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.