Interview with Assala Ibrahim on the topic of Iraqi dance especially Kawliya
by Chica Hilma
posted March 7, 2015
When I was contacted by Bellydance Japan magazine near the end of 2014, they were looking for dancers to interview for its Spring issue which would feature dances of Iraq, the Gulf region and Iran. I was confident to say there was no better person than Assala to talk about Iraqi dance.
My first encounter with her was in her Kawliya and Iraqi Zar workshops at Amani’s Oriental Festival in July 2014. I was excited by this rare opportunity to learn the dance from a native Iraqi dancer because dance for me is not a fantasy but a way to understand the culture behind it and to make a spiritual connection with the people of the dance.
Her workshops exceeded my expectations. She taught us not only the movements and techniques but also put more importance on explanations of the history, the culture and the spirit of the dance. The way she introduced us to the various theories on those topics made me believe she was truly an intelligent person. She did not deny any of the theories while clearly explaining her opinions on them.
We continued chatting and exchanging mails after the interview for the magazine, and the information I collected from her expanded to the point that we both felt it should be shared with a broader community. That was how I came to contact Gilded Serpent.
Unfortunately, now Iraq is one of the most difficult places to visit. Unless one has a friend in or from Iraq, it is not easy for us outsiders to have a correct understanding of the culture. There are myths and misconceptions around and we see Iraqi dance has been transformed into something different from its origin. As Assala says, while understanding and accepting such natural change, we should have knowledge to understand the differences. I am pleased to share the precious information from Assala on Iraqi dance particularly on Kawliya with all the readers.
Could you first tell us your background as well as your original encounter with dance?
I was born and raised up in Basrah City in South of Iraq. Basrah is the Persian-Gulf-side gate of Iraq, a port city with a special heritage of Iraq and Khalij mixed culture.
As I used to tag around my mother who had a wedding business, I was always surrounded by festive dance when I was little. Just like you start speaking without recognizing from what point, in the same way I naturally started dancing.
A wedding business?
Since weddings are very important occasions in the lives of Iraqi women, my mother had a special status among the women who needed her skills of making wedding dresses and applying makeup. Our house used to be full of women, mainly young ladies with their female relatives and friends who came for their wedding dresses or Henna night dresses. Henna night is the night before the wedding night. After a bride got her dress, my mother used to go to her house on the wedding night to apply makeup to her, which was the final process of my mother’s work.
My mother was engaged in this small business using a big room in our house. There were some Christian women working with her who had great embroidery skills, and a daughter of one of them was my childhood best friend. My mother sometimes went to church with them when there were special occasions. From these experiences, I remembered great harmony among religions in my childhood in Iraq. I feel very sad about today’s situation in Iraq that so many Christians and other minorities have to leave their home due to the violence and the wars.
In fact, my mother’s work influenced me a lot during my childhood. I grew up among beautiful colours, beautiful fabrics and women dancing during henna nights and weddings. I was always keen to help my mother carrying her things when she went to apply makeup. I was a very dreamy little girl who was very fascinated with the world surrounding me. So I was always the one who stood up and danced in my relatives’ weddings, but of course only among women and not in the presence of men.
Was your decision to become a dancer accepted by your family?
Well, dancing on stages as a performer is totally different from dancing among female relatives and friends. Even though my family were not very conservative, it was still hard for them to accept my decision to be a dancer. It is still something they cannot be proud of.
Is dancing popular in Basrah like it is in Egypt?
Yes. Traditional dances and music are very important in Basrah too. As it is a port city where the cultures of various countries flow in, a rich culture of many types of dance flourished. We have Samri dance which originated in Khalij, as well as Hajaa and Chobi dances, and of course Khashaba dance and music. Movements of Zaar dance from Africa are now very well integrated in the Sufi and Ritual dance in Basrah. As well, Hewa/Lewa dance is a unique mixture of Afro and Samri dances, which can be considered a local specialty dance.
Could you tell us about Kawliya which is typically considered by belly dancers to represent Iraqi dance?
The term, “Iraqi dance,” covers the whole dance of the country and not only the Iraqi gypsy dance.
To belly dancers, Kawliya is generally known as a name of a dance but actually it is a name of a people. General information we find in research and the media support a theory that the Kawliya are gypsies of Indian origin. However there are other theories that claim they are the indigenous people of old Iraq (Mesopotamia). There are no proven theories of their origin and we Iraqis call them the “Puzzle of Iraq”.
I’m planning to soon publish the results of my own research on these theories. Please refer to it to find out more about the origin of the Kawliya people and the meaning of the name. It will also contain findings about an interesting relationship between Kawliya dance moves and the ancient ritual dance of Ishtar and Innana worshipping which is aimed to affect and influence the universe and life on earth through its dance moves.
What is the situation of the Kawliya people in Iraqi society?
