Gilded Serpent presents...
Myth and Reality,
The Harem Slaves
By Jalilah Lorraine
day one of my students came to class eager to share the
experiences she had at a Moroccan Restaurant the evening
before. After describing the restaurant and the dancer,
she went on to say that a Moroccan friend had told her
“the truth” about Oriental dance. This gentleman said
that raks sharki originated in the harem.
told her the story of a slave who, by being the
best dancer, was able to seduce her master, and
become the sultan’s favorite! “Belly dance,” she
concluded “is a dance of seduction.”
started among all the students. Several insisted that
no, raks sharki had nothing to do with seduction, harem
slaves, or any of that; instead, it was originally a
birth ritual. Others said no, it was just for fun, and
was danced at weddings and other festivities as a joyful
celebration of life.
must admit it is difficult to know the truth, because
there is such conflicting information concerning
our dance. I know of another incidence where a student
dancer, after learning in class that Oriental dance
is an integral part of Middle Eastern society and
is performed at all celebrations by people of all
ages and even sexes, got an unpleasant surprise when
she told a woman at work that she was taking a “belly-dance
co-worker, who was of Arabic descent, told the student
dancer that in her country, dancers were not
respected and that raks sharki was a dance
of slaves and prostitutes.
what are we to believe? It is for my students, as
well as all of the people who are discovering this
dance and love it, that I decided to write the following
article. I hope to cover the theme of Oriental dance
and prostitution in another article.
How often have
we heard the cliché that Oriental dance, also known as
raks sharki (or raqs sharqi), baladi, or belly dance, was
originally performed by female harem slaves to seduce their
master? Hollywood films show scantily clad harem girls writhing before a lecherous sultan.
Sometimes even people of Middle Eastern origin will repeat
a similar story about a slave who, through her dancing,
seduced her master and eventually won his heart. Is there
any truth to this cliché, or is it just a misconception,
a Hollywood fantasy?
misconceptions are distortions of the truth, and such is the
case with the harem / slave myth and Oriental dance. Throughout
history, rulers worldwide have had entertainers, including
dancers, in their courts. Arab / Islamic history is no different.
However, the reality is always more complicated than the myth.
times until the 800s, professional dancers, musicians,
and singers in the Middle East belonged to the slave caste.
The majority of professional musicians, including singers,
were female slaves, and they were often called “Qaina.”
(Even in recent times, the majority of professional entertainers
come from the lower classes, and both of these facts are
part of the reason why there is still a stigma today against
being a professional entertainer in the Middle East.) The
term “Qaina” originates from the legend that music and
dance were “invented” by a biblical character, one of Cain’s
daughters. Although the Qaina are often referred to as
“singing girls,” there are numerous historical references
to them as musicians and dancers as well.
Qaina were in fact highly-educated women who, besides
being trained extensively in singing, music, dance,
and poetry recitation, were also often educated in
literature, calligraphy, philosophy, and the sciences.
several references to the Qaina in Tales of 1001 Nights.1 (Centuries
later, female professional entertainers called “Awalim” (meaning learned or educated) followed a tradition similar
to the Qaina, except that the Awalim were not slaves.)
The period starting in the 700s and extending to about the 1400s is often referred
to as the “Golden Age” of the Islamic civilization. At this time, the
Islamic Empire stretched from Iraq all the way across North Africa to Andalusia, in Southern
Spain. During this period, it became popular for the Muslim rulers to
have Qaina in their courts. The Qaina were so much in demand that schools
for training them appeared all over the Islamic empire from Basra and
Kufa (in today’s Iraq) to Mecca (where the most famous school was) all
the way to Cordoba and Seville, Spain. Slave trading also became a very
profitable business. Although a lot of money had to be invested to train,
clothe, and feed the Qaina, they could be sold afterwards for a very
During this time, the Qaina played an important
role in the development of music and poetry.
