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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why I Can't Stand Petty Snark Pretending to Be Social Commentary

Apparently, Randa Jarrar is not a fan of my work.  Not that I think she's talking to me in particular, but Randa Jarrar wants the world to know that she "can't stand" "white" "belly dancers."  She then makes a second assertion (that she doesn't really defend or connect to the first):  "Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation." Here's the essay, which was published a few days ago by Salon.

I hate even posting this link. Randa Jarrar's assertions are inflammatory nonsense, and she deserves very little of the attention she has drawn. But her essay has drawn quite a bit of attention, at least in my corner of the bellysphere, and I'm not seeing every last bit of the nonsense being called out as clearly as I would like it to be. If people are inclined to use this essay as a starting point for discussions about cultural appropriation, racism, Orientalism, and colonial legacies, great. But if people think these are the issues that Randa Jarrar has actually written about, I would encourage them to read more closely. What I see is an essay about body shame, and a nasty wallow in the time-honored tradition of shaming professional dancers. Just because this pettiness is disguised behind a veneer of sensitive issues doesn't mean it isn't just plain old garbage.

It's hard to recap Randa Jarrar's writing because her narrative is so muddy, but she starts with some commentary on the colonial legacy of belly dance and of the very term "belly dance." She then moves on to fond reminiscences of social dancing at home and at weddings, particularly in the company of other women; then expresses distaste at the body, costume, and artistic signature of a "white" dancer she has seen at a restaurant.

The white dancer is [emphasis mine] "not a terrible belly dancer, but," Randa Jarrar continues, "she was incredibly thin..." Okay, people like different things, and it's okay to have and state preferences. But thin-shaming is just as petty as fat-shaming, and a quick internet search reveals the author to be a woman of larger proportions who thinks about body image. Here's an excerpt from Randa Jarrar's blog, from a post titled Lately I Feel Beautiful:
 For years, I was told that because I am not thin, I am not allowed to feel or be beautiful. Well, that’s strange, because I feel and am beautiful right now, everyday.
This is a feeling I am extra-proud of since, also lately- no, my whole life- I have seen movies, magazine covers, TV shows, and articles that declare that I ought not to feel beautiful- or healthy, because of my size.
I am fat- really fat, and in the past year, I have become more and more in love with my fat. I love my body rolls. I love my double-chin. I love my flappy arms. I love my stretch marks.
So perhaps Randa Jarrar brings up the thinness of the dancer as a way of criticizing the narrowness of how beauty is defined by mainstream commercial imagery, and is also rolling in a point about the whiteness of that same imagery. Or maybe she's reaching out with her own story, expressing what it's like to see positive attention being given to a body that is unlike her own. Either topic has the potential to be interesting, but unfortunately I don't think that's what's really going on here.  I think she's just expressing peevish distaste for an entertainer's intention to be entertaining in a thin body. 

(I don't know how “brown” Randa Jarrar perceives herself to be. In the photos that come up in an image search, she looks pretty pale. She doesn't explicitly say that she's defining whiteness in terms of skin color, but her use of “brown-ness” as a device to frame the opposite of whiteness strongly suggests the equation of whiteness and pallor.)

Back to the Salon Essay about how Randa Jarrar can't stand white belly dancers.  Reading on, we learn that the white dancer (who isn't a terrible dancer, but who is incredibly thin I guess in a bad way) is also "in Arab Drag."
"because that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind."
Apparently the costuming itself is okay. What is deemed problematic is that it is on a non-Arab. Earlier in the piece Randa Jarrar expresses distaste for "white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness." Here too the objectionable element seems to be the skin color of the diaphanous skirt-wearer, not the skirt itself. I find it surprising that someone who is ostensibly indignant about cultural appropriation has no opprobrium for nightclub costuming. The two-piece "bedleh" costume was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, at the same time that Middle Eastern dances were reconfigured into a nightclub entertainment for audiences of Europeans and wealthy Westernized Arabs.  It's mostly definitely not a folk costume.

