Arab Defamation in the Media:
Do Unwary Dancers Add Harm to the Mix?
by Najia Marlyz
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.
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:
(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
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!
“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!
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
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)?
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
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.
you would like to be thrashed by an Arab, take off your shoe
and slap him over the head with it.
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
his head, “I will; it is on my head!” Then, you can trust that
he means to carry through with his promise.
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.
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.
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.)
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
- 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.
can bring the world into your life and therefore, into your
might actually find themselves working with a person of Middle
Eastern decent and/or Muslim faith some day.
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.
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
the Spell of Language,
- The Realm
and Emotions, Fantasy and Reality,
- Art, Music,
Resolution and “Conferentiasis” and
- The Psychology
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
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 Arab—Journeys Beyond the Mirage.”
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