Dancing for Dowries, Part 2:
Earning Power, Ethnology, and Happily Ever After
by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
graphics used with permission from
Stief of the Bellydance Museum
or from Wikimedia Commons
posted August 16, 2009
part 1 available here
Part II: The Nailiyat
I began with the “ancient Greece” story in order to look at the ways in which the themes of the “dancing for dowries” mythos relate to the concerns of modern belly dancers, for better or worse, in a story that is basically fact-free. But there is a real case of women who danced for a while in their youth in order to earn money for their future prosperity: Algeria’s Nailiyat (singular Nailiya), the women of the Ouled Nail tribe.
The ways in which their practices have been told and interpreted, though more solidly based on facts than some versions of the “dancing for dowries” story, also reflect the ways in which the idea of “dancing for dowry” reduces complex cultural interchanges into patterns that reflect modern concerns more than actual historical practices. And this is a disservice both to the historical Nailiyat and to our own hopes for gaining cross-cultural wisdom.
Although the Nailiyat still exist, and still (at least under some circumstances) dance publicly, I am using the past tense here because I am describing situations that were in place and in flux in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. During this period, the Ouled Nail tribe experienced the political and economic upheavals that ravaged Algerian traditional life during the period of the French invasion, land seizure, and relocation or extermination of native Algerians, and political domination.
The Ouled Nail were a people of the Saharan Atlas mountains in the interior of Algeria, who consciously recognized their differences from the lowland populations and from others of their geographic area. One of the practices that most set them apart from their neighbors was that some of their women would leave their mountain homes during a part of the year, go down to the lowland cities, and become professional dancers. They were usually accompanied by a mother or other older female family member. Typically, they returned home seasonally. After a few years, most would return home for good, with enough wealth to buy a home and establish themselves as a woman of property. They would at some point enter a marriage in which they maintained the same domestic roles and marital fidelity that were expected of women throughout Algeria.
Not all Nailiyat became dancers. In some families, it was more common for daughters to become dancers than in others. At times, sisters or cousins might work and live together for a few years, and during this period they might be responsible for the support of an older female relative, as well as younger family members who were in training to become professional dancers themselves.
Because of the lack of historical records, we do not know how long or under what conditions the relationship between Ouled Nail and the other Algerians for whom they danced persisted. But we do know that it underwent significant change in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Marnia Lazreg explains the historical practice of the Nailiyat as follows:
Women would typically leave their rural milieu and settle temporarily in one of the nearby towns, where they entertained men with dances and songs. Often young women left with their mothers, grandmothers, or aunts, who acted as their chaperons and kept house for them. If a Nailiya … became pregnant, she kept her child. A baby girl was particularly appreciated. Her aim was to find a suitable husband, and/or save enough money to help her parents out, and to return home where she usually bought a house with a garden. (30)
To elaborate, while away from their tribal homeland, the Nailiyat lived within a community for which women provided a strong core, and into which men were admitted temporarily as friends, acquaintances, allies, business associates, admirers, and sexual partners. This woman-centered community existed and made its mark within the urban areas in which the Nailiyat performed – areas where domestic life followed the same pattern as the rest of Algeria. (This is not to say that women within the more traditional households did not also find ways in which to create community and exert their wills.)
In an additional overturning of traditional power structures, among the Nailiyat the older generations took a back seat to the younger. Young women, far from being secluded and controlled, were the center of the household’s finances and public life.
This is not to say that more traditional generational relationships did not exist within the female-centered families; mothers or other female relatives may well have counseled, advised, or rebuked the young dancers, and might also have had a hand in managing the household finances.
This element, admittedly, is not noted in the accounts of Nailiyat in authors such as Eugene Fromentin (1857) and, nearly a century later, Lawrence Morgan (1956); however, this absence could be because of the authors’ ignorance of intrafamiliy dynamics and/or their fascination with the young dancers to the exclusion of the rest of their households.