Back again to Randa Jarrar's ordeal of fine dining with a floorshow.  The white dancer was thin, she was wearing costuming to which she is not entitled, and 
"she didn’t remind me, in any way, of Tahia Karioca or Hind Rostom or my absolute favorite Raqs Sharqi dancer, Fifi Abdo."
Huh.  I too really like those great dancers from days past, and I like the historical styles they represent. But this "go Fifi or go home" attitude is singularly hardcore. Remember the white dancer was "not terrible."  So I guess maybe she wasn't good either, but this isn't described as an issue of her competency, but rather her similarity to stars of yesteryear.  Is Randa Jarrar really saying that it's inherently objectionable that the artistic trends of belly dance are not frozen in time? If so, Randa Jarrar will never enjoy ANY live performance of professional belly dance, including the dances of plump brown-skinned Egyptian Arabs, because the styling of Fifi (the most recently active of those dancers) is long gone.

Moving on again.  Having concluded her story about enduring the white dancer at the restaurant, the author next veers off into unclear ideas about loose-fitting clothing. She speaks with approval of Fifi Abdo dancing in a gallibeya (weirdly described as "loose robes"), and then shares an anecdote on whose meaning I am unclear:
"At a movie theater in Cairo in 2007, I argued with a male friend about why the lead actress wore a strange, baggy dress underneath a bra-and-skirt dancing ensemble. He suggested that she was uncomfortable with her body; I suggested that the country was becoming more conservative and she was too much of a media darling to appear with her skin exposed."
Does Randa Jarrar share the conservative attitudes to which she alludes? She doesn't share a "male" attitude that someone would wear a shapeless garment because they were uncomfortable with their body, and, remember, she doesn't object to nightclub costuming as long as it is worn by Arab dancers.  But then again, there was that thing in praise of Fifi in the gallibeya...

Randa Jarrar veers off further:
"Years later, the revolution happened, or tried to happen, and when the Muslim Brotherhood took over, and Western news outlets began publishing stories that claimed belly dancing was a dying art. Tell that to the women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off. (See this video, for example, of actual working-class Egyptian women of all sizes and ages dancing in the streets.)  The one interesting thing about these stories is that they reported that Western, or white women, were beginning to take over gigs in Egypt. These women moved there out of an obsession with belly dance and are now appropriating it from local dancers."
So basically: yes, a conservative regime does suppress professional performance of belly dance, but that's okay, because belly dance as an art form is just fine, if not better off, without professionals.
So there you have it. To me this looks like a simple case of Randa Jarrar (who also wrote that she did not hire a pro but instead was “her own” dancer at her own wedding) wanting to be the center of attention, and she would like for all of you sharmuta professional belly dancers in your skimpy costumes to stop upstaging her. Unless maybe you happen to look just like her, or you are a nonthreatening video clip from a bygone era – then it's okay if people express approval.

I have a few more thoughts about "whiteness," foreign dancers, professional dance, and the credibility of Randa Jarrar as a cultural critic.

It's true that Egypt's most successful professional dancers, both foreign and Egyptian, tend to have pale skin (and for that matter, straight hair). Egypt is in Africa, but its cultural mainstream does not prize prominent African features or coloration. How much other cultures have influenced this preference is debatable, but the preference predates 20th century colonialism.  While it is unfair, and a real thing to deplore (I wish it's what Randa Jarrar had written about), the reality of the dance market is that it is simply easier for light-skinned dancers, and less open to dark-skinned dancers, regardless of whether they are Egyptian or foreign. Complexion trumps competence.  For Randa Jarrar's idealized brown Arabs, professional dance may very well be an unwelcome job of last resort that doesn't even pay very well. 

Nonetheless, there is no glut of obsessed and predatory "white" emigrees filling vacancies left by brown-skinned Arabs.

For Egyptian women from the Muslim Arab cultural majority, dance is simply not a respectable profession, so dancing professionally is not an option. This is a firmly entrenched cultural attitude that predates current conservative politics by centuries. Perhaps dance is a fine social activity to practice away from the "male gaze" in the private confines of one's home, but the same activity becomes a disgrace when one's body is on display for undifferentiated male viewing, let alone when the dancing body is displayed in exchange for money. Breaching this standard of "modesty" is a shameful transgression – it is often conceived of as a shade on a spectrum of prostitution.  Star dancers suffer less in the court of public opinion, but the majority of working dancers are not stars.

