A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 30, 2012

Moroccan Belly Dance Festival With Israelis Provokes Islamist and Political Complaints

Just the other day I was joking about an "emerging Islamist/belly dancer axis," after several incidents involving Islamists and belly dancers. But things are quite different in Morocco. There are Islamist complaints, and also political complaints, about the "Mediterranean Delight International Belly Dance Festival" in Marrakech in May. The festival has apparently been around for several years, but even in Morocco an Islamist party, the PJD, is now leading the government, and many Islamists object to belly dancing on moral grounds.

But there's another element in this case. At least two of the key participants featured on the website (one female, one male) are Israelis. Now, Israelis actually visit Morocco regularly, both in official capacities and as tourists; the two countries have a de facto equivalent of relations even if not formal. (Their security services have also been known to work together, but that's a tale for another time.) In fact, the Israelis involved in this — one of them is apparently one of the organizers — also participated in last year's event, and perhaps earlier ones as well. So what's the big deal?

I suspect it's that somebody noticed, setting off both political critics of the modus vivendi with Israel, and Islamists, who object both to Israelis and to belly dancing and thus doubly to Israeli belly dancers.

Here's an Arab view of the issue from Al-Arabiya, and to balance that a report from the Jerusalem Post offering the Israeli reaction and also noting that an Israeli diplomat was recently hustled out of Morocco as soon as his meetings ended, and a Jewish man was recently killed in Fez, possibly due to his identity. So there's a serious side to this, and a potential threat to Moroccan-Israeli (unofficial) relations.

And there do seem to be some issues here that may have inflamed opinions more than were strictly necessary. For instance, if you go to the entrance page for the festival's website, you'll find buttons to take you to pages in no fewer than eight languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Hebrew and Japanese. Do you notice anything missing? Yes, though Morocco is an Arab country, there's no page in Arabic, though there is one in Hebrew. That seems undiplomatic, to say the least.

The frieze of international flags does include Egypt, Morocco and Turkey along with Israel, but there's no page in Arabic. Here's the English site and here's the Hebrew.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest this is the most important issue in Morocco at the moment; it's a distraction and a bit frivolous; whether one festival is held or not doesn't matter much given the problems the region, including Morocco, face. But it's a reminder that these cultural flashpoints, like the "booze and bikinis" debate over tourism in Egypt, are going to be an issue as political Islamists test their strength. Even so Westernized a country as Morocco is not immune, and the tourism industry may well be affected. Admittedly, it's easy to make too much of this, but it's the Islamists who are bringing it up, though it draws attention because it gives the media an excuse to show pictures of bikinis or belly dancers.

No such sensationalism here, of course, though I do have a duty to demonstrate that there is in fact a precedent for these Israeli belly dancers appearing in Morocco. Here's Simona Guzman, who's quoted in the Jerusalem Post article and who is apparently an organizer of the festival as well, performing at last year's Mediterranean Delight Festival in Marrakech:


xoussef said...

Note how your two news reports are from two foreign media, one Israeli the other Saudi? Of course it started in local media, but it illustrates how this is mainly about PR and Image, outside the country. It's about how Islamists are keen to be seen as not compromising in boycotting Israel, and how they will manage the official myth of a "religious tolerance land" our national PR machine has so successfully pulled out, till now. It has proved to be very useful, but maintaining it comes with accomodating Isreal in international events and institutions and being nice to Israeli citizens, not only the few still identifying as Moroccans. Now that they're in charge, the PJD will have to decide if it is worth it, electorally, diplomatically and economically, to shatter the only fragile success of Moroccan diplomacy.
The PJD is being challenged on many of its pre-electoral populist stances,from the opposition as well as fellow Islamists. Mawazine festival, arts, high speed rail, phantom sex shop, now belly dancing and Israeli relations. For now at least, they chose to awkwardly backtrack on them, the reality of governing kicking in may be?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks for a view from the local perspective.