Thursday, November 15, 2012

Egypt and the Middle East Today

(Nov 2012 article in Zaghareet Magazine discussing my struggle to keep up with the changing dynamic in the Middle East and what the changes mean to me as a dancer.)

So, I had begun writing this article back in July.   I wanted to document my own struggle to understand the foreign culture I choose to represent in my dancing, in the hopes that it might assist someone else’s journey for understanding or spark a desire for others to jump into the fray.  I found myself struggling to keep up with the rapid changes happening all across the Middle East and how these political and social changes affect the culture. 
As Middle Eastern dancers, we are representatives of the culture we choose to portray through our dance and therefore must be knowledgeable about that culture.  How else can we answer questions and explain our artistic choices if we don’t fundamentally understand what we’re portraying or what sources we’re drawing our inspiration from?  Ideally, we should strive to be experts. 

Granted, to be a Middle Eastern dancer, one doesn’t need to be a high level expert on current political policy, that’s just my own obsession.  But, a firm understanding of the history and origin of the dance and the dance region you draw inspiration from is absolutely required.
My particular dance interests lie with American cabaret (easy- that one I understand) and Egyptian oriental and folkloric dance styles (specifically Saidi and Ghawazee).  That being said, when I perform Egyptian styles, I’m relaying a representation of Egyptian culture to my audience. 

I had hoped to narrow in on current Egyptian culture after exploring broad Middle Eastern dynamics.
But, to be an expert on the complex culture of Egypt and its ever changing climate today, is a tall order not easily filled by an Appalachian girl, born and raised in West Virginia with British and Irish ancestry.  I have no leg up on this question, and after the events of September 11, 2012 in which Egyptian demonstrators scaled the US Embassy in Cairo to tear down the American flag in protest of a film they say insults the prophet Mohammad, I scrapped the entire article I had worked on.  I was back to ground zero, as it were, in trying to understand today’s Egyptian and Middle Eastern dynamics.

I was left with a burning eagerness to answer how I, as an American choosing to perform dances based in a culture that is not my own and is (in many respects) not currently approving of American ideals, am viewed (by Egyptians).  My confusion changed my question from what is the current culture to how does that culture view me?
Being the co-producer of a film production company also left me with the brain splitting question of freedom of speech versus personal responsibility for one’s actions and words.  One film had sparked protest and violence across the Muslim world.  Yet, how could the creators of the film not have realized what the reaction to that work would be?  Certainly, they had been inciting reaction just as sure as various groups in the Muslim world had used and steered the protests to their own ends. 

Speech should be protected, yes, but humans should not abuse that liberty in order to inflict pain on others.  Isn’t purposeful incitement of pain and stereotyping equivalent to a hate crime?  Can’t we all just get along?  The age-old question.  For me, it comes back to personal responsibility.  As a filmmaker/writer/dancer (insert designation here) with freedom of expression, it’s my duty to exercise that freedom with great care and understand exactly what I reference and what effect I’m likely to have on my audience.
I no longer have any illusion that I can ever cultivate more than a layman’s grasp of the current Middle East.  The political and cultural changes occurring across the Middle East will continue to evolve and shape the landscape both there and globally for years to come.  The forces eliciting this change are varied and complex.  Experienced scholars are working hard to keep up.

Which leaves me to believe the best I can do is become an expert at the history and origins of the dance and remain an informed student of the current cultural climate.
What do Egyptians think of an American performing Egyptian dance?  As varied as the inhabitants of Egypt are in their backgrounds and views, I can’t know the answer to this generically wide question any more than I could answer what an American thinks about an American performing belly dance.  It depends on who you ask and where you are. 

With neither of my questions answered, I’ve come to the determination that my job as a responsible dancer is to understand the references I make in my performances and execute them with great care and upmost respect.  That’s all I can do.  How each audience member interprets the performance after the fact is their job.  Just like with film, once it’s distributed into the marketplace, the filmmaker’s careful crafting of the story is over and it’s for the viewer to interpret.  If only every filmmaker/dancer (insert your choice here) would execute with the same care. 
In my efforts to master the history of the dance, I’ve had the pleasure of studying with Sahra Saeeda in her Journey Through Egypt 1 and 2 classes.  I highly recommend them.  Sahra will be the first person to explain the dynamics of Egypt are “complicated”.  But, she’s able to unfold the dance’s evolution in a way any student can understand.  And, in her dedication to further dance research, she continues to plan trips to Egypt for Journey Through Egypt 3 and 4, Egypt as classroom expeditions.  She’s my hero for continuing on even though many, myself included, are scared to travel to Cairo at this time.

I understand not everyone is as obsessed with following current political events in the Middle East as I am, but for those with a deeper fascination and driving urge to try and comprehend the dynamics, the following are some of my favorite finds so far.  May your journey lead you to a new understanding and excite further exploration. 
1/2 Revolution, a documentary that follows a group of friends living in Cairo during the initial 11 days of the Egyptian Revolution and suggests more revolution is yet to come.  Co-directed by Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim, it’s available through Focus Features.

Frontline:  Revolution in Cairo, available on NetFlix, is a documentary that goes inside the “April 6th” youth movement group that sparked revolution on the streets. 
The Arabs by David Lamb is a very readable study of the Arab people that works to destroy common stereotypes.

Both Holy War, INC and The Longest War by Peter L. Bergen document the life of Osama Bin Laden.  While not dance related at all, they provide some fascinating insight on the rise of extremist groups in the Middle East and around the world. 


Al-‘Anqa is also known as Cindy Marie Martin. She double majored in Broadcasting/Journalism and Theatre at Concord University. More on her exploits can be found at