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Gilded Serpent presents...
Daughters of Shahrazad:
Face to Face
Cultural Encounters
Through the Expressive Arts
of Middle Eastern Women
by Shira

On March 5, 2005, a unique conference called Daughters of Shahrazad: Face to Face in Iowa City, Iowa honored International Women's Month.  Long time Near Eastern dance artist Marie Sage (aka Maleeha and Artistic Director of Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble) conceived of this event as an opportunity for students of Near Eastern dance and other members of the community to open a dialogue with women from the cultures that these dances come from.  She led a group of women in planning and organizing this event that celebrated the expressive arts of Middle Eastern women, including music, cooking, textiles, dance, folk tales, and more. 

Sponsors included the University of Iowa Women's Resource & Action Center, Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble, University of Iowa Department of Spanish & Portuguese, and International Programs.  A major source of funding, over $4,000, came from the University of Iowa Year of Arts and Humanities Grant- this project was by far the largest recipient of those who applied.

Based on information collected in a feedback form, the demographics of the attendees included:

  • 86% women
  • 30% between the ages of 18 and 40, 48% between the ages of 40 and 60
  • 11% self-identified as members of the gay/Lesbian/bi/transgender community
  • 19% self-identified as having a disability
  • 33% affiliated with the University of Iowa (students, faculty, staff)
  • 92% white, 4% Middle Eastern/North African, 4% Native American

The Opening
The conference was held inside a former church in downtown Iowa City known as Old Brick. The congregation moved from this church to a new location in the 1970's, and a grass-roots community effort at the time rescued the building from demolition.  Today, it houses a dance studio, an auditorium, and several smaller meeting rooms.  It was well suited for an event of this nature, which involved some sessions of the entire assembly together, and also smaller breakout session workshops.

Monia Hejaiej, Ph.D. set the tone for the event with her keynote address. She discussed how some of the Western portrayals of Shahrazad in movies have missed the point through their portrayals of Shahrazad's character.  In Arabic thought, she is viewed as strong, courageous, and clever, a leading feminist of her time who sought to put an end to violence against the women of her day. 

Following Monia's presentation, Marie Sage summoned all attendees to form a line, and taught a simple debke step.  The movement was helpful in energizing everyone for the workshops ahead.  People of all levels of physical skill joined in the line - even someone on crutches!  The experience captured the essence of folk dance as a social activity.

The Morning Workshops
The conference schedule set aside four time periods throughout the day for workshops, each 45 minutes in length.  At any given time, there were 4-5 sessions in progress simultaneously. Certain sessions were offered more than once during the day, making it slightly easier to make choices about which to attend.

The Workshop 1 time period offered these four choices:

  1. Introduction to Persian Dance.  Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
  2. Lebanese Cuisine.  Led by Dania Ajam.
  3. Drums & Rhythms of the Middle East.  Led by Tim Moore.
  4. The Gentle Art of Persuasion.  Led by Monia Hejaiej, Ph.D.

I chose to attend Tim Moore's session on drumming.  Tim is the percussionist for the band Salaam from Bloomington, Indiana. He had brought with him several loaner drums to use for his workshop, but I was glad I had brought my own darabukka because there weren't enough to go around.  He started at the very beginning, introducing the "doon" and the "tek" sounds, then distributed some handouts with rhythms shown in musical notation and proceeded to teach how to play some of the rhythms on the drums.

I slipped out before the drumming session was over, loaning my darabukka to one of the participants who didn't have one.  I wanted to take pictures of the other workshops currently in session. 

Being a former church, Old Brick has a functional kitchen which was perfect for the cuisine workshops.  Dania Ajam offered a demonstration in Lebanese cooking.  Seating was tight for the spectators, but the kitchen was able to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium Robyn Friend was teaching an introduction to Persian dance. The space was ample to allow for both traveling steps and arm movements. The raised stage made it easier for everyone to see. The 45-minute time slot wasn't really enough to allow much depth, but it provided enough of a taste to allow attendees to determine whether they might want to return for Robyn's 2 ½ hour workshop planned for the next day.

