Monthly Archives: March 2014

Why I can’t stand racist belly dancers

Recently I read a very interesting piece on Salon.com. Interesting is one of those words that people like to use when they’re trying to avoid saying something was bad, as in the Chinese curse that wishes you to live an interesting life.

The piece was an article by American-Arab author Randa Jarrar and provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand White belly dancers”. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing title, so I started to read.

I’ve been learning belly dance for almost 10 years now. I took it up initially while still living in London as a hobby and a dance form that didn’t rely on you having a partner. I kept up the momentum when I moved to Greece. I was half Indian, half Pakistani, learning belly dance in Greece from an American teacher.

Having moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language, dance was my currency. I relished the weekly lessons where I could get together with like-minded women and unwind, listening to the girl talk until my language skills were up to scratch.

Belly dancers and their students defend their art fiercely. I have found, without exception, belly dancers to be the friendliest, funniest, most open and most inviting women I have ever met. They do not take kindly to the trivialising of their art. I remember one show when I was talking to a fellow student, a girl I had just met and she looked at me with a wounded expression. “Please,” she said “don’t call it belly dance. It’s raqs sharqi.”

Belly dance. Raqs Sharqi. The dance of the East. However you call it, it is a dance form that has transcended many cultures and has its origins deep in the mists of time as a fertility dance. The roots of belly dance can be traced around the Mediterranean and into Africa. Each country has its own style.

Even Greece has a local style of belly dance. What all styles have in common is that this is a dance by women, for women. It was never danced in the company of men. Belly dance entered the male world only when Western explorers reached the East and wanted to see this mysterious dance. Enterprising young dancers began charging them for the privilege, and the myth of the morally loose, seductive belly dancer was born.

How sick are we all in the belly dance community of seeing bored, pretty little things in nice costumes vibrate across a stage and call it belly dance. The cabaret style of belly dance costume, the bra and belt, are Hollywood inventions, and as the Western influence encroached on an ancient tradition, many were horrified.

Armen Ohanian, famed belly dancer from the early 1900s, describes a scene in her autobiography:

“In Cairo one evening I saw, with sick, incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a horrible bestiality. It was our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood. It represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and joy with which a new soul is brought into the world… But the spirit of the West had touched this holy dance and it had become the hoochie koochie, the danse du ventre, the belly dance. I heard the lean Europeans chuckling. I even saw lascivious smiles upon the lips of Asiatics, and I fled.”

When I see talentless belly dancers, women who are lured more by the fancy costumes than what lies at the heart of the dance, it drives me mad too. But Randa Jarrar is misguided in claiming that belly dance belongs solely to the Arab world, that any representation beyond these lines is a form of appropriation.

With its roots placed so deeply in femininity, womanhood, motherhood and birth, belly dance is a dance that belongs to all women. Belly dance is encompassing and inclusive — where else will your dance teacher take you aside and gently tell you to try and gain some more weight if you want to execute the moves correctly?

Cultural exchange is part of the human experience. It is to be celebrated, not resented, when people from other cultures express an interest in our own. To suggest otherwise is nothing short of racism.

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Driving in Greece

It’s all Greek to me

Before moving to Greece, the riskiest thing I had done was to eat a pot of yoghurt that was over a week past its expiration date. If I wanted an adrenaline rush, I had only to wait for a bus on my own in the wee hours of the London morning, watching every shadow and rattling garbage can for the hidden serial killers.

My severely underworked adrenal glands got a new lease of life on experiencing what it was like to drive here. Driving, such an innocuous task in the UK, becomes in Greece the motoring equivalent of throwing yourself off Niagra Falls in a barrel.

Maybe that’s a poor analogy. Imagine if you will the entire waterfall teeming with such falling barrels, the occupants of each vessel screaming at you angrily to get out of the way while talking on a mobile phone with one hand, drinking coffee with the other and steering their barrel into the abyss with a knee or an elbow.

If I want an adrenaline rush in Athens, I don’t need extreme sports. I need only to slip behind the wheel of my battered little Fiat Seicento and let the games begin.

It will probably explain a lot to anyone who has lived the agony and ecstasy of driving in Athens that almost everyone they see driving alongside them has bought their driver’s license rather than passing the test fair and square. Greek friends would be baffled when I would tell them that it took me three tries to pass my driving test in the UK. “Three tries?” they would say. “You took the test three times? Why didn’t you just bribe the examiner the first time round?”

When my beleaguered husband tried to take me driving in Athens after I had passed my British driving test, it was a minefield of terror and near-misses. “When you see the Audi TT coming up from the left, change lanes.” he would instruct, with my response, mid-traffic and in a sweaty-palmed panic, going something like “What do you mean Audi TT! I don’t understand! Tell me shapes and colours! Tell me the little blue car, or the red car with the dent in the back!”

In the end after a few precarious voyages, my husband declared that I knew nothing and was too unsafe for the roads of Athens. I would never survive. I wanted to laugh. My driving was too unsafe? What about the roughly 80 per cent of drivers alongside me who hadn’t actually passed a driving test?

“They taught you nothing in the UK,” he repeated. “They just taught you how to pass the test. You don’t know how to park in Athens and you react too slowly to the other drivers. You might as well be invisible. They may have bought their licenses, but they are street wise drivers. You’re not.”

