MMW Roundtable: Responding to Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers”

Last week, Salon published Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers” as part of their “feminists of color” series curated by Roxane Gay. The response to her post has been overwhelming, including responses from dudes at the Washington Post and The Atlantic to G. Willow Wilson’s response at her blog. We’ve been exchanging emails back and forth here ourselves at MMW. The following is our edited take on events:

Fatemeh: Have you seen Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers” over at Salon? I wrote something similar for MMW and Racialicious in 2007. I swear, if someone asks me if I can belly dance one more time… *head exploding*

Shireen: Thanks Fatemeh for sharing your article. It is sadly still so relevant.

Nicole: My suggestion to all of you wise ladies is to not read any of the comments on any iteration of this article unless you already take blood pressure meds.

I plan to harvest these comments and others for my seminal academic work on white privilege called Still White (with the ultimate hipster irony being that I am whitesplaining white people because, well, that is what white people do).

Eren: I really liked the article. Lately, though I have seen a lot of discussion about appropriation—it seems like a blurry topic. I also find interesting that there is little talk about how minorities also appropriate and the difference between appropriation and imposition…

Sana: A local belly dance class called “Serpents of Anubis” is being held where I live. Yeah.

Fatemeh: GAAAAAH.

Shireen: Nicole, the “whitesplaining” comment made me laugh all day. Still giggling about it. Sana, You MUST attend that class. And do this dance.

Azra: I second the cobra dance!

Randa’s article reminds me so much of how yoga is often practiced/appropriated, but I struggled with the idea that white women should never take up dancing. When is it okay to partake in an activity from another culture? Where are we supposed to draw the line?

The comments on Randa’s piece at Salon are all sorts of ish. You’ll have an excellent hipster project, Nicole!

Anneke: I gotta admit I have a hard time understanding where to draw the line. As a Frau Antje can I only dance in my wooden shoes? And who can belly dance/do raqs sharqi? It is certainly NOT a style of dance authentic to all “Arab” countries….

Shireen: I think we struggle with where to draw the line. I am not Arab but I grew up in a small community with a HUGE Arab presence. Very few Pakistanis as close friends. I spoke more Arabic than Urdu until I was 6 and my Grandparents freaked out (our neighbours were from Egypt).

I feel slightly fraudulent but it wasn’t my fault I learned to make basbosa before kheer.

Here’s an article Eren shared—“Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” from Everyday Feminism by Jarune Uwujaren—which really helped clarify things for me. An excerpt:

“So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.”

Eren: I love Jarune’s article. However, I feel that there is also a lot of focus about how white people appropriate stuff, but not enough talk about what the power relations are between minorities.

Fatemeh: Somebody on Twitter had that exact question: was it still appropriation if done by people of color?

Long answer: it depends. If it’s just dance, then I don’t think so (yes, even if white people dance). But if it’s jangly belly dancing hip scarves and stage names like Fatima and all that…well then I’d say yes, because those become appropriation.

(Meanwhile, The Washington Post and the Atlantic publish their responses to Randa’s post.)

Fatemeh: It’s sad that the majority of reactions Randa’s received are basically the same whitesplainy outrage that my MMW & Racialicious articles got 7 years ago.

The thing is, it’s not the dancing that most of us have a problem with. It’s the Orientalist stereotypes that often accompany the dancing that are the problem. But everyone who has a problem with these articles feeds back into the “But, but, but…you can’t tell me what to do!” mindset of white hegemony. It’s definitely not the same thing as white people getting angry that they can’t use the n-word, but I think it comes from the same place.

And, in Conor’s article (from the Atlantic), he completely dismissed the valid concerns involved in Randa’s article with that piece on the lady who studied raqs sharqi in Morocco when he says: “Well, if you don’t want us to help you break down stereotypes, that’s a shame.”

IS THAT WHAT SHE DID? I hope so. But most bellydancing troupes are NOT about this. They’re about playing dress-up in spangly Orientalist gear and putting on a fetishized brown persona under the guise of [insert here: female empowerment, entertainment, tips, sex, etc.]

Tasnim: I don’t think all “white belly dancers” are the same; some study it as a form of dance and some use it as an opportunity to gyrate in Orientalist garb.  And appropriation is not just one way. One difference between the appropriation of Beethoven versus the appropriation of “belly dance” though is that they don’t start at the same level, in the same way that there are Western forms of music and then there is “world music,” which is everything else. Using these terms as a shorthand, Western culture is assumed to be universal, whereas all non-Western culture is “ethnic.” And sure, “Westerners” should be able to practice, take part in, dress up in “ethnic” cultures, art forms, fashions, just as “non-Westerners” regularly borrow from and appropriate Western culture. But I think it makes a difference what attitude people take.

For example, consider Arabs Got Talent, a show that is itself an appropriation, and which regularly features Arabs appropriating Western culture, from rap to breakdance to ballet. Then there was Jennifer Grout, who was lauded everywhere, including in Arab media, precisely because she was a non-Arabic speaker who appreciated and sang like the most beloved Arab singer in the history of ever, Umm Kulthum.  Somehow, I don’t think she’d have gotten the same reaction if she was a “belly dancer” of the gyrating in Orientalist garb type.

Krista: What are your thoughts on appropriation more generally?  How else does this come up with relation to Muslim women?

Eren: In relation to Muslim women…hmm…that’s a tough one. From a convert’s perspective it is very tricky. I have tons of white friends who “adopt” their husband’s culture. All of the sudden they are not only hijabis, but they wear shalwar kameez or black arab abaayas or saris. Is this appropriation? Imposition? I am not sure.

Fatemeh: G. Willow Wilson has an interesting response. An excerpt:

“When you shimmy around a stage in a hip band and call yourself Aliya Selim and receive praise and encouragement, while the real Aliya Selims are shortening their names to Ally and wondering if their accent is too strong to land that job interview, if the boss will look askance at their headscarf, if the kids at school are going to make fun of their children, guess what: you are exercising considerable privilege. This is not an accusation or a judgment, it is a fact. You are not a bad person. But you owe it to the actual Aliya Selims to grapple with these issues in an honest way. Nobody is asking you to fix the world—just to look that privilege steadily in the face.”

Shireen: GWW’s piece is very well – presented. Randa Jarrar’s was much more emotional. I can relate to the passion of her rants. I have a problem with the way WoC can be discredited for having emphatic voices. And I although I do agree with RJ on her critiques and feeling the way she does as an Arab woman, GWW’s piece laid it out so perfectly.

Sara: Initially, when I read Randa’s article I was like “SPOT ON.” She hit on some very real frustrations that I’ve felt myself.

But then I changed my mind about it. I think that she was radically oversimplifying something that’s actually quite complicated, and it would have been useful to unpack it better.

Anyways — here’s my beef with her argument: what she calls appropriation isn’t appropriation as much as it is an orientalist nightmare based in colonial fantasies. I feel like I spent a lot of time growing up explaining that I *didn’t* have beaded, bellydancing costumes. I usually associate appropriation with things that are rooted in my culture, that I’d like to be appreciated/is worth respecting. In some ways, I feel that way about the dancing, but the whole world of “bellydancing” is so foreign to me. I just don’t want it to be tied to my heritage *at all*.

And this is the weird part of that whole “bellydancing community.” It’s not a cultural exchange or appreciation. It’s dangerous because people think that they now understand your culture via these classes. There’s also this disturbing sexualization of Arab women that’s furthered by it. Personally, I didn’t even see bellydancing as sexual until I heard white people suggest it.

See also: I’m Palestinian, and I should have learned dabke. Will blame the Egyptians I grew up with for that one.

But anyways, my question here is: Is it really appropriation, when what is being “appropriated” is a gaze that Arabs didn’t actually create? A fetishization that doesn’t seem to be based in very much reality at all?

Another thing she glosses over is the actual complexity behind the bellydancer in the Arab restaurant/shisha cafe. A few things here: 1) Since this orientalist fantasy is what the ~*west*~ associates with MENA, many of these restaurants go for that theme in the name of marketing. And their owners are usually Arab (at least in my experience).

2) Purely anecdotally here – but while the demand for the exotic Arab fantasy with our falafel is maybe something to be examined, the “white bellydancer” is maybe furthering stereotypes of Arab women, but she’s not exactly taking on a job that an Arab girl would realistically take. No girl that I grew up with would ever be allowed to bellydance in public, let alone don the outfit and dance in a restaurant. Not just because a lot of these things really aren’t a part of our culture, but also because of chastity related stuff.

As long as “Arab restaurants” need to rely on the “authentic ethnic experience as perceived by white people” in order to sell food, the white bellydancer will always exist. I think that’s a huge, huge, huge, thing missing from her argument.

That, of course, doesn’t make all of this any less problematic or messed up. But given how complicated it is, I think that she should have constructed her argument a lot better.

At the same time, of course, the reaction from mostly white outlets was hella eyerollworthy (and predictable). They weren’t trying to maybe find the truth in her argument, instead used it as a pawn in the “PC GONE MAD” outrage that the MSM likes to whip up.

Those are my two cents.

Tasnim: Here’s a video I watched a while ago featuring Donna Mejia. The second half of the video features her dancing and then giving a lecture about tribal fusion which “combines Arab, African, and nomadic traditions (whatever that is) with American hip hop and electronica.”

It’s clear from what she says that she’s at least thought about the issue of appropriation. Her point is that in today’s world, at least in the metropolitan West, we’re all mixed up, hybrid, third-cultured and so on, and this kind of dance reflects the community which is diverse and celebrates its diversity. I think that explains the “fusion” part, but then there is the “tribal” element, which seems to be fetishizing the kind of “authentic” identity she says is no longer possible, at least for Western cosmopolitans. It’s an interesting tension.

Krista: I think there are two issues at play here:

  1. The question of whether certain forms of cultural “exchange” are ever right or acceptable (and if so, which ones, and when, and where), and

  2. the impact of the participation of some of these exchanges on the people coming from the cultures involved.  These questions are very closely interconnected, but I think there’s also value in considering them differently.

I think a lot has been said in response to the first question already.  But as for the second question, even if a particular white person (or a person who appears white, or who otherwise is perceived to have some kind of privilege with relation to the culture being taken up) has an airtight reason for engaging in whatever kind of cultural “borrowing” is happening, and does so with the utmost respect, and is otherwise the epitome of ethical bellydancing or what have you (just assuming, for argument’s sake, that this is possible), there might still be people who feel anger or frustration or bitterness at seeing their culture (or people’s imaginations of it) being used by someone else, seeing people not from their culture being able to take part in the elements that they find fun or meaningful, without having to deal with the social ramifications of actually being from that culture.  And I think that’s totally understandable.

So there is room to debate Jarrar on some of the specific points she makes, while acknowledging that this discussion is happening in a context where some groups have power in relation to others (to put things mildly), and where some forms of cultural appropriation or exchange cause pain and anger, regardless of the good intentions of the person doing them.