Etienne Dinet and Sliman Ben Ibrahim, in their 1926 novel Khadra, do allude to the intergenerational aspect in their account of the experiences of Khadra’s mother, whose life, less thoroughly controlled, taxed, and regulated than Khadra’s, had led to a happy marriage and a triumphant return home (Dinet and Ben Ibrahim 1926: 7-14).
One implication of their fictionalized account is that increasingly over time, the young Nailiyat who came to urban centers were far less able to conduct their lives in the comforting environment of a “home away from home.” Separated from their traditional multi-generational feminine support network, they became isolated as lone women in an exploitative world, perhaps relying for support on other young women, or hoping to find it from male patrons, but without the guidance of experienced elders.
Other neighboring mountain tribes also practiced seasonal travel, professional dancing, and sexual mores at odds with the mainstream tradition. But their motivations may have been different. Describing the practices of the more remote Azriyat (women of the Ouled Abdi and Ouled Daoud tribes), Lazreg comments: “Women who were orphaned, divorced, repudiated, widowed, or unable to marry at the appointed age became dance performers and engaged in sexual activity with their patrons until they found a husband,” emphasizing that this practice was more common in “periods of economic slump.” Typically Azriyat lived alone (Lazreg 1994: 33-4).
In this case, the role of public dancer was a last resort by women who had no other resources. However, the ultimate result of this period in their lives was meant to be a reincorporation into the community, as the Azriya hoped to find a husband among her patrons and return to respectable life. Still – returning to our subject of dancing for dowries – it was not through earning a dowry that this hope was to be fulfilled, but through forming relationships with generous patrons who might ultimately desire a less-than-conventional marriage to a soon-to-be-former dancer.
Nailiyat, Sex, and Prostitution
The Nailiyat were known and famed as dancers primarily. They were also hostesses, and men who visited their homes – usually in the presence of the Nailiya’s mother, little sisters, and so on – knew to bring them gifts (monetary or otherwise) to acknowledge their kindness and hospitality.
Of course, their value as hostesses was based to some extent on the charm and sensuality they could lavish on the man who visited them. They would also take lovers, who would be expected to shower them with gifts, although there were many stories of Nailiyat who foolishly took poor lovers, or who fell into a hopeless love, leading to their emotional and sometimes economic disaster.
They were, in short, women who were sexually active outside of the bonds of marriage, and women whose lovers expected to have to support them and give them gifts. They were therefore women whose presence meant that men might be squandering money on them that was owed to the upkeep of their wife’s or mother’s household, and in this way, they could be perceived as damaging to the mainstream society. But their modus operandi was not to charge all paying customers x dollars for x sex act, nor could they be counted on to accept as a lover anyone who had enough money.
In this way, they differed from “prostitutes” as we typically define the word. So while the Nailiyat were one facet of extra-marital sex in their host communities, they were primarily known for the pleasurable entertainments of all sorts – certainly dance, and including conversation – they could offer men who seldom had a chance to spend time with more cosmopolitan women than their secluded female relatives.
Some of the Nailiyat never returned home, preferring the cosmopolitan life. Others paid the price for their public profession in a war-torn and unpredictable time, showing that wearing one’s wealth could put a woman’s life on the line. The painter Eugene Fromentin, who spent several years in Algeria in the 1840’s and 50’s, describes the pathetic and regrettable murder of two beautiful, sweet and popular Nailiyat who were killed for their jewelry by renegade soldiers in the upheavals of the war (Fromentin 154-5). Théophile Gautier, writing at about the same time, describes an Algerian dancer of another ethnic group who was murdered due to the risks of her profession (Gautier 1865: 126-7). In 1904, in his bestselling novel The Garden of Allah, Robert Hichens, who had traveled in Algeria, raises this topic in an exchange between his heroine, Domini, and her Algerian guide. The guide begins:
“Many of the dancers of Beni-Mora are murdered, each season two or three.” …
“Why do they murder the dancers?” [Domini] asked quickly.
“For their jewels. At night … it is easy … She sleeps … You cut the throat without noise. You take the jewels, the money from the box by the bed … You unbar the door – and there before you is … the desert.” (Hichens 1904: 114)
Perhaps there was no safer place to keep one’s “dowry” than to wear it if one wanted to prevent theft, but the fact that dancers were known to carry their wealth with them left them particularly open to victimization and crime, often fatally so.