In one of the meeting rooms, Monia Hejaiej was presiding over her session on the gentle art of persuasion.  (Monia appears on the far right of this photo, looking toward the camera.)

The 45 minutes ended all too soon, and it was time for people to seek out the locations for their second workshops of the day.  The organizers had done an excellent job of posting signs around the building indicating which way to go to find each of the meeting rooms, so it wasn't too difficult to navigate.

The sessions for Workshop 2 offered:

  1. Don't Call It Bellydance: An Experiential Introduction to Traditional Women's Dance. Led by Marie Sage, MFA (aka Maleeha).
  2. Persian Cuisine. Led by Badri Rezai.
  3. Women's Music of the Middle East. Led by Dena El Saffer.
  4. Conceal & Reveal: The Art of Beauty Through Dress. Led by Jean Newkirk.
  5. Shir ya Khat: The Evolving Tension Between the Persian and Islamic Elements of Iranian Culture. Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.

I chose to attend Robyn Friend's session on Persian culture.  (She is the person on the right in this photo.)  She used a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate her discussion of Iranian history and culture. All too often, history books present the past as a series of wars and rulers, and this session offered a refreshing cultural perspective.  Robyn focused on the daily lives of people:  nomads versus farmers, Arabs versus indigenous Persians, Pagans versus Muslims, sun calendar versus moon calendar, and how these contrasting cultural influences came together to create the unique Persian society.  She spoke of the uneasy balance that exists today, offering as one example the fact that the current Muslim government attempted to ban the celebration of Nowruz (the Persian New Year), which has its roots in Pagan culture, but the Persian people refused to let the establishment deprive them of this major holiday.

Meanwhile, Maleeha was teaching an introduction to traditional Oriental dance in the auditorium.  She led participants across the floor in some traveling steps, and also taught some in-place moves.

In the kitchen, Badri Rezai was leading her session on Persian cuisine.  (She's the one standing in front of the open cupboard door.)  I wasn't able to linger to find out what she was making, but it smelled wonderful in there!

Dena El Saffar, the viola player for the band Salaam from Bloomington, Indiana, led a session on women's music of the Middle East. (In this photo, she is the one standing off to the right.)

For her session on the textile arts of the Near East, Jean Newkirk arranged several dresses from the region on mannequins. She brought each one forward in turn as she described the garment, its place of origin, and pointed out interesting construction details. She explained how the looms influenced the shape and style of the garments. The display included garments from Egypt, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and more.


For her session on the textile arts of the Near East, Jean Newkirk arranged several dresses from the region on mannequins.

Lunch Break and Panel Discussion
Our lunch break followed the second workshop sessions of the day.  Some people lingered in their sessions, gleaning additional bits of information from the presenters, while others returned to the auditorium and investigated the items for sale along one wall as we waited for lunch to arrive.

On the grand piano in the auditorium, Badri Rezai had set up a ceremonial table typical of those that Persian families set up in their homes in honor of the holiday Nowruz.  It is known as the sofreh-ye haft-sinn, the cloth of seven dishes. The seven dishes represent health, life/rebirth, beauty, happiness, prosperity, joy, and patience. A typewritten sheet of paper next to the display offered a detailed description of the significance of each item.

The day's falafel lunch was catered by a nearby restaurant called Oasis. Once the attendees had gone through the lunch line, they settled into their seats for the panel discussion.  The panel consisted of four women from Middle Eastern and North African cultures.  In this photo, from left to right, are the moderator Denise Filios, Gulçin Aydin from Turkey, Monia Hejaiej from Tunisia, Dena El Saffar an ethnic Iraqi who was raised in the U.S., and Khadija Bounou from Morocco. The panelists responded to questions posed by the audience. Representing four different Near Eastern cultures, each had a different perspective from the others on the issues discussed. 

The Afternoon Workshops
The afternoon allowed time for two more workshop time slots.  Some of the morning programs were repeated.