It’s not necessarily the fault of the person doing the appropriation/borrowing/whatever, it’s a bigger context than that, but the context isn’t neutral, and I’m disturbed to see people attacking Jarrar for feeling the anger that she does.  I appreciated what G. Willow Wilson said in her response: “You are not a bad person. But you owe it to the actual Aliya Selims to grapple with these issues in an honest way. Nobody is asking you to fix the world—just to look that privilege steadily in the face.”

Shireen: I like your last point and although RJ’s piece does not distinguish between cultural appropriation vs. feshitization and exploitation, and what I call “non exchange,” there is still value to her writing it. It might not have been the most nuanced thing we’ve ever read, but my concern about how voices of WoC are silenced and the supporting argument is “reverse racism” comes out in full blast. #hijabdesk

  • meyrink

    I appreciate finding this discussion, drawn into it via the Randa Jarrar path. I found her article offensive and insulting, not to me personally, but to artists in general who I know and to whom I have the greatest respect, as well as to instructors. The writing was abrasive and completely unconvincing in such way that I believe it discredits any future voice that RJ might have had – except to an extreme fringe who share the same opinion. Political correctness out of control was indeed the thought that came to mind. I have read articles on sexual harassment written by Indian women as part of a feminist blog carnival – they were compelling and went under the skin.

    Fatemah’s article linked here was less offensive and I feel I can somewhat better understand the issues that some are bothered about. I also found this video discussion, which in summary suggests Arabs should counter bad belly dance interpretations by training and example. He does not blame any artists who are interpreting the genre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPvGkbRd6h0

    In general, I think there are more important issues facing women in Arabic countries than kitschy interpretations of belly dance. If you cannot relate a story about the issue in a compelling way, one that brings the issue to life, be it a story about a belly dancer ignoring the culture behind the dance, or the experience of a professional Arabic dancer seeing his or her art degraded – if you can’t do that, maybe the issue isn’t so important after all. Or you need a better quality of voices than one Randa Jarrar.

    • Karen Bradley Ehler

      Thanks for sharing that video. What a wonderful way to approach the subject without being rude or cruel. He is fabulous.

  • AnonyMouse Al-Majnoonah

    Loving this, mashaAllah.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    Everyone here makes very good points but still ignores the nastiness of her tone. The title alone “picks a fight” and is very angry. She begins the whole thing with a war-like attitude and what really made me sad was it then gave ammunition to certain polticial right wing nuts to come troll on Salon and make claims that we leftists are actually the racist ones. That hurt. That hurt a lot. Even with everything you all have said, and you are correct, it still doesn’t justify her claim that white women shouldn’t dance and that they should find another form of self expression. That sentence alone deserves the arrows that have been thrown at her. And as a woman, I understand the sensitivity of the over sexualization (and could write my own article on that), but to ignore the sensuality of belly dance is to be in denial. It IS sensual/sexual – I’ve heard numerous Arab/Middle Eastersn/Indian women and men (professional dancers, instructors, folks not born in the USA) discuss it and acknowledge it – along with the celebration of fertility/birth/womanhood. It just is. And it’s ok. It’s beautiful. To ignore that is to be dishonest. But does that mean it’s on par with strip or pole dancing? Absolutely not and when folks try to equate them, I also find that offensive. So I understand why some are concerned with that but really, you can’t control all the jerks so let’s stop punishing everyone just because some poeple are going to be idiots. Randa’s essay was not constructive criticism; it was a cruel lashing out at people she doesn’t like. There are plenty of whites who acknowledge privlege exists and are trying to deal with that in a respectful way – why shoot them in the face when they could be your best allies? Doesn’t seem like a smart move to me.

    • Sara

      I genuinely don’t think that Randa, or anyone else here, needs to apologize for her tone. Also, I’m not convinced that you’ve learned anything here, as this is about something far bigger than your hurt feelings. I encourage you to scroll back up, put your humility hat on, and learn something.

      • Karen Bradley Ehler

        You are correct that it’s about something much bigger than my hurt feelings or Randa’s for that matter. You missed my point entirely and I didn’t ask you to apologize. HOW you say something is as important as WHAT you say. People are not going to listen to you if you frame your argument is such an antagonistic cruel way. You aren’t going to get people to listen, understand, think, feel, etc., if you are punching them in the face while you do it. Folks are more likely to listen and learn when the information is presented in a manner of friendship. I find it appalling that this article could be considered feminist when it’s just one woman hating on an entire race/group of other women. That’s not helping us as a gender and for the cause. It also doesn’t help the cause of fighting bigotry. So when I talk about hurt , I’m not talking about my own personal feelings – I’m a big girl and can take care of myself. I’m talking about hurting the overal cause. The fight for womens’ equality and the fight for racial equality on this planet and the last thing we need is anyone giving ammunition to the right wing bastards would love to keep you imprisoned and oppressed. That’s what Randa did – she gave those jerks bullets to shoot her and the rest of us with and so I can’t just ingnore that. As ar as humility – I think you are the one missing it. I’m talking about the bigger picture here – bigger than belly dancing, bigger than Arab women, bigger than white women. I’m talking about humanity. Randa left her humanity completely out of that article and so did you in your response. We are supposed to be sisters backing eachother up to make the world better place – where all are welcome, instead you and Jarrar chose to to hate instead of to love.

        • voice_of_reason

          This is classic white feminism: asking women of color to ignore the issues that specifically face them at the crossing of racism and sexism in the name of ‘humanity’ and ‘sisters.’

          You’re FAR more like those ‘right wing bastards’ than you realize with your tone policing and deflection.

          • Karen Bradley Ehler

            That’s really sad you see it that way. I’m not asking women of color to ignore the issues that specifically face them. Don’t put words in my mouth. I’m not ANYTHING like the right wingers. Don’t even go there. Randa was cruel with the title and tone of her article and you refuse to admit it. It’s about HOW you communicate not just the content. Am I, or anyone, really supposed to have empathy for a person who has NONE for me/them? Am I supposed to listen to her concerns while she stomps on my face? And now I’m supposed to take you seriously while you MOCK my very sincere and heartfelt concerns? Really? If you want respect you have to give it. It’s a two way street. I’m nothing like a right winger – they hate me and multicultural family and friends.
            Tell me, why do you refuse to acknowledge that there is a difference in methods of communication? Why do you doubt my sincerity? It seems like what you are saying is that it is ok for feminists of color to be mean to white women because, well they/we are white. (BTW, I’m actually not technically 100% white according to my DNA but whatever). Why is it ok for her or you to deliver your message with vitriol rather than kindness?
            I have found that many feminists of color have very legit issues that are unique to them, I”m not stupid, and I support efforts to address them – but that usually happens within friendly, respectful, and intelligent discourse – not mean spirited prejudice. There was nothing respectful or friendly about that article.
            Remember, you catch more flies with honey!

          • meyrink

            I agree that Randa should apologize for her statements but from what I’ve seen at her twitter and facebook page she never will. What bothered me most about this is the forum it was given – there are always idiots out there ranting bigoted opinions, I first viewed the article on Alternet, which in my eyes always had a high standard over the ten years I followed it. I’ve since unconnected with their page. So for me the harm done was to the progressive voice in general, not any subgroup. Calling an entire group of practitioners of an art racist and calling their instructors self-exploitors is wrong and needs to be addressed. There should at least be a statement from Salon or Alternet or the lady who curated the article Roxane Gay.

            My favorite and most compelling piece attacking racism is from Dorothy Parker’s “Arrangement in Black in White”. Sometimes you have to leave it up to the reader to draw the conclusions.

          • Karen Bradley Ehler

            Well said – and I think you hit on a point I have tried to make in other discussions but you said it better than me. :-)

          • meyrink

            Thank you.

          • Suki

            If you don’t notice that this person trying to smack you down really dislikes white women, you’re not paying attention. Same thing with Jarrar. And they apparently won’t admit it, or back down, or engage with maturity. They share the same sentiment, language, and approach. That’s why she’s defending Jarrar. Notice her line “this is classic white feminism” — WTF? This lady just put a snarky negative spin on the ENTIRE feminist movement of white women. That’s tarring EVERYONE – millions of women – with one brush – same as Jarrar. Why, so she can feel a victim? So she can be self-righteously angry? You are extremely well spoken and thoughtful, there is nothing wrong with what you say and you deserve a lot more from the woman you are trying to engage with, but I’m afraid you’re not going to get it.

          • Footybedsheets

            Karen, appreciate the multitude of comments. But I thoroughly dislike your labeling Randa as “angry”. To you she seemed “angry” and “mean”. To me (who might also possibly be construed as an ‘angry, brown woman’ by your standards) she was emphatic and felt strongly.
            I will never feel that a writer should apologize for their opinion. Randa’s personal opinion was drawn from her life experience. Why should she be asked to? I loathe a lot of crap that many writers blast out. Do I expect an apology? Never.
            And her “anger” comes from a place where the voices of Arab women have been ignored in MSM for far too long. She doesn’t speak for every Arab woman. She speaks for herself.
            Your replies to other people and comments on this roundtable can also be interpreted as angry? Should YOU apologize? Nope.
            Perhaps you should pen a reply and send it to Salon.

          • Suki

            What is it with the reading comprehension in this group? Karen NEVER ASKED JARRAR TO APOLOGIZE. Why do people keep saying she did? She has made it clear that she did not.

            There is always so much wrong with the reasoning among those who apologize FOR Jarrar. Just basic reasoning. Like your last comment here, “Your replies to other people and comments on this roundtable can also be interpreted as angry? Should YOU apologize? Nope. ”

            Anyone with *basic reasoning skills* should quickly see the flaw in this statement. It’s very obvious. Can you see it?

            Clearly Randa doesn’t speak for every Arab woman, she has definitely embarrassed and pissed off a lot of Arab women with her ill conceived screed.

            The saddest thing for me is that you are attempting to paint her childish whining mean-girl bitch-fest with some kind of holier-than-thou women of color victimization brush. Sorry, but it really just doesn’t wash. This is an American-educated woman with all the privileges and opportunities I have as a “white” woman, possibly more, since I don’t even have a college degree. NO ONE IS SILENCING HER. In fact she is a successful novelist, and has been given the virtual cover of Salon. The fact that she chose to use it to discuss (very poorly) what is probably the LEAST IMPORTANT concern on Earth for Arab women – given the truly hellish list of problems that face them – is just head-shakingly pathetic, and yet you rush to her defense as if she just published a brilliant scathing critique of violent patriarchy in America and the Arab and Muslim world and is receiving death threats from the Taliban.

            Seriously, I can’t think of a greater waste of that space. In an age where women around the world are facing dire threats to their lives and freedom, Jarrar chooses to use her unprecedented power as a writer online – capable of reaching millions of people in a day – to whine about skinny white girls and tear down and dismiss white women’s need to reclaim their bodies and find community.

            Bravo, Jarrar!

