Beyoncé vs. Oum Kalthoum – a bellydance storm in a teacup?

A bust of Oum Kalthoum at the Cairo opera house.

A bust of Oum Kalthoum at the Cairo opera house.

There’s a video that has been doing the rounds in the bellydance community this week from an old Beyoncé show, where a short section of music from Oum Kalthoum’s “Enta Omri” is sampled during an exotic-dance inspired dance routine featuring rather a lot of bare bottoms. And lots of bellydancers are acting outraged by this, calling for boycotts of Beyoncé, slut-shaming her, demanding she apologise, etc.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t enjoy the video and found it quite upsetting because it was so far removed from the original meaning of the song, a song which I love and have performed to in the past. However, some of the angry reactions from dancers have been totally over the top and really not OK. Calling someone a slut or similar is never acceptable, and it should go without saying that racist remarks are never acceptable. Also, we non-Arab bellydancers are not the owners of Arab culture; nor are we the main injured parties if it is disrespected or misrepresented. I have seen people saying this video is “offensive to bellydancers”… Nope.

I’d totally understand if Egyptian/Arab people are upset by how this dance routine misrepresents their culture, and how inappropriately it references a beloved cultural icon. But bellydancers offended because it might somehow make people associate us with sex workers (which is unlikely, given that the video doesn’t reference bellydance in any way)? Nope. It’s not about us. And the attitude of disdain or disgust for sex workers in many parts of the bellydance community, revealed in the comments about this video, is also not OK – we should be working to stop the shaming or objectification of women in all walks of life, not just trying to protect ourselves from the consequences of misogynistic attitudes about ‘appropriate’ female behaviour by perpetuating them towards others. We can critique objectifying imagery without using misogynistic slurs.

Excellent advice for life.

Excellent advice for life.

As far as we dancers go – if we want to honour Oum Kalthoum, a better way of doing it, in my opinion, would be to introduce her music to our dance friends/audiences/students, and do it justice as best as we possibly can. Not get our knickers in a twist about a tasteless bit of sampling that won’t really have affected anyone’s awareness of Oum Kalthoum, let alone their awareness of Egyptian dance. It’s a bit jarring to see such “heads must roll!” outrage from the bellydance community, when this is a community where even dancing to Middle Eastern music at all sometimes feels like a minority pursuit, and advocating for it makes you the ‘bellydance police’ or a spoilsport ‘purist’ in the eyes of many.

A dear friend of mine danced in a show recently that was actually organised in honour of Oum Kalthoum, and she was the only dancer, apart from the featured guest performers and the organiser, who chose to dance to one of Oum Kalthoum’s songs. And in my own experience, many bellydancers are not at all familiar with Oum Kalthoum or her music. That, to me, is far more sad and upsetting than this Beyonce clip, even though the clip did give me a first reaction of ‘Aaargh WTF!’.

So if you want to see Oum Kalthoum’s music and legacy respected, start in your own dance community. Listen to her songs – the full recordings, not just versions rearranged for dance. Learn the words. Learn to appreciate the musical genius of the Lady herself and her musicians and composers. Perform to the best ‘for dance’ recordings you can find, and tell people what the song is and what it means. Play her music in your classes, if you teach, even if it’s just during the stretches. Encourage others to listen. Set an example. This music is incredibly powerful, and it deserves to be heard and enjoyed – but nobody benefits from an online collective tantrum about a video from a tour that happened several years ago.

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In Love With Music

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about music, and how we relate to it emotionally. Since becoming a bellydancer, I’ve gradually begun to listen to more and more Arabic music, until it has become almost the only thing I ever listen to. I love the complex rhythms, the melodies that can soar majestically before diving into subtle modulations of almost infinite detail, and the incredibly emotional and beautiful lyrics.

The Smiths in 1985.

The Smiths in 1985

But in the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to more Western music again, rediscovering the music that is, if I’m honest, my own cultural heritage. It’s an odd mixture – music that was the soundtrack of my life as I grew up, survived secondary school, and stumbled haphazardly through university, that comforted me when life was bleak and was there alongside me during the good times. Music has always been a very important part of my life.

What struck me, returning to these songs, was how many of them bring back a huge, tangled web of memories and feelings, of a place and time, weather, people I knew, places I lived, events, smells… Of course, some songs have far more of these associations than others. The most powerful are perhaps those I remember from childhood and that I still love now – ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ for me is hot summer days in Bristol and the smell of dry grass in the mid-1990s, whereas Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is both long car journeys with my family, listening to chart music on the radio, and later (when I actually started paying attention to the words) one of the anthems of my years at university in Oxford… Others are less deep and meaningful – the songs that I’d sing along to with my friends at the tops of our voices. Everything from the Smiths to Sean Paul to Madness finds its way into this category.

