Tag Archives: Arabic dance

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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The Art of Arabic Dance

I took a deep breath, hands resting against the steering wheel, then stepped out into the night.  The dark and silent road reminded me of my stay in that house a few months ago.

My former host mom and I had contacted each other occasionally since.  It had been a while since I heard from her, however, so her message that afternoon surprised me: “A few ladies are coming over for a little party tonight.  Come join us. Eight o’clock.”

It’s difficult to know what you’re getting into when people say “a little party” here.  They were in the sitting room, where we had never sat while I lived with them.  The ten-year-old threw herself into my arms for a hug; her younger brother also allowed a quick embrace, before they fled upstairs to the family room.

I introduced myself to the other guests: a well-made-up momma with a restless infant, a contented-looking grandmother, and a handful of other ladies– all coiffed to perfection.  When my host mom entered, she was wearing black leather boots and a leopard-print dress.

We all exchanged kisses on the cheek, and small talk on our lives, as more women entered the room.  They would arrive with head coverings, long robes, and plates of food.  Then they would disappear briefly into the kitchen, and re-emerge with unveiled hairdos, mid-thigh skirts, and four-inch heels.

I repented of my terribly comfortable– and terribly worn out– purple flats.

A friendly shouting match over song selection ensued.  The woman closest to the stereo solved it by abruptly turning up the music, so much so that no one could talk.  The only option was dancing.

My host mom started things off, joined by her best friend, Amany.  The rest of us sat in a circle, clapping in rhythm and watching the graceful arc of each arm, the subtle twist of each hip.  I had been to enough parties to know that these “simple”-seeming movements are not easily duplicated by someone who has NOT been reared on hummus and pita bread.

A few others took their turns in the middle, until they finally persuaded the oldest woman present to perform.  Perfect, controlled movements of her knees, hips, and shoulders, almost faster than the eye could see, astonished me for about half a song.  Then she cut herself off and sat down.

“I’m old,” she muttered.  “I can’t dance all night.”  But her smile-lines deepened around her eyes, communicating: I’ve still got it.

After repeated cajoling from the other women, the young momma plopped her child into his grandmother’s lap and took the center.  She danced with skill equal to the oldest, but had more flexibility.  Kicking off her stilettos, she drew her whole body– eyelashes to toenails to fingertips and everything in between– together into a living, swirling work of art.

Grandma patted the baby’s back in time to the beat.   I remembered the words of a wise old teacher: Some emotions are inexpressible with everyday words.  That’s why we need poetry, music, art….

and dancing.  

Contented as I was, I knew what was coming.  The ladies looked my way.  “Your turn,” they said, uncertain of how much urging I would require.

Exclamations of surprise and approval accompanied me as I stood up.  Standing up showed I was willing, and that went a long way.  I also knew it was better if I was not alone.  “Dance with me!” I said, drawing the woman beside the stereo with me into the middle.

The rest encouraged me like I was a kid who had just colored a cute picture.  Amany even smiled and said, “You dance like my nine-year-old!”

Given how nine-year-olds here dance, I thought, that is just fine.

Then they pointed to the corner, where the oldest woman was sitting.  She was waving her arms, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear or understand her over the music.  So she roused herself and stalked into the center of the circle, her eyes alive with merriment, confidence, and sass.  She put her hands on my waist.

“From here down you dance like an Arab.  But from here up you dance like a foreigner!”  And she commenced again with waving, showing me how to move my arms.

I got home around 11:30, my stomach stuffed with their desserts, my clothes saturated with their second-hand smoke, and my mind straining to remember their advice.  Let go.  Stay strong in the core.  Make small moves– they have great power.  Be flexible and consistent, together.  Encourage those who hold back.  Hold stuff for them if they need you to.  Teach the ones who are struggling.

You don’t need to keep your arms close.  You aren’t being called to protect yourself.  Open up.

Be always willing.  Even when there is awkwardness.  Even when you look like a child.  

Even when there is darkness.  

I am learning to dance.