He was right. Parking spaces in Athens are like gold dust. A few years ago, the authorities came up with a fabulous plan to ease the city’s downtown congestion and reduce the pollution that was starting to impact the beautiful archeological treasures.

They declared that on even-dated days, cars with an even number as the final digit on their number plates could enter the centre, and likewise for odd-dated dates and number plates with penalty fines in place. It seemed like a brilliant plan to cut the centre’s traffic by around 50 per cent, until hordes of Athenians went out and bought a second car so that they had one even and one odd-number plated car.

With parking space being so hard to find, the ability to shoe-horn your car into a parking space is a survival skill in the urban jungle. So I was packed off with a driver instructor to learn the wise ways of driving in Athens.

Here is what you need to know.

  • You need to register the speed limit and at least double it.
  • Be prepared with a list of insults for fellow drivers — don’t be afraid to get personal. Mothers and wives of drivers are particular targets of insult, and μαλακα is used liberally. For example, someone has just swept past in front of you where there is a stop sign. You may respond as so:  “Malaka! Can’t you see the malakismeno stop sign? Go f*uck yourself and the mother that gave birth to you can go get f*cked too! MALAKA!” Translation: “Excuse me sir, I believe you should have stopped at that stop sign. Kindly, do not make such an infringement again as it is dangerous to others. Good day.” Insults to granny are strictly off bounds.
  • Act like yours is the only car on the road and then act completely surprised and outraged that other drivers even exist.
  • The only people immune to this road rage are the over 80s, of which there is an alarming number of on the streets of Athens.

Last and not least, missing wing mirrors, loose hub caps, flat tires and temperamental batteries are all fine to drive with. But do not even think of driving if your horn doesn’t work.

It may sound like driving in Athens is a daily nightmare but it does have its perks. For one thing, it’s a great way to let out some stress and is a lot more inexpensive than therapy. And once you can drive here, you really can drive anywhere. In a gladiator, go-kart style, end of the world NASCAR drive-off, the Greeks would always win.

Published in part in the Khaleej Times on 28 Feb 2014

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Halcyon Days

It’s Valentine ’s Day, that day of the year that allegedly strikes terror into the heart of singles and couples. No sooner has Christmas wound to a close than shop fronts begin hanging out the glittery red hearts and businesses press us to declare our affections measured out once more in notes and coins.

This is the day that unites chocolate lovers and haters alike, the former suddenly finding their favourite treat has magically tripled in price overnight while the latter have to suffer and retch at the sight and smell of the stuff all around them.

But really, what sort of person doesn’t like chocolate? That’s like saying you don’t find David Attenborough’s voice thoroughly comforting and soothing. It’s a scientific impossibility. But God help you if you have a flower allergy. Best stay indoors and order pizza.

In Greece, Valentine’s Day does not spark the gushing, materialistic love fest observed in other places (here’s looking at you, UK). That’s not to say it’s completely ignored. There has been rolling coverage on the television about the build-up to the day and I remember one year watching with great amusement a news slot where a reporter was interviewing a florist.

This florist was throwing a very special promotion for Valentine’s Day. He was offering a two-for-the price-of-one deal on bouquets and said to the camera, without a hint of irony, that his target market was cheating husbands who could give one to the wife and one to the mistress, without raising any suspicion. I could bore you with the tale of how I met my husband when I came to volunteer at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. I could tell you all about how seeing the Olympic rings at the Sochi opening ceremony made me teary-eyed, how I still cry when I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, as if watching my wedding video (which doesn’t exist, in case you’re wondering).

I am a walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of volunteering. Giving up 10 days of my time landed me the love of my life and two children. I could tell you all that, but I would much rather tell you a story.

This is quite a pleasant time of year in Athens, not just because the city is not completely festooned with red hearts. We are currently enjoying the little bursts of glory that are woven through the Greek winter like a thin gold filament. We get a normal winter here, to be sure, but in between are dispersed some days so clear and glorious, it’s as if little bits of late spring escaped and got bundled up with winter. These days are called alkionides, halcyon days for the non-Greeks among you, and as with everything else here, there is a myth to go with it.

In the myth, Alkion is the wife of Ceyx and daughter of Aeolus. One day, her husband went on a fishing trip. Alkion tried in vain to stop him, having had a bad feeling about the trip, but Ceyx went and his ship was sunk while a distraught Alkion watched it happen from afar. Unable to bear the thought of life without her beloved, in her despair she threw herself from a cliff and died.

The immortals, taking a rare break from messing with the lives of mortal, training liver-eating eagles and dreaming up the kind of mythological monsters that can only be the result of inhaling too much of that thin air atop Mount Olympus, felt so sorry for the two lovers that they brought them back to life, transformed as kingfishers. Since kingfishers nest during January, Zeus ordered that a period of unseasonably warm and sunny days be spread across the early part of the year in order for the kingfishers to successfully hatch their young. He could have just not let Ceyx drown I suppose, but then we would be stuck with the kind of weather the rest of Europe has to suffer through at this time of year.

This article appeared in the Khaleej Times on 14 February 2014

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