Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Heart of Darkness

In the last few weeks, I have unfortunately witnessed several individuals making disparaging, bigoted, fear-mongering, and racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims*. While people displaying their ignorance and hate on social media isn't anything new (alas) - what really and truly upset me was that in their own photos and posts, showing them dripping in Afghani/Kuchi jewelry, Egyptian fringe, while laying on Berber and Persian textiles, these people claimed to also be bellydancers.  From a variety of styles. 

That pretty much broke my brain.  I don't see how you can claim to teach and/or perform this dance, decorate yourself and your living space in objects originating primarily from Arabic and Muslim cultures, and make money off of it, while totally trashing the people largely responsible for all of it.

Whether you're doing Turkish, Egyptian, ATS, Tribal Fusion, Vintage Oriental or Fusion, the roots are clearly there, and when you study and practice a dance, you are (or should be) acknowledging where that dance came from.  Even if you want to claim the fantasy that this dance was done thousands of years ago in temples to honor Isis, Ishtar, or Inanna (which it could have been, we have no way of knowing for sure either way) as a way of divorcing it from the modern culture, you're wearing costuming and jewelry, and decorating with objects made by people LIVING in that culture right now.  Who are not terrorists or extremists, and are just trying to get through life with as little hassle as possible.

Even if you claim that all of your stuff is made here (be it the Americas, or Europe, or anywhere NOT the Middle/Near/Far East), that doesn't take away the responsibility of cultural responsibility.** Here in the United States, we don't just study only American History - there are mandatory curriculum classes in World and European History. Why? Because it's important to know these things, how everything and everyone evolves, and how we are all interconnected globally. So the same is true for modern fusions of the dance - know the evolution, know the roots, respect them.

Which brings us to a very hot and relevant topic in bellydance right now - cultural appropriation, a phrase that often causes hackles to raise - and with good reason on all sides.

First, let's look at the definition of the word appropriate, which in this application means: "to take to or for oneself; take possession of, or to take without permission or consent; to seize; expropriate; to steal." Now, notice the difference in definition for the word appreciate - "to be grateful or thankful for; to value or regard highly; place a high estimate on; to be fully conscious of; be aware of; detect: to raise in value."

To appropriate is to disregard or disrespect the origin of something, while using it for your own gain.  To appreciate is to acknowledge and respect the origin, while raising positive awareness for it through your actions. 

I would rather be guilty of cultural appreciation than appropriation, wouldn't you?

There are those out there using the tagline of "cultural appropriation" not as a means to open up a dialogue (which should be the intent right?) but to draw attention to themselves, as in "I'm pointing out the wrong, praise me for showing how wrong these people are, I did a good thing, and you should totally vilify them."  That's about operating a personal agenda, not raising social awareness and sensitivity - and that sort of tactic tends to bruise more than it heals. It's frustrating, and it's the easy way out, because it is much more scary and difficult to open up a conversation with the Other.  We can get comfortable behind our screens - but so much more good can be done face to face. (And yes, I realize the inherent irony here of a blog, but I definitely work on practicing what I write about in "real life.") 

With that said, it's vitally important for bellydancers to listen, understand, and address these concerns. When someone raises the cultural appropriation flag, we should not look at it defensively as someone yelling at us "You need to stop dancing!" but rather ask ourselves, "What are we doing to honor this dance?"

It is also very important for us to understand what and how the younger generations see us.  As I have mentioned earlier on in the year and last year - there is a decline in younger students.  One of the many reasons for this is that young people are far more culturally aware and sensitive now than ever. They don't want to be involved in something that seems offensive and outdated. So we must ask ourselves, "Are we aware of how we are representing the dance?"

So that solution part I mentioned earlier? Regardless of what style you dance, understand it's definitive connection to both Arab and Muslim cultures.  The least you can do is be respectful of those cultures - and the most you can do is immerse yourself in learning about them, from classes to travel abroad, or within your hometown. Reach out to help with refugees through donations or services, be an advocate against hate speech.  Learn, know, and respect the roots of your dance by treating those people as you would wish to be treated.  That's human thing to do.

*I specifically say "Arabs and Muslims" because not all Arabs are Muslim (they can be Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or whatever), nor are all Muslims of Arabic descent (Turks, Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, Caucasian, etc).  Hopefully this is not a newsflash, but from the state of the Internet, it seems a lot of folks don't understand this.

**Most bellydance imports today are made in North Africa (Egyptian, Morocco, etc), Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.  I can guarantee for you that the majority of those workers aren't Christian white folk.