Dr. Nasrin Rahimieh’s talk, “The Revolution in Iranian Women’s Writing,” offered unique insight into understanding the voices of female writers in Iran. One of the most profound ideas that Dr. Rahimieh shared was how women have been able to establish themselves on the literary scene even as their physical movement within society has become more confined in recent history. She addressed the stereotype of the Iranian women as one who is “mute rather than vocal, covered rather than exposed,” and then proceeded to demonstrate how women have been able to defy this stereotype through their writing. In my Sexuality and Identity in the Middle East class, we discussed how literature is able to give voice to those who may otherwise be silenced; novels are often able to express elements of culture and explore social dynamics in a more relatable way than scholastic writing.
Literature is a place that has allowed Iranian women to express their views and expose the realities of women and how they address the circumstances in their lives. Another idea that we discussed extensively in my sexuality class was how foreign influence shaped Iran during the 20th century. In Rahimieh’s lecture, she talked about a novel that dealt with this idea and discussed the suspicions that were specifically associated with the British and their presence in Iran. She related this to how the husband and wife in the novel came to reflect two different approaches to dealing with the changes taking place in Iran, wherein the wife focuses on family matters and the husband focuses on broader social and national matters. While the wife’s agency is assigned from her role of protecting the family and maintaining familial traditions despite changes in the nation, the husband’s agency is assigned through his work that addresses national issues and his involvement in conversations related to the future of the nation. Dr. Rahimieh discussed how the novel uses the metaphor of a watermelon to demonstrate this dynamic; while the carving of the watermelon by the woman can be taken as a literal sign of her commitment to family and her role in the home, it also metaphorically represents the carving up of the nation that was going on during the era of modernization that was driven by men.
The Arab Student Association put on a wonderful event this past weekend that celebrated wedding traditions from various countries in the Middle East. The evening consisted of three mock weddings, traditional Arab food, and indigenous dance styles from the region including belly dance and dabke. The belly dance was performed by a local professional, whose skill and precision with the isolations of her body were incredible. A group of students from OU performed Dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance.
I was the Moroccan bride, and I was carried out to the main event hall on a chair! This custom reminded me somewhat of the horah, which is a traditional circle dance performed at Jewish weddings where the bride and groom are lifted on chairs. I met my husband a mere hour before the nuptials, and although our relationship was short-lived, we had a great time laughing and dancing together to the cheers and zaghareet of the guests. (Zaghareet are trilling ululations made with the mouth, indicating excitement and encouragement.) There was also a Palestinian bride and an Egyptian bride. The Egyptian wedding included a demonstration of Tahtib, a traditional martial art where men face one another with sticks.
There was a woman at the event doing henna, and I had a beautiful rose drawn on my wrist by her. There was another woman doing Arabic calligraphy, and it was incredible watching her pen form the intricate letters of the language. At the end of the night the floor was opened for dancing, and we all gathered together to get loose and move to the music.
Imri Kalmann is a social activist that has been working for many years to increase public awareness of LGBT issues in Israel. He is a former co-chairperson of the Israeli LGBT Association and has also founded several prominent night clubs in Tel Aviv that are hubs for persons that identify as LGBT. Kalmann gave a talk at OU Hillel this March, where he spoke about his own personal experiences growing up in Israel as a gay man, and how he became involved in activism.
One of the most fascinating parts of this talk was hearing about the interactions of the different elements of Kalmann’s identity. Kalmann discussed how two of the most important aspects of his identity are his jewishness and his identification as a gay man. While the Jewish community as a whole is very accepting of LGBT people, Kalmann has found that government policies in Israel do not always reflect this due to the sway that the ultra orthodox that hold over policymakers. As traditionalists, most ultra orthodox are far less accepting of the LGBT community. Opposite this, the LGBT community tends to be a more secular sector of society.
