Thursday, 22 November 2007

For peace in the Middle East… lose yourself in the dance

It’s a Thursday evening in dark damp British autumn. I roll up at the drafty church hall in Llanfairfechan - a village on the wild north Wales coast – to meet a group of women I may not associate with in the daytime. I ask myself: what am I doing here? I should be blogging about world peace, the Israeli roadblocks and electricity cuts in Palestine or the crisis in Pakistan, the poppy harvest in Afghanistan, nuclear power in Iran, Iraqi factions and back again to Annapolis.

But as soon as Julia our teacher puts on the music, we are transported there, to what is known as the cradle of civilisation - the valley of the Euphrates or the banks of the upper Nile. For this is our weekly belly dancing class and for one short hour we bask in an oasis of female power.

They say that the art of raqs sharqi comes from the worship of Isis - the magical goddess of ancient Egypt whose healing ensures everlasting life. As one famous modern day practitioner Jasmin explains: “Isis is the universal mother who guides women in childbirth and comforts them in bereavement, a reminder to women of their connection to the all-goddess and to each other.”

Another story is that learning the technique of undulating the belly was a preparation for natural childbirth. And then there is the hafla or gathering of different dance groups, to perform for each other - not as a competition but in enjoyment of female beauty and self-expression. Along with massage, foot-baths, sweetmeats… It may be a throwback to the harem or have since degenerated into exotic dancing. But it originates in the time when women as priestesses were free to hold their own celebrations and had control over their own mysteries.

That was before goddess worship was desecrated by the priests of patriarchal religion and the practitioners of manmade medicine, one by one seeking to possess the powers of woman which will always be denied to men: conception in the womb, gestation, parturition and lactation. At the same time they try their best to emphasise the redemptive power of the Madonna, the virgin mother (as Marina Warner tells the story) in some warped logic that somehow, by denying woman’s sexuality, men can redeem their own sins.

In the name of god

Last month it seemed that absolutely everyone was an expert on abortion and human rights. Many missed the point that Polly Toynbee raised but did not unpack: the debate is still about the control of women and their fertility. Because men don’t have that life force, they resort to the opposite: oppression, violence, rape and war. And this is always played out across the female body. Danish artist Jens Galschiot launched his sculpture of a pregnant crucified teenager last December as “an outcry against the crusade against contraception and sexual education orchestrated by Christian fundamentalists with President Bush and the Pope in the lead”.

Fortunately not all men are moralists of the abstract, hypocrites, control freaks or fundamentalists looking “to compete with you / Beat or cheat or mistreat you / Simplify you, classify you / Deny, defy or crucify you” (Bob Dylan).

David Grieg recently wrote about the need for men to get in touch with their feminine side with reference to his updated production of Euripides’ play The Bacchae:

For me, these concerns remain as relevant as they were 2000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to boost their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in the dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself – as it always will.”

World peace and thin thighs

Sometimes I have to wait and wait until the right metaphor comes along. Y’alaouni! As we practice our moves, it all makes sense. After all, I never thought I’d get thin thighs again: world peace cannot be far behind. It may sound frivolous but I’m seriously trying to find a radical alternative to the same old tired performances.

In fact, another definition of hafla is a peace festival, which the eponymous London-based group is planning for 2008: I don’t mind that somebody got the idea before me, as it reinforces my position.

The word 'HAFLA' is common to both Arabic and Hebrew meaning 'celebration' or 'party', and it has a particular connotation as being the third stage of the peace process that comes after the stages of truce and reconciliation. We bring together Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and Jews and all people who are committed to creating peace in this part of the world. As a group HAFLA asks you to imagine such a celebration.”

So back to Annapolis: boys, please clear the stage, your second-rate snake-charming act is over. And let’s axe the conjuror’s patter. Bring on the dancing girls!


HAFLA is also a make of grenade launcher. Go figure.

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