Saturday, March 08, 2014

Why I can't stand brown movie makers*

Long before we became human, our ancestors began rushing around the world, inserting ourselves into new environments and appropriating what was useful. When other people were already there, we learned what they had to teach us and they learned what we had to teach them. Our cultures merged and diverged, fused and fizzed, and a million years later we're still at it. Not everyone is happy with that.

This week, Salon published a piece by Randa Jarrar entitled "Why I can't stand white belly dancers." It is an article that I find, frankly, offensive. Although the article is part of a series by feminists of color and enlists the language of feminism and post-colonial theory, it is little more than a xenophobic rant about the other invaiding what the author perceives as an exclusive cultural sphere of her people. Jarrar's hostility is based on some understandably negative experiences. She grew up in the Middle East and the dance style called raqs sharqi** has specific personal associations for her that she feels are defiled by American belly dance. "Belly dance," for her, means the cabaret style (which she calls "Arab drag"***) usually seen on TV and in American Middle Eastern**** restaurants. But, after my moment of empathy for her unhappiness, what I heard was an echo of "I (or someone I know) was mugged by a Black person, therefore my hostility isn't prejudice; it's logical and valid."

Before I go much further into my personal perspective, let me quote better writers who have already said some of what I want to say in much more widely viewed media than my little blog. After all, I wouldn't want to be accused of appropriating their thoughts.

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a commentary that builds on one by Eugene Voloch in The Washington Post*****. Volokh's title was so good that I couldn't help but appropriate it for my own use: "What would Salon think of an article called, 'Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven'?" Volokh gets right to the point of criticizing Jarrar's core snobbery while Friedersdorf puts into the wider perspective that overlaps with what I wanted to say.

Volokh starts with a quote from Jarrar:
Women I have confronted about this have said, "But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on." These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I'm sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It's not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you're not appropriating someone else's.
Volokh responds:
Appropriation — the horror! People treating artistic genres as if they were great ideas that are part of the common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group. What atrocity will the culturally insensitive appropriators think of next? East Asian cellists? Swedish chess players?
But, wait: Maybe — and I know this is a radical thought — artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came.
Maybe telling people that they can't work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be ... rats, I don't know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean "telling people that they mustn't do something, because of their race or ethnic origin."
Friedersdorf takes it from there******:
"We are human beings," [Jarrar's] jeremiad concludes. "This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn't profit from her performance doesn't mean she's not appropriating a culture. And ... the question is this: Why does a white woman's sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women's backs?"
Friedersdorf responds:
After all that, one might be tempted to read up on belly dancing's history, to discover Dr. Ruth Webb*******, an expert in performance during antiquity, and to quote her saying, "with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century."
Back to me. I've spent some time with the American belly dancing community********. I know something about the history of American belly dancing that I think builds on Dr. Webb's pre-Arab history. Jarrar mentions the "white appropriation of Eastern dance" in the 1890s. It might surprise her to discover that most American belly dancers are aware of that history in far greater detail than she knows. They know about Little Egypt (Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and how this started the American style that came to be called "belly dancing," a phrase that dates back to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. They might also know that she was a Greek from Syria. They certainly know that her style, which they "cabaret", is no more authentically Arabian than fortune cookies are authentically Chinese*********.

"Why does a white woman's sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women's backs?" Leaving aside the historical question of whether raqs sharqi is exclusively Arab, or Eastern Mediterranean, or, perhaps, includes Persian elements**********, why does celebrating another culture by creating a fusion mean it was built on that culture's "back"? Returning to my original point, human cultures meet, mix, and separate. Often when they do, one culture is politically, numerically, or militarily more powerful than the other. When this happens, the usual result is that the dominant culture appropriates what is useful from the weaker culture and demands assimilation in all other respects. Sometimes, the dominant culture only assimilates enough of the dominated culture to parody it. Jarrar uses the term "brownface" to claim that this is all that American belly dance is; she shows only resentment for any other definition. But did any white minstrelsy group ever say blackface gave them "a better sense of community" or allowed them to "gain a deeper sense" of their brotherhood with other white men***********?

My clever (now ex-) wife took up American belly dancing a dozen or so years ago. Since then I've learned a lot more about that culture than Jarrar seems to know. While she studied belly dancing, Clever Wife and I socialized quite a bit with the Seattle belly dancing community. I tried drumming for a while and discovered that I suck at it, though I have kept my drums since our divorce. From her first class, I learned that cabaret, with its chiffon harem pants, coin bras, and hip shimmies, is only one among several styles performed in the states these days. Though it had once was only form known in North America, those days have been over for decades. Among the dancers, some time after the seventies, there developed a strong thirst for authentic folk styles. Score one for old hippies (Jarrar also seems to hate us). Maybe "River Dance" was responsible for the folk movement; maybe the increasing number of Arab-Americans before 9/11 was. I don't know. The result has been a less sexist costume style that they call "tribal" and the proliferation of more and more fusions.

