image-makers prevalent in this country’s media as well as Western literature of the past.  The juxtaposition of a skilled, beautifully costumed, well-proportioned dancer, performing next to a pig may be reasonably interpreted as an insult to the sensitivities of Moslem Arabs, who feel that swine are filthy creatures, not to be touched and not to be consumed.  I think that, either knowingly or unknowingly, the writers of the television script were employing symbolism that might whiz past the notice and understanding of many Americans—though not all of them, certainly. In my estimation, coupling the woman and her Arabic dance with the sleazy atmosphere and the offensive critter could not have been an accident. Is this the high result for which we study dance?  I can imagine you answering my question, “Well, of course not—that goes without saying!”

Hogs do not offend many Americans, but the just the careless view of a shoe’s sole or the nervous bounce of a crossed leg usually does not offend them, either.  Yet, in many Arabic countries, these sights are interpreted as a high insult to the viewer. 

If you would like to be thrashed by an Arab, take off your shoe and slap him over the head with it. 

Being touched with a shoe’s sole is worse than anything you could do with American hand or finger gestures! An Arab will make a pledge to do something or other by stating, while patting the top of his head, “I will; it is on my head!” Then, you can trust that he means to carry through with his promise.

Do you recall the television news images of a young boy following the broken statue head of Saddam Hussein being dragged behind a tank in the Iraqi war? The boy had removed his slipper and was furiously slapping the statue’s head.

My frustration rose when the television news commentators expressed their puzzlement over the significance of the “shoe slapping antics” as they attempted to interpret them for western viewers.  If they had had any inkling of the enormity of the hatred the insult indicated, they would not have made the silly comments that they made that day!

As for the dancer-and-hog-dance-duet: I do not fault the young actress-dancer for anything except allowing her ambition to build her career to dull her sensitivities concerning the culture she was portraying.  We might chalk her faux pas up to naïveté; one can only hope.  I cannot believe that any dancer would study for years and then use her art to offend audiences knowingly. 

Many Americans do not know that pork products (lard, skin, flesh, some and soaps gelatins) constitute a repulsive, disgusting, no-no for Muslims.  Innocently, people have offered their Muslim guests ham sandwiches, salami pizza, and various forms of mixed luncheon meats such as hot dogs, etc., never intending any insult—while (at the same time) others on the Internet suggest that we should bury dead Muslim terrorists with such items in order to place fear and terror into the hearts of our other enemies.  Too often, Western thinking is unaware of the religious aversion that transforms into cultural revulsion and evolves eventually among the Middle Easterners into a negative perception of our own set of values.

I have argued unpleasantly with Arabs I have known personally who were not too shy to tell me that American youths are totally corrupted by the age of 12 and that they “sit with their feet on the table, showing the soles of their shoes to their fathers faces, talking back to them from the sides of their mouths” and that “all American females (at least those who are fortunate enough not to have ugly faces) are 100% non-virgins the moment they reach puberty.”  The idea of American parents striving to produce independent and responsible citizens of their children by the age of 18 strikes the Arab mind as irresponsible, immoral, and selfish. (That heinous combination results in American parents throwing the child out of the parental household before a “respectable” marriage has taken place—at any age.)

Dance students ask me why I recommend that dancers read books about Arabic culture and history.  What does that information have to do with learning to be a Belly dancer?  My answer is simple:

  • The importance of background information is never minimal!  If you are involved in an ethnic endeavor, it benefits all concerned to show a truthful and positive rendition of that ethnicity whenever possible. In a sense, you become a diplomat.
  • Books can bring the world into your life and therefore, into your dance!
  • Dancers might actually find themselves working with a person of Middle Eastern decent and/or Muslim faith some day.

The anthropologist and captivating author of more than 20 books, Raphael Patai, toured through the San Francisco Bay Area touting what was then his new book, The Arab Mind Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Copyright 1976.

In the ‘70s, Patai, a former resident of Jerusalem, was a fascinating speaker, and I was amazed at the fairness he displayed in talking about the Arabs, even though the ones I knew were quick to point out to me that he was a Jew and therefore, automatically, he had to be biased.  Whether he is or is not a Jew, I have no knowledge, and neither did they. Nonetheless, when something negative arose, he did not gloss over it, but made it into an understandable attitude.

This author has not written about one small Arab country nor has he written about one specific incident.  He traveled widely throughout the Middle East for an extended period of time and writes chapters in his book that produced for me a clear picture of the glaring differences between the Arabic people and the rest of the world.  Pertinent contents of possible interest to dancers include chapters titled:

  • Arab Child-rearing Practices,
  • Under the Spell of Language,
  • Bedouin Values,
  • The Realm of Sex,
  • Extremes and Emotions, Fantasy and Reality, 
  • Art, Music, and Literature,
  • Conflict Resolution and “Conferentiasis” and
  • The Psychology of Westernization.

Patai has written a non-fiction book that fascinates readers while elevating their cultural awareness. Dancers will be well repaid in perspective for time spent reading by having a better chance to use dance as an artistic and genuine bridge between cultures. Using dance as a cultural bridge is a use that will prevent dance from being used to defame the reputation of Arabic culture—or our own. 

Every now and then, a bad image may be deserved, but dancers should take care not to step into the mix and perpetuate images of Arabian women that are patently false.  By reading The Arab Mind, (or other books like it)* dancers may avoid risking inadvertent insults simply by taking an amusing timeout for reading background information at a minimal cost in effort.

*I also recommend highly “The ArabJourneys Beyond the Mirage.”

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