            Seriously, you guys need to get out of your self-reinforcing righteous indignation victimization bubble for just a minute and realize that other people don’t actually HAVE to take everything you complain about seriously just because you have darker skin than they do. Not all your complaints are wrapped in a sacred cloak, and — news flash — if you deliver your complaints with a stick in someone’s eye, be prepared for the human reaction. Others have the right to feel offended by something that comes across as mean-spirited, petty, vindictive, and anti-woman.

          • Karen Bradley Ehler

            I will say that Salon owes its readers an apology for publishing an article under the umbrella of feminism when her article is anything but that.
            But yea… you hit a bunch of nails on the head there.
            Sad, because here we are, wantting to have real dialogue but the people on the other side of the fence refuse to have it. I don’t get it.
            In another discussion I said some things and made some comparisons that I shouldn’t have – someone pointed it out – and I admitted I was wrong, apologized for my mistake/mispeech, and moved on. I don’t understand why others can’t do that – I’m not demanding an apology though, so don’t anybody misunderstand that.
            We all have a right to our feelings.
            The difference is in the delivery. Randa was HARSH in her delivery and not one single one of her defenders will admit it. Whenever anyone says “I can’t stand…” it is interpreted to mean “I hate”. How can you be surprised that people are angry when you/she publishes an article that says she hates people and then makes a statement that dictates what other women should be doing with their bodies? That’s INSANITY. We enough trouble with the MEN of the world trying to dictate what we do with our bodies, we don’t need her doing it either. I’ll move my damn hips any damn way I want to, thank you very much.
            Let’s see….can you all not see the difference between these two sentences below?
            1. Hi there. I’d like to talk to you about my views on cultural appropriation verus misappropriation and I have concerns about how you are using symbols and art from my culture.
            2. I hate you for enjoying my cultural arts and you should stop it right now and never do it again.
            Which one of those do you think is going to get a respectful and authentic response, eh? Randa did #2 and now she, and some here, act surprised that people had negative knee-jerk reactions? That’s where I call BS on you. Do you have legit grievances? Sure. But does that mean you get to slap me across the face because some white person I don’t even know did something crappy? I think not.
            Not one person from the original discussion has acknowledged or addressed the concept of “delivery” or of “HOW” you send a message. As well as the rediculous idea that all people of an entire race should refrain from a dance? That is also an insane statement to make. I mean it is full blow CRAZY.
            Seriously – have any of you checked out the links I posted?
            Someone told me to get some humility – well right back at ya. I’m not selfish and I believe in sharing – that’s what this is about. I’m defending not just me, but my friends and family of ALL COLORS. By Randa’s definition, I should never share my Irish dance with black or latino kids like that Teacher in NY is doing and sorry ladies – that is just WRONG.
            Let’s remember what Humility actually means: modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.
            Randa and her supporters are not showing any humility. Randa placed herself on a pedastal and decided to make a proclamation (like a King or Queen would do) that all white women should not belly dance. Then her supporters back her up, supporting this notion that belly dance is some special hands off type of art form. That’s NOT HUMILITY. That’s the opposite. My debate you has nothing to do with my sense of self importance – so telling me to get some humility doesn’t make any sense. I’m not even a belly dancer. I’m debating with you based on my sincere passion for true feminism and my sincere passion for fighting bigotry on this planet… I’m fighting for others, not just myself. I’m not asking for any special treatment. Hate me all you want and I’ll keep loving all my friends and family in all their colors and we will keep sharing our cultures no matter what other silly purists and bigots think. But I’m not going to lay down and ignore it when people say things that are just blatently wrong or cruel. That’s just how I am. You ask me to get some humility and re read – I did re read – but did YOU?
            I deeply believe that discrimination in ANY FORM is evil and that’s really what it boils down to. I would stand strongly side by side with every women on this site (even the ones who are hating on me) to defend them against tyranny, racism, sexism, violence, etc. because it’s the right thing to do. If any one of these women walked into my local grocery store some white racist male jerk said or did something racist/sexist/anti-muslim against them, you would have hard time pulling me off him (I’m not normally violent and don’t necessarily condone it but I don’t pretend to be a pacifist either so yea, it could happen). He’d go home with very sore crotch for sure. And actually, it has come close to happening before. So even you hate me, ladies, I still love you and will defend you when needed.
            But since I also don’t lie to peole I love and believe in truth, I will not back down and say that what Randa wrote is ok. It’s not. It just isn’t.

          • meyrink

            The misunderstanding is probably my fault: I used the words that Randa should apologize. And I believe she should. When a person of integrity makes a horrible mistake like this – and I will give Randa the benefit of the doubt that she did not mean this as it came out – he or she apologizes. And make it a real apology, please. Not the fake use-sorry-in-a-sentence-insult-to-the-application-of-language-and-to the-intelligence-of-the-recipiant “I’m sorry people were offended.” So go ahead, diss me for my arrogant, evil, from the safety of privilege whitesplainin’ words. I’m also part Jewish and have looked upon belly dancers with lust.

            Well, far from apologizing, the Randa Jarrar damage control machine is posting links to her previous, better-written pieces as well as forward-looking announcements of her new book.

            I would like to think that those of us supporting the progressive viewpoint will not allow our platforms, our movements, our parties to be hijacked by radicals with a personal agenda, the way the right has allowed vitriolic voices like Ann Coulter and the Tea Party movement to hijack and ultimately weaken the Republican party.

          • Karen Bradley Ehler

            I replied to this but it seems my reply was deleted. Too tired to rewrite so I’ll just say that your post is a strawman argument and completely misrepresents everything I said and you are more wrong than you could ever know in comparing me to a right winger. That’s a low blow and untrue. You may as well call me hitler. I NEVER ASKED WOMEN OF COLOR TO IGNORE THE ISSUES THAT FACE THEM. Please don’t put words in people’s mouths in such a discussion. It’s really not productive.

          • Suki

            She never asked you to ignore anything. You’re clearly a really angry person. You may have reason to be angry – lots of us do – but you don’t come across as thoughtful, just angry.

            This is often what happened in the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s when women were really angry and vocal and doing a lot of man hating. It just turned off so many people to the movement, in fact it still does.

            As far as your comment goes, so far what I hear from Jarrar is that the major “issue” that faces her as a woman of color is some skinny white girl pissing her off in a veil. Cry me a river. I know a lot of skinny white girls are getting raped and beaten by their family members right now, and are living in poverty, and with drug abuse and violence all around them, and I tend to think their problem is more serious. Maybe some of those girls want to bellydance to feel beautiful and worthy again. If Jarrar has ANOTHER problem as an American woman of color that is actually really important, I’d love to read an essay about it. Preferably thoughtfully presented, with solid research so she gets her facts right.

          • grout4cake

            Are white belly dancers really among the top problems of Arab women?
            You could poll 10,000 women , even a million women in Egypt and I can guarantee you not one would mention white women belly dancers.

    • Shayna

      Randa’s tone was directly addressed in this roundtable. I feel like Krista described it most eloquently:

      “even if a particular white person (or a person who appears white, or who otherwise is perceived to have some kind of privilege with relation to the culture being taken up) has an airtight reason for engaging in whatever kind of cultural “borrowing” is happening, and does so with the utmost respect, and is otherwise the epitome of ethical bellydancing or what have you (just assuming, for argument’s sake, that this is possible), there might still be people who feel anger or frustration or bitterness at seeing their culture (or people’s imaginations of it) being used by someone else, seeing people not from their culture being able to take part in the elements that they find fun or meaningful, without having to deal with the social ramifications of actually being from that culture. And I think that’s totally understandable.”

      This feeling may not be recognizable if you have never before experienced it — if your culture, or an idea of your culture, has not been paraded in front of you by someone not representative of said culture. However, the feeling is valid. Randa did write with a certain anger, and I feel that many responses were not to the content of her writing than to the tone.

      That being said, I found her content to be slightly lacking, or somewhat misdirected. (Sara’s comments on appropriation versus orientalist fetishism neatly sum up my feelings on the matter; please read her comments for context), However, her article was not attacked on the grounds of incompleteness, or potential narrowness. Instead, it is being harangued because it does not do justice to white people who belly dance.

      The idea that white people feel the need to defend their right to belly dance as a response to this article serves mainly to prove the author’s point, that appropriation can happen blindly, and worse, can create an inaccurate stereotype. Specifically pointing out that whites need to be defended because they could be good allies turns the discussion around: It is no longer about how cultural minorities perceive and respond to the way their cultures are used by others, but becomes a conversation about how insensitive minorities can be towards those who use their cultures.

  • Kairi

    My response to Randa’s article (Not to you guys here. You seem pretty nice):

    And you know what? Arabs had better not even TRY to do ballet because that is European and I just can’t stand them freaking being in European drag!!! It’s dishonorable to our country and our way of life! Do you know the history of ballet?? Ballet has a rich history in the Renaissance courts of Italy and France! It’s just so, so, so sickening when these brown people go and try to pretend that they are Western and do our form of dance! Detestable!!!! That’s why I call people out on their gross form of cloning. Ugh! They simply take away our dignity, those Arabs pretending they’re European!!!!! Detestable!

    Seriously, lady? I don’t go around talking like that^. You shouldn’t either. All that is is veiled racism. People are so sensitive these days. And I frankly don’t care. I’m a mixed blood (part Asian, part black, part white) and if I had really meant something even remotely like what I said above I would get slammed hard for racism. It’s not okay for me and you’d better believe it’s not okay for you either.

  • SEWS

    I think as white belly dancers we need to be more sensitive here and stop throwing stones.

    Okay. (I apologize, this is going to be long) I am a white belly dancer and a feminist and yes, white privilege is a very real thing and is very harmful in many ways. I am here to tell you I really wish that the stereotype of a belly dancer did not hurt you the way it has. That I am fully aware that I am engaging in cultural appropriation, that I use my own American birth name while performing and educate myself as much as possible about Egyptian music and dance. I do not claim to truly understand Egyptian (the style I’m studying) or non-western culture. But I am trying. And I guess that is a good first step. My goal is to continue doing what I love while consciously examining how this could affect women from the middle east or other eastern countries so I can avoid spreading negative stereotypes about women from the middle east or other eastern countries as much as possible. The last thing I want to do is spread a harmful stereotype about another group of women. My heart goes out to you. I may not be able to truly understand you as non-western women, but I can empathize with you as a woman. I really can’t stand harmful stereotypes of other women and try everything in my power not to spread stereotypes of other women.

    But i love belly dance and stopping would make me absolutely miserable as it is my #1 passion. However, I respect the women in this article and I respect Randa. I believe your feelings are valid, that you deserve to be heard. My white privilege is something I examine every single day. I know it means I can belly dance and not have to worry about the ramifications on my own self-image. I can shed that, you cannot. And it is definitely my duty as a white belly dancer to examine that every time I go on stage (I’m a Hobbyist, not a professional) but I never stop educating myself and understanding my own place of privilege doing the dance of another culture.

    I also think there is a bit of a cultural gap here.