One of the historical forces that led to the erosion of the Nailiyat’s prosperity as professional dancers was their definition as prostitutes by French officials. Because of this, their way of life was eroded through increasing regimentation, taxation, and impoverishment through government control. The independent Nailiyat described by Fromentin in the 1850’s were, by the 1900’s, forced to become licensed and heavily taxed prostitutes, and reduced to dancing for pay in exploitative cafes, though apparently they still had the right to be employed in whichever of these they wished. Khadra describes the many ways in which employers gouged money from the Nailiyat, as well as their abuse by “customers” Dinet and Ben Ibrahim: 141-8). In Flute of Sand, Lawrence Morgan describes houses to which the Nailiyat were confined, their freedom of movement inhibited and their earnings garnished exploitatively (Morgan 1956 : 43-63).
The most famous account of the Nailiyat is not so much narrative as visual: a series of photographs published in a 1914 issue of National Geographic, which showed them in their enveloping white dresses, their coin adornments hanging long and heavy, smoking cigarettes, chatting, posing in all the beauty or ugliness the photographers chose to illustrate. These images, reproduced on postcards that circulated widely in Europe and America, gave us a visual definition of the Nailiyat, and illustrated the coin-jewelry “dowries” that emerged in American belly dance costumes at the end of the 1960’s, in the Renaissance-Faire presentation of belly dance that ultimately developed into American Tribal Style.
Interpreting the Nailiyat
From the start, the Nailiyat were not only observed but interpreted by the French and later, when the city of Bou Saada became a tourist site, by everyone else who saw them dance. Lazreg comments, “A popular notion among colonial travelers had it that the Nailiyat engaged in what they perceived as prostitution as a part of a rite of passage before marrying.” This “rite of passage” idea may have been the intellectual descendant of an influential but completely unsubstantiated story from the
Greek historian Herodotus, who described how Babylonian girls had once had to prostitute themselves at the temple of Aphrodite before they could marry as a “rite of passage” (Herodotus 1.199). (This story, incidentally, incited the idea of “temple prostitution” that became so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) The ritual aspect of the “rite of passage” idea also echoed a popular 19th and early 20th century explanation of Middle Eastern dance of all sorts: that it had its origins in ancient fertility rituals. (Obviously this origin story still thrives in the modern age.)
“Origin myths” like these, and the “ritual” interpretations they give to dance-related practices, wrongly displace the Ouled Nail custom from its wider context as an integral aspect of a complex culture, with social and economic ramifications that cannot be simplistically explained as “ritual.”
Which brings us back to “dancing for dowries.”
The Nailiyat in Context
The fate of the Nailiyat is particularly sad for the modern belly dancer to contemplate, because it shows the disempowerment of a group of women who, by the standards of both our culture and theirs, were sexually and individually freer than usual. It is a complex story and I have only touched on it here. But in keeping with the theme of “dancing for dowries,” I want to discuss the elements of the Nailiyat’s experience that have been adopted, and adapted, in the “dancing for dowries” mythic history.
To begin with, the modern “dancing for dowries” story either ignores the element of prostitution completely, or treats it nonchalantly. If the prostitution issue is left out, the story becomes naïve. If prostitution is mentioned only casually, this makes it seem as if it is a minor, incidental aspect of the Nailiyat’s story. It isn’t. The Nailiyat, as women defined as having a purchasable sexuality, were subject to abuses and dangers that women with the protection (for better or worse) of family and marriage, were not. Glib mentions of “prostitution” are historically inaccurate, but also make the Nailiyat seem more distant from our own “real life” experience.
If their importance to us is only as the dowry-dancers who came up with those great coin necklaces, we undo – through oversight – the path they offer toward understanding some of the complexity that has led to the underlying tensions that define the performance of belly dance both in the West and in the Middle East today. And it is not fair to their memories, either, to mythologize them and overlook their sources of both strength and pain.
