Recently, an article appeared on Salon, entitled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” Written by Randa Jarrar, the article pulled me in different directions.
I admit that my first reaction was negative–not because I am much of a belly dancer myself (although I admit that I love trying to learn, and I’ve engaged in some YouTube binge-watching of Fifi Abdo clips), but because of the immediate implication that brownness is the qualifier for Arab-ness. I know Jarrar isn’t trying to pursue this line of thinking intentionally, but as a woman who is always told that her husband “doesn’t look Saudi at all,” it never fails to rub me the wrong way.
When I was still in the States, more than once I had acquaintances respond with surprise when they first met my husband, saying something along the lines of, “I expected him to be this big, dark Arab guy…but he’s nice and funny!” I was always taken quite aback by this–what was I supposed to say? “Oh no, he’s not dark and scary, he’s short, white, and non-threatening!” I mean, what if he had been a “big, dark Arab guy”? Does that mean he couldn’t have been nice and funny? Every time this happened, it always brought to my mind Noam Chomsky’s words about anti-Arab racism, in that it has “long been extreme, the last ‘legitimate’ form of racism in that one doesn’t even have to pretend to conceal it.” It’s so true. Would any of those people had the audacity to say, “I expected him to be this big, dark Mexican guy, but he’s really nice!” Or “I expected him to be this big, dark Black guy, but he’s super funny!” How would any of that have been okay? But just throw in the word “Arab,” and no one hesitates to flaunt their racism. When it comes to racism, it’s open season on Arabs, which, perhaps, is why belly dancing has flown under the appropriation radar for so long.
Furthermore, my kid is white. I mean, that’s just the truth of the matter; unless she chooses to wear an abaya and niqab everywhere she goes when she grows up, and unless there’s a whole lot of attitude change in a whole lot of places, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to look at her and immediately think she’s Saudi. So if she and Randa Jarrar somehow end up at the same Arabic wedding one of these days, should she sit and not dance, lest the Randa Jarrars of the world scoff at that white girl out on the dance floor trying to “play at brownness”? I certainly hope not, and implications, whether intentional or otherwise, that my child is not really Arab will always infuriate me, as will any implications that she’s somehow not really American.
But I know that those knee-jerk connections I made in my head were not directly related to the issue that Jarrar was trying to tackle in her piece, and all that being said, I think she brings to light many of the ways that non-Arab women belly dancing is problematic, and the responses to her piece that have cropped up are, in my opinion, exponentially more wrongheaded than the original piece was. The Washington Post published a rebuttal by Eugene Volokh, entitled “What Would Salon Think of an Article Called ‘Why I Can’t Stand Asian Musicians Who Play Beethoven’?”, which left me shaking my head at how the dude just does not get it.
I’d like to run with that Beethoven analogy, but first, let me relate an anecdote from my childhood with connection to classical music. When I was in seventh grade, my music teacher showed us the movie Amadeus. At twelve years old, I found this film mind-numbingly boring and frankly, pretty stupid. However, there is one scene which I remember vividly (and I think I remember it vividly because I was dozing off at the time and it startled me awake). Mr. Mozart was sitting at a keyboard and was dutifully plugging away at a classical piece, and as he finished it, he hopped up off the bench, bent over, pulled his coat up, and farted raucously toward the crowd watching him.
I share that story for this reason: if an Asian classical musician performed under a stage name like Wolfgang von Hamburger, always performed wearing skintight breeches and a frilly white shirt complete with ascot, refused to go onstage without a huge white powdered wig on his head, and ended each performance by leaping up and farting to the crowd in honor of Mozart, then that musician will have done something similar to what many non-Arab women have done with belly dancing.
Now, should non-Arab women be somehow banned from belly dancing? Of course not, and I think the implication that they should is what infuriated so many about Jarrar’s original piece, because, understandably, it struck people as incredibly racist, and as I’ve already discussed, we’re moving toward a point where we’re generally ready to call out racism as long as it’s not directed toward Arabs. But there is a way to appreciate and participate in a culturally-based art without bastardizing and appropriating it, and with the stage names, the ridiculous costumes, the over-the-top makeup…well, it’s really hard to deny that belly dancing, at least as a form of dance in the West, has a lot of work to do on the non-appropriation front. Just look at that article about stage names that I linked to. Arabic women do not have “goddess names” that magically make them “empowered, enchanting, exotic, ethereal, mysterious, and theatrical.” But they do have, you know, names.
Furthermore, it strikes me as very odd and sad that belly dancing–or at least, the West’s Orientalized version of it–is the only element of Arabic culture that the West is so on board with. Anything else related to Arabic culture is generally regarded as scary and threatening, or “shorthand for barbarism,” as G. Willow Wilson discusses beautifully in this piece. It seems to me like the appropriative manner in which some Western women embrace belly dancing will feel a bit less racist when the average American dude is clamoring for kabsa for lunch and rocks a shmagh and igal for a much-anticipated date on a Saturday night (instead of thinking that a belt and a dish towel are the core elements of a hilarious Arab-centric Halloween costume).
But let me tell you…we’ve sure got a long way to go.