Out of the Ashes

Out of the Ashes

Oriental Dance Renaissance in Lebanon

by Edwina Nearing

In 1988, I bought a videotape purported to be of a New Year’s Eve party in Beirut, on the assurance that it included a Lebanese dancer. The idea was to compare the Lebanese style of danse orientale with its counterparts in Egypt and Turkey; the gamble was that I would see something better, or at least more interesting, than the brief glimpses I’d gotten of Oriental dance in Lebanese movies from the 1970’s. Even as a student in Beirut in the early 70’s, I had somehow failed to see any dancers of local origin. Oriental dance was very popular in Beirut at that time, and according to the press there were several Lebanese dancers who had name recognition — Qutquta, Nabila Abaza, ‘Abir, Zaynat Raf‘at, Lolita — but for major affairs the Lebanese seemed to prefer to bring in dancers like Nagwa Fu‘ad and Nahid Sabri from Egypt. Then, in the mid-70’s, Oriental dance in Lebanon disappeared in the flames of a multisided war which smoulders and flares to this day.

So my expectations of a 1988 New Year’s Eve Party in Lebanon were probably colored by images from Mrs. Miniver and evening news footage of tanks rolling through the rubble-filled streets of Beirut. What I actually saw, however, was a huge, comfortably appointed hall full of happy, relaxed couples and groups, among whom the products of Dior and Cartier were well represented, not at all reticent in showing their appreciation of the featured Oriental dancer, one Howayda Hashem. The evening news had not prepared me for this aspect of life in war-torn Beirut, and old Lebanese movies had certainly not prepared me for Howayda Hashem. Ms. Hashem, a slender, striking young woman who bore a passing resemblance to Brooke Shields (I’m nearsighted), put more energy into the lengthy shimmy dance that comprised most of her show than all the Lebanese dancers in all the Lebanese films I had ever seen put together. Her music was strong and upbeat, including popular Lebanese songs with the kind of driving rhythms and lush melodies that stick in the listener’s mind long after the show is over. Her costumes were like nothing in Egypt or Turkey: richly textured beadwork, layers of intricate fringe in different lengths, each strand of fringe made up of two or three different sizes of beads in varying shades of the costume’s basic color; heavily beaded shoulder epaulettes; more layers of fringe covering the hips and upper thighs, virtually burying a whispy microskirt. She wore high heels, and a jewelled fillet bound back her dark, frizzy hair. She was totally professional, all aspects of the show bore witness to high production values, and the audience was clearly accustomed to entertainment of this calibre.

Several years have passed since I last saw this videotape, and at this distance in time and space I cannot swear to the accuracy of every detail in the above description. At any rate, the point is not so much to document a single dance performance as to demonstrate that the Lebanese dance scene is back — and it’s bigger than ever, according to the Lebanese entertainment magazines and videotapes I’ve seen since 1988. Although Lebanese dancers are eagerly sought for contracts with the top hotels of Damascus and the Arabian Gulf, the center is unquestionably Beirut; the Beirut audience is sophisticated, wealthy, and appreciative, and seemingly unaffected by the ubiquitous Islamic fundamentalists’ antagonism to the arts that is strangling Oriental dance in Egypt and elsewhere. This is probably due not only to the historically high level of education and income in north and central Lebanon, but also to the fact that many Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim, spent the worst of the war years outside the country in Europe, South America and the United States, where they encountered a growing Western Oriental dance scene imbued with notions of dance as art and relatively unmuddied by issues of prostitution and immorality. Egypt’s magazines currently portray that country’s few remaining dance stars in grainy black and white photos from the shoulders up; Lebanon puts her dancers on the cover, full length, in living color.

Narriman 'Aboud, dubbed "Mermaid of the Danse Orientale" by the Lebanese press.

And who are these dancers? Samarra (called Sayyidat al-Raqs al-Sharqi — “Mistress of the Danse Orientale” — by Lebanon’s Al-Shabaka magazine), Howayda Hashem, Ranin (of “Raqsat Ranin”/Setrak Sarkissian fame, a pale blonde dubbed “Champagne of the Dance”), Narriman ‘Aboud (“Mermaid of the Dance,” reportedly a relative of Ms. Hashem), Dani Bustrus, Nabila Mitwali, Boushra, and others who as yet have not gotten much press coverage, but some of whom videotapes reveal to be as good or better than most of their more famous colleagues (apparently “politics” plays its role in Lebanon’s Oriental dance scene just as it does in the West’s). But first and foremost there is Amani, enthroned far above the reach of mere “politics,” a technician on the level of Mona Sa‘id with the grace and presence of Samia Gamal, and for several years, though still in her twenties, the acknowledged superstar of Lebanese dance. Youth is something most Lebanese dancers have in common, as well as energy, urbanity, carefully cultivated physical fitness and chic, and an apparent desire to outdo one another in imaginative and distinctive costuming. Also, interestingly, most of these dancers seem to be Christian (“The Christian community is more progressive,” Lebanese dancer Reem Al-Khouri explained to me in an interview in Damascus last year); according to press reports, Amani was born Angela ‘Ayoub, Ranin Katia Jibara, and Narriman ‘Aboud’s given name is Mary. Of the top dancers, perhaps only Samarra, an Iraqi who came to Lebanon as a refugee in the mid-1980’s, is a Muslim.

Amani’s dance style, which somewhat resembles that of Mona Sa‘id, seems basically Egyptian but without any obviously Egyptian mannerisms or clichés; Samarra’s undulations, large pelvic movements and extreme backbends seem more typical of old Turkish Oriental dance. Most Lebanese dancers, however, exhibit a style which is recognizably Lebanese, a style which is probably equally influenced by Egyptian and Turkish styles blended seemlessly and eschewing most of the more idiosyncratic elements of the Egyptian and Turkish styles. It would be rather strange if this were not so, as Lebanon lies athwart the main invasion route between Egypt and Turkey, and both of these states have occupied Lebanon repeatedly from pharaonic times up through World War I. There is much in Lebanese Oriental dance that is reminiscent of American Oriental dance in the 1960’s, perhaps because most Middle Eastern dancers in the States at that time were Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian (Damascus being both physically and culturally close to Beirut), so Americans learning Oriental dance were subject to the same mixing and leveling influences that shaped the Lebanese style of Oriental dance, as well as the Syro-Lebanese style itself. There may also be a “Nawari” substrate to Lebanese dance (using the term “Nawari” as it is used in Lebanon, rather than its proper meaning of “a major Middle Eastern Gypsy group”), but that is a question needing further research.

At this point, we must study Lebanon’s Oriental dance renaissance at a distance, for as of a few months ago, at least, it was still very difficult for non-Arabs to get a visa to Lebanon. The cost is also prohibitive for most — according to Reem Al -Khayyam and others with whom I have spoken, the price of a show with one Oriental dancer at one of the better clubs is well over $100. However, complete shows with top Lebanese dancers have become readily available on videotape in the West in the last couple of years and, as mentioned above, Lebanese dancers can also sometimes be seen performing outside of the country, most often in Damascus or the Arabian Gulf and, we may hope, at liberal Arab haflas in the United States in the near future.

Oriental dance may be languishing in Egypt, but as its phenomenal rise in Lebanon in recent years demonstrates, you can’t keep a good dance down!

Orientalist/journalist Edwina Nearing majored in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the American University of Beirut, and has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East since 1968. She was Middle Eastern Affairs Editor for Habibi in the mid-1970’s, writing under the name “Qamar El-Mulouk.” Her book-length series, “The Mystery of the Ghawazi,” is an important contribution to the body of knowledge on Middle Eastern dance. nasruddinjoha@yahoo.com

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