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Part 2: From Abu Dhabi to Sulimaniya to Stockholm

In Search Of The Iraqi Kawleeya

Map of Iraq

by Amani Jabril
posted December 5, 2013
Part 1 of this series here

The flight from Abu Dhabi (1) to Erbil is just around two hours. Now headed towards Iraq, I find myself back on the path in search of the Kawleeya. Most dancers I know call this dance of exuberant hair tossing and rhythmic, jumping steps “Kawleeya”, after the people from which the dance comes. I find the term a bit problematic. Though our intentions are to reference a specific dance style, we generalize in our use of the language. Using it in this way, by simply saying “Kawleeya”, could either refer to the dance or to the people. It can become difficult to differentiate who or what one may be talking about. In addition to this potential confusion, and while it may not seem particularly noteworthy, but in using a generalized term, we also inadvertently essentialize the subject matter. In doing, we aid the reduction of an entire culture. I have heard many terms used for this particular dance. These include the Kawleeya, Ghajar and Haja’a. Hopefully my time in Iraq, will allow me an opportunity to gain greater insight into this and other aspects of the dance.

Flying east towards Iran and then north along the eastern coastline of the Arabian Gulf, the short flight feels like an epic journey taking me far away from anything I’ve ever known before. Situated in the far northeastern part of Iraq, Erbil is the fourth largest city and the bustling, concrete and glass capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Though we will spend some time here, Erbil is not our final stop. Once my husband, Meriwan, and I land, we will make our way by car through the mountains to his hometown of Sulimaniya. “Suli” is also one of the four largest cities of Northern Iraq and a major regional nexus for the arts. The city sits nestled in the palm of the Gyoza mountains, just around two hours away from the Iranian border. Not only is the city of Sulimaniya a world away from my home in Atlanta, Georgia, but anyone with a map in front of them can see that it sits in the far northeastern region of Iraq where ethnically Kurdish people form a prominent majority population.

Where is the “Kawleeya” rooted? With which people? What country or city?

To most, Suli must seem like an ill-suited place to research the dance or the Kawleeya people since Kurdistan is quite different both culturally and geographically from the southern coastline of Iraq and cities like Basra that have long been associated centers of the Kawleeya. Throughout their history, Dom(2) groups in the Middle East have been mostly nomadic, moving widely throughout the region. Though difficult to pinpoint in history, the Dom have become increasingly sedentary in modern times, often settling temporarily or more permanently in urban centers and their surrounding areas. Within Iraq, groups of Dom have generally been found, though not limited to the areas of Basra, Baghdad, Erbil and Dohuk(3). Well-known for their work as entertainers and reputed as alcohol sellers and prostitutes, the Dom became an associated symbol of the decadence and corruption of the Baath party under Saddam Hussein (4). After the collapse of the regime, many Kawleeya have come under attack, forcing most to flee to the North of Iraq as well as to neighboring Arab countries (5).

“Throughout their travels in Iraq, El Kawliya incorporated and fused elements from various music and dance forms they encountered in the different areas of Iraq.” says Assala Ibrahim-Amani (5)

Locating the Kawleeya within a specific geographical area is helpful in that it does give us some insights into the catalogue of movement styles from which a dancer could draw inspiration. Yet at the same time, it is important to recognize the critical role that the migration of peoples has played, how it has impacted the culture of the Kawleeya and, in turn, how it has impacted the dance. Assala Ibrahim explains, “Throughout their travels in Iraq, El Kawliya incorporated and fused elements from various music and dance forms they encountered in the different areas of Iraq.” Assala, a dance ethnologist and native of Basra goes on to say that, “…they adopt the Hajaa dance when they go to the south of Iraq, or the Chobi dance when they go to the west.”(5)

You may remember that my first encounter with the dance was not in Iraq at all, it was in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Today, Kawleeya is being performed around the Khalij (7) and elsewhere in the Middle East including Syria. I personally have encountered Iraqi dance and the Kawleeya in a number of surprising places like the cabarets in Beirut, Lebanon; a hookah lounge in Dallas, Texas; not even to mention the growing presence on the Internet. The Kawleeya is now here in Sulimaniya, in the nightclubs alongside the Raq Sharqi. It’s places like this that attract my interest more so than any other. Some scholars focus their attention on the history of a dance or perhaps its musical traditions. For me, contemporary constructions of ethnic identity and negotiations of the expressions of those identities are truly fascinating.

As such, it is my belief that engaging the process of negotiation and looking at the variety of steps individuals and groups take to adapt and express culture yields a great deal of information. This information can be incorporated into the way we construct, teach and perform dance.

In this line of thought, if it is the case that the Kawleeya incorporate elements from the musical and dance traditions of other cultures it encounters, one has to wonder how the dance might adapt as it moves in to the cabarets of Northern Iraq and points beyond like Europe and the United States. Even as we speak, we are witnessing the Kawleeya, as a popular dance form, extend its reach far beyond its origins with the Dom, beyond Iraq and the Gulf, even beyond the bounds of the Middle East.

“In Russia and the Ukraine,” notes Lauren Zehara of, “Iraqi Kawleeya has become a popular competition and performance style. Ukrainian dancers on YouTube have been the ones to bring this dance style into public awareness. But their Kawleeya style differs from what is done in Iraq.”(6)

While it seems that the Kawleeya incorporate outside influences into the dance, I look forward to seeing what dancers, like myself, with no ethnic roots or geographic ties to the Middle East or to the Kawleeya will, in turn, add to the dance. As exemplified by the performances of Ukrainian and Russian dancers, you see a great deal of traveling, emphasis on acrobatic backbends, and a Western dance influence in the arms and posture(8). In similar fashion to the ways in which the Raqs Sharqi was incorporated and diffused around the world, it remains to be seen how this highly proliferated form of the Kawleeya may impact the look and feel of the dance as a whole.

In the forthcoming third part of this article, let’s take a look at YouTube and its impact on the teaching and learning of the Kawleeya. I will share how and why I got started trying to learn to dance the Kawleeya as well as some of the pitfalls I have encountered in doing so. Further, I’d like to discuss some of my challenges moving into the realm of teaching the dance. Hopefully, dear reader, you will recognize some of these same success and challenges in your own experiences, and together, we can help each other develop our collective understanding of the Kawleeya. Until then, goodnight from Sulimaniya!



Resources and Footnotes:
  1. 1 – Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  2. 2 – Dom – While many Gypsy communities began referring to themselves as Rom or Lom, particularly in Europe and North America, the word Dom is still used by the Gypsy populations of the Middle East and North Africa. Because of the diversity of location and cultural integration, over the years the Gypsies have taken on many other names, including Barake, Nawar, Kaloro, Koli, Kurbat, Ghorbati, Zott, and Zargari, for tribal references and derogatory usage. Today, Dom communities reside in Cyprus, Iran, Iraq/Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/West Bank/Gaza, and Turkey. – From “The Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem”!
  3. 3 – Field notes, Amani Jabril, August 1, 2013
  4. 4 – “In Now Religious Iraq, no Tolerance for Gypsies”,
  5. 5 – Assala Ibrahim “Iraqi Gypsy Dance: A Journey In Search of El Kawliya” [embedded in page above]
  6. 6 – Lauren Zehara, “Bellydance Styles: Iraqi Kawleeya (Gypsy) Dance”,
  7. 7 – Khalij – An Arabic word meaning a "gulf". In this case, I am referring specifically to the Arabian, or Persian Gulf.
  8. 8 – Lauren Zehara, “Bellydance Styles: Iraqi Kawleeya (Gypsy) Dance”,

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