Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dan Goodman in Romania: "Orientalism: Imagination's Vice"

Map: 1855 by Cezar Bolliacfrom Wikipedia entry: "Greater Romania"(Note my Orientalist predilection for the antique map of the East.)
I encountered a blog post from Dan W. Goodman, which fit my mental meanderings well this month.  As I've been swooning over the work of Herta Muller this month, I have also been considering her representations and why they work so well.  The main answer is that she's an amazing writer with sensitivity and a great sense of story (yes, who has also been translated well).  But she is also telling stories from an area that remains mysterious to Western-based readers, which is certainly part of the appeal, that desire for novelty.  As Goodman states on July 10 in his blog:
Romania’s ambiguous identity as a region somewhere between West and East highlights the collective psychological trait of travelers including myself who identify it solely in relation to concepts of Occident and Orient, for nothing outside the categories of familiar and different appear to exist within the Occidental imagination, leaving the mind of the traveler entirely restrained and controlled by Orientalist constructs.
This post tells the story of a trip to Romania and Goodman's contemplation of "authenticity" as well as his thinking of Edward Said's ideas in Orientalism, stab at other themes that interest me as a person uncomfortably interested in the West's "East."  He mentions his foray into a cafe that claims to be 'authentic' where he orders the most sensationalist item on the menu.  Then he wanders onto a side street and experiences an "off the beaten path" moment, that so many Western tourists think they can find.  But it is still, of course, a Westerner's desire for novelty, to be the "one" to see "it" from a new lens.

I remember my trip to Siwa, in the Western desert of Egypt in 2010, which included an astonishingly beautiful ride through the desert and a constant meeting of generous natives who wanted money, yes, but had a deep pride in their own culture.  Yet after looking and looking and loving that place, as a tourist there is always a predatory "something" underneath my desire to see what I haven't seen.  As Goodman states at the end of his post:
That which I call mine; my imagination, my perceptions, and my reality, are not mine but rather those of the Occident. My perspective is inseparable from that of the West’s. Regardless of my vain attempts to overcome the subjectivism specific to the Occident, I will never attain a personal identity devoid of Orientalism, for I am a product of the Occident, my mind is Occidental, I am the Occident.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Writers on Dance: Herta Muller (2)

Herta Muller (photo from Wikipedia)

Continuing my current reading of German-speaking Romanian Herta Muller and her style of using folk music and dance in her writing, I'm continuing this scene from The Hunger Angel.  This short take comes before the previous post. This section shows how people reach out to each other despite the horror of their collective condition. It's raw.  Dance and being in the body becomes resistance.  The desperate and joyless dancing and music disturbs me almost to the point of feeling sick, yet I am convinced that nothing but dancing and music could be so necessary to these characters.  Dancing makes you "think what you have to think even if you don't want to."

This horrible, deft balance between the reader's discomfort and the characters' groping, physical need for each other despite the hunger that has moved them beyond the possibility of recognizing their pain, is part of Muller's haunting and singular skill in this work.

From The Hunger Angel:

After the break comes La Paloma.  I dance with the other Zirri.  loni Mich, our singer, stands half a step in front of the musicians.  For La Paloma she takes another half step forward because she wants to have the song all to herself.  She keeps her arms and legs completely still, but her eyes roll and her head sways.  Her small goiter trembles, her voice turns raw like the undertow of deep water:

"A ship can go down very fast, And all of us sooner or later Will breathe our last, So it's anchors aweigh, We all reach the day, When we're claimed by the sea, And what the waves take away, Never comes back."

Everyone has to keep silent while dancing our pleated Paloma.  You go mute and think what you have to think, even if you don't want to.  We shove our homesickness across the floor like a heavy crate.  Zirri lets her feet drag.  I press my hand against the small of her back until she regains the rhythm.  She's had her head turned away from me for some time, so I can't see her face.  But her back is quivering, and I can tell that she's crying.  The shuffling is loud enough so that I don't have to say anything.  What could I say other than she shouldn't cry. 

Herta Muller signs "The Hunger Angel"
 for me at the 92nd Y, May 2012.

