Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's dark in the desert (part 2)

I've heard the complete spectrum of opinions on Gothic Bellydance - from epic poems of love, passion, and personal transformation to editorial passages about how it is an abomination that will lead to the downfall of not only dance, but humanity as a whole.  (I kid you not.)

Somewhere in the middle, the statement arises that "Goth" has nothing to do with Middle Eastern culture/dance - usually with one of the following two angles: that Gothic culture is Western/alien in concept to the Eastern culture, and that bellydance is all about happiness/joy. 

Both of these views not only discredit and gloss over Arabic culture, but the very action and art of dance itself - not to mention, show a shallow understanding of what being Goth is about. And I'll tell you why.

In the past, as a tongue-in-cheek response to that sort of attitude, I have made the observation that you really can't get much more "Goth" than the Ancient Egyptians - can you really think of anyone more fascinated with death and obsessed the afterlife more than them?  (Have I mentioned that I was enthralled by Ancient Egypt from about age 7 onward? So much so I used to be able to read and write hieroglyphics.  My husband and I have a 4 foot tall by 10 foot long papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the our dining room.)

But being cheeky aside, that thought sequence came back to me when I recently attended the Arab Dance Seminar in NYC.  This particular session was about the depth of the Arabic language, especially concerning understanding the meaning of the lyrics in the context of the culture.  And as we talked about the poetry of the lyrics, the culture from which they were from, who wrote them, who sung them, and how they are expressed with the music, I couldn't help but think "how Goth!" From the frustration of being marginalized in a culture unlike (or that is) your own and the pain/longing of the diaspora condition, to beautiful pain of unrequited/unattainable/secret love.  Of course, we were just sampling a few songs from multiple Arab cultures, but you can't argue that these are happy/light topics, even though some of them sound downright peppy when you hear the music.  And if you study about the people who wrote the lyrics, you will find that most of them were moody, marginalized artists who led difficult lives.

Which brings to mind a passage from Chaim Potok's "Asher Lev" books, where there's a dialogue between two artists about making truly great art (summarized), "Can you think of any great artist who was truly happy?" "Well, Rubens was happy." "And he painted happy paintings. Anyone else besides Rubens?" "Nope." "Because most great art is made through pain and suffering."  The Asher Lev books are about the difficulty of being an artist in orthodox Jewish culture.  That it is not considered an acceptable or respectable occupation. And while I'm sure some people will get huffy about me making the comparison, there is a similar mentality found in Arabic culture (which is NOT surprising considering the similar backgrounds and thousands of years of co-existence, so get over it).  Any dancer who has done even a little bit of research will know that dancers, musicians, singers - while enjoyed by most of the community, they are still often looked down upon.  They are marginalized.

So you may be saying OK, but what does that have to do with Goths?  Well if you unburden yourself of the wrist-slashing, devil-worshippin', pastey white and dyed black stereotype for a few moments (or preferably forever), really what is at the heart of the Gothic culture is a love of the arts, the ability to see beauty in the tragic and the macabre, and a sense of being marginalized for not fitting within society's norms.  And you may also be surprised to find that although the movement may have started in "the West" the people who make up the Gothic subculture are not from one place or race, but they are found throughout the world, on every continent.  It is a microcosm that occurs within many macrocosms. What I am saying is that there is a mutual understanding here of the human condition from a dramatic perspective. 

Further proof of this understanding is that there are numerous Gothic musicians/bands who not only incorporate Arabic instruments, maqams, vocals - but are Arabic/Middle Eastern themselves.  If the roots behind these fusions were so discordant, it would not have been possible to successfully weave them together - as they have been, for decades.  And with the music, comes the dancing.

Next up, happy happy joy joy and dance...


  1. Thank you for that excellent post, esp. the next to last paragraph!

  2. I just find it kind of strange and annoying that we still feel that we have to justify gothiness in's a bit long in the tooth at this point!

    I think people like to complain about fusion of nearly anything and bellydance. Which is sort of funny, because bellydance forms are all fusions in themselves.

  3. I'm very happy that you've challenged the shallow idea that all Middle Eastern dance and music is inherently joyful and happy and cannot be used as a vehicle to express "dark" emotions, ideas, etc.