Most of them now live in the city of el Diwanya, to the south of Baghdad, in an area totally isolated from the rest of Iraq that has no electricity or drinkable water. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, many fanatic Muslim groups attacked the Kawliya [offsite link]. Many Kawliya were killed or forced to flee the country. Most of those who fled are now working in Syria, in Jordan and in the Gulf States.
Although most other Iraqi minorities have their own representatives to claim their rights in the Iraqi Parliament, unfortunately there is no party or person to represent the Kawliya. Therefore the persecution of the Kawliya throughout Iraq is ignored by government and society.
Women are highly appreciated in Kawliya families because they are the breadwinners for the whole families. They work as dancers, singers and sometimes even as prostitutes for survival of their families. So the Iraqis look down upon these women and generally consider the Kawliya as the underclass of the Iraqi society. Therefore most of the Kawliya deny or hide their origin.
Can Kawliya dancing still be seen in Iraq?
They were seen in all parts of festivities in Iraq until ten years ago. However, the political situation I mentioned before affected and influenced the dance a lot. It has almost disappeared from the villages of the Kawliya people. Those who couldn’t leave Iraq live in horrible conditions now working mostly as beggars with their children.
Due to this situation and the change of music and dance trends towards modern ones, now the Kawliya are hired for dancing mainly at countryside festivities, especially for weddings. As city people prefer modern live music for their weddings and entertainment, the only places you will find the Kawliya in big cities are in lower class hotels and nightclubs where they play Kawliya music.
What is Kawliya music like?
It is important to note that while a Kawliya style exists, there is no such thing as a Kawliya song.
They don’t have their own written language either. Some Iraqi researchers mentioned that in the old times the Kawliya people had had a kind of mixed language from Indian, Turkish and Arabic roots. However, it still raises many questions. Where is this language now? Any ethnic group that has adopted another language still keeps some songs of its own language. Bedtime lullabies are usually good examples. They are passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. In the case of the Kawliya people however, it seems as if somebody had deleted their language from their memory. It is very important to remember that they marry only within the group, so there is no mixed or cross culture in a family. As a result, it should be natural for children to use their mother language in such environment.
The Kawliya people sing with the Iraqi dialect, use the Iraqi Rhythms and the Iraqi Maqamat in their Iraqi music but in their own style, full of joy combined with sadness.
They sing the best Mawal and are very famous for countryside style songs. That is why TV and media call female gypsy singers and dancers “Banat el Rief”, which means “daughters of the countryside”, in order to avoid the term el Kawliya at the same time. Incidentally, the Kawliya people are Muslim and do not have other religions in Iraq.
I personally love the songs of the “Iraqi Gypsy Queen” by Sajda Obaid. Her songs are full of burning rhythms and passion. I also like songs by Hossam el Rassam. He is not a gypsy but some of his songs are sung in the style.
SajdaObaid – Hussam Al Rassam
What are traditional costumes of Kawliya dance?
If the theory that relates their origin to India is true, then it seems they have adopted themselves to Iraq to the point of losing their roots. We have never seen them wearing their own traditional dance costumes; instead they wear traditional Iraqi ones.
You may see them in modern evening dresses at nightclubs, at hotels or in commercial video clips, which are now their main opportunities for performing. Wearing such modern dresses is actually unusual though. Unfortunately, foreign dancers usually only see such video clips, therefore they copy such costumes and other dancers then copy the copied costumes.
So the whole world now has this misconception that Iraqi dance should be danced in evening dresses.
I’ve noticed you always wear unique costumes that are different from evening dresses and also from the so-called belly dance costumes. Are they traditional Iraqi ones?
In Iraq, we never wear the badlah, the Egyptian-Hollywood style costume. My costumes are traditional ones inspired by the styles seen in various parts of Iraq. As I used to see traditional costumes through my mother’s work in my childhood, it still influences my costume design. I feel I can dance more freely in such costumes with more fabric and colors. In the old days when people used to make their own costumes, their main focus in design was to express their identity and heritage. Therefore those traditional costumes are a great source of inspiration to me.
Designing costumes is another opportunity to apply creativity to my dance. I think every dancer should have freedom to dance in costumes that enhance their art expression.
Assala’s Video -"Intro to Iraqi costumes"
Are there any other misconceptions regarding Kawliya dance besides the costumes?
It was mainly Russian dancers who popularized the use of evening dresses. They have also created and promoted to the world a new style of Kawliya dance with a balletic concept.
However, ballet steps and movements are against its philosophy. This is because connection with the earth is an essential element of Kawliya dance, having its roots in Ishtar and Innana worshipping rituals.