Were the women of the Ouled Nail earning dowries? Not in a traditional sense. They were earning money that could be used for whatever purpose they pleased, whether that was setting themselves up in better (and more permanent) situations in the lowlands, or purchasing a house and garden back at home. What they were not doing was earning a dowry that would be turned over to a husband as a symbol of their worth to their birth family. They were not earning something that would allow them to be chosen by a man or bestowed in marriage with their value monetarily established. They were, in contrast, earning money with which they might buy their own house and livelihood – in other words, independence.
Of course, it was independence in a family context, in that other family members might also profit from the retired dancer’s new house and material well-being. And just as she was enabled to take lovers according to their appeal to her when she had been a dancer, she was later enabled to contract a more informed, and perhaps more personally meaningful, marriage than the average Algerian girl.
It is clear that purity and fidelity to a husband were considered as vital for the married Nailiyat as for other women in the Arab (or for that matter, contemporary Western) world. In a possibly romanticized quote reported by Morgan, an Ouled Nail man commented, “Our wives, knowing what love is, and having wealth of their own, will marry only the man they love. And, unlike the wives of other men, will remain faithful to death, Thanks be to Allah” (Morgan 1956: 36). The Nailiyat, however sexually different and freer than other Arab women of their time and place, were still deeply imbedded in patriarchal family and economic realities, and would not have flourished as dancers in any other way.
Yet the differences from the traditional thought-world are pronounced. The underlying Ouled Nail culture gives women not only (temporary) sexual freedom, but also economic power through their earnings and property. This society recognized women’s ability to make their way through the world and gain wisdom from it, and acknowledged both the loyalty it takes to return home and the courage it takes to embark on a life lived largely in the outside world.
It respected the intelligence, style and wisdom gained by women who had lived in the public eye and in the world beyond their native home – a world many men of the Ouled Nail never saw.
So the point of the practices of the Ouled Nail is not for a woman to come up with a reification of her own value to her husband in the form of dowry. Instead, the practice of public dancing reveals a deeper valuation of women that encompasses economic, personal, intellectual, and moral worth. So when we depict the Nailiyat as “dancing for their dowries,” we are trivializing the complex and valuable meanings of their own life experiences, which were not conventionally patriarchal in the sense that the “dancing for dowries” story implies.
The idea of an independent, economically empowered life aligns with the values of the belly dancer subculture – and indeed this independence often features in accounts of the Nailiyat – so why are they so often described as dancing for dowries? One reason is that the Nailiyat were described in these terms by travelers from very early on (for example, Deloncle 1927: 14). Still, alternate interpretations have been available in accessible scholarly work for many years as well. So why
does the simplistic misinterpretation persist in the belly dance community?
Perhaps because the “dancing for dowries” mythos, as described in Part I, offers us something that feels right, however affirming or diminishing that “rightness” is. But feeling right and being right are not the same thing.
Mythos no more?
It is time for the mythos to change. At this point, whether it is couched in terms of the historical Nailiyat or the neverland of the ancient Greek agora, the “dancing for dowries” mythos offers a view of belly dance that simplifies and diminishes it. It defies the dance’s ultimate purpose not as attaining independence (as its modern manifestation is supposed to help the dancer do) but as submitting to traditional patriarchal expectations. It presents the “original meaning” of the dance not as a life-long and life-enhancing art, but as a money-earning gig suitable only for the unmarried, to be given up (when sufficient value has been accrued) for the obligations of marriage and motherhood. And its misapplication to the Nailiyat leads to a serious misreading of this fascinating culture.
Mythic histories express our tensions and limitations, and perhaps our aspirations, too. But the problem with them is that their semblance of truth tends to backfire, perpetuating the problems that gave rise to it. We should not let this mythos – or for that matter, any other – define our dance – and by extension, ourselves – by subtly imprinting us with the limitations it embodies. “Dancing for dowries” is past its usefulness, and it’s time to tell other stories.