Jarrar describes American cabaret style as being all about the "male gaze." For those not familiar with the term, it's critical term that describes a wide spectrum of patriarchal cultural norms and specific male behavior. If you are not familiar with the term, I recommend you look into it. It is a critical concept that should change how you look at gender relations. If you go back to Jarrar's conclusion, you'll see she denounces those white women who claim some kind of empowerment specifically as performing for "the female gaze." Public performance of cabaret style dancing might be about appealing to the male gaze but that is very small part of the belly dancing community. Nor is it about something that could be called the "female gaze." To my experience, the main point of the belly dancing community has nothing to do with the audience; it's all about the things that Jarrar finds so sneerworthy--community, sisterhood, celebrating sexuality. Just because Euro-American women looked to another culture to find a medium to express these does not mean they are looting these cultures. The vast majority of belly dancing events are by women and for women. At the smaller events I attended, I was often the only male there. At the the Mediterranean Fantasy Festival, an annual outdoor event in Seattle, most males present were either attached to women involved or passersby who just happened to hear the music.

As I mentioned, Clever then-Wife (CW) joined the belly dancing community around the turn of the century. They became a large part of our social life soon after. After attending Med-Fest for a few years to show support for her friends, we became vendors. CW makes wonderfully scented soaps and other products************. This was our biggest outdoor event to sell them. As vendors, we were there for every minute of the festival. I looked forward to it all year. I'm a middle aged, heteronormative male, but, beyond my testosterone driven enjoyment, I was genuinely inspired by the crowd. I love how the attendees love each other. I often joked that the festival would make a great setting for a mystery, but that Hollywood would reduce the entire setting to a hot, young, blonde, white woman, in a cabaret costume, standing on a table doing a hip shimmy as fast as she can while a white, young, largely male crowd cheers her on*************. I suppose that's what Jarrar thinks happens there. She's wrong. The crowd at the festival is mostly female. The dancers are all ages, colors, and sizes and dance to a wide spectrum of styles from cabaret, to authentic regional folk, to traditional Indian, hip-hop, salsa and anything else you can imagine. Everyone loves the pros, but the real crowd pleasers are the toddlers who bounce up and down to the music, the septuagenarians who still have it and know it, and the shy girls who have finally gained the courage to show their bodies in public. The old cabaret belly dancers might despair over dilution of the style with modern tunes and dance styles, but the most popular performers are a troupe of African-American dancers who perform to classic R&B and dance off the stage to the theme from "I Dream of Genie" and a guy in a bowler who combines Middle Eastern styles with Western techno-pop.

Jarrar is not just a xenophobic doorkeeper of her perception of her ancestors' culture, she's a clueless interpreter of American culture. The American belly dancing community is not a group of middle-class, white women unaware of their privilege. The community includes women of all races and most classes. The Middle Eastern women in the community are not Toms (or Tomasinas) as Jarrar implies; they are interpreters of multiple Old World cultures who share their cultural past with their cultural future. The black, brown, and beige************** recipients of their largesse are not imperial plunderers; they're lucky beneficiaries. The dancers, musicians, costumers, and importers who make up the community are just doing what humans do. We get together, we share, we borrow, we mix things up, and we invent. Sometimes we do it to music.

* For the humor deprived, let me assure you that I'm being sarcastic. Some of my favorite movie makers are brown. That was also sarcasm.
** She capitalizes "Raqs Sharqi" but writes "belly dance" in lower case. I'll leave the cultural and psychological implications of that to you.
*** Is this sort of feminist homophobia common or have I missed something in recent cultural criticism?
**** Considering the post-colonial strain of her critique, her use of the Euro-centric term "Middle East" shows an ironic lack of self-awareness.
***** As I wrote that sentence, I realized I'm a white man expanding on a white man's expansion of a white man's commentary on a woman of color's critique of a detail of white, patriarchal culture. This is certainly uncomfortable. If Jarrar wants to respond to me (a very big "if"), I suggest that as a starting point.
****** Well, just before there, if you're not reading their critiques. But, you should read both.
******* No, I'm not going to look up Dr. Webb. This is just a blog post after all.
******** "Some of my best friends... ." Just finish reading it.
********* They're not. They might have been invented in Japan, but the type Americans know showed up in San Francisco at about the same time Little Egypt showed up in Chicago.
********** Okay. I don't know if there is a Persian element in raqs sharqi or belly dancing or not, but why do so many Westerners lump Persians and Arabs together?
*********** Spoiler. No.
************ Yes, we're divorced, but her stuff is so good that I'll never use any one else's as long as she is in business. Go to her site. Buy something. Do it now.
************* I have a specific dancer in mind. She fills all of the Hollywood stereotypes, but she really is the best at that style.
************** A reference to Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, one of the greatest cross-cultural interpreters of the American experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I've long been unable to express the ideas that you are discussing. Cultural fusion anyone?