Rather, the Iraqi gypsy dance is strongly connected to the ancient Mesopotamia. So it looks natural, powerful, raw, sacred and trancelike. The feet are connected to the ground and the head connects to heaven but both are also connected to and supporting each other. There is no isolation or tension when doing the moves, the energy is fluid and not blocked in any part of the body. Rather, each part in the body is connecting with each other and working towards the ground. To dance the Iraqi music is about dancing people stories, feelings, experiences and culture, so this adds to the dance’s more exotic expressions and gestures.
So it is not about right or wrong. It is natural for anyone to create their own fusion if they don’t have a chance to have direct contact with the culture of a certain dance. Dance is affected by globalization like everything else in life.
People leave their countries to work abroad, the world has gotten so close through the new technology and various ways of connections and communication. All these changes lead to produce something new or a mix of traditional and modernity in all aspects of life including dance.
So it is good that we understand and accept these changes and we should be able to explain this to our students.
I personally respect their hard work. The audience loves and appreciates their shows. However, I just worry about the fact that the dance is gaining a completely new look and going far away from its roots. I believe these dancers have great passion for the Kawliya dance and that’s why I hope they delve further into its original tradition and spirit.
I really advise dancers not to make the dance as a head-and-hair-spinning-sensation. The Kawliya dance is much more than that.
We often see dancing with daggers. Are they traditional props of Kawliya dance?
Daggers belong to traditional Iraqi dance from the ancient time in which they were used to symbolize the pride and the strength of the tribe. The Kawliya have also integrated it in their repertoire. As well, it is true that daggers were very familiar items in their daily life as many of them worked as blacksmiths in the old days.
Dagger dance of today was inspired by the same traditional dance. Though it was the Kawliya who spread dagger dance in various parts of Iraq, the first Iraqi dancer who danced it on stage was Hanna Abdallah, a pioneer dancer from the Iraqi national dance troop. She is still a living legend and is devoting her whole life to conserve Iraqi folkloric dance and pass it on as well to the new generation in and outside of Iraq. I really appreciate her cooperation with the young Iraqi dancer Mohanned Hawaz in Sweden and his company consisting of non-Iraqi dancers.
El Hisscha is an Iraqi rhythm from the south of Iraq. It was because Mrs. Hanna Abdellah danced with daggers to the rhythm of el Hisscha that people started calling it el Hisscha dance.
Dagger dance is mostly danced to the Hajaa rhythm. The second dancer who presented dagger dance but with a Hajaa song was a famous Iraqi dancer, Melayeen. She is known in Iraq as a gypsy dancer but I was not surprised when she denied it or avoided talking about it in all her interviews, because nobody wants to be discriminated against as being a Kawliya. I started including the dagger dance in all my performances around the world inspired by this old tradition and these two wonderful dancers. I used to decorate my daggers with flowers to show that the theme is not about being aggressive on the stage.
I’ve heard the frequently seen gesture of dancers stabbing themselves means “Love me or I will kill myself.” Is it a correct interpretation?
I think it is a personal interpretation of some viewers and is never the meaning of the dance. The Kawliya suffer a lot from rejection and isolation, and being treated as low class so the dancers use the daggers to express their anger and sadness.
We see similar steps that are in both Kawliya dance and Khaliji dance. What is the relation of the two?
As one of the most notable characteristics of gypsies is to incorporate various local cultures while travelling, they have integrated some Khaliji steps into their dance. That is why Kawliya dance has some Khaliji steps, especially from Samri dance of Basrah.
Is there a similarity between Kawliya dance and belly dance?
Yes, there are some similar movements in both dances. But the energy and the bodywork of those movements are completely different.
You have been teaching around the world. What would you like to achieve through this?
I would like to share my knowledge and present the dance in its authentic form to other dancers all over the world and to draw bigger attention to the issue of the Kawliya people in Iraq.
I have learned a lot from different parts of the world I visited. I enjoyed listening to other dancers’ stories and how dance changed their life or enriched their life, I am always touched by the deep connection between the dancers and I when we dance together. It is not only that they admire me, I admire them as well very much. I appreciate their passion, love and devotion for the dance and I met many amazing and heroic women around the world.
Thank you very much!
A native of Iraq who was surrounded by festive dance in her childhood, Assala gives us valuable information about traditional dance in Iraq, in particular Kawliya dance. Her research found that Kawliya dance is related to the ancient Ishtar and Inanna worshipping rituals. While recently it is less seen in Iraq due to the persecution of Kawliya people, it continues to gain popularity outside of the country, although in a new style. While appreciating this new style, Assala stresses the importance of knowledge over authentic style and its background. She continues to share her knowledge through workshops in various countries and also runs her own school in Switzerland.
Photo info- Top of page: At a festival in Cape Town, 2011. Photographer: Dieter Dewald
Fanatic Muslim Groups attack Kawliya- http://www.domresearchcenter.com/news/iraq/iraq2.html
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