Arabic 101

Arabic 101

Cultural Sensitivity and Language

By Andrea Deagon

Two months ago I went to Egypt for the first time.  When I arrived, I knew perhaps twenty words of Arabic — things like “habibi” and “elbe” and words from song titles. Not terribly useful! I didn’t even know the universal necessities for dealing in any society: “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me.” I don’t think I’m unusual in this respect, at least not among American travelers or American dancers. But looking at this situation now, I find it odd. I began studying Middle Eastern dance when I was 17, so I have been acquainted with Arabic music and songs for quite a while. I teach Latin and Ancient Greek, my French is fair, and with some brushing up I can get by in German, Italian, Modern Greek and Spanish. With my dance and linguistic background, learning at least a little Arabic seems like an obvious step to take — as it is for any dancer, whatever her background in languages, who dances to Arabic music and works in performance situations with Arabs.

But so few of us do take this step. Why?

Since returning from Egypt — and since beginning, at long last, my study of the Arabic language — I have been thinking over what the cultural dynamics are that keep so many American dancers from making any attempt to learn Arabic. I have heard dancers accused of lack of interest in Arab culture or aesthetics; laziness, and willful ignorance; but I don’t think this sort of simple (and accusatory) answer works. I think there are many complex dynamics here, and I hope that by exploring them, more dancers will be moved, as I was, to take the first steps toward breaking the language barrier.

I. Americans don’t learn languages

I teach in a foreign languages department in a state university with a student body of about 7,000. We work constantly to increase interest in foreign languages in the academic community. But it is difficult for us to keep enrollments high beyond the basic (ie., required) levels of the language. Our students — like most Americans – are simply not convinced that foreign languages are of any use to them. This may be somewhat different in parts of the country where there is a large population of non-English speakers. English is the language of power, and users of other languages reflect a divergence from the mainstream.

Things are different in Europe or the Middle East, where in general, a drive of a few hours (or a few minutes) will put you in another country, where the mainstream is different, and where a foreign language is the language you must know to get by, to be respected, to be courteous — and especially, to do business. This is something that Europeans understand instinctively. European children learn languages in grade school, as do children in many Middle Eastern countries; Europeans and Middle Easterners have ingrained in their value system that both courtesy and common sense demand that you make an effort with languages.

Because of our different circumstances, Americans do not have this value. Our attitude seems to be, “English is the international language — let them come to us.” Which is true — English is the international language, and it is largely possible to get by, even traveling internationally, with no other language than English. This is certainly, in many ways, a position of strength for Americans. But it is also a position of weakness. There are exchanges going on around us that we can’t understand; types of companionship we can’t share, halfway points we declare ourselves uninterested in reaching. An Egyptian, living in a multilingual environment, will have a hard time understanding how irrelevant language seems in America. Our ignorance of even the basics of language in a culture we profess an interest in will seem like naiveté, or worse, cultural imperialism — which, in a way, it is. Not that we are imperialistic as individuals, but our culture has these tendencies and we have absorbed them.

This is a difficulty our whole country needs to face. In a world where international business and trade are increasingly important, Americans lack the language skills other nations take for granted. Likewise in the international dance scene, monolingual Americans work at a disadvantage. As a modern nation, we need foreign language programs in our elementary schools, as there are in virtually every other developed (and developing) country on the globe. We need to build the cultural understanding that learning language is practical, friendly, and fair — and that if we don’t do it, the world will leave us behind.

2. This is our dance, too

When I began belly dance classes at the local Y, I was just 17, on the verge of womanhood. The classes were fun, entertaining, invigorating — but they also helped me with a deeply personal transformation. The self-expression I found in dance was so intense, so personal, so powerful, that I could never see this dance as the “property” of another culture. What did I have to do with Arabs? I knew, on a gut level, that my dance related to me, not to them. I would have to be the judge of what was the right move, the right music, the right mood.

I gave up dance for a number of years, partly because I associated it so strongly with this period of transition. When I came back to dance, at age 27, I was a different person. Classes with Ibrahim Farrah and Shareen el Safy opened up the Arab aesthetic for me, and I saw how the beauty and subtlety of the dance have their origins in the beauty and subtlety of Arab culture. At the same time, some of my basic truths remain. Although I dance with sensitivity to authentic technique and feeling, I am an American woman, and I must still be the judge of how I dance — but my basis for judgement continues to develop and mature, as I hope it will for my whole dance career.

We are caught in the middle of a cultural conflict that raises some very sensitive issues. For most of us, the dance is very personal, it is ours. And though we know it is Middle Eastern, we may also have mixed feelings about the culture. For one thing, “belly dancing” had its impetus in the USA in part through feminism, and many American dancers are feminists and/or involved in women’s spirituality. The patriarchal nature of the Arab world is impossible to ignore, and the kinds of power women (even dancers) have in that world is hard for Americans to understand and appreciate.