For the Workshop 3 time period, these four choices were offered:

  1. Introduction to Persian Dance.  Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
  2. Moroccan Cuisine. Led by Khadija Bounou.
  3. Women's Music of the Middle East. Led by Dena El Saffar.
  4. Shahrzad's Sisters: Wisdom & Wise Women in Folk Tales. Led by Monia Hejaiej, Ph.D.

I decided to attend the folk tales workshop, and enjoyed it very much. Monia Hejaiej is the author of a book titled Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis, which is a compilation of women's folk tales from Tunisia. Monia set the stage for the workshop by describing the role that folk tales and the people who tell them play in Tunisian society. She distributed some photocopied pages from her book that contained a couple of her stories, then read the stories to the group as we followed along. I enjoyed it very much, and was sorry when the time came to wrap things up.

I slipped out of Monia's session just in time to snap a couple of photos of Khadija Bounou cleaning up after her workshop in Moroccan cuisine. 

For the Workshop 4 time period, these sessions were offered:

  1. Turkish Cuisine. Led by Gulçin Aydin.
  2. Drums and Rhythms of the Middle East. Led by Tim Moore.
  3. From the Cedars of the Lebanon to the Cedar River: A Tale of Immigration. Led by Jean Amosson.
  4. Shir ya Khat: The Evolving Tension Between the Persian and Islamic Elements of Iranian Culture. Led by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.

I decided to attend Robyn Friend's session a second time.  The first time, I found it to be packed with wonderful cultural insights, and I felt that a review would be valuable.  The room was packed entirely full, with people seated on every square inch of floor space.  It was worth a second hearing, to reinforce what I had learned in the morning.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen Gulçin Aydin was demonstrating how to make baklava. It was very tempting to linger in hopes of getting to taste the result! Gulçin, from Turkey, is currently a student at the University of Iowa.

Jean Amosson offered a different kind of perspective on the Middle East. There is a large Lebanese population living in the vicinity of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brought by a wave of immigration from 1895 through 1945.   The original immigrants sought to escape the oppressive rule of the Ottoman empire, and set the stage for others from their village to follow, eventually creating a thriving Arab community in Iowa.  Jean served as chairperson for creating an exhibit titled "The Lebanese Among Us: Americans for a Century" at the Carl & Mary Koehler History Center museum.   In her session, Jean spoke of the experiences of this immigrant community. 

Closing Assembly
Following the fourth workshop period of the day, everyone reconvened in the auditorium for the closing assembly and the "face to face" part of the program.

For this part of the day, we were counted off into four small groups.  Each small group was assigned to one of the Middle Eastern women who had been a presenter during the day:  Jean Amosson and her daughter Michelle, Gulçin Aydin (in this photo) and her sister Nurçin, Dena El Saffar, or Monia Hejaiej.  The point of these breakout sessions was simply to allow conference attendees to converse directly with someone from Middle Eastern culture. There was no structure - the members of the group were free to ask any questions they wished.  After some time had elapsed, the groups rotated to speak with the next person.  This continued until each group had had an opportunity to talk with each of the speakers.

Marie Sage closed the day with a gentle movement exercise, a "cool-down" for the mind. All attendees stood up, and she led the group through some simple hand/arm exercises.  This concluded the conference part of the weekend program.  Everyone dispersed, and those who were attending the evening dinner show went home to freshen up and prepare to return.

Evening Dinner Show
The evening dinner show featured live music played by the band Salaam from Bloomington, Indiana, with dancing by the Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble and guest artist Dr. Robyn Friend.  I arrived early to ensure I'd get a good table near the stage so I could take pictures.  Almost immediately, I encountered Pauline Costianes (Ghalia) and Mary Weed (Za'hra), a pair of dancers from Detroit, Michigan who had flown in for the conference, show and Persian dance workshop scheduled for the next day.  Marie had introduced me to both earlier in the day, and we decided to sit together for the show to enjoy the opportunity to become better acquainted.