    However, there is a note I would like to make regarding your linkage of Arabic culture and ancient Egypt. Contemporary Egypt is very different from ancient Egypt and I do not believe a direct line between the two can accurately be drawn. Islamic Arabs invaded and conquered Egypt relatively recently (in view of Egypt's very long history) and by the time they arrived Egypt had already been under foreign rulership for hundreds of years. The polytheistic Greeks and Romans were at least interested in preserving some aspects of Kemetic culture, but after the Roman Empire and thus Egypt became Christian this was not so much the case. Arab culture, religion, and language supplanted what very little may have remained of Egypt's traditional culture after Christianity arrived. (As an example, the knowledge of how to read and write the ancient Egyptian language was only deciphered in 1822 after a thousand years of being forgotten. It was largely deciphered with the aid of Champollion's knowledge of Coptic, the language of Egyptian Christians who were native to the country before the arrival of the Arabs. Even now though Coptic is basically just litugical language used within the church - Arabic has replaced it as the common spoken language.) Thankfully contemporary Egyptians are now very proud of the ancient heritage and seek to preserve its remaining monuments and artifacts, but I think any link one could draw between rather modern bellydance, including even Egyptian Raks Sharqi, and ancient Egyptian culture is very tenuous at best. I apologize for rambling on the subject, but it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

  4. My previous comment may need some amending. After writing it I really began to think about the full implications of what I had stated, and I realized that although I do have a good knowledge of ancient Egyptian (Kemetic) culture, I'm not as familiar with its history after the last Ptolemaic ruler died and it became part of Rome.

    As a Pagan, I'm aware of many myths, pseudo-histories, and actual academic information surrounding the idea of Pagan survivals in Europe after the arrival of Christianity. After doing a lot of reading (especially Hutton's Triumph of the Moon) I had come to the conclusion that very little remained of original Pagan culture after monotheism took hold, and I extremely doubted that any direct, unchanged stream of thought and practice would be able to survive from pre-Christianity to modern times. However, my ideas have changed somewhat since then and I now have a more open approach to Pagan survivals, although I still do not think that an entire cult could survive unaltered through direct transmission from initiate to initiate all these centuries as is still sometimes claimed by certain people.

    Considering this, I realized that it would be inconsistent for me to accept the potential for certain pre-Christian (and pre-Islamic) survivals in Europe and not accept the same possibility for Egypt. Although Wikipedia is not a definitive source (I still need to do further research), the article on Egyptian identity suggests that there were still some followers of the indigenous religion after Christianity became the majority faith and there may still have been some after Islam's arrival.

    Just as in Europe the new faiths were slower to take hold in rural areas and it is possible that some aspects of ancient Egyptian culture survived among the fellahin. Although the traditional Kemetic religion and language for the most part seem to have been lost in its homeland, it may be more likely that some cultural aspects like music and dance survived, at least in part. As bellydance is ultimately based in folk dances of the Middle East, including the beledi of the Egyptians, there is a small chance that some movements were passed down from late antiquity. The issue is that it would be extremely difficult to prove what may or may not be a survival as ancient peoples did not have video or audio recording capabilities and as far as I'm aware there are no surviving dance manuals from pharaonic Egypt.

    I would still stand by my previous statement about there not being a direct link between ancient Egypt and Arabic culture, namely because as I mentioned before the Arabic influence is rather late in Egypt's history, but also because they are historically separate cultures, and as I just discovered, many contemporary Egyptians do not even self-identify as Arab. However, there may be a minor chance that aspects of ancient Egyptian culture survived into modern Egyptian culture and perhaps disseminated from modern Egypt to other regions in the Middle East.

    My personal opinion at this point though (again, I admit I need to research this more) is that bellydance is probably a component of Arabic culture rather than of ancient Egyptian extraction, even though I acknowledge the possibility of some survivals from pharaonic times. The regions where what is recognized and described as bellydance originate are all either Arabic or strongly influenced by Arabic culture. This sphere of influence includes places like Turkey, the Mahreb, of which Egypt is a part, and to some extent Iran even though those people are not ethnically Arab. It seems to me that bellydance is a form of expression that they brought with them (if perhaps unintentionally) when they traveled throughout the Mediterranean and northern Africa. According to Morocco (the dancer, not the country), flamenco developed in Spain as a direct result of the influence of Arabic dance in that country, so Arabs were evidently bringing their dances with them.