There’s no end in sight for the controversies surrounding the World Cup in Qatar.

After the LGBTQ,  abuse of migrant workers and alcohol ban/no-ban controversies, there is a new one.

This one has a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour, and has escaped the gaze of global media. It’s about whether oriental dance –otherwise known as “belly dance” – is an accurate representation of women in the Middle East.

The official FIFA promotional video of the tournament features a Lebanese singer swerving her hips and playing brass castanets with a group of scantily clad women and drum-beating men against a desert landscape.  You can see it below :

There’s an element of tongue-in-cheek in the composition, which has not been acknowledged.

What angered most in mainstream and social media was not the banal lyrics, if one could call them that, or the insipid melody, but the dancing women. The three-minute long video features other artists, but it was the Lebanese singer/dancer, Miryam Fares,  who received most of the scorn. One Tunisian journalist saw only “orientalist” overtones.

She tweeted :  “There are Arab women in Nasa and Harvard – inventors, scientists, writers and poets and they reduce the Arab woman to the image of a dancer shaking her belly. As if we sought to confirm the image of the “harem” as the West portrays us. It was possible to design a dance song that will stay with us in a positive way”.

Another tweeted a long series of abuse : lewd, vulgar, trite, licentious, dissolute, sinful etc

At the other end of the spectrum, an Egyptian intellectual – with a clearly anti-Arab conviction – wrote on his FB page a long post under the heading “the Myth of the Evil Orientalists”. The following is a rough translation:

“Many people were upset because of the World Cup video. It started with those denouncing it as ‘the Occidental perspective’ coupled with some conspiracy theories and posting a whole lot of exaggeration and vacuous talk and bullocks. This was typical left-wing guff … The fact of the matter is that the video offered a very accurate representation of the history of this region and the Arabian culture is strongly connected to the culture of slave-women, because these are people who had never seen in women anything else but a sexual object, that can be raped, insulted, and beaten.”

Funnily enough though, the two types of criticism, which represent the opposite ends of the spectrum, have more in common that they seem to realise. Both are united in their dislike of “oriental dance” and what it represents. And it was this which prompted me, as a passionate fan of the art, to write this blog.

In fact, the dance has no meaning in and of itself. Whether it is part of an ancient fertility ritual or a sacred rite in ancient Egyptian temples, it’s meaning and value will depend very much on the context: Is it performed by concubines and slave girls in the palace of the caliph or by modern dancers in a professional context, like the ones in the controversial video ? These are in my opinion the relevant critical questions.

Further, both types of criticism seem to be totally unaware that Oriental Dance is no longer “oriental” and has gone completely global. Competitions to select the best dancer are held everywhere, and aerobics classes inspired by the dance are now in vogue from the Far East to Latin America. In fact,  some of the best dancers are no longer limited to Egypt or the Middle East.

Arguably, the most splendid dancer in Egypt today is a Brazilian. (You can see her on Instagram here : Lurdiana has, in my opinion, brought elegance, precision and grace together in ways not seen before in the Middle East.

Interestingly, this “belly dance” row says more about the Arab world than it does about the World Cup and FIFA. A culture that is obsessed by how the West views it – whether it is through the prism of fantastical conspiracy theories, or artistic (mis-)representation — seem to be stuck precisely where it says it does NOT want to be. Some soul-searching is long overdue.

Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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