The BDSS bridge building effort and the Mezquita

This has been sticking in my craw for quite a while, site and I guess the best way to free myself is to go ahead and dump it out there in public and the next time it comes up, I can skip the discussion and just point. I could be wrong about all of this, but there are just too many pieces that come together for me.

Long, long ago, in a garden far, far away (in Hollywood), Miles Copeland III made the following statement about just how important the Bellydance Superstars really are:

“Bellydance Superstars is the most important dance company in the world today. We are the only ones doing something that has a social import. Given that the most important thing in the world today is the conflict between Muslim world and the United States, anything that creates bridges between those two cultures is incredibly important.”

Since then, he’s played it a bit fast… and I’ve taken issue with that strategy.

Much more recently, I stumbled into a couple pieces over at Gilded Serpent discussing the latest version of the Bellydance Superstars… one by a [former] superstar and one by Najia. Najia’s piece included this observation:

The curtains opened and a large backdrop of some sort of old palatial architecture suggesting Arabic culture lined the entire back of the stage. These over-large renderings do lend some courtly atmosphere, but tend to dwarf the performers, losing dancers in the perspective of their massive scale, bright colors and over-sized landscapes. I am accustomed to the colorful fabrics that the Egyptians use for their party backdrops that mock the elaborate appliqués of old, but these palace renderings are enormous by comparison!

and this uncredited picture:

I have to emphasize at this point that I am no scholar of Arabic or Middle Eastern culture. I’ve toyed with architecture, and I’ve been working fairly seriously on dance-related cultural stuff for a couple years now, but I am far, far from an expert. They used a smaller backdrop – David Ludwig’s “Moroccan Room” – to fit the stage at the Birchmere, so I have not seen this backdrop in its full glory. With that disclaimer, it’s time for me to connect some dots.

First, this (the larger) backdrop appears to be based on, if not intended to represent, the Mosque of Cordoba. Cordoba’s arches are very distinctive (see here and here and here and here for photos). Even more specific to this sacred site is the cathedral built into the center of the mosque. In the image of the BDSS backdrop, you can see what looks suspiciously like a buttress through the center gap in the columns roof. I could be wrong, but I know of no other place on earth where you will find a forrest of columns, red-striped Islamic arches, under a classically western cathedral architectural element.

Second, if this is Cordoba, Cordoba has a very specific history as a sacred site. To the Romans it was a temple to Janus; to Visigoths, a Cathedral of St. Vincent; to Muslims as a great mosque (the biggest in Europe, even). Then the Christians came back and re-dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, then a couple centuries later, plopped a cathedral in the middle of the building, so now it’s a huge mosque with a cathedral in the middle.

You can interpret that in several ways, of course, and being an anti-fundamentalist, I personally don’t really care which way you interpret it. Cordoba could be a great insult Christians by Islam, a great insult to Islam by Christians (and legend has it that even the king that sanctioned the construction of the Cathedral, Charles V, regretted his endorsement of the construction of the cathedral, saying “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something unique in the world.” Or it could even be a great insult to Janus by everyone. The polar interpretation (and my preferred interpretation) is that this is one place in the world where Christian and Islamic architecture stand today without the ongoing stain of fresh blood – it is a physical monument to religious tolerance.

Either way, Copeland has dancers showing a lot of skin and shaking a lot of body parts, in what looks like the courtyard of the Mezquita, in the shadow of a Cathedral. For me, that doesn’t bother me – but I don’t get offended easily. I realize that there are people that do (and I go to great lengths to offend them myself). So, I think some cultural awareness is called for… where this runs into trouble for me is that Copeland (and company) can’t claim ignorance – Copeland has paraded his life experience in the Middle East and he’s quoted (and re-quoted and re-quoted) his intention to “create bridges” between the two cultures. It seems to me that staging dancing girls in a sacred place is not the best way to do that.

Not that I expect many fanatical Muslims or Christians in the Bellydance Superstars audience, but if the stated intent is to create bridges, at the very least this is a lost opportunity to educate the audience that does come to the BDSS shows. At worst, this is a profane slap-in-the-face to both Muslims and Christians. As far as I’m concerned, there are two ways out – pull the backdrop and apologize and turn this into an opportunity to build some of those bridges Copeland says are so important, or stop professing the intent to build bridges and admit that the Bellydance Superstars are not about saving us all from a global war of cultures, and it’s merely a dance show.

Whatever Copeland does, I’m going with the former. I guess I will step into the gap, and at least give you the opportunity to turn this into a learning experience and a history lesson.

There are few places in the world that have this kind of distinctive, readily identifiable architecture and embody, in stone, multiple religions. The Mezquita is one… Hagia Sofia in Istanbul is another (converted from a cathedral to a mosque).

I would start with the view from orbit. This is a big, big structure.

Wikipedia also has a good overview, with several links of their own. islamicarchitecture.org has a more detailed history of the construction, at least during the Islamic reign. this photo which is linked from this article is a bit grainy, but shows the buttresses from an aerial perspective. A page from this piece is linked above for photos. archnet.org has a piece as well, and I’ll wrap this up with a link to unesco, which has designated the Mezquita and its surroundings a world heritage site, and includes this this video introduction [windows media].

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