It's impossible to dance without toes, so Trudi Pelikan sits on a bench off to the side, and I sit down next to her.  In the first winter, her toes froze.  The following summer, they were squashed by the lime wagon.  That fall, they were amputated because worms got under the bandage.

From Herta Muller's The Hunger Angel translated by Philip Boehm.  New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Other posts on Herta Muller:
Another dance at the concentration camp
Herta Muler, Orientalism, and Dance Scenes

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writers on Dance: Herta Muller (1)

Herta Muller's most recent book published in English, The Hunger Angel, was titled in her original German Everything I Possess, I Carry with Me," or Atemschaukel.  When I saw Muller read in May, I hadn't read the work, but I do remember that a woman beside me asked Muller why the title was changed so dramatically. Frustratingly, I don't remember her answer, but I remember how her eyes lit up with the question, and now I suspect, after reading the devastating and powerful book, it's because the original title fits so well.  The main character, Leo, does carry all he possess and all that possesses him: memory, a gramophone case, strange objects given him from those who know him, stories and songs of his childhood, a book on existence titled Physics and You, and as the novel progresses, confusion about what constitutes "home" and ultimately, what counts as love.  

 By re-titling the translation book The Hunger Angel, the subjection and starvation the ethnic German-Romanians endured in the work camp, and there is also the beautiful combination of  both the body and flight, but by focusing the title on hunger, the focus feels as if the book is about oppression rather than the self-recognition and displacement that is so pivotal in Everything I Possess, I Carry with Me.  Or maybe it's the Gramophone case I love, which Leo uses as a suitcase.

Two dance scenes take place in the book among the camp members.  They are ridden with lice and scarred with their work assignments and have become "skinandbones" (I love this combining of words to get the feel of the German dialect) but the members have a zither and drums and the singer Loni Mich.  This is from pages 139-140 in my translation.  It is brutal and shows the body-song that survives and resists through dance:

The couples stumble awkwardly through the song, hopping like birds trying to land in a heavy wind.  Trudi Pelikan says we're no longer capable of walking anyway, all we can do is dance, were nothing but quilted jackets filled with sloshing water and clattering bones, weaker than the drumbeats.  To prove her point, she offers me a list of Latin secrets from the sick barrack.

Polyarthritis.  Myocarditis. Hepatitis.  Encephalitis.  Pellagra.  Slit-mouth dystrophy, called monkey-skull face.  Dystrophy with stiff cold hold hands, called rooster claw.  Dementia.  Tetanus. Typhus. Eczema. Sciatica. Tuberculosis.  Then dysentery with bright bloody stools, boils, ulcers, muscular atrophy, dry skin with scabies, shriveled gums with decayed and missing teeth.  Trudi doesn't mention frostbite, doesn't talk about the brick-red skin and angular white patches that turn dark brown at the first spring warmth and are already showing on the faces of the people dancing.  And because I don't say anything or ask anything, nothing at all, Trudi Pelikan pinches my arm hard and says:

From New Books in German

Sailor leave your dreaming

Don't think about your home

All winter long, Trudi is speaking through the singing--the dead are stacked up in the back courtyard and shoveled over with snow, and left there for a few days until they're frozen hard enough.  And then the gravediggers, who she says are lazy louts, chop the corpses into pieces so they don't have to dig a grave, just a hole. 

I listen carefully to Trudi Pelikan and start to feel that I've caught a little bit of each of her Latin secrets.  The music makes death come alive, he locks arms with you and sways to the rhythm.

Muller, Herta.  The Hunger Angel.  Trans. Philip Boehm.  New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.  2012.

Orientalish: Writers on Dance

Photo from the French website on Colette:

Since I've launched this page on my blog (Writers on Dance) I've honed my intent more clearly. I'm interested in writers, primarily fiction writers, who use dance to explore connection, emotion, meaning, and the body.  These writers primarily (though not exclusively) write about Middle Eastern or Eastern or gypsy-style dances.  Writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Herta Muller, Sonallah Ibrahim do more than describe movements.  A scene is set and dance evokes fear and self-defense (as in Ibrahim's The Committee), self-destruction or representation, (as in de Beauvoir's She Came to Stay), or a means to feel alive (Herta Muller). Flaubert, Edward Said, and Jean Said Makdisi write non-fiction here, but their descriptions of time and place show reveal an intent different from standard journalism.