Guest artist Robyn Friend opened the show with a performance of a dance from Uzbekistan in the Ferghana style. It was choreographed for her by the great Uzbek dance master, Viloyat Akilova. It is based on a poem by the great classical Uzbek poet, Ali Sher Navoi, the lyrics to which are sometimes also sung to the music. The poem, and the dance, depicts a young woman meeting her lover in a garden.  She searches for him, but he does not appear. Suddenly, she sees him and is so happy, but she soon realizes it was just an illusion, and becomes resigned and despondent. The poem is said to be a Sufi allegory for our relationship with God, the Beloved. Munajpt is the best-loved Uzbek dance - the music for it is played at every Uzbek wedding, and the guests dance to it spontaneously.

Marie had brought the band Salaam in from Bloomington, Indiana to conduct some of the workshops during the day as well as play for the show at night.  The band members who played for this show were Dena El Saffar on viola, Tim Moore on percussion, and Hakan Toker on kanoun, piano, and accordion.

  All three are talented musicians with extensive experience playing Western music as well as Near Eastern.  I think my favorite piece of the evening was when they decided to play a Turkish longa.  Hakan sat down at the piano and played the song on the keyboard.  His fingers moved so fast I was certain he was going to set the keys on fire, and after an improvisational riff I suddenly realized the melody line he was playing was no longer the longa, but rather a segment from Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Franz Liszt!  I was delighted. Seamlessly, he returned to the longa for the finale.  As a long-time pianist myself, I was highly impressed.

Once the band was warmed up, two members of the Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble performed the playful Khaleegy (Persian Gulf) dance raqs al-nasha'at.  In this photo, from left to right, they are Janet Maurer and Fritha Coltrain.

The next dance performance in the program was a second piece by guest artist Robyn Friend which was improvised in the Qajar style, in an early-mid 19th century-style costume. This dance was in three parts. In the first part, Robyn performed a bit of Jahelli style in which she depicted a tough guy. Part two was raqs-e bazak, the make-up dance. Part three was a return to part one, the Jahelli style.

Kahraman returned to the stage to perform a traditional Moroccan dance known as the schikhatt.  In this photo, the dancers are Janet Maurer, Marie Sage, and Fritha Coltrain.

The final performance in the evening show was an Oriental solo by Maleeha (Marie Sage), the Artistic Director of Kahraman and organizer of the event.

The evening concluded with Salaam playing music for open floor. The dance floor was quickly filled with Americans, Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese and Moroccans all dancing together for a festive ending to the event.

Closing Thoughts
I enjoyed this event very much!  All too often, our U.S. dance community is very disconnected from the cultures that spawned our dance form.  Although many U.S. dancers will perform for Arab weddings, Persian Nowruz, and other ethnic occasions, it's rare for us to organize events whose purpose is to introduce our students and colleagues to a deeper understanding of these cultures.  I applaud Marie Sage, the organizations she worked with, and the individual volunteers who supported this event for their hard work and dedicated effort in pulling it together.

I would be excited to see another event like this in the future.  And I know I'm not alone.  I was able to obtain a copy of the feedback forms received by the Women's Resource & Action Center, and here is a sampling of the comments:

  •   "This was INCREDIBLE! It was one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences I've ever had. I bonded with a drum, and learned SO much!"
  •   "This was a fabulous event!  I loved meeting the speakers, talking about the various topics, and networking with others.  Keep up the great work!"
  •   "Beautifully conceived feast for the senses and intellect."
  •   "The large and small group interactions were very informative."
  •    "I liked the diversity and the different choices we were able to make.  Each topic was interesting in its own right."
  •   "Super gathering of like-hearted spirits.  Wonderful!"
  •   "THANK YOU - I have been transformed."
  • "Please consider having this event again next year - word of mouth will spread the joyful news!"

I only wish every student and teacher of Near Eastern dance could attend an event of this nature, and absorb from it a bit more knowledge of the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
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