    First of all, I think you need to understand the culture of the west and the way it affects western women and how belly dance could be perceived as liberating in order to understand one aspect of why belly dance is often popular with western white women (of course, I do not speak for all white women). As a western white woman I was told growing up that I was not supposed to let anything giggle, to keep my stomach tucked in, to disappear. I was teased for having a big butt. I was taught to hate my body. Many western women are ashamed of their bodies, think of themselves as not beautiful unless they are a size 0. The free flowing, shimmying nature of belly dance is one aspect to why this dance feels liberating to western women. It makes me feel beautiful. A beautiful American woman of European decent. It makes me feel powerful to have that much control over my muscles when I dance. I grew up being taught that moving in that way is shameful. This is but one small aspect of why I love belly dance. The other aspect is that I fell in love with Egyptian music.

    Every white female belly dance instructor I learned from told me that the most important part of doing the dance of a non-dominant culture is educating yourself as much as possible about the origins of said dance and how every day Egyptians dance for one another, not on stage. How the stage dance in a sparkly costume is a westernized version of Egyptian folk dances (yes I had to learn things that deviated greatly from my orientalist fantasy) like how the midriff bearing costume sold more night club tickets and how so many Egyptian girls living in poverty sell themselves through dance in order to feed their children.

    Most white belly dancers I know dance because they love the music, they respect and admire Egyptian (or Turkish, or Lebanese) dancers and seek to emulate them. We study Egyptian music and dance styles intently. We listen to Oum Kalthoum in order to hopefully communicate the proper feeling behind the song being interpreted during the dance having full respect for the person who wrote and sang Alf Leila Wa Leila for example. Many of us look up to a dance form and music style that we love. I know I might be unconsciously fetishizing, but know that this is a love of a music style and dance style not an intentional mocking of non-western women. And I know that even if it isn’t intentional, it can still come off that way and in many ways is fetish for many dancers (even if we don’t realize it). And there are always the white belly dancers that do intentionally fetishize and don’t apologize for it and I do NOT support those dancers.

    Now please bear with me…I know this is going to sound like a self-serving white woman blathering on about how much she loves her orientalist fetish. But this is me talking about my passion…something that sustains me even in my darkest hours…something no other dance form has made me feel…ever.

    I have never been very good at any of the western dance forms. None of them spoke to me the way belly dance does. I love western music but not as much as Egyptian music. Western dances feel awkward and forced to me. Middle Eastern music is so beautiful and more complicated and nuanced than western music. I love the instruments, I love the way I feel when I dance using movements that allow me to connect with music in a way I feel I have never connected before.

    In other words, most women in the west think of belly dance as a serious art form. I do not think of it as something negative or sexual. I think of it as something beautiful and a celebration of the wonderful music of Egypt (the style I’m studying is Egyptian). Again, most western women don’t see belly dance as a way to try to impersonate Arabic women. But unfortunately there are some that do.

    I understand that what I am doing is an intimate aspect of the cultural dances of Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey (also neighboring countries). But I respect belly dance every bit as much as I respect ballet, jazz, Indian dance and every other form of dance.

    Yes, this is probably a form of “whitesplaining” but I feel like simply apologizing would be pointless. I wanted to let all of you know that as a white belly dancing feminist I am completely open to your point of view. I think we could learn from one another and while I never plan to stop belly dancing…I never want to hurt the feelings of another woman because I do it…and I am doing everything in my power to make sure I am being as respectful as possible. And most of all, I do not expect you to stop feeling the way you do about white women belly dancing. It is so important to talk about these things. If we never do, then we will never learn from one another.

    • Footybedsheets

      Thanks for sharing this. We all struggle with boundaries and I am Pakistani not Arab and I bellydance too. :) It’s not my culture and I love it. Your thoughts are open and sincere and appreciated. #Respect

    • Chisti

      Don’t you understand that even with the brownie points you get for knowing the name of one Um Kalthum song and not taking a phony Arabic dance name, you’re still part of the problem? For something that is your “#1 passion,” how much have you actually done in the name of sincere advancement of the dialogue? Traveled to the Middle East to interact with and understand the lives of the peoples firsthand? Learned their languages? Studied any part of their cultures beyond belly dancing and eating the occasional shwarma? Right. Thought so. Inta omri, ya raqs!

      Dance in the Middle East has social, theatrical, and historical contexts, but it doesn’t have YOU context. You have taken something from somewhere else and layered all kinds of personal meaning onto it that it was never intended to have. Dance is fun and often creatively fulfilling, but most Arabs don’t use it as a personal epiphany or whatever pseudo-therapeutic reason you’re making your experiences into. When you decide dance is all about empowering YOU, and not about the cultures where it belongs and what THEY want it to mean, you’re taking it out of its context and distorting it. No matter how much you dress up your thoughts in sensitivity rhetoric about how you haz all teh PC feels, your dancing is still only about YOU. What the dance means to YOU. What it does for YOU. How it makes YOU feel. How can you be respectful of the indigenous contexts when you’re so busy seeking your own satisfaction out of it? Existential crisis in 3…2…1…

      • Karen Bradley Ehler

        I can’t even begin to articulate how unrealistic your expectations are on this. WOW. So nobody can try, learn, enjoy Irish dance unless they travel to Ireland and do all that stuff you listed? All those statemtents about “YOU” – really? Nobody dances for their own enjoyment or empowerment? You can’t respect a culture AND develop your own meaning from it at the same time? I think that’s bullspit. I know people/artists of many cultures, including middle eastern, that would laugh their faces off at those statements. That’s rediculous. That is some of the most narrow minded stuff I’ve ever heard.

        • Chisti

          I didn’t say someone from one culture can’t study or do meaningful work in another culture, or there is no enjoyment or empowerment to be had. Sahra Kent, Laurel Victoria Gray, Robyn Friend, Morocco, Aisha Ali, etc., have made their lives doing just that, and in the process, they have spent decades promoting cross-cultural understanding and emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s limitations as external participants in these arts. That is a huge contrast from defining your presence in the dance community with talk of how dancing saved you from yourself, how special it makes you feel, or what rationale you have for remodeling someone else’s traditions into a vehicle for your personal expression. Not everyone has the circumstances to dedicate their life to dance like those ladies have, and I’m not implying everyone should, but “I am an outsider, and I long for a place at your table. Show me what I can do to earn your respect and welcome.” and “I’m on a very important journey of self discovery. If I accidentally ignore or offend you, don’t take it personally because I mean well and I’m trying to make myself a better person.” are not interchangeable motives.

          Ask not what these dances can do for you. Ask what you can do for these dances. These dances belong to living cultures, and they are done by real live people. You can’t walk around waving their flags and claiming to do justice to representing them, or even claim much integrity to your scholarly motives, when what you care about most is meeting your own emotional needs.

          • SEWS

            Whoa. I never said I was “remodeling the dance.” Did you not hear what I said about studying the origins of the dance and educating myself so I can dance as authentically as possible? Nowhere in what I wrote did I say that I was remodeling it based on my own personal feelings about it. You have completely twisted what I wrote.

            I was only trying to explain one of the reasons dance is a passion of mine. So I cannot have my own feelings about it? I cannot find pleasure in it and it cannot be something that saved me? I have to completely divorce myself from any personal feeling about it in order to completely copy what I should feel? And what if I felt no therapeutic benefit whatsoever? Then I wouldn’t be doing it because every hobby I’m into is because it has a therapeutic effect in one way or another. I don’t do anything that I don’t find pleasure in. Would you do something that gave you no pleasure or deny yourself the feeling of pleasure in doing something because it wasn’t an art form from your own culture? Am I supposed to keep everything in a box? Am I supposed to try to replicate what an Egyptian woman feels and put none of my own feelings into a dance?

            As I said…I have been educating myself as much as possible about Egyptian belly dance with respect to the Egyptians who wrote, composed and performed the pieces I’m dancing to in order to put forth a feeling that is as authentic to the original source as possible. But when I look up a lyrical translation and read that the song is about love and desire…if I draw from my own experiences of love and desire to help me relate to the person who wrote the piece…how is that a bad thing? I cannot pretend if I don’t interact with the people within the culture of origin (I’m a very shy person) that I don’t have any personal feelings. That would be inauthentic and wouldn’t be doing the dance any justice.

      • meyrink

        Sews: I applaud you. You sound like a wonderful person and artist.

        Christi: What a remarkable statement: “You have taken something from somewhere else and layered all kinds of personal meaning onto it that it was never intended to have.” – I applaud you, not only for summarizing in one compact statement what this entire debate is about, but also for stating the one thing that artistic expression is not.

      • meyrink

        I think my original comment was disallowed so I’ll try again.

        Think about this statement exactly: “You have taken something from somewhere else and layered all kinds of personal meaning onto it that it was never intended to have.”

        All artistic expression involves taking something from somewhere else (some genre, cultural context, etc) and adding your personal voice to it. The way that art/music/expression evolves is exactly by adding new elements that were never intended!

        I cannot believe this needs to be said!?!?

        • Suki

          One of the many fundamental holes in their understanding seems to be about art and expression itself. That comment was pretty stunning, I agree.

          • meyrink

            It’s looking to me like this conceptualization is stumbling point of initiating a real dialogue. And doesn’t this “you can’t touch my culture” thinking predict the extreme cultural reaction to non-American individuals like Indian author Salman Rushdie and the Jyllands-Posten incident involving a Danish caricaturist. This has to be mentioned, the way that belly dancing appears elevated to a religion rife with its own dogma.

          • Suki

            Well that’s just another part of why the whole thing is so crazy. This is hardly the Lakota Sun Dance we’re talking about. And it has been made clear how much disdain and disrespect and even physical danger that dancers face in Arab nations! So actually I’m a little confused about what part of the culture we are supposed to be respecting. Should we respect the DISRESPECT that the dancers get in other nations? Should we disrespect our dancers in America too, or is that too much appropriation? Excuse the sarcasm, but it’s so ridiculous. I get the feeling they are putting everything they do within their cultures inside a sacred box, and of course refusing to acknowledge that this dance form has existed totally outside the construct of the Arab world, which has its own violent bloody history of expansionism, slavery, and vicious (to this day) subjugation of women. Ask the Berbers and Kurds today about “indigenous” Arabic culture. Read about the massive Arab slave trade historically and then come back to talk to me about European colonialism. Only, don’t forget that I’m mostly Russian, my family were poor immigrants escaping persecution, and I had nothing to do with the subjugation of anyone on this continent.

      • Suki

        Look, seriously, you really can’t control what it is you’re trying to control. You’re trying to be the culture police in a way that isn’t necessary or helpful to anyone, least of all women. And you refuse to accept what so many have pointed out, which is that this dance form really doesn’t belong solely to the Arab world, which itself is expansionist and has absorbed and suppressed other people’s and cultures. Arab culture is hardly indigenous in all areas – ask the Berbers! When are you going to hear that and just let this go?

