The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Oriental Dance:
Myth and Reality
The Harem Slaves

By Jalilah Lorraine Chamas

The other 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.

He 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.”

A debate 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.

I 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 class.”

The 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.

So 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?

Many 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.

From pre-Islamic 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.

The 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.

There are 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 high price.

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.

Even 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.

Sometimes, 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.

When 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.

Most 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.

Another 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 the harem.

The scanty 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, and businesswomen.

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 revealing enough.

In 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,

it 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.

1. 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 mother, Khayzuran.

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