Muslim scholars mention little about dance; however,
one can assume that dance also developed at this time under
the patronage of the Umayyad (Damascus and Spain) and Abbasid (Baghdad) Caliphs. Unfortunately, there
are very few actual descriptions of how this dance was
performed. Since there are accounts from pre-Islamic times
of a dance resembling what we know today as raks sharki
in the same region, it would be safe to assume that at
least one of the dance forms in the Islamic Golden Age
was similar to our raks sharki, or baladi.
though technically slaves, the Qaina possessed more
freedom than many women have today in some parts
of the world, and although their profession had a
stigma attached to it, they nevertheless had an elevated
social status. Numerous historical references describe
the Qaina as wearing more brightly colored clothing,
and more ornaments, as well as speaking their minds
more freely than other women.
they exercised considerable political power as well. According
to the Islamic historian Ibn Hazm, “Of the 37 of Abbasid
Caliphs, only 3 were sons of “free” mothers, and among
the Umayyads, not a single son of a free woman succeeded
in becoming Caliph”!2 One of the greatest and
most famous Arab Rulers was Harun El Rashid,
who ruled in Baghdad in the 700s. Khayzuran3,
his mother, was originally a slave, but other sources mention
that she had also been a Qaina, trained in Mecca. Khayzuran
not only became the favorite of her husband, Al
Mahdi, but also helped him make important political
decisions. In addition, she succeeded in getting both of
her sons chosen as heirs to the throne, instead of Al Mahdi’s other
sons by his aristocratic first wife. When her son Harun
El Rashid became the Caliph, Khayzuran continued to play
an important role in the Empire’s politics, and her son
was known to ask for her advice on almost every matter.
researching the history of raks sharki, most Western dancers
tend to focus on either an earlier pagan
period, in order to find a link with goddess worship and fertility
rituals, or on the 1800s, when the West first made contact
with this dance form.
Arabs, on the other hand, feeling nostalgic for the
Muslim Golden Ages, tend to believe that Oriental
dance developed primarily during that period. This
is why people of Middle Eastern origin often support
the misconception that raks sharki was originally
a slave’s dance.
area of big misconception is the harem. The harem is not
a place filled with naked women where orgies are held,
as depicted in both Orientalist paintings and Hollywood films. The term harem simply refers to the women’s quarters in a society
where the sexes are strictly segregated. Traditionally,
female entertainers (singers, musicians, and dancers) performed
in the harems to entertain women. Sometimes, there were
also male musicians, who were blindfolded before entering
costumes often shown in films are indeed a Hollywood fantasy
.In the few existing pictures of dancers of the Islamic
Golden Age, they are wearing long dresses with long sleeves,
and loose pants underneath. Hopefully,
most readers know by now that the “bedla” or 2-piece costume
with beads and sequins, originated in Egypt in the 1930s in Badia Mansabny’s
nightclub. Mansabny was a dancer as well as a singer, actress,
She was very much influenced by Hollywood films
and European cabarets when she introduced the bedla.
Many of her clientele at that time were European men
who found the original dance costume (which was either
a long dress with a sash tied around the hips, or a long
shirt with a long blouse, vest and sash worn over it) not
conclusion, regarding the question of what is reality and
what is myth, it would be accurate to say that although
there were indeed slaves that danced for their masters,
would be too simplistic to say that Oriental dance
is a slave dance. To say so would be like saying
that playing music, singing, and reciting poetry
are also only the occupations of slaves.
It is a well-known
fact that in the Middle East, women enjoy raks sharki as
much as the men and have always danced for and with each
other when they get together. The reality is that there
are different aspects of raks sharki, or baladi. It was
performed for male rulers, as well as for the ruler’s wives,
sisters, mothers, and daughters, and, of course, it has
always been enjoyed by nonprofessionals who dance for themselves
and each other.
For this article I drew extensively from the book, “Die Stellung
Des Musikers im arabisch-islamischen Raum” by Hans Engel. The
book, which to my knowledge has only appeared in German, is
also a PhD thesis. Engel devotes an entire chapter to the Qaina
and mentions numerous historical facts about them.
2. In Islam, if a female slave becomes pregnant by her master and has his child,
she automatically becomes free. Her child is then born free.
3 Fatima Mernissi’s book, “ The Forgotten Queens of
Islam” (in French, “Sultans oubliee”) discusses the “slaves” of this Islamic
Golden Ages extensively and devotes an entire chapter to Harun el Rashid’s
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