The point of all of this rambling is that at the moment, there are some levels on which Western music is meaningful to me and deeply affects me, which Arabic music rarely can. This is partly because of these memories of time and place and what songs have meant to me at different times in my life. Some Arabic songs are now beginning to have this effect, as my love for bellydance reaches its fifth year and this music has started to become as much a part of the fabric of my memories as David Bowie or the Sisters of Mercy.

But it’s also because of the language barrier. I don’t speak Arabic beyond a very basic level at the moment (“Good morning! My name is Rachael! Please may I have some falafel?”), although I’ve picked up a fair bit of ‘dancer’s Arabic’, phrases that are fairly useless in normal conversation, but turn up all the time in love songs… With an Umm Kulthum song, I need to spend hours poring over translations and transliterations, following along with the lyrics as I listen to the song, before I can begin to appreciate the meaning. And even so, I’ll be missing metaphors and cultural references. When I listen to a Western song that I love, appreciating it is effortless, because not only do I understand the lyrics immediately, but I can also pick up on layers of meaning that aren’t apparent in a literal reading, without having to study the song for days.

Taking all of this into account, I can see why some dancers feel tempted to give up on Arabic music, and dance to their favourite Western songs instead. It is easy to think, in this situation, that fully understanding and appreciating Arabic music as a non-Arab dancer is a hopeless cause, that we’ll never enjoy it as natives do, and that we might as well just do our own version of bellydance reflecting our own cultural heritage. But those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I don’t agree with this line of reasoning!

Umm Kalthum, Egyptian singer

Umm Kalthum, Egyptian singer

Let’s first look at the type of response to music that I began this post by talking about. That mixture of memory, emotion and nostalgia that we feel listening to a song that we’ve known and loved for a long time. These feelings are uniquely personal and sometimes quite idiosyncratic, depending as they do on the events in your own life. So, I’ll never feel the same way about Umm Kalthum or Abdel Halim as someone who grew up in Cairo. But the thing is, no two Egyptians will feel exactly the same way about these songs either. Everyone relates to them in their own way, that comes from where that music has fitted in to their own unique lives. The question for us as Western dancers is then simply, do we have that kind of relationship with this music at all? The kind where hearing even the first few notes takes us back to past moments of joy or sadness? We may not to begin with, but after years of immersion in the music, we all develop our own relationships with it, and our own deep feelings about it. And in this context, our feelings are as valid as anybody else’s – what matters is that we have them at all.

Looking more deeply at this, I do think it’s true that the music we hear in our childhoods is inevitably what gets etched most deeply into our subconscious minds. The songs we hear as children are the ones we’ll still be singing when we’re ancient and have forgotten everything else. But it’s possible to fall in love with new music from our own culture later in life, and that love is just as valid, if not more so since it’s music we’ve chosen rather than being passively exposed to. For example I didn’t discover the Smiths until I was at university – but metaphorically speaking, Morrissey and I have been through a lot together… Likewise, I don’t see that it’s any less valid to discover music from another culture as an adult.

The language barrier is harder to overcome. A song may have all kinds of associations for me, but to fully enjoy it, I need to know the meanings that the writer and the singer (usually different people in Arabic music, because a great poet isn’t necessarily also a great singer) were trying to express, as well as my own feelings that colour my perception of the piece. And without speaking the language fluently, this is hard work.

Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer

Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer

But it’s not impossible. You just need to spend some quality time with the song, a transliteration of the lyrics (that is, the lyrics in Arabic written in latin script so that you can read it and follow along), and a good line-by-line translation. Shira’s website is an excellent place to find these, and if you can’t find a translation online, there are also many people out there who will do song translations for you for a small fee. After listening to the song whilst following along with the lyrics enough times, you’ll begin to know which lines in the song correspond to which meanings, and be able to start feeling the meaning and intention behind the singer’s words. This is also the point where the ‘dancer’s Arabic’ vocabulary comes in handy, providing ‘signposts’ in the lyrics where you can recognise words which remind you which part is which.

There are a small number of songs where I’ve now done this so often that I can follow most of the lyrics without referring to a translation, and experience the emotional impact of the song much more fully. It’s a lot of effort, but I feel it’s worth it to really get to know this incredible music. I do still feel that I’m missing something though. This is why I’ve decided to start taking Arabic classes this year – it’ll be a long time before I’m fluent enough to be able to understand a song as I hear it, but I hope that that day will eventually come. In the mean time, I’m enjoying learning to write in a new and beautiful script, and finding out about a completely unfamiliar system of grammar. However, I appreciate that learning a new language isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to be able to enjoy Arabic music.

All of this may seem like I’m over-thinking the whole thing. And maybe I am. Because when I listen to a live Arabic band (sadly not as common an occurrence as I’d like), it doesn’t matter one bit if I don’t know all the songs or don’t understand the words. The sheer beauty and passion of the music still carries me away and sends shivers down my spine. And really, on some level, that’s all that matters.