Circling back to the Middle East. Part 1.

Today I went to see Journey to Mecca, a dramatization of the life of Ibn Battuta, a 14th century traveler from Morocco who journeyed all the way to China and back again.  This film, presented in the ever impressive IMAX format, reminded me so much of why I started belly dancing in the first place.

As a child, I was always interested in anything Middle Eastern, mostly in a fantasy context.  The Arabian Dance in The Nutcracker was always my favorite part of that ballet.  I constantly asked my mother to play her worn out copy of Scheherezade on the record player in the living room.  I would pretend that the oriental rugs in our house were magic flying carpets.  The Tales of 1001 Nights were my favorite fairy tales.

In 5th grade, I learned very basic elements of Middle Eastern geography.  Our teacher told us about Iraq and the basics about the Gulf War.  I never quite understood why the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia was always a dotted line on maps, but I figured I would learn someday.  I didn’t understand much about Israel and the Palestinian territories, but I had an idea that it was contested.

It wasn’t until 7th grade that I really had any idea about the Middle East, its people, arts, music, or history.  And I stumbled into my future through something quite unexpected.

In 1991 I saw a trailer for Disney’s newest movie, Aladdin. I remember being so excited.  The art captured my imagination, and I got my hands on anything I could about the film.  I read up on the making of the movie, on the research the artists did on Islamic art to give the movie its look.  When I learned about Islamic art, I started to look further into the culture.  I remember dragging my parents to the Freer and Sackler Museums in Washington, DC, during our annual summer visit to the East Coast, because I wanted to see an exhibit there of illuminated Qur’ans.  I still have the poster I bought in the gift shop that day.  What started as a childhood fancy started becoming something near and dear to my heart.

My obsession with the Middle East carried on through high school.  I bought Passion: Sources during my Freshman year of high school, which first exposed me to the music of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.  I listened to that CD over and over and over again, letting the melodies and rhythms feed my imagination.  It’s still one of my favorite recordings.  I continued researching what I could about Islamic art and other aspects of the Middle East.  During my senior year, I took beginner Arabic classes through the local parks and recreation department.

When I entered college, I discovered that my university had one of the oldest and established Near Eastern Studies departments in the United States.  With the department’s small student numbers and reputable professors, I was hooked.  Early on, I decided to major in Near Eastern Studies (before 9/11, i.e. before it was popular).  I took Arabic language classes every semester (but my brain has a hard time with languages, and I don’t remember as much as wish I did!). Even my University’s Arab Society considered me a bit of an honorary member, even though I am not at all Arab (and if I am Semitic at all, I’m part Sephardic Jew). When my friend (who also majored in Near Eastern Studies – we were the only ones in our graduating class who did) and I saw that the university gym offered belly dance classes, we decided to sign up.  Hey, it’s Middle Eastern and related to our studies!  Why not?  I took my first belly dance classes (with the amazing Kim Leary) in January 2000… and I was completely hooked.  I loved the music, the movements, the expression, and it was one more thing to bring me closer to this culture to which I have always been so drawn.  For my next four years or so of studying belly dance, I stuck very much to being a Middle Eastern dancer, dabbling in everything I could: Saaidi, Turkish Oryantal, Turkish Romany, Egyptian Oriental, Khaliji, Modern Egyptian, and American Cabaret.

So… you might be wondering what happened after that… well.  That’s a tale for the next blog entry.


Comments: 4

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I was a couple years behind you in college, and I remember well seeing you dance. I didn’t realize that was your first exposure to belly dance! I took Kim’s beginner class back then too (she is fabulous, isn’t she?), but have only recently gotten back into belly dance. And I’m still following you! It’s so inspiring to see how far you’ve come from Raks O. I can’t wait to hear more details of your journey.




Nice topic, Abby. After years of studying Anglo-Arab relations, I concluded there are 2 basic orientations: Orientalist and Arabist. The Orientalist being one who embraces the fantasy of Arabian exotica, and courts the mystery of Arab “otherness.” While the Arabist immerses herself in Arab culture, to the extent that she becomes “one” with the Arab perspective in a state of seamlessness. Lawrence of Arabia is one such example of an Arabist, he lived as Arab. xo~




Excellent story! My fascination with the Middle East probably started as a child when I first saw “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” on TV. I became immersed in Arabian Nights stories and later explored Sufism and of course delved into the music when I joined the SCA in the early 90s. It’s a passion that has not abated at all!




It was wonderful to read your story. I remember that your website mentions that you majored in Near Eastern studies and it’s great to hear more about it.



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