        What I really think is that you need to dance, sister. Get in touch with YOUR body and stop telling other people what YOU want them to do with THEIR bodies. Your post is filled with what YOU want and demand even while accusing people of being self-motivated. How can YOU be respectful of other people when you’re so busy seeking control through some ill-informed sense of victimization? Existential crisis in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

      • SEWS

        Okay, Chisti. For one thing I cannot afford to travel to Egypt. For another thing, it is not only about me and I know more than one Om Kalthoum song. I simply mentioned her as one example. I am being honest about why I love the dance and why I’m not going to stop. It’s something I love to do, and I try to do it while educating myself and being aware that this is the dance of another culture and being aware of my white privilege and how that might affect someone. When I dance I think about the person who composed the song I am dancing to and try to communicate the feeling behind that song as much as is possible not having lived in the culture of origin. I try my best to dance with respect keeping the original culture in mind with my limited knowledge and experience. I cannot go to Egypt or any other country. But I can do my best. I seems like you are focused only on the negative aspects of what I wrote gleaning nothing from the positive aspects.

  • bagofcorn

    Thank you for this discussion. I will admit, I really disliked Randa’s article, and it angered me. You have really took her argument and brought up important points – that actually make people think – not just get angry. I get it now – I wasn’t thinking of the Orientalist aspect of the dancing. I wish she had brought that up. And I honestly wasn’t thinking about women in costume in restaurants, but more of women in regular workout clothes trying bellydancing.

    I got caught up in the question, where do you draw the line? And who really owns a culture? My thoughts and question is/are: I am white and my husband just moved to this country 2 years ago from Iraq. If we had a daughter, she would probably pass as white/not Arab. She would grow up not really experiencing Arab culture, but technically would be Arab. If she wanted to belly dance, by Randa’s standards, really it would be ok. She’d have an Arab name and is actually arab. But it’s not her culture. By the same token, if our daughter didn’t take my husband’s name, she might have no “marker” of being Arab, and if the author saw her dancing, she would presumably hate her even though she was Arab. It just seems to me like the author is making a lot of assumptions, but again I guess I’m not thinking of women dressing in “Arab drag” in a costume. Is it the costume that is really most problematic?

    • Azra

      Thanks for your comment–I’m happy to hear the post was thought-provoking for you.

      It’s a hard question to answer, right? Where do we draw the line indeed. I’d go to Jarune’s piece on cultural exchange for that one: it’s a question that will always need to be engaged with and explored. I think there’s more to it than the costume.

  • Jannah bint Hannah

    Caught between the worlds, living in a milieu of nuances and delicate shadings, neither quite white nor of color, an American Muslimah of mixed-race ancestry, partly Arab as well as European, able to see both sides of this issue, I’m not sure I have anything to contribute to the conversation… because I don’t quite belong anywhere. All I can say is that raqs sharqi is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done, deeply meaningful to my soul and part of my ancestral heritage, and I’ve practiced it with appreciation and respect for what it means to Middle Eastern women in the context of their own culture; I recommend reading Grandmother’s Secrets by Rosina-Fawzia al-Rawi, which has imparted to me deeply valuable insight into the history and meaning of Middle Eastern women’s dance.

  • Suki

    This conversation has fascinated me ever since Jarrar’s article came out. What comes across to me right away on THIS page, is the same anger and hostility and resentment and negativity toward white people (and white women specifically) in many of the comments of this “round table.”

    I felt Jarrar’s article was horrendous for all the reasons laid out by hundreds of people in the Salon commentary section, and which are ALL snarkily dismissed here on this page as dumb-ass “whitesplainin” as though there was literally nothing of value said by anyone.

    I would NOT recommend that you all avoid the comment section, but please do read it because it’s a very valuable conversation and for the most part it is very civilized (for the Internet).

    Jarrar’s piece was roundly blown out of the water by every kind and color of person, and was proven repeatedly to be WRONG FACTUALLY, particularly historically, especially with regard to the roots of the dance, the evolution of the dance, and also with regard to the history of Arab conquests of other cultures, and with regard to the use of the word “white” – and therefore her argument was dismissed on the merits.

    Aside from all that, her emotional tone of mean-girl nastiness and fuck-you-whitey was definitely the real mistake, though it apparently appeals to other women here on this page who share the same sentiment, and who would like to self-righteously defend women of color’s right to take to the soap box with sneering public condemnations of all “white” people (whatever white means to you), while ‘splainin all the while how it’s ok because there is no such thing as racism against white people. Thankfully, most thoughtful women of color tend to choose another approach.

    I was raised by a “white” feminist (though we don’t know our full DNA) who survived the 50s and fought for women’s rights in the US. She wasn’t given the same education as her brother. She was expected to marry at 18 and be a subservient housewife. Instead she became a radicalized feminist. Recently she worked with women’s groups supporting women’s rights in Afghanistan.

    I know that American woman are able to bellydance (or dance at all) with freedom because they fought for the right to control their lives, their bodies, and their experience of and contribution to culture.

    And still, women of all colors in America struggle against a constant backlash against feminism, a rising religious fundamentalism, and constant violence against them in all parts of society, including at home.

    A true feminist in my opinion doesn’t tear any women down who are trying to find their own empowerment or self expression, especially if they are trying to connect with their bodies and sexuality – since so many women of all colors have been raped or sexually abused in their lives.

    Jarrar’s article was a whining, snotty, ill-informed, poorly researched, white-hating, women-bashing, personal rant – and yet some of you feel the need not only to defend her but to insist on further tearing down those white women who were disgusted, hurt, saddened, or offended by it. You act no better than Jarrar.

    How can any ostensibly intelligent, educated women living in the 21st Century not know that this is the WORST possible way to have dialogue? That it comes across as both childish and destructive of any shared goals of human connectivity, peace, and evolution?

    Or is that not the goal for you?

    My allegiance is with women first, culture second. Jarrar’s article was pointlessly divisive and totally lacking in maturity or human compassion, which was not lost on the hundreds – probably thousands- of people who found it pathetic and ugly and said so quite eloquently in the comments you deride.

    If only this self-proclaimed feminist had taken on any one of the truly horrendous issues facing women in Arab nations, and actually did something to help spread awareness and build coalitions of support among women worldwide.

    • meyrink

      I am awed by how eloquently you summarized the situation. Absolutely stellar! I would love to see an answer to this, but I am afraid there is no discussion to be had here. There is no answer to this summary and no answer to the inspiration of Drew Lovejoy or of the dance group described in the articles Karen posted, except the antithesis of inspiration. Karen tried to engage but it went nowhere. This MMW roundtable group knows they are in over their heads defending the article and all they could do up to now is to repeat Randa’s accusations with different words. I am disappointed at the unwillingness to be self-critical: by Randa Jarrar, by Roxane Gay, by this group. It is a one-sided discussion and I expect nothing more of it. I really wonder. Is this all a cynical marketing ploy? Is Randa’s article meant to capture the attention of a specialized sub-group for her next book? Maybe we will have to wait until Nicole writes the seminal work on white privilege for our enlightenment.

      • Suki

        What some people here don’t seem to understand about this kind of identity politics taken to its absurd extreme is how toxically divisive it is and how destructive of larger goals. Because this kind of thing creates “sides” — like skinny white bellydancing women now will band together to defend themselves and become another group with an identity politics agenda. All for what? Meanwhile the real problems are not addressed, while we fight with each other over petty bullshit. Groups that should have been powerful allies in the people’s movements of the 20th century broke up when divisive identity politics took control. There is nothing empowering about this. There are good reasons why groups form identities and demand recognition and political power, but there are many ways it becomes toxic and destructive and that is on display here.

        • Karen Bradley Ehler

          All I can say is that agree with you both. Thanks for recognizing what I was trying to do meyrink. I wish members of the roundtable would respond in an open and constructive way to the questions raised as well as the links I posted. But maybe you are righ that it won’t happen, which is sad. This whole thing is hearbreaking and as you said “Toxic”.

      • cncz

        I will get right on that as the comments on this page show that i wasn’t being silly (as originally thought) but it is s piece that actually needs to be written. I am really disappointed and disheartened by most of the comments on this page, and especially yours and suki’s made me quite sad. Specifically, i do not understand why you and suki complain about Ms. Jarrar’s tone then go on to use insulting sarcasm on me. I am very sorry you two feel the way you do.

        • meyrink

          It’s a struggle for me to not be sarcastic in this situation. I wholeheartedly agree with Karim Nagi approach as laid out in the video I posted in another comment. Anything beyond that is culture policing and not really a basis for discussion. On top of that, and based on other posts read elsewhere, maybe we have all been played and this is really just about Randa’s upcoming book release.

          I have lived in Europe since the late 80′s and (thankfully) missed most of the PC movement in America. Concepts like whitesplaining and privilege are also not fully a part of my vocabulary. But political correctness has a huge history in America, including book bannings, and influencing what could or could not be broadcast on television/radio during the 50′s. Stan Freberg’s broadcast on CBS Radio Workshop around 1955 “An Analysis of Satire” goes into some of that. (You can find it at archive dot org). This specialized discussion of belly dance culture is just another paragraph in the book on political correctness.

          Everyone here is entitled to their opinions, as is Randa Jarrar. I find very little personal basis for agreement with her viewpoint. I don’t think it was right to grant her such a huge forum which in the end has damaged the perception of progressive opinion, with possibly the only advantage being to potential sales of Randa’s next book.

          If you want to hear something ironic (not sarcastic), friends have been trying to get me to watch series like NCIS but I refused because I detest the skewed perception I am sure I will encounter there: the idea that all Muslims are suspicious and potential terrorists. Maybe that is a good note for me to leave this forum before I hurt anyone else’s feelings.

        • Suki

          CNCZ – I guess I have to point this out to you. Jarrar is the one who wrote an article in a major publication with an insulting and offensive tone. That is DIFFERENT than writing in readers commentary sections of the Internet. Granted, no one wants to hear insulting or rude comments aimed at them, but can you please recognize the difference between someone’s RESPONSIBILITIES as a professional writer ostensibly speaking for many other people, and debate and banter among the audience? I am hearing that you don’t even recognize any responsibility Jarrar might have held, which is maybe the problem here. You seem to think writers should be able to get up and spew whatever they like, in whatever tone they like, and if people get offended, they are the “tone police.” I really don’t know what world you’re living in, but the way it works here in our reality is that if you are writer who prints something offensive and stupid, you get your ass handed to you.

        • Karen Bradley Ehler

          TONE absolutely matters when you are talking about Professsional writers. It’s one of the things we learn about in College. Any English or Journalism or Theatre major for that matter, can tell you how important it is. It also has value when talking about psychology and yes, even these types of cultural discussions. It’s also basic manners. If I enter a professional office, there are expectations for my behavior. To use an over exaggerated example to make my point: I should be polite and say “Hello, it’s nice to meet you” as opposed to “Yo,Beeotch, let me in cuz I said so.” in that environment, yes? Well a professional writer has a responsiblity regarding tone. If her intention was to spew hate at white women, then she succeeded in her goal. If not, then she needs to re evaluate and take a look at what she wrote to see why it came off as so offensive. If I enter a party and 90% of the people there are offended by my behavior, it is my resposibility to step back and take a look in the mirror and evaluate myself to see if maybe I did do or say something wrong. Self reflection is necessary for all of us. If only 3 people were offended, then I’m pretty safe and can brush that off as 3 people misreading me. But if the majority are up in arms, then I clearly did not communicate appropriately.

