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Why I Belly Dance

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My father's North African experience

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When I was five years old, because there were more children on our block than on any other block in the city, a Chicago newspaper published a list of all our names. My father said that this meant we were famous. It also meant that ours was the poorest neighborhood in Chicago. I didn't know, or mind, because I had a lovely garden to play in (my Grandmother's yard), with a sandbox at the back. This was right next to the shed where my father repaired televisions while listening to his Ham radio. THAT'S how I got into belly dance! He often listened to music coming from North Africa, a place he learned to love while in the U.S. Army during World War II. This is where I first heard that interesting music that sounded nothing like the country music my father usually listened to (like Hank Williams). He would give me old T.V. tubes to use as minarets on my sand castles, and tell me stories about Africa: how the Army had taken up headquarters in a mosque (though this seems dubious...but the pictures show a beautiful building indeed); how their crazy pet monkey, Jocko, had committed suicide by drinking all the medicine in the infirmary (my first anti-drug story); and how, one day, he had gone for a walk through the Casbah and bargained for a bunch of flashy jewelry which he sent home to his sisters. This piqued my interest.
"Who has the jewelry now, Daddy?"
"Nobody. It disappeared, it got lost in the mail..."
I guess I have been looking for that jewelry ever since. When he got old and I helped him clean his house, he gave me a crumpled old bag containing hundreds of postcards. He had collected them in all 19 countries he traveled through, but the majority of them were from North Africa. I'll show you a few of them here, along with the cover and an interesting quote from the Army's "Pocket Guide to Tunisia":

"When Moslem men want the company of women at a party, they engage a troupe of professional dancing girls. These professionals have a unique social position, not as low as that of the prostitute, but still somewhat degraded. They are said to be more interesting company than the Moslem wife because they get around a great deal and know all the answers. They dance for the men, not with them. Men have dances of their own, but when a Moslem gentleman is seen dancing it is usually a sign that he is a bit plastered."

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I started dancing a few years ago at our community college. At first I thought the moves very difficult, and the costumes far too expensive. Then one day, a Middle Eastern girl in my class announced that her family was having a yard sale. Thats where I found my first batch of jewelry, some great striped scarves that I turned into a skirt, and several little leather camels. There have been many yard sales since then. My husband has been finding old belly dance records for me in second hand stores (the ones with those scandalous record jackets), and transferring them to tapes, which I play in my car. During one of my fathers last trips to the doctor, in the midst of his descent into senility, he could still tell the difference between Turkish and Egyptian music. You don't really have to travel abroad to wonder at the intricacies of another culture. It can fall right into your hands, even if you live in the poorest neighborhood.

"In many Islamic countries, women wear a veil. The veil was already common before Islam.... It was not only meant to protect women from the sun, but also to raise the women of the upper social classes above those of the lower classes. The veil made them invisible; they could see without being seen. It enveloped them, lent them an aura of mystery, inviobility,and dignity. It conveyed their privelege over the lower classes, who could, as it were, be seen by everyone."
---from: "Grandmother's Secrets", by Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi.

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"This (Ouled Nail)costume consisted of embroidered, smock-like dresses worn one on top of the other, with open, bell-like sleeves either left hanging or gathered in at the wrist. Over these dresses was worn a haik, a length of woolen or cotton cloth, draped around the body and secured at the shoulder with a bezima, an out size clasp which sometimes had chains and talismans to ward off evil spirits attached to it.... these bezimas were often the size of pancake-turners.... The women's jewelry covered them like chainmail and, to protect themselves from thieves, they wore huge bracelets, 'really muderous-looking objects' with studs and spikes an inch or two long projecting from them. The women wore their waist-length hair braided with wool and twined round their ears, where it was held in place with strips of material. Some of them wore tiaras inlaid with coral, turquoise and enamel, and earrings so large they had to be hung on ribbons of fabric and tied over the head."
---from: "Serpent of the Nile", by Wendy Buonaventura.