Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Something to talk about...

So obviously my first blog was inspired by something i am very passionate about. I feel infinitely motivated to seeing my dream of equality within the realm of day time TV come to fruition. I sometimes fall asleep with the chant, "Ramadan on Martha!" over and over in my head. With your help, my chances are even greater.

But that's not to say that my blog posts will be solely religious, political, or a combination of both (it's often hard to separate both sects of discourse). Instead, what i offer at Mssmais place is a little of everything. Many times I hear from my friends after I've regaled a story that I should write all my anecdotes down--stuff that I experience is often so unique, outrageous, hilarious, wacky, and sometimes just plain odd, that I'm told one could not "make that s*** up." The expression on my husbands face while I'm telling him about my day is often one of amusement and a hint of disbelief, and is usually followed by a shaking of his head, while muttering the words "crazy baby.." Then when my typical annoyance, frustration, anger, and whatever cocktail of all three, dissipates after my divulgence to his nonjudgmental ears, we usually laugh hysterically. 

So here, at Mssmais place, I thought I could share these stories with you as they come up. And maybe a few recipes that (ladies, listen up!) will guarantee that the trash is taken out without the second, or third, or fourth, request. Maybe even without a single request. They're that good. 

I hope you'll keep visiting me here, and that you'll find yourself chuckling as you read. I also hope I'll inspire you to think out loud and to act out loud. If something I write agrees with you, join me in saying so. If not, by all means, I want to hear it too. 

So, in short, expect the unexpected at Mssmais place! 

Let me begin with a story about something that came up this weekend. I love every opportunity to share my culture with anyone and everyone who is curious and willing to learn something new. Having just moved to a new city about 6 months ago, I have been lucky to meet some really nice people, and I have made great new friendships with some amazing women. I came up with the idea to host what I called a belly dance party, but to be even more specific, it'll hopefully be a cultural night full of Arabic music, some dance, and some Arabic food. I thought it would be a great way to introduce aspects of my culture that are not typically advertised in our media culture here in the US. Believe it or not, Arab families are not all concocting the next jihadist movement, or planning how to overtake the US government with sharia law (that'll be a topic for another blog!), but actually enjoy life with good food, good music, and great friends. My wonderful friends of course are open and excited for the girls night at my house. 

Well, I brought this up to a friend of mine over the weekend. She lives in New York, and is herself an amazing hostess. Her parties are legendary, everyone looks forward to her parties because she cooks incredible Arabic food, has a beautiful, spacious home, and is a funny, attentive, and generous hostess. I brought up my party idea to her excitedly, thinking she'd love the idea of me introducing my culture to my friends. 

Instead, to my surprise, she was 100% against it. She said that because belly dance has a stigma of bearing a likeness to stripping, and is associated with loose, promiscuous women, to host such a party in my home where I'm introducing and participating in such dance is unacceptable for an educated, successful modern woman.  My friend went on to say that she would never host such a party in her home.


But I didn't understand, and I still don't.  Why shy away from a chance to show my friends what Arabs do when we get together and have fun? We sing and dance, eat and laugh...they are just as much my friends as my Arab friends, so why not share the same with them? Help them get to know me better? The way I see it, if I can do my duty as an Arab-American and help dispel some of the misconceptions people may have about our culture, then I'll do it whole heartedly. And to do it in a way that's fun and entertaining...tell me, what is wrong with that? 

Maybe because my New York friend was born and raised in a middle eastern country, and only what we here would call a "fallen" woman would become a belly dancer, that her opinion of my party idea was uncomfortable and in bad taste. One has to keep in mind that in middle eastern countries, the majority religion is Islam. With that comes the social modesty of women that our religion embraces. Belly dancing can often be viewed as disrespectful to the values Islam projects. A performance belly dancer stands at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from a woman who wears hijab (head scarf). While a belly dancer wants to entice male temptation, a woman who wears hijab wants to protect herself from it. I can understand my friend's opinion from that standpoint. After all, perhaps most people think of as "belly dancing" is of a scantily clad voluptuous woman, wearing nothing more than a bejeweled bra and minimal skirt with long slits all the way her thighs to her hips...long, wonton hair, who is twirling her hips and wrists (holding mini-cymbals) while rolling her belly, shaking her breasts and hips like Shakira, and who has in mind to elicit the desire of every male in the room. 

Ok. Well, there are those belly dancers, of course...those that come sauntering around to "oriental" music in the occasional hooka bar or an middle eastern restaurant that caters to mostly non-Arabs, in effort to draw in people to watch and then hopefully, eat. It can be fun, if not ridiculous, particularly when she walks over to a red-faced, unassuming man and wraps one of her scarves around his neck, drawing him up out of his chair and forcing him to clap and twirl his wrists, to "dance" to that, again, "oriental" music. Those of you who have been there, can picture what I'm describing. Maybe those of you who haven't, may now want to go. 

But from this I must clarify. Belly dance, such as I've described above, is performance belly dance. Women who can do amazingly complicated motions with their bodies, while making it look fun and effortless, are trained. It is a trained art. Much as tap dancers, salsa dancers, tango dancers, etc., train and practice, as do belly dancers.  

But back in Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan, when people go out to a arabic music dance party or attend a pop Arab singer's concert, are the women wearing belly dance outfits? Nope. Are they moving their hips seductively, while simultaneously  reaching back in a sensuous back bend and twirling her wrists? Nope. But while we do move our hips and shake with the music, it's not done as performance. It's not done with the purpose to elicit the lust and desire of a male audience. It is rather the movement of one enjoying the music and expressing their pleasure in doing so.  The dance moves fit the music. It's different than American song and dance, it uses different muscles, different rhythms, but that's the beauty of it. That's the beauty of all dance. It is cultural. 

So back to my original issue: is hosting my cultural night a potentially scandalous affair, where I'll be propagating the stigma belly dance has, or will I be doing our culture a service by showing  my friends something they've never experienced before, or that they have a mysterious misconception about? And if I had referred to it as "arabic dancing" rather than "belly dancing," would it have elicited the same response from my friend, and spurred this entire discussion just the same?

If my friends leave my house with a better understanding of who I am, if I break up the fog that clouds over our culture, then in my opinion, it was success. If I can make the Arabic culture less threatening, less intimidating, and more approachable by showing the more fun, happy aspects of it, should I miss the opportunity to do so? 


  1. hi mais, this is Mimi, i just read ur artical and i really liked it. go for it and do ur belly dancing party. i would name the party "arabian nights". show the people our dance, our food and our music. we have a great culture and we should be proud of it. i'm pretty sure that ur party will be so successful and ur friends will enjoy it more than any other party. every time we invite our American, Russian, Persian or Japanese friends to our parties they start asking us to teach them how to dance. they 100% love the experience, the music, the food, and the belly dance. one time Taro (our Japanese friend) asked me, does every woman in Syria dance like this or just some woman, and do u take lessons to be good at it? i said, u r not a real arabian woman unless u know how to belly dance, it is in our blood.

  2. Hi Mimi! Thank you!! I am hoping my friends will have the same experience...that they'll have fun and enjoy themselves and learn something too! :) And yes, it is in our blood! Thank you for your comment, keep reading as I post these blogs! I love having your input...and I hope all is well with you!