    • cncz

      Yeah Suki, thanks for your comment but I am trying to figure out why people aren’t allowed to have other opinions in your world? This was a roundtable, we all had our opinions, some more nuanced than others, but here you are talking about how other people missed the point while you are conveniently also missing the points you could have also taken from the discussion instead of just dismissing us as wrong.

      First, the strawman “let’s talk about the real issues in Arab nations”…really, that is the best you can do? Do you need a ladder to get off your moral high ground? There are plenty of articles, on MMW and elsewhere, where bigger issues are being discussed. This post was about Randa Jarrar’s article, period, so i am not sure yours is a comment on themes elsewhere or at MMW on serious commentary.

      As for your so eloquent dismissal of whitesplaining, my problem with the whitesplainers is that most of the commentary on the subject i read can be best summarized as butthurt white people absolutely shocked that Ms Jarrar could be talking about them, because she couldn’t possibly be. It is not up to Ms. Jarrar to police her own tone or watch her own language for fear of offending the sensibilities of the internet. She has an opinion, a valid opinion, and she deserves the agency to have her opinion treated with respect and not just dismissed as “angry brown woman”- in the same way you are offended at commentary being dismissed as “whitesplaining.” In the same vein, i have a major problem textually with the tone Mona Eltahawy takes in many of her articles. But you know what? It isn’t up to me to tell her how to feel or what to think even when she was factually wrong, because i don’t know what her experience is. I am sorry that you think tone policing is not a big deal.

      • Suki

        What silly statements.

        Yeah, cncz, talking about real issues in the Arab world is the best I can do. I’m assuming you know what is happening to women in the Arab and Muslim world, and I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you take it seriously. Now why don’t you try to take seriously the responsibilities of REAL feminists to do something about that while women are enslaved, tortured and dying.

        You see, Jarrar took her position, her power as a writer, and her opportunity to write on feminist issues in Salon, and she made a mockery of it while INCREASING the division among women. And for that, she is getting the public feedback and critique she deserves. Sorry if you guys can’t handle it.

        ” It is not up to Ms. Jarrar to police her own tone or watch her own language for fear of offending the sensibilities of the internet. ”

        Hey, guess what? Yes, it is. It’s totally up to her to learn how to write and speak in a thoughtful, powerful, effective, persuasive, meaningful way. IF, that is, she wants to be taken seriously as thinker, writer, and woman of color who can help make the changes this world really needs.

        So drop your “tone police” bullshit because you’re only hurting your own cause. If you can’t come across as anything other than a whining petulant bitch on the Internet who can’t even do proper research on your topic, and if you’re okay with that — good on you. But please stop wondering why everyone else just thinks you’re just a pain in the ass. AND DON’T DEMAND WE TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY. We don’t have to.

        There are other powerful and kick-ass women of color who are writing and speaking brilliantly, changing the world’s thinking, shining light into darkness, and they are my heroes. NOT because of the color of their skin – they get no pre-game points for that – but for the grace and strength of their character, and how hard they work to fight for what truly matters.

        • Tasnim

          Someone else here asked, “Are white belly dancers really among the top problems of Arab women?”
          Self-evidently, no. Given real issues in the Arab world, I’d put this somewhere between trivial and amusing. This is why I find it strange that this discussion has received so much attention. Why, I wonder? There’s plenty of posts here about unquestionably more important and more urgent issues.

          But I do think it is an interesting discussion.

          As an Arab woman, I think it’s great that people, any people, find pleasure in this dance, which I’m not particularly interested in claiming as exclusively part of “my culture.” It is definitely not “purely Arab” – whatever that means. Even though it is practiced across the Arabic-speaking region, there are forms of this dance in many non-Arab communities and cultures; the origins of this dance are multiple and diverse.

          What I was trying to get to in my comment was this gulf between “belly dance” as it has come to be recognized and practices in the West and the dance that I grew up with, a communal and celebratory experience of women dancing together, without an audience, without a stage, and definitely without Orientalist constumes.

          I respect the fact that many non-”Middle Eastern” dancers have put in the time and effort to become adept at “belly dance” as performance art. What is a little discomfiting for me is those who just want to wriggle their hips in a getup out of an Orientalist fantasy. If I was to try to rationally explain it, I guess it strikes me as a little “have your cake and eat it.” There’s that tension in “tribal fusion” again – yes, we’re all about “fusion” but sometimes we want to be “tribal” too. And while the cosmopolitans among us can borrow at will from Arab, African and “nomadic traditions” for that tribal element, there are still people who face prejudice for those aspects of their identity, who don’t get to set it aside.

          There’s a 2008 article by Sunaina Maira, Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, and U.S. Empire, which explores some of these issues in the US context, and asks the question “What does this embodied performance of putatively “Middle Eastern culture” reveal about post-9/11 U.S. nationalism?.” Here’s a snippet:

          “Performances by American belly dancers are not without their aesthetic and sensual pleasures, and there is indeed beauty and virtuosity in the art of belly dancing. At the same time, the politics of dance forms that travel, such as belly dance, are important to consider, because they allow us to trace historical connections between the Middle East/West Asia and the United States/“the West””

          I don’t agree with everything Maira says in this article, but I do think she makes some valid points in relatively measured prose. Jarrar’s article was deliberately in-your-face in its tone – as Nicole mentioned, it is somewhat like Mona Eltahawy’s Why do they hate us? which was justified as provocative on purpose, in order to create debate. Jarrar could make the same point, I guess, given the number of comments on her article and on this post and elsewhere.

          • Suki

            Bravo and thank you for a thoughtful and intelligent response.

            If Jarrar’s article had been anywhere near the caliber of this comment it would have done more good than harm.

            To answer your question as to why it got so much attention, it’s because we rarely see what feels like bold disdain for white women from other women in print (or virtual print) in a well read publication, so to many it was simply shocking – and I’m assuming Jarrar got the shock-value response she was looking for? Though perhaps she expected more kudos for her brashness than the ass whooping she actually did get, but that had more to do with the faulty facts, which made it easier to smack her down for also being a snarky bitch. Altogether a big train wreck for Jarrar, but she will retain her best fans and those who agree with her, and clearly she has no interest in backing down, qualifying, or addressing any of the bullshit she threw in people’s faces.

            I think the conversation went on because it did bring up a lot of interesting issues for many people – or you and I would not be commenting here, right? Issues of art, culture, women, etc – and the comments have been far more elucidating and interesting than anything Jarrar wrote in her childish piece.

          • grout4cake

            I think one of the reasons it got so much discussion is because it’s mean and catty (always an attention getter) and unmistakably targeted at a specific racial female population, a population that more probably than not feel themselves as allies to the Arab world.
            It was a shock to women who consider the problems of Arab women to be complex,profound and life threatening in many cases , only to be told that they are the problem because they belly dance.Truly at times it resembled an Onion piece.
            However the issues facing women in the mid eastern countries are profoundly complex, multilayered and in many instances deny their full humanity, reverberating around the world on all women’s rights and futures.
            The fact that Jarrar prefers to play victim in the midst of such grave concerns ,from the distance of the U.S.,shows her to be absolutely hypocritical as well as out of touch with the population she purports to represent.

    • أستاذ إلياس

      “My allegiance is with women first, culture second.”
      This is precisely the epistemic violence of white-centric feminism to which the author speaks. Until you can come to appreciate the harm that arab-face inflicts on the “other” woman, you will be perceived as arguing from behind a veil of white privilege.

  • Annie Towne

    “It’s definitely not the same thing as white people getting angry that they can’t use the n-word, but I think it comes from the same place.” Now this is a ridiculous thing to say. People use that word out of hatred and to do harm. Women belly dance out of passion, celebration, and joy. So maybe that argument should be reconsidered (and such extreme expressions are part of why this conversation has become so heated). And non-racist people aren’t “angry” that they can’t use that word, because it would never occur to them to do so, while racist people use it whether it’s “allowed” or not, so this is doubly ridiculous.

    My problem with Jarrar’s article is two-fold. One, her anger really obscures her argument, which comes out as a meaningless diatribe and feels really personal and sounds childish and petulant. This is not a good way to make a case for one’s point of view. Even the title “Why I Can’t Stand…” instead of “Why We Need to Discuss…” or even “Why I Object To…” for example feels careless and as uninformed as she claims the women she objects to are.

    The other is that we’re talking about a living art form, one that is performed in many contexts, not a religious ceremony or sacred act. We’re talking about DANCE, which is done by men and women all over the globe in a wide, ever-changing variety of traditions and styles. It is, at this point in time, simply silly to say that one has to limit oneself to the dance styles that originated with others of our own heritage–and how do we decide that, anyway? Do we all have to have DNA tests? Is heritage something one inherits through blood (in which case I am Cherokee and Irish), or through where and how one is raised (in which case I am German and English via Massachusetts Colony because of having been adopted)? Because of my bloodline I am a person of color, but because I didn’t grow up on a Reservation or with others of that bloodline, I do not have much access to Cherokee traditions. And yet, I was welcomed with open arms by those people, who shared much with me. So what am I allowed to dance? And who decides?

    There is a distinction to be made between cultural appropriation, which goes on all the time in every direction and is a part of our daily life in all corners of the world, not just the West (spend 1/2 hour in Tokyo, for example), and cultural MISappropriation, a label which certainly applies to those white men who sell “Lakota Sweat Lodge Weekends” online for large sums of money yet have never been to a real sweat lodge ceremony, or people who write books full of “Indian wisdom” that they’ve made up out of their own heads. It’s this sort of thing that I find problematic, not the color of any dancer’s skin.

    A last note: the costume worn when performing this dance is dictated by the aesthetic of the dance; I don’t think one could compete or perform wearing just anything. It is COSTUME just as the tutu is the costume for Swan Lake. It’s part of the whole. It’s not a version of blackface, as Jarrar contends, especially because it is not, in any way, derisive.

    I would like someone from MMW to respond to what I’ve said. These comments should be a dialogue. Jarrar’s piece felt like a hit-and-run because she won’t engage with anyone who disagrees with her, but instead only talks with (and thanks) those who agree. I hope one of you will reply to some of us.

    • Suki

      Annie Town,

      I’m assuming the writer was discussing the use of the “n -word” in a social context, used in a familiar way, the way some black people will use it on each other.

      I can’t imagine she could be talking about the straight-up insult, that would be too crazy a statement.

      But even so, it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s apples and oranges, and trying to compare them makes for a warped argument and discussion.

