Fact: Bill O’Reilly graduated from my alma mater. Needless to say, my journalism professors were deeply ashamed of this sad chapter in the history of Marist College.
I try my hardest to avoid Fox News, probably because my professors consistently cited the program whenever the conversation would turn to “What NOT to do in Broadcast News.” I also happen to be the epitome of socially liberal in all of my personal views. But this post is not so much about politics or even utterly sh*t-tastic faux journalism. It’s about a very ignorant person who clearly doesn’t have all of their facts straight on Middle Eastern dance or culture.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present Exhibit A: Bill O’Reilly and his ever-so-culturally sensitive commentary on the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition.
I don’t even know where to begin my rantings. There’s the blatant stereotyping of people from the Middle East. The sexualization of our beautiful art form. The vaguely pedophiliac commentary on how the 12-year-old contestant shouldn’t be dancing in a “16+” fashion. (My partner in Twittering crime, Sabrina, speculates that 16 must be the minimum age where Billo the Clown and his motley crew feel comfortable perving out over teenage girls).
What left me and my belly dancer friends speechless, however, was the following snippet from Billo’s bumbling sidekick, Jesse: “In a sick twisted way, Osama bin Laden is responsible for the boom of the belly dancing industry in the USA.”
“O RLY?” I say. For one, if Osama bin Laden were to enjoy any form of dancing, it would technically be Khaleegy from the Gulf region, not raqs sharqi (belly dance). More importantly, we’re giving Osama too much credit. Belly dance has enjoyed several pop culture renaissances through American history. There was the harem cheese of the 1950’s, the feminist revival of the 70’s. My Latina friends fell in love with the Brazilian soap opera O Clone. And what personally did it for me was Shakira. Women from all respectable walks of life take up belly dance for a multitude of reasons, from culture to fitness to health – or simply to try something new and different. As if our own sparkly brand of terrorism isn’t enough to shake the foundation of our oh-so-liberated country, let us not make mention of Jim Boz, Tarik Sultan, Momo Kadous, and other successful men who belly dance!
Every culture has its small, outspoken sect of extremists and its sweeping majority of normal, everyday people who care about their work, their friends and family, and their daily activities. This is true both of America and of the Middle East. (Don’t believe me about the former? How ’bout PETA, abortion clinic protesters, or even Billo himself?) If Bill’s bumbling henchman took a moment to listen to any of the intelligent dancers he interviewed, he would have learned that belly dance comes from social dances that friends and family do in the home for fun. “Ya RLY, dude”….it does come from folklore. To say that you could get beheaded for belly dancing in the Arab world is pretty much tantamount to saying that you could go to jail for dancing the Macarena or the Rock Lobster at a wedding. Yet Fox News is The Unbiased Truth, is it not?
I guess Jesse was right that dancers who took up belly dance post-9/11 developed a new appreciation for Middle Eastern culture. I first set foot in a belly dance class less than a year after the World Trade Center attacks. While the rest of the world saw the Middle East as a hotbed of extremism, ancient social mores, oppressed women, and terrorism, I came to appreciate that corner of the globe as something more complex and diverse. I came to understand that the Middle East isn’t one monolithic culture, but a group of many different cultures and diverse people. It is the birthplace of all civilization; of writing, math, art, music, language and religion. And while this one jerk in my 100-level Arabic language course would come to each class wearing an FBI baseball cap and a T-shirt depicting a cartoon dog ripping Osama Bin Laden into shreds, I realized the irony of my misguided classmate’s attire – most people from the Middle East are actually quite disengaged from politics, just like the majority of Americans.
Understandably, we live in a free country. And the one caveat to the First Amendment is that idiots like Bill O’Reilly can spew these “facts” to their often less-than-sophisticated audiences without repercussion. (Though I do believe that a 3 a.m. zill brigade outside of his house is in order). On the flip side, I couldn’t let Billo’s rant go unblogged-about. This is my art. These are my friends and my clients that he’s snarking about. And he just brought down an entire culture.
And, no, Billy, it’s not just wacky liberal Californians who see the emotion, expression and beauty of belly dance. It’s people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. Just open your mind and your heart, and your hips will follow.