Postscript: Tribal Dowry
Interestingly, “dowry” has become a concept in Tribal belly dance, since for Tribal-style dancers the original, well, tribal illustrations of dancers are understood as a direct inspiration of the modern style. In one online article, entitled “Collecting Your Dowry,” Michelle comments,
… to pull off a successful tribal look, your dowry must be rich. In tribal times (which still exist in some areas), women wore every bit of wealth they had to attract a husband. A strand of beads and a couple of bracelets did not make the cut when the neighbor girl had stacks of metal around her wrists and a neck-full of necklaces, not to mention earrings, rings, pendants, and pins to offer her would-be groom. How to begin your dowry? First, be patient. As tribal women collected their possessions over years, so too will you have to gain one piece at a time to achieve your perfect look…
Some elements of the “dancing for dowries” mythos remain in place, while others have shifted, for better or worse.
The dowry is now not collected by the dancer’s public performance for men. It is reconfigured as wealth collected over time, with a strong emphasis on the dancer’s own choice and individual wishes.
On the other hand, the mythic dowry is still meant to “attract a husband.” This account seems to cast “tribal women” as passive creatures whose worth is naturally measured by their monetary value. And not only are they reified, they are in competition with one another, and under-adornment seems to imply that whatever her other qualities, the undecorated tribal woman, devoid of intrinsic worth, will be left unchosen.
In addition, perhaps in alignment with the younger demographic of Tribal dance, in which youthful dancers’ self-images have a strong element of potential and becoming, the dancer is implicitly defined as young, though her adornment might eventually lead to maturity.
All the same, moving away from patriarchal notions of competing bejeweled nubile women, the story’s emphasis on how the dowry must be selected over time implies a lifelong process of self-adornment that goes well beyond the realistic time frame of young women who would be married by their mid-teens. This scenario, in contrast to the idea of the monetarily assessable young brides-to-be, shows the tribal woman (tribal in both senses) as essentially spending money on herself, and defining herself through
adornment that marks her off as distinct.
This account shows an odd mixture of perspectives, encompassing some of the internal conflicts of Tribal style. [And all styles have internal conflicts.] On one side is conformity to cultural expectations of women (i.e. young, beautiful in a particular agreed-upon way, and in some ways interchangeable). On the other is insistence on independence and attention to self. In Michelle’s story, dowry, though defined as something reifying a woman and offered to her husband, and presented in the light of un-sisterly competition with neighbor girls, nevertheless morphs into a symbol of choices based on self-respect that lead to a lifelong process of growth.
Barakat, Halim. 1993. The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Belly Dance Divas. n. d. About Belly Dance. http://www.bellydancedivas.co.za/AboutBellyDance.html. Accessed June 9 2009.
Deloncle, Pierre. 1927. La Caravan Aux Eperons Verts. Paris: Librarie Plon.
Dinet, Etienne, and Sliman Ben Ibrahim. 1926. Khadra. Paris: H. Piazza.
Fromentin, Eugene. 1857 . Un Eté dans le Sahara. Ed.Anne-Marie Christin. Paris: Le Sycomore.
Gautier, Théophile. 1865 . Loin de Paris. Ed. G.Charpentier. In Théophile Gautier, Ouvres Completes, vol. 9. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints.
Herodotus. n. d. History. (Public domain.)
Hichens, Robert. 1904. The Garden of Allah. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
Lazreg, Marnia. 1994. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge.
Me’ira. n.d. The World’s Oldest Dance. http://www.bdancer.com/history/BDhist1.html. Accessed June 14 2009.
Meserve, Casey. 2009. Dancing For Themselves. Kingston Reporter. Feb 20.
Michelle. n. d. Collecting Your Dowry. http://www.farfesha.com/pages/dowery.html. Accessed June 1, 2009.
Morgan, Lawrence. 1956 . Flute of Sand. Bristol, UK: Cinnabar.
van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 1995. A Trade Like Any Other. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
Rashad, Hoda, Magued Osman, and Farzaneh Roudi-Farhini. 2005. Marriage in the Arab World. Population Reference Bureau. http://www.iiav.nl/epublications/2005/MarriageInArabWorld.pdf. Accessed June 15, 2009.
Scarborough, Milton. 1994. Myth and Modernity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
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