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LAce Posted Monday, April 21st, 2003
Ghazal and Memoir of the Ghazal
Amanda French

Ghazal for the Belly Dancers

A well in the shadows, shy as a woman;
A sinuous river, sly as a woman.

He wishes his opium lover were poison,
Languidly craving to die of a woman.

The navel regards you, the omphalos sees,
The clever abdominal eye of a woman.

She drinks a forbidden oracular wine
And dreams of a secret denied to a woman.

Supple, curvetting, the nightingale preens--
And is mute. Below comes the cry of a woman.

The fragrance of roses arouses the air,
Mortal and sweet as the sigh of a woman.

An intricate flick of desire in the belly
Urges a woman to lie with a woman.

Firmly the beat keeps a grip on the song,
As fat and as strong as the thighs of a woman.

Pierce her with rubies, tattoo her with gold;
Pain is the coin that will buy you a woman.

I am a dancer--a sultan, a beggar,
A prophet, a slave. And I am a woman.

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I slept with my belly dance teacher's ex-boyfriend. And didn't tell her about it for awhile, which was really the problem. We worked through that trouble and kept dancing.

Later I found a much better man, the one who broke my heart, and he said once when my teacher and I were clashing again, "It's because you slept with her ex-boyfriend." He was wrong about that. It might have been a sign that he didn't really understand that sometimes men are incidental to women, just as women are sometimes incidental to men.

In fact, I probably slept with my teacher's ex more because I was attracted to her than because I was attracted to him. Which is a little twisted, sure. He was desperately in love with her still, and that was the thing I liked most about him. In fact I always think of him as the "he" in the second stanza of the ghazal—he was definitely a languid type, and I think he craved her.

My belly dance teacher is the most beautiful woman I think I've ever seen in person: naturally thin and blonde, both of which are terrible attributes in a belly dancer. The blonde hair doesn't matter so much, since she wears a turban in performance, but she does have to resort to various tricks to give herself some back—a few more hip-slung fringed scarves than the rest of us; some artfully placed tassels on the butt. Her dancing, like her body, is absolutely spare and precise; to see her tick-tock with her hips and ribcage is like watching someone build something ornate and elaborate out of Legos. Maybe the Taj Mahal.

It was my teacher who asked me to write the ghazal—or, rather, she asked me to write a poem for an upcoming hafla (Middle Eastern hootenanny), and the ghazal part was my idea. I had just learned about the ghazal: it's a Persian form, a thousand years old, as basic to Middle Eastern poetry as the sonnet is to Western poetry. Unlike a lot of Western forms, it's non-narrative—each couplet is a separate image or idea, almost like a small collection of proverbs. But the repeated rhyme sound and repeated word or phrase at the end of every couplet create a strong underlying unity. Makes it very performable, too—the ghazal was usually chanted or sung, and the audience would chime right in at the end of every couplet.

So I spent some time writing infidel poetry one Christmas break. I felt a little sneaky, sitting curled up on the couch in my folks's house up in the mountains in Colorado, stitching together a rather alien dark-red and tasseled verbal purdah to the sound of Harry Connick Jr. singing carols. I thought about belly dance, and I thought about the ghazal form, and I made lists of words rhyming with "I," and I made lists of images and words that seemed sufficiently exotic (roses and rubies), and I made sure that the poem had a beat that you could dance to, and I came up with the chorus word "woman" as being pretty much what belly dance was about for me, and for most people.

My belly dance teacher was big on telling everyone that belly dance was originally performed only for other women, never with men present, and that it strengthened the stomach muscles for childbirth, and that we were learning tribal-style dance and not the trashier cabaret style. She tried to desexualize it, basically (and who could blame her, with all the jokes and winks it gets), but I admit that I always kind of liked the sexual objectification part of it. Twisted, again, I guess.

Rehearsing, mind you, was always about the dancing itself—the better man I found, the one who broke my heart, asked me once what our rehearsals were like, and I kidded him, Well, you could come, but we'd have to castrate you. Then I said, Actually we chat, then dance, then sit around and smoke and watch belly dance videos. Sounds like band practice, he said. (He was in a band.) What a revelation—the things women do in packs are a lot like the things men do in packs. And come on: What is playing in a band but an accepted way for men to present themselves as sexual objects? But that only comes out in performance—rehearsals are technical. Even for strippers, I'm sure. And rehearsals are very restful, because of that. You can concentrate on something larger than sex, even though it's kind of sexual just to be creating something with someone else. Not that the guys in bands would admit that, probably.

I recited the ghazal at a spoken-word event, and my teacher danced along with it, veiled. It was great. (Everyone said so.) But when it came time for the hafla, my teacher hedged about doing the ghazal, telling me that the show was too long and that she was too busy to rehearse it, and various other excuses that bewildered me. Eventually she told me the truth: that the other two women in the troupe (and probably my teacher as well, though she didn't say so) thought the ghazal was too sexual.

I was angry, and I was angry for the same reason she had been angry at me when I slept with her ex: because she didn't tell me the truth. But we worked through that trouble, too, and kept dancing. I felt like we were even, at least—what's a veil of silence or two between women? Sex, art, silence, truth: it's all very complicated, and we figure it out as best we can.

I don't belly dance any more. But I didn't quit because of sex, and I didn't quit because of "artistic differences." Ultimately it came down to her and me. Two women. Everything else was incidental.

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