Cultural differences are puzzling to both parties. My employers at a restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, were stunned to learn that I am a college professor who dances professionally as well; needless to say in Egypt or Lebanon you would not expect your literature professor to be a belly dancer. (I guess it’s not too common in America, for that matter! But in America there aren’t the issues of class and lifestyle to accomodate.) Dancers must contend with the fact that Arabs will often be uncertain about our morality — American attitudes toward sexuality are puzzling to those not raised here from childhood, and even where American culture is understood, the perceptions of dance and morality are different. For example, a Lebanese man recently talked to me about dancers he knew of in London abandoning dance for a life of partying and prostitution; the story I am familiar with is the dancer who returns to her day job because there’s not enough money in clubs and she never gets to see her kids. He and I perceive the same world differently; we see the world we are ready to see.

Given the marginalization of dancers in Arab culture, it is not surprising that American dancers are unwilling to accept the idea that this is foremost an Arabic dance and Arabs are the final arbiters of taste. Learning a language means coming as close as you can to what a culture really is and feels, and it requires effort and dedication. Taking the trouble to learn Arabic may feel like giving far too much power to those about whom we already feel very ambivalent. On a conscious or subconscious level, rejecting the Arabic language is a way of asserting our own cultural ownership of what we do.

3. We don’t know what we’re missing

I love English, I love Greek, and I am very fond of Latin. Italian is beautiful, Spanish and Modern Greek are nice, and I will tolerate German…

Why I love English and Greek is their variety and expressiveness; their ability to encapsulate concepts that are important to me, and a certain resonance I feel with them. And I love English even more because it is my language, with great poetic capabilities, and centuries of wonderful literature.

Arabs love Arabic in the same way. In the Arab world, linguistic fluency, oratory, and poetry are much admired. Arab cultures, from the folk-level to the University, put great value on language skills; they love speeches and songs as active poetic traditions. The wonderful music-store clerk who helped me choose music in Cairo said, “But you have to learn Arabic! If you want to dance to the music, you have to understand the songs.” He was not the only one to tell me this. The songs, the words, the meanings are vital, particularly in society.

I might have dismissed this comment — after all, I do make an effort to find out what a song is about, and I have no desire to “act out” songs or sing along. But recently I saw two performances that, by contrast, changed my perspective. Both were to a song from the movie Aladdin, in English. The first, by Mona N’Wal, was a beautiful, sensitive portrayal of a young woman on the verge of life and love; the dance flowed with the musical phrasing and developed the themes of the song; it was both a dramatic portrayal and a physical embodiment of the words and music. The other performance was quite accomplished and graceful, but did not show an awareness of the meaning of the words that were being sung. The dimension that would have made the piece really work was missing.

The horrible thought struck me — is this how I seem to Arabic audiences? Is this what the people I spoke to meant when they said a dancer ought to understand the songs? Arabic is so far from our language-insensitive minds that we truly do forget that these are words, not just another line in the music. They are a dimension of meaning that can bring our artistry to a higher plane. Even when we don’t dance for Arabic-speaking audiences, the words are an extra dimension in the music. Why should we dancers, who try to put meaning to music with our bodies, reject the help of the words? Why reject poetry?

4. Time, energy, difficulty

Because foreign languages are not a priority in America, we have little experience learning them and find them intimidating. We have the idea that learning a language is time-consuming, difficult, and not really worth it. As a language teacher, I have to say that it does take substantial effort to learn a language, much as it takes practice and drill to learn dance. But the insights you gain with your new knowledge of a language definitely make it worth the effort.

Is Arabic hard? Arabic writing is intimidating to most westerners, and takes a while to learn. Any language is easy or difficult depending on your ability, experience, and study habits. Arabic, unlike most languages you might have studied in high school, is not a romance language, so it is very different from English. Vocabulary requires a lot of drill, and structures are different. From the start you have to try to think Arabic, rather than translating.

A difficulty I face, living in the South, has been lack of actual classes in Arabic, and the tiny size of the local Arabic-speaking community. Currently I am working with tapes and looking for a tutor. For some people Arabic classes might be hard to find, and without a chance to practice conversation, it’s hard to learn to speak another language well.

On the other hand, knowing even a little bit of a language is still a wonderful thing. I am starting to hear things in the songs I listen to. Not much, after a few weeks of study — but the rewards are immediate. Even recognizing pronouns is something! Fluency in any language is a long, hard road for most people — it takes dedication that most of us lack. But fluency of reception (ie., being able to understand well) and active knowledge of business or dance vocabulary is not an unrealistic goal for most dancers, over a couple of years.

Dance and language

It took contact with Egyptian culture, and frustration at my inability to understand what I heard, to make me begin studying Arabic. This will certainly give me new insights into music and dance. But the other side of the coin is, the true language of dance is music, and Arabic is only one element of the music. An important one, yes — but there are many brilliant dancers who don’t know Arabic. For dancers whose aesthetic is not Arabic — who dance primarily to New Age or Greek music, who do not seek out Arab audiences or want to work with Arab musicians, who do not care much for new or traditional dance from the Middle East — learning Arabic will obviously not be a priority. But for those of us who do find inspiration in the Arab world, the language is one of the most important keys to that world, both for understanding it and for being accepted into it.

Andrea Deagon has been teaching and performing Middle Eastern Dance since 1977, in New Zealand and Australia as well as throughout the United States. In addition to classwork with the formeost proponents of Middle Eastern Dance in America, she has also studied Ballet, Modern, African and Balinese dances. She has a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University, and is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she teaches ancient languages, mythology, and women’s studies. (Email:

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