From Kabul with love

There was a particular event in my early involvement with belly dancing that changed my attitude to belly dancing as entertainment. This occurred during a dance class when one of my classmates brought up a proposition for us to perform for ‘heroes’, or the UK soldiers who were coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found this suggestion more than a little problematic. Firstly, in a strand of public discourse at that time, the term ‘heroes’ was ascribed to soldiers who were employed by the British Army during the highly criticised military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Were we really going to stage a performance of female Oriental ‘Other’ for the ‘heroes’? Juxtaposing this distasteful proposition with my war experiences led me to create a solo performance From Kabul with Love for the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2012, which subverted the idea of a belly dancer performing for the pleasure of ‘white, Western, soldier Heroes’.  In 2012 when I performed From Kabul with Love, British public opinion of both wars was predominantly very critical of the government’s support of US military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In From Kabul with Love I was explicitly unpicking the ‘mystique of a belly dancer’, by showing the elements of a belly dancing costume, as in a sort of a mini-lecture, to the laughter of the audiences. As well as satirising Oriental feminine mystique, I was also pointedly challenging the idea of military ‘heroes’. In line with the second research question of this project, the performance explored strategies that set to destabilise fixed stereotyping representations of feminine Oriental ‘Other’, and challenge power relations that frame the politics of belly dancing. I played with the possibility of dancing for ‘heroes’, by calling out to ‘the heroes in the audience’, in order to reveal the absurdity of this proposition. My manner was active and challenging, in order to subvert the idea of the female Oriental dancer as a passive object of male desire. The idea of heroes was boldly parodied in the final dance number, which concluded with a crescendo of belly dancing for ‘heroes’, a group of miniature soldier figurines. The majority of audiences who attend the Brighton Fringe Festival are people from Brighton, and are known for their liberal attitudes to gender politics. The audience of From Kabul with Love were unlikely supporters of military policies, and they responded to its political edge with wit, enthusiasm and laughter.

The symbols of ‘Hip Scarf’, ‘Mystical Eyes’, ‘Snake Iconology’ and ‘Transparent Veil’ could be termed cultural signifiers in the construction and perpetuation of not just belly dance as a signifying practice, but also the mythology that underlies these signs. Hall calls this the second level of signification, linking it to Roland Barthes work on mythology and semiotics in Mythologies (1957). This mythology of the ‘Eastern Other’ is brimming with orientalist images of harem, colonnaded patios, spice-infused souks, transparent veils, languid women, snakes coming out of baskets to the sounds of an oriental flute, and many others, the list goes on. These cultural signifiers remain curiously robust in popular imagination as manifested in numerous videos and performances by the contemporary pop icons Shakira, Beyonce and Katy Perry.

While I did not doubt that there were many brave young men who were fighting in the British Army, the term ‘heroes’ seemed to be regularly mobilised for political ends. I was critical of what I regarded as the falsity and sinister purpose of this ideological and indoctrinating use of terminology, but not of the people who were bestowed with the identity of ‘heroes’. I was confident that this terminology ascribed a superior value to the category of soldier in order to conceal the morally corrupt foreign policy for propagandist purposes. It seemed dogmatic and rarely challenged in public debate.

Figure 7 Performance poster

The performance was premiered in a small, intimate theatre setting for an audience of around fifty people. It lasted around thirty minutes and included a mixture of stylised movement, story-telling, dancing and video projection. I was narrating several stories in a cabaret-style, in close proximity to the spectators. The performance started with a re-enactment of the belly dance class and the absurd proposition of belly dancing for heroes. From that initial scene, a series of variations on the theme of the wars and their relationship to belly dancing unfolded, which were mainly rooted in my personal experience. For example, the performance was partly based on Facebook correspondence with those of my Bosnian friends who went to work with the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the many absurd situations relating to post-war Bosnia was that there were many educated young people, my peers, who were employed as, for example, translators and engineers on U.S. military bases in Bosnia. When the U.S. decided to move its military operations from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, many of their Bosnian employees decided to continue their employment in the U.S. military in the Middle East. We all knew very well what life under everyday shelling meant, as we had lived and survived four years of life under Serbian bombs and snipers in the Bosnian war. Yet, many of my compatriots decided to join the American military forces that were carrying out the same violent and traumatising military actions over the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moving from the proposition of dancing for ‘heroes’, to the re-telling of the absurdities of a post-war Bosnia, From Kabul with Love had a satirical tone. It included a fictional Ali-baba-like character, the original accounts of my Bosnian friends who were employed by the American military and orientalist imagery. My performance contained a range of performative registers that corresponded to several different scenes. In some scenes I would directly address the audience, talking as myself and giving an auto-biographical testimony of the war in Bosnia, whilst in others I would adopt an Ali-Baba-like character, or persona, in order to emphasise the seductive, orientalist fantasy that underpins the subject of belly dancing. These different scenes carried different tones – some were explicitly satirical and playful, whereas others had a more solemn mood. Added to the complexity of registers, the performance also contained a video projection showing images of 19th century orientalist paintings and newspaper articles about the recent war in Afghanistan. The intention of juxtaposing this visual material was to expose the instability and deceptiveness of these representations of the Middle East. At the start of the performance I wore a shirt, a long skirt, and a veil. The veil functioned to hide and expose the mediated ‘truth’ about the military operations in Afghanistan (projected on the veil in the form of newspaper articles) as well as to hide and expose the dancing, orientalised body.

By the end of the performance I revealed a belly dancing costume in the preparation for the final dance. In the introduction to the final dance scene, I explicitly presented ‘the main elements of belly dancing costume’: ‘Hip Scarf’, ‘Mystical Eyes’, ‘Snake Iconology’ and ‘Transparent Veil’. This was the result of a semiotic analysis of the cultural signifiers of the Eastern Other from the initial phases of my PhD research. This semiotic approach was informed by the writing of Stuart Hall on fantasies of the racial ‘Other’ in media and popular culture in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997). Drawing on the work of Edward Said and Michael Foucault, he argued that the orientalist discourse, through practices of representation, such as theatre, art, media or literature, produces a form of ‘racialised knowledge of the Other’ which appears fixed, but is in fact rooted in the ‘operations of power (imperialism)’ (Hall 1997:227). His analysis of the structuring of meaning, including semiotic encoding, was progressive because it posited them in relation to the politics of representation. His conceptualisation of the social positioning of a reader in relation to the dominant code revealed a crucially important point: that the meaning behind cultural signifiers is never fixed and that the structures of representation are open to a ‘struggle over meaning’ (Hall 1997:277). It emphasised the power of counter-strategies that work to ‘trans-code’ dominant meanings in the regimes of representation. These strategies can work to subvert cultural stereotyping of the Other.