      It also shows that this woman has a total disconnect from “white” belly dancing women and lack of direct experience and understanding of their personal motivations and feelings, that she feels comfortable filling in with a blanket assumption.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Interesting discussion going on here; from my perspective, there seems to be quite a few parallels between the modern manifestations of belly dancing and yoga. Both are Eastern traditions that have been co-opted by mainly white, Western women (even though male belly dancers exist in MENA, other men have not taken up this art form due to this misconception of it being a primarily “female occupation”). The costumes/outfits/props used to practice the modern versions of these traditions are primarily Western inventions (the modern belly dancing outfit consisting of the bra with skirt or harem pants along with the optional scarf, did not come into existence until the British occupied Egypt; prior to that women in the MENA region never dressed like that while dancing. The same phenomenon can be seen with Yoga, where modern Yogis dress in Yoga pants and practice on Yoga mats). The only difference between the two traditions’ appropriation, is that belly dancing has been appropriated for far longer than Yoga by the West. While I don’t think anyone should be prevented from learning about the traditions of other cultures that they find an interest in, it’s important to see and critique how Western media portrays these traditions to the general society. When the dominant image in the West of a modern Yogi/belly dancer is that of a young attractive white woman, that’s when you know something’s wrong with the way the West likes to not only pick and choose from, but also overtake, traditions from other lesser known cultures. That’s when cultural appropriation has taken place…

  • Suki

    The last comment in this article said: “It might not have been the most nuanced thing we’ve ever read, but my concern about how voices of WoC are silenced and the supporting argument is “reverse racism” comes out in full blast.”

    I think you guys are stretching like crazy to avoid stating what I’m pretty sure at least some of you can see clearly — that Jarrar’s article was an embarrassing disaster, her approach was an ugly divisive train wreck, and she created a chorus of dissent rather than any true dialogue.

    I also really don’t see how voices of Women of Color are silenced on the Internet. Anyone can write, get a website or a blog — here is Jarrar entirely NOT silenced, given a space in a well read publication, and she chose to use her space very unwisely.

    Why don’t you just admit it instead of trying to back up someone who gleefully shoved her own foot down her throat? You don’t have to do the same.

    Someone else in your “round table” writes: “I’m disturbed to see people attacking Jarrar for feeling the anger that she does.”

    Seriously, are all of you living in some kind of bubble? You are really surprised by the reaction this piece got? If so, I suggest a reality check, because you will ALWAYS get this reaction if you write a piece attacking anyone based on their skin color.

    Whatever you personally think about “reverse racism” – clearly light-skinned people don’t like being dissed, marginalized, mocked, and controlled based on their pigmentation.

  • Suki

    Here’s a comment from today on Salon: “I’m Greek. I’m considered white. Belly dancing (τσιφτετελι) is part of my culture and has been for a very long time. Randa, with all due respect (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a leftist and I’m in agreement with you on most significant political stuff), stop erasing my culture and unless you’re willing to do research and learn about what you’re talking about before you make sweeping generalisations, shut up.”

    One of my friends is also a American/Greek bellydancer, she has dedicated her life to it, does it professionally, and is astoundingly talented. She’s worked incredibly hard to be able to do such amazing things with her body. She is voluptuous, but white as the driven snow. And Jarrar would presume to tell her to stop?

  • Suki

    Here’s another one from today (I’m doing this because you in this round table don’t want to read the comment section in Salon, so I’m bringing it to you – thank me later) : “Belly dancing, or trbušni ples, has been in the Balkans, my ancestral homeland, for centuries. In the the West, with blonde hair and pale skin, I’m considered “white.” What right does anyone have to tell me that I’m appropriating someone else’s culture? The Turks invaded and oppressed my people for 500 years. My people got rid of them but kept some of the good bits like belly dancing and sevdalinke. I’ll dance whatever I damn well please, and others can choke on their racist assumptions.”

  • Ben Chompers

    I really appreciate this article, because the original left me confused. I agreed with so much of it, but at the same time, I kept wanting to ask, “Is it ever ok for white women to belly dance?” and this discussion gave so much more nuance and meat for me to chew. Thank you very much.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    I posted this on Salon too but would like to know what folks here think of this because I love the idea of cross-cultural arts sharing in general and find the idea of forbdding an entire race of people from doing a cultural dance absurd.
    So check this out. By Randa’s (and her defenders) definition and view of the world and of dance, this group should not exist.

    “The Keltic Dreams is a multi-ethnic group of 33 kids all between the
    ages of 7-12, who go to Public School 59 in New York’s Bronx region. With a mix
    of kids that is 75% Hispanic and 25% African-American, this is the last place
    you would expect to find an Irish dancing troupe – and it’s all thanks to their
    amazing teacher – Caroline Duggan.”
    Frankly, I find this inspiring. It makes me full of joy and happiness. As a half-Irish person, I am not all offended that little black and hispanic girls are doing the dance of my ancestors and wearing the costume that goes with it.

    http://www.dogonews.com/2008/3/15/the-keltic-dreams-an-unusual-irish-dance-troupe/page/3

    • Annie Towne

      Thank you! What a great examination of this question and the whole issue of identity politics in general. I sincerely hope Ms. Jarrar and the authors of the above article read it and comment on its philosophical take.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    Here’s another example that one might want to consider: Are we supposed to tell this young man to stop?
    “For those feeling down about the United States and its place in the world, meet Drew Lovejoy, a 17-year-old from rural Ohio. His background could not be more American. His father is black and Baptist from Georgia and his mother is white and Jewish from Iowa. But his fame is international after winning the all-Ireland dancing championship in Dublin for a third straight year”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/us/an-irish-tradition-with-an-only-in-america-star.html?_r=0

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    An interesting philosphical response. . Quite long, but worth the read. I admit I had to take a break part way through..LOL…and that I had to re-read parts because I admit I didn’t understand all of it right away.

    http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2014/03/11/on-the-identity-politics-of-belly-dancing

  • wlinden

    The apologies for the article keep avoiding this question above: “As a Frau Antje can I only dance in my wooden shoes?”

    And what about us “Amurrican” mongrels? Half of my ancestors would not have spoken to the other half, no matter WHICH way you insist on slicing them up. Is the answer to this “You can’t dance”?

    (One of the comments I saw was actually “There is no way for white people to dance without appropriating SOMEONE’S culture”. This is one the most racist statements I have ever seen….. even “European” dances are “appropriation”?

  • Carl

    I find it interesting (and no longer surprising) that the above comments make no mention of racism until it’s used in the phrase “reverse racism,” and only then to (apparently) cast it in a dubious light. If the article had been “Why I Can’t Stand Arab Shakespearean Actors,” I have little doubt that the charge of racism would have been raised in the first 50 words. I guess it’s true that no one ever thinks they (or their friend) are racist?

    • Karen Bradley Ehler

      Good point. There is no such thing as reverse racism. I hate that term. It’s just racism and yes white people can be victims of it and yes it’s wrong NO MATTER who is the perpretrator and who is the victim. Having said that, what privelge is also very real and a thing to be dealt with, but it doesn’t excuse anyone from discrminiating against white people. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • quietglow

    I like the discussion her article has brought up. A lot of the facade belly dancers construct is Orientalist, I have to admit, and I think it’s good to have at least an edge of discomfort around the topic so that people think twice about what they’re doing.

    But I can’t say anyone who decides she should use her opinion on my body shape to dictate my hobbies will get anywhere. Body policing is not feminism.

    • Karen Bradley Ehler

      “Body policing is not feminism” – nicely put. I agree. Nobody has a right to tell me what I can or cannot do with MY BODY, no matter it’s shape or color.

  • Maria

    You are tilting at windmills. Belly dancing is not uniquely Arabic. Turks, Greeks and Persians are Aryans, ladies, and they have been belly dancing for a while. What about “exotic” far eastern dancing? Nothing we do in culture CANNOT be shared with other human beings. It is the thinly veiled contempt (pun intended), the superiority, the sick titillation, the downgrading and degradation that should be unmasked and repudiated. Even the twisted illusions that people have about the cultures of others are little different than the twisted illusions people have about just everything. Speak truth and live authentically. That is the best response.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    EXCELLENT and well thought response here:

    http://bellydancernewyork.com/2014/03/diving-into-the-bellydance-broil/

    I highly recommend reading that one.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler
  • esseghem

    Arab male here. I thought Randa’s article was ridiculous, over the top, and racist. Seeing as I’m not white (whatever that means), you can’t just ignore my comment with the excuse of “white privilege”. So what excuse will you give – Arab uncle tom?

    • Karen Bradley Ehler

      Thanks for your participation. If they called you “Arab Uncle Tom” it would not surprise me since Randa accused all the “Brown/Arab” belly dance instructors of self exploitation for teaching their art to people of non-Arab descent. I know some brown dance teachers are particularly appalled by that proclamation. I would have no problem with Arab or brown or any other race, for that matter, dancing the dance of my Irish ancestry (but I am a mutt made up of other ethnicities too) or wearing the Irish dance costume, or the ancestral tartan, etc. I welcome all people to share in my American culture as well (which is the melting pot) and love/respect everyone as long as they respect me in return.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    Well thanks to a contributor on Salon in comments….

    “You’ll have to add Fifi Abdo to the list of teachers “exploiting themselves for financial well-being”. Below is a quote from the 2009 Guilded Serpent interview with her:

    Read more: Gilded Serpent, Belly Dance News & Events , » At Home WithFifi Abdou
    Copyright 1998-to current date by Gilded Serpent, LLC ”
    http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2009/07/29/yasminacfifi/#ixzz2w1BskUTE

    ‘I am really proud that raqs sharki is so appreciated around the world – something that most Egyptians are not really aware of. In America, one of the things that especially pleased me was the inclusiveness of the dance scene there – in my classes I saw women of many different ages – and body types – enjoying dancing, and that made me happy. They want to learn this dance no matter what their background, age, or shape!’ – Fifi Abdo

    So looks like Randa’s Hero would disagree with her.
    Not surprising actually since Fifi is a real artist and most real artists are open minded, generous, and NOT bigotted. Fifi is a real woman – a person who loves dance but also loves to share it along with her culture. An artist, she understands the fluid nature of art and how it gets adopted and adapted. Notice she mentions “inclusiveness”. I hope Randa and some of her defenders take a step back and think about this with open hearts and maybe can come to accept non-Arab women doing this dance and embrace women of all backgrounds as sisters in peace rather than hate.

  • Karen Bradley Ehler

    You’ll have to add Fifi Abdo to the list of teachers “exploiting themselves for financial well-being”. Below is a quote from the 2009 Guilded Serpent interview with her: http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2009/07/29/yasminacfifi/#ixzz2w1BskUTE

    Read more: Gilded Serpent, Belly Dance News & Events , » At Home WithFifi Abdou
    Copyright 1998-to current date by Gilded Serpent, LLC

    ‘I am really proud that raqs sharki is so appreciated around the world – something that most Egyptians are not really aware of. In America, one of the things that especially pleased me was the inclusiveness of the dance scene there – in my classes I saw women of many different ages – and body types – enjoying dancing, and that made me happy. They want to learn this dance no matter what their background, age, or shape!’