So who's dancing?  Who has the freedom to defy mainstream expectations and constraints?  Foreigners and other marginal "others."  Alien work authorization is notoriously difficult for foreign dancers to obtain, but many of Cairo's current professionals are from the US, Brazil, Europe, and countries of the former Soviet Union. But the fact that many dancers working in Egypt do not represent the mainstream of Egyptian Muslim Arab society is a cultural constant, not a new development. Historically, Egypt's professional dancers have always come disproportionately from the social margins; they are women from ethnic or religious minorities, including Copts and other Christians, Jews, Rom and Dom ("gypsies"); women from the lower classes who are born into a family business of dance and music; or women who are just plain poor. In an ironic twist, sometimes financially-independent college-educated women occupy this same marginal space.  Foreigners and these marginal "others" aren't displacing anyone – they are the only ones for whom dance jobs are real options.

Foreigners are present in Egyptian professional dance explicitly because they are less inhibited by Egyptian taboos.  Not only do foreigners NOT take away native jobs, they enrich the Egyptian economy through their participation in Egypt's dance industry. Foreign dancers are dance tourists and visiting students, customers of Egypt's costume design houses, consumers of Egyptian-produced music, and the patrons of touring Egyptian workshop instructors. Author Randa Jarrar says of Egyptian teachers who teach non-Egyptian students, "their financial well-being is based on self-exploitation." This does not sound to me like a criticism dependent on the skin color or nationality of the student of Oriental dance, but, once again, a blanket condemnation of dance professionals.  

And yet Randa Jarrar did praise a few professional dancers–Fifi Abdo, Taheya Carioca, and Hind Rostom. Why does she fail to appreciate that their skill and stage presence are made possible by their professionalism?  Even in a gallibeya, even in woman-of-the-people non-Oriental mode, to an educated critic Fifi is clearly demonstrating a level of talent and preparation that is emphatically NOT that of "women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off." Fifi is a pro, and like other professional dancers her artistry was made possible by income derived from the time she spent perfecting her craft.  Dance, like any art, does not flourish if its creators are not rewarded and can not invest in their work.  

But I guess it's okay to be pro if you wear a gallibeya?  And the other dancers mentioned, Taheya Carioca and Hind Rostom (who wore all sorts of things, but definitely had bedlehs in rotation) are just faded and hence non-threatening black-and-white movie memories?... And, you know, Fifi and Taheya and Hind (all of whom I would describe as pretty pale ladies) are so purely uncompromised by foreign influence...

Except that they're not. Middle-Eastern dance of the 20th and current centuries, whether it is social dance or performance, is utterly saturated with outside influence from both the West and other Middle Eastern cultures. This includes "authentic" dance done by Egyptian Arabs for audiences of Egyptian Arabs. Even if one were to take away all of the influence from England, France, and the United States, you'd still be looking at a melting-pot dance created from the remnants of shifting and overlapping Greek, Persian, Arab, Turkish, and Central Asian empires. And in the 20th century, as much–perhaps more–ballet entered Egyptian Oriental dance from the Soviet Union as it did from Europe or the US. Taheya Carioca's professional surname, "Carioca," reflects the one-time popularity of the namesake South American dance. As for Hind Rostom, let's look at the top two search results

Oh no, I can't stand it!  Whether she knows it or not, Hind is engaging in appropriation!

Oh no! Look at that diaphanous skirt.  Hind is dancing in "Arab face!"  As Randa Jarrar says, "Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings." Or, wait a minute, maybe this isn't Arab face, because she is an Arab, and that makes it okay, right? And I can tell that she's an Arab because of her brown skin – oh, no, wait, she's actually quite fair-complected. But wait, I can tell that she's an Arab because of her Arabic-sounding name. Phew, there's a bullet dodged! No wonder it is so important to Randa Jarrar that crafty foreigners not start using Arabic-sounding stage names that would make it more difficult to distinguish who is entitled to wear what.  But, no, wait, she only objects to "names that make no sense in Arabic." So "Taheya Carioca," for instance, is not good?

Am I supposed to use a stage name that does make sense in Arabic?  Isn't that appropriation?

Even when I was primarily doing commercial club work for Middle-Eastern audiences, I never wanted to use a "dance name," mostly because it didn't feel right.   But Arab audiences NEVER liked me as "Autumn Ward." They thought it was deeply weird, they didn't know how to pronounce it, and I was even told that it was not respectful of the culture to not try to assimilate. Against my objections, my name got changed into all kinds of things, many of which made no sense:  Fatima (F-autumn-a), Atman, Ottoman (?), Asmahan, Harifa...

Goodnight Randa Jarrar.  You've wasted more than enough of my time already.