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So, You Want to be
a Near/Middle Easterner
in the SCA?

So, you've decided you want a Near Eastern persona. Well, don't rush out looking for a name just yet. One of the first things one may want to do is choose when and where your persona is from.

Wide Choice of Time and Place

The world of al-Islam began in early 7th century Arabia with the revelations of Muhammed, and spread rapidly after his death in the late 7th century. By 711 it extended from Spain (where the majority of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim control), through all of North Africa, numerous islands in the Mediterranean (including Sicily and Malta for a while), to the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine), Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Persia (now Iran), South Asia (India and Pakistan), and Central Asia (a whole lot of former Soviet states, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet). Although by 1492 the last Muslims of Spain had either been forcibly converted to Catholicism or forced to flee, in the 16th century the Ottoman Turks extended Islam westward into Europe to the Balkans and eastern Hungary, and southward to encompass much of North Africa.

So you have a huge geographical range to choose from, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Mediterranean southward, as well as anywhere in time from 622 to 1600.

Take some time and do a little research. That doesn't mean hunkering down like a scholar, just read a few decent books on the areas that seem interesting to you. I find what i 'm doing much more interesting when i know more about it, instead of just being an empty shell in a costume .

You Don't Have to be a Muslim

However, not all Near Easterners are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arabs. There were Christians and Jews living relatively peacefully in Muslim dominated regions such as al-Andalus, North Africa, Sicily, Malta, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Persia.

And even after the Muslim conquest of Persia there were still some Zoroastrians living there, although it is true that most eventually either converted to Islam or fled to al-Hind (India).

If you're interested in Central Asia, bear in mind that the Mongols were at least nominally Buddhist before they conquered Persia, and before that they were pagan animists, although many converted to Islam who chose to stay there.

And very late in SCA period, the Muslims made it to South Asia. If you choose to be from South Asia, you could be Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or Jewish - yes, there were several communities of Indian Jews in some major coastal cities.

So you can be of one of several different religious backgrounds, you don't have to be a Muslim to be a Near Easterner.

Do a little exploring of the rich cultural possibilities before you rush into being yet another pseudo-Ghawazee.

And because some many different ethnics groups either became Muslims or lived in Muslim-dominated cultures, you don't have to look some particular way. 'Abd al-Rachman III, who ruled over the goldedn age in al-Andalus had red hair and blue eyes. Sultan Suleiman's son Selim was a blond with green eyes. Asian Mongols becamse Muslims. Sub-saharan Africans became Muslims. So it really doesn't matter what your real-life physical appearance is. Pick the persona you will enjoy being.

Honey, Won't you shake that thing...

And "belly dance" as we know it did not exist.

Oh! Muh! Gawd! How can this be?

Yes, neither modern Cabaret style nor so-called American Tribal style (ATS) existed then. Both these styles, the most commonly taught in the US, and, i suspect, many other places, are creations of the 20th century, when dancers got a chance to see the dances of other parts of the world, either in person at international expositions, or on film.

Finding aspects of the dance of other cultures novel and/or interesting, dancers gradually incorporated a variety of movements, such as those from India and Indonesia (the head moving back and forth between the arms, for example). As new dance styles such as jazz and modern developed, movements from these were also incorporated. ATS also draws from folk and regional dances as well, adding them to the vocabulary of cabaret belly dance, ethnic, jazz and modern movements, while rarely doing specifically folk or regional dances.

Obviously each culture within al-Islam had its dance styles. We have, unfortunately, no way of knowing how people danced way back, but looking at specific regional dance forms and folk dances, as well as what survives of courtly dance styles, can give us a better idea.

And there are tantalizing hints in paintings and literature. Unfortunately, there are still documents that haven't been translated into European languages - perhaps in the future we'll know more from the writings of the times.

We can be pretty certain, based on what evidence we do have, that Near Eastern dancers were pretty well clothed. Some folks point to India, but it isn't in the Near or Middle East and while many of its movements have been co-opted by 20th and 21st century "belly dance", the many and varied dance styles of India are not "belly dance". If you want to dress like an Indian, i suggest you learn real Indian dance.

However, in the SCA, no one can force you to be historically accurate. Heck, given how little we know, you'd have a hard time being completely historically accurate, even if you'd like to be. If you want to join the hip shaking throng around the campfire, go right ahead. I recommend taking some ATS classes, as the inclusion of folk and regional movements makes it a bit more compatible with the SCA than the cabaret look.

Remember, dances were not just to seduce that cute looking person you've had your eye on for a while. Dances were part of celebrations of births, coming of age, marriages, harvest, religious rituals, etc. I find things more interesting knowing about their larger context, not just on a drunken Saturday night revel. But you can rest assured i will not be coming up to you to snark about your clothes or dancing.

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