To sum up, "Writers on Dance" considers portrayals of dance and/or dancers  by writers who move beyond reportage of movement and costume and who consider this art form to be a serious, valid, and valuable means of human understanding.

Enjoy and send suggestions if you have them:

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Herta Muller, Orientalism, and Her Dance Scenes

Herta Muller photo by Ulla Montan
from Nobel Prize photo gallery.
Novelist Herta Muller doesn't write about belly dance or the Middle East.  However, as a German speaker born in Romania, she does write about regime and exile and the humanizing force of fear in a manner I admire deeply.  She avoids labels.  I've read her novel, The Appointment, and Nadirs, a story collection and saw her twice this spring at Pen World Voices festival.  I'm currently reading her newest novel, The Hunger Angel.  Because she avoids names and dates and labels, her characters rise organically bravely within their misery and make their individual stories universal.  In The Hunger Angel, a young German-Romanian man is sent to a Russian work camp after World War II.  The story starts with poverty and countryside and ventures into worse poverty and more remote countryside and forced labor that intends to destroy. Hunger steals and taunts and makes mockery of those slave workers, and yet hunger also becomes a beautiful force, reminding them of their humanity.

Herta Muller signs a book for me at the 92nd Street Y
at the Pen World Voices Festival 2012.
More related to Orientalish, Muller overtly refers to music in all of the works I've read.  Folk songs become self-sustaining threads of "home" or a remembered childhood and a reason to continue despite hardship.  Sometimes the songs seem to make no logical sense, but their haunting lyricism exemplifies the characters' necessary ability to find moments of beauty inside desperation.  Muller gains emotion without sentimentality.  There is a dance scene in The Hunger Angel and two dance scenes in The Appointment. Dis-empowerment, exploitation, the body pushed into submission and spectacle for "the other," the more I consider her work, the more I feel its connection to part of the troubling nature of "orientalism."  And, as with belly dance and general orientalism (if there is such thing), Muller, writing from a stable place, derives beauty from depicting and exploring the conditions of those who are less able to write their own stories.  (I think of the criticism Tahar Ben Jelloun has received.)

Regardless, Muller's work haunts me.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

This Week: Omnia, "Race and Belly Dance" Panel, and Souad Massi/Simon Shaheen

Three events are happening this week that I'm going to do my best to attend.

First, on Friday, July 6, Omnia from the NYU Intermediate Belly Dance class is singing with classical Arab music group Zikrayat in their Cairo Cabaret evening, which will also include a dance performance by the wonderful LaUra.
July 6, 8-10 p.m.
Yippie Cafe
9 Bleecker Street
$10 cover; $8 students
Come and support your fellow NYU dancer/singer-songwriter/musician!

Second, Leila Tayeb, also an NYU grad, who taught last summer's belly dance classes in June is offering a talk on Race and Belly Dance at Alwan for the Arts this Tuesday at 6 p.m.  As the website states: "The panel will explore how America's history of minstrelsy comes to inform both processes of creation and reception of "othered" dances, specifically in relationship to the presence of people in the Middle East and North African region on US soil."
Panel Discussion: Race and Belly Dance in America
Tuesday, July 10, 6:30 p.m.
Alwan for the Arts (
16 Beaver Street
New York, NY

Algerian singer Souad Massi
And last, Souad Massi and Simon Shaheen playi in Prospect Park on Saturday, July 7.  Souad Massi is a popular Algerian singer who I saw in Cairo at the Citadel in 2007.  Also, playing is the oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen and his group.  If you are in my classes, you've danced to his music!
Saturday, July 7, 6:30 doors; 7:30 p.m. concert
Prospect Park
9th Street and Prospect Park West
Brooklyn, NY
FREE (or donation)
Part of Celebrate Brooklyn!