Here i keep the various books i own. The floor is covered with soft brightly-colored rugs. Two walls are lined with elaborately carved and painted shelves and cupboards filled with books, scrolls, papers... One side of the room has filigree shutters over windows facing onto the Courtyard. The shutters are open now, letting in a stream of comfortable warm light. Under the windows are divans and cushions on which to sit. In front of them are round, shell inlaid, wooden tables on which to put the reading matter. On the fourth side there is a larger low rectangular table with writing implements, a small sharp knife for carving reeds into pens, jars of colored inks, and under the table is a box of linen paper.
You will no doubt find some of this highly opinionated. Let's see what's here...
- NEW! SCA Near & Middle Eastern Cultural Myths
A point by point discussion of some of the misunderstandings I've heard while in the SCA from people who have Near or Middle Eastern personae. Covers language, religion, ethnicity, clothing, etc.
- The Near East. Not the Middle East
Why a limited term ought to be replaced by a more expansive and inclusive term. Think you know what "Middle East" means? Take a look at the Limited Middle East, the Inclusive Near East, and the Expansive Dar Islam. Also wander off to Indonesia - and my suggestions for taking on an Indonesian persona if you are somewhere hot and humid.
- A Bit of History
pointers to my very brief histories of al-Maghrib and al-Andalus
- So, You Want to be a Near Easterner?
See "Wide Choice of Time and Place" on how 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, when Mohammed had his revelations, or earlier if you don't want to be Muslim, up to 1600. Why "You Don't Have to be a Muslim". I ask, "Honey, Won't You Shake that Thing...", and say how belly dance as we know it did not exist and what you can do about it.
- Know Your Turks!
So many SCA Near and Middle Easterners just refer to "Turks", as if there is only one kind. But in the Medieval Near East there were several important groups of people who were Turkic. So, which ones do they mean? because the Ottomans aren't the only important Turks in relation to most of the rest of the cultures within the SCA.
- Navigation and Contact
Can't stand being in the library? Go somewhere else. Want to comment on what i've written? Where to find me.
Let's take a look here, in the map case...
The Near East. Not the Middle East
I am Near Eastern, not Middle Eastern. Why? Just look at this map! You see, there actually IS a difference.
The Limited Middle East
The term Middle East does NOT include North Africa and the middle and western Mediterranean regions in which i'm interested.
In fact, the term Middle East does not include much of the Ottoman Empire. First, it includes none of the European parts of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Balkans, Greece, and points west. And second, it doesn't include the North African parts. So if your persona is an Egyptian Ghawazee dancer, you aren't Middle Eastern, sorry.
So what does the Middle East include? It only spans the East shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to, but not including, India. This covers the Levant - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, and Anatolia/Asian Turkey, and Mesopotamia/Iraq, and Persia/Iran. In other words, Southwest Asia. Not bad, just a rather limited area compared to the possibilities.
The Inclusive Near East
So, you're better off saying "Near East". Why? What is the Near East?
My dictionary says it is an indefinite term, including North Africa, the Arab states, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, as well as the countries of Southwest Asia mentioned above. So Near East is much more inclusive.
When i hear "Middle East" i feel left out. If i hear "Near East" i feel so much better, and now that you know what it all means, so should you.
The Expansive Dar Islam
But, wait, there's more! If you want an even more inclusive term, you might choose "al-Islam" or "Dar Islam", which means, more-or-less, the Muslim world.
This includes everything from al-Andalus in Spain, Muslim Sicily, the Maghrib in North Africa, much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Southwest Asia (the Levant, Iraq, and Iran), through Central Asia, through South Asia (that's India and Pakistan) to East and Southeast Asia, where there are Chinese Muslims, the Malay Peninsula, the southern islands of the Philippines, Muslims in America (and it's the fastest growing religion by birth and immigration in America; neoPaganism is the fastest growing by conversion) and what is now the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia.
Sea faring traders from India had long been doing business with people in the Indonesian archipelago, later to be called the Spice Islands and the East Indies by European traders and colonialists. The major urban centers in the Indonesian archipelago took on the religion of their Indian trading partners beginning at least the 5th century CE. When the Indian traders were Buddhists, Buddhism became the religion in chief trading centers in the islands. When the Indian traders later became Hindus, Hinduism became the religion. And when the Indian traders became Muslims, Islam became the chief religion and is to this day, although there are other religions in some parts of Indonesia, both indigenous and by conversion.
In the late 16th century Dutch and Portuguese ships made it to Indonesia, home of many mysterious and valuable spices. I'm not sure just how much contact there was beyond this. European colonizing didn't really begin until the 17th century.
If you live somewhere hot, you might consider taking on an Indonesian persona. There's a large body of music and dance, and a rich history and culture to explore, not to mention simple but elegant clothing and delicious food.
I considered doing it, but it's too danged cold around here. Want more information? Let me know via my e-mail address at the bottom of this page.
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Hmmm, what's up here on this shelf...
A Bit of History
Why did i choose to be a Maghribi/Andalusi? Because i find the history and culture of the region fascinating. If you're curious, here is a brief look at what happened there...
A Brief History of al-Maghrib, home of the Setting Sun, from pre-history to modern times.
A Brief History of al-Anadalus, from Roman times to the a golden age of Muslim culture in Medieval Spain, to the Reconquista that ended in 1492.
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Hmm, these files might be interesting...
So, You Want to be a Near Easterner?
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 is 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, 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 had fled, 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. Just being an empty shell in a costume with a mug of cola, heck, i coulda stood home an' dunnit.
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, and the Levant.
And even after the Muslim conquest of Persia there were still some Zoroastrians
living there, although it is true that most 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, 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).
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-Ottoman pseudo-Ghawazee.
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.