  • mrsnj20

    I think some people are missing the point. The article is plain racism and assumes that because someone “looks” white, they don’t have any arab heritage. It could even go so far as to say that anyone who isn’t Egyptian should not dance, because Egypt invented belly dance. That is what I have heard from some Egyptians. They say that Jarrar should keep her mouth shut because she isn’t even Egyptian and obviously isn’t dancing. We can always create a group of outcasts among any population.

    Jarrar has done a great job of keeping racism and bigotry going. Arabs fighting with Arabs, Arabs fighting with whites, Arabs fighting with blacks..etc etc etc. and it goes both ways.

  • ldancer

    I wasn’t going to discuss this article any further, but a friend of mine posted this roundtable on Facebook and I found it interesting. I’m going to try to be brief because I have already spent too much of my mental energy on Jarrar’s article and my (and my community’s) reaction to it. First, I’m an Egyptian-style dancer. I perform raqs sharqi, which I would define as “cabaret”-style bellydance to orchestrated versions of classic Arabic songs; I also perform some folkloric dance (which I define as being stylized stage versions of regional dances) and have trained extensively in the style of the Mahmoud Reda Troupe, which combines elements of all of these with Western dance styles, chiefly ballet and midcentury American film dance (Mr. Reda himself has spoken about the influence of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on his style). I have undertaken all of this with nothing but respect and deep love for the dances and for the history of the cultures they come from. I think that if you speak with many practitioners of Middle Eastern dance, especially those of us interested in the traditional styles, you will find similar sentiments. Jarrar and everyone else are entitled to their opinions. But one of the many problems with her article is that it fails to take into account any of the actual history of the dance, or of the complicated issues of ethnicity, skin color, class and gender politics that rage within it. I am not sure that she is even aware of these things. And that is not an indictment. Being from a culture doesn’t make you an expert in every aspect of it, and most Arabs and Turks I know don’t know anything about dance history, because they’re not dancers. So why should they?

    But she makes so many statements that are simply not accurate. First, foreign dancers aren’t taking jobs from native-born dancers in Cairo. It’s actually extremely difficult to get a license to perform there as a foreigner. Only a small handful of foreigners hold dance licenses, and it is easy to have them revoked. Foreign dancers are highly restricted in where they can perform, while their Egyptian sisters are not. Second, skin color is a huge issue in terms of who gets hired. That is true in Egypt and it is true in Arab venues in the U.S. Quite simply, it is hard to be a black dancer. My African-American dance friends have a really hard time getting hired by Arab club owners, and I’m not talking about Alabama; it happens in New York City all the time. My friend who dances professionally in Cairo told me that she’s even seen it in the latest iteration of the Reda Troupe (which is no longer run by Mr. Reda) – she described the darker dancers as being hidden being the lighter ones, despite their being shorter. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the professional dance in the Middle East has always been internationalized. In the past, throughout Egypt and Turkey, the professional class of dancers was made up of Rom, Dom, Nawar, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and Jewish people. Many commenters on the original article brought that up, but Jarrar never engaged with it. It was simply not done for girls from good Muslim families to perform in public. This history is very, very long. It predates the era of European colonialism.

    And this leads me to another thing that is never engaged with. European colonialism in the Arab world happened and was terrible. I think we can lay a lot of blame at the feet of England for our current geopolitical problems. However, that was preceded by four centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination, which had a huge impact on the region, and before that, Arab colonization, which I never hear mentioned. And before that, if we’re talking about Egypt and much of the Mediterranean, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians. So what came from where? Who should be the greatest target of ire?

    Many dancers heard something else seeping in between the lines of Jarrar’s piece: that old familiar Arab discomfort with dance as a profession, and with people who make money doing it. I’m sorry if that statement offends anyone, but those of us who dance professionally are well acquainted with it. Of course there are many people who love dance and see it as art, but for many others, we are just whores. Never mind that after the costume comes off, most of us go home to our families and our very unglamorous day jobs.

    When I wear a bellydance costume, I am not “playing at being an Arab”. Those costumes are made in ateliers in Cairo and Istanbul by women who get paid well and support families with those jobs. They put a lot of love and artistry into their hand beading. The history of that costume is in itself an interesting story of Orientalist imagery traveling back and forth – its use in the Middle East is credited (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) to Badia Masabni, owner of the Casino Opera, the club that spawned the careers of so many of the great film dancers of the black and white era in Egypt. I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone that Egyptians adopted that costuming because they simply thought it was pretty? In any case, it would be unacceptable to my Arab clientele for me to wear something else in a cabaret performance. Jarrar references Fifi Abdo’s iconic white galabeya performance but clearly doesn’t understand its context; it was a single character dance that she was known for, and she usually performed in a 2-piece bedlah. I wish that she had spoken with dancers for this piece. She wouldn’t have even had to talk to any white (or white-appearing) dancers. She could have spoken to Raqia Hassan, one of the most influential teachers in Egypt and internationally. She might have learned that the world of Middle Eastern dance is extremely complex.

    As for names, I admit I get a little squirmy when people take on really long multisyllabic Arabic dance names. I dance under my own name, my real name. But, many dancers I know were given their Arabic names by their Arab-born teachers, or club owners, or friends. One dancer I know was told in no uncertain terms by some Arab clients that dancing under her Western name offended them and made them feel that she wasn’t embracing their culture. So make of that what you will.

    There have been many crimes committed in the name of bellydance, that is for sure. We call that “(con)fusion dance”. But those come from ignorance and a complete lack of taste, not mockery. And there are so many of us who would never do those things. We dance with love and respect. Jarrar’s article misses everything about the way artists disregard all borders, and the way art evolves. And here I am not talking about silly (con)fusion, but serious approaches to this dance. Bellydance as we know it is really only about a century old, a fusion of much older dances and newer imports. Even the quintessentially Egyptian taqsim beledi uses the accordion…which apparently came to Egypt via Italian sailors in the past century or two.

    If people want to see more dancers of color, get on the case of the middle-aged Arab, Greek and Turkish men who hire dancers at clubs and restaurants. Tell them you’re sick of only seeing light-skinned dancers. And advocate treating the dance and its practitioners with respect, which doesn’t happen in Egypt. Dancers are treated terribly, sometimes even shot at while performing, kicked out of apartment buildings, targets for rape and blackmail and many other abuses. Reels of field footage mysteriously go missing in the national archives. We are trying to document and uphold an art form we love, not mocking the cultures it comes from.

  • ldancer

    I would also like to say that I have always viewed dance as yet another great gift that the Arab world has given the rest of us, along with mathematics, astronomy, medicine, poetry, painting, and some of the best music on the planet. In fact, I began dancing in part because I fell in love with the music. My husband had an Oum Kalthoum cassette that he’d purchased in Morocco, and so “Fakkarouni” was the first song of hers I ever heard. Then I discovered Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Layla Mourad, and so many more. After 9/11 I realized I had no friends from that part of the world, and do I endeavored to learn more about it, through music first because it was the easiest access I could find. I stumbled on the dance accidentally, fell in love with that too, and that is how I met and befriended many people from all over the world, not only Arab countries.

    By the way, many of us do engage in social justice work. You can’t tell just from seeing one of us dancing. So don’t assume that we aren’t aware of sociopolitical issues in the region, and that we don’t care about them. Many of us are involved in Palestinian rights advocacy, women’s rights, or simply attempting to learn about the history of the region from good sources. I’m very sorry that many of you have been subjected to tacky and tasteless dancing. That is something many of us in the field try to address, as well, and it embarrasses me that these are the examples held up in these discussions. They’re like problem children.

    • wlinden

      As far as “tacky and tasteless dancing” goes, we in the science fiction have an aphorism known as “Sturgeon’s Law”, which people in many other fields would do well to bear in mind. While addressing an audience of shocked fans, Theodore Sturgeon said “Let’s face it, they’re right. 90% of SF is crap.” Then, while they were too stunned to reply, he continued “90% of EVERYTHING is crap!”

      • ldancer

        That is the general feeling in most arts. I am an illustrator and cartoonist by trade, and I used to say that 95% of all comics are monumental crap. I draw journalistic and literary comics, and have a fine arts background, yet I am constantly expected to talk about superhero comics, which I consider to be worse than garbage and have zero respect for. Another art comics guy once commented that lumping us together with superhero comics is like lumping Werner Herzog with Michael Bay because they both make movies. Luckily, things have gotten better and now only 90% of American comics are crap. 10% good is pretty high, in that business!

        As for (con)fusion bellydance, that’s mostly something you’d see at dancer events, like workshop haflas. How many have cringed at the heartfelt but terrifying efforts of well-intentioned performers? But in the venues that the general public would usually see dancer, they’re a lot more likely to see someone performing a more traditional style. Whether it’s good or not will vary, of course.

        This issue of whiteness is a problematic one. There are a lot of people who look “white” who trace their ancestry to the homelands of bellydance. One of my teachers of Turkish dance is a blonde and blue-eyed American of Ottoman Greek ancestry. Despite her appearance, Turkey is part of her heritage. But if Jarrar saw her perform, she’d dismiss her as a racist white woman. Another dancer I know is half Palestinian and has been bellydancing professionally since she was a teenager. She’s pretty pale. Frankly, so are Dina, Fifi, and many other Egyptian stars. And Farida Fahmy, “The Daughter Of Egypt”, beloved principle dancer of the Reda Troupe in its heyday, is half British. So, who gets to dance?

        Actually, after all of this, I sort of wish I could give Randa Jarrar a hug. She seems really angry and hurt. And she has very legitimate reasons to be those things. But why take it out on dancers? That’s why I and many others feel there’s a dog whistle in there that only dancers can hear. That what she’s really saying is that no one should bellydance professionally. She also conflates the social dance and the professional dance, and holds up Hind Rostom as an example of a great dancer. She was an actress with a couple of moves, NOT a great dancer. Actually she was pretty stiff. But yes, we all love Tahya and Fifi. Anyway. The world keeps turning and people of all hues keep dancing all styles. I have deepened my respect for the Arab and Muslim worlds in part through this dance, have learned about tarab and sha’abi and zar, among other musical wonders, and have made friends I’d never have met, from every country you can name, had I never danced. If you give bitterness and rejection, that’s what you get back, but if you give kindness and respect, you occasionally get it, too.

  • http://www.rashabellydance.co.uk/ Rasha Nour Bellydance

    Hi there. I’m a white British bellydancer, and also a regular MMW non-commenting lurker. I felt like I should actually say something on this one, because I’m dismayed by the reactions of a lot of my fellow dancers to this whole subject. I found this roundtable very interesting to read, and appreciate having the chance to see a wide range of views on the subject from outside the ‘bellydance bubble’. It’s important to know how people feel about what we do, even when it’s not positive, and I’ll be bearing all this stuff in mind in future when thinking about how to present myself, and how to educate my students. I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement in the bellydance community re: orientalism and appropriation, and we need to put our house in order (myself included – not claiming to be doing all the right things here) before we can expect people from the dance’s cultures of origin to have much interest in engaging with us.


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