Kalmann has struggled to reconcile his judaism and his homosexuality; while closing his popular gay bars on the Sabbath was important to him in upholding his personal religious convictions, the gay community resisted this show of religiosity. Kalmann felt that as much as the ultra orthodox did not support his sexual identity, the gay community did not support his Jewish identity. This was especially interesting for me to hear about as a fellow Jew and member of the LBGT community. I have been lucky to feel very supported by my Jewish community here in Oklahoma, and having an LGBTQ+ group within the OU Hillel community has shown me that these two identities can coexist harmoniously.
At the end of February, the Arab Student Association advertised an event that instantly caught my attention – a night of belly dancing!
Last semester I was fortunate enough to take a belly dancing workshop through the OU School of Dance, and I absolutely loved it. The movement is sensual and invigorating. As a dancer, I always enjoy new dance experiences, and learning about styles that exist in other cultures opens windows to understanding dance in the larger global context.
The workshop was led by two members of the Arab Student Association with belly dancing experience. They put together a short routine for us set to an upbeat song that had a distinctly Middle Eastern sound. They taught us a series of movements, which mainly consisted of undulations in the torso and hips. We then linked these movements together for the dance. Although the gathering felt somewhat awkward in the beginning and there was a sense of shyness in the room, we soon became comfortable with one another. This allowed us to dive into the movement, swaying our hips and shaking our shoulders together. The night ended with us dancing in a circle, improvising and free dancing as a group.
Dr. Shirin Saeidi, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, visited OU in February to give a talk about a book she is working on that deals with women’s rights struggles in post-revolution Iran. Dr. Saeidi did field work in Iran for several years in order to gather stories from women and learn first hand about their experiences.
One of the focuses of Dr. Saeidi’s work was engaging with non-elite women to give voice to their stories, which are often left out of the larger narrative in Iranian society. Saeidi discussed the idea of “individual versus collective remembrance,” and how women’s individual “remembrance of the past” is often lost to the mainstream narrative that is created to characterize history. By considering how past experiences contribute to shaping women’s lives in the present, we are better able to understand how the history of their circumstances affects the ways they choose to engage in the struggle for a better life.
A fascinating moment during the lecture was when Dr. Saeidi discussed the word “feminism” and how it was perceived by women in Iran. Interestingly enough, she found that the majority of women engaged in the struggle for equality did not identify with this term. This term originated in the West, and therefore it should not be surprising that Iranian women view their fight for rights based on their own terms. Although feminism is perhaps a universal concept in what it aims to achieve, we must respect how women around the world choose to characterize and approach their own unique struggles if we wish to truly support their efforts.
Studying abroad is one of the most incredible opportunities that students having during their time at a university. These programs offer a window into another world; they combine the rigor of academic work with the exploration of incredible countries and cultures. They allow students to challenge themselves as global citizens and expand their understanding of what it means to live and learn in different ways.
Although there are many amazing study abroad programs out there, one area that I believe is sorely lacking is programs for fine arts majors. Because much of what we do as artists is performance based, it is very difficult to go long periods of time without continuing to practice and refine our craft. On the path toward working in a professional performing industry time is very valuable, and taking even a few weeks or a month off to study abroad, much less a semester, is often not feasible. We need specific programs to help us advance our training, and these seem to be much more rare than study programs for other majors or the general student body.
I believe artists are the perfect candidates for going abroad, and that experiencing life in other places can greatly expand their desire and ability to create art. Speaking from personal experience, traveling to other countries has been deeply inspiring and has helped me grow in my understanding and appreciation of the human experience, which is what we seek to exemplify and exaggerate in our crafts.
I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad in Barcelona through a dance program sponsored by the OU College of Fine Arts. This is one of the few programs that this college offers, and is currently the only one involving a performing art. I have friends studying performing arts at other universities who have run into similar scenarios; some may have one or two limited options, while others do not have any study abroad programs available to them. Because what we do is so specific and intensely focused, we need training of relatively equivalent rigor no matter where we are in the world. Finding this is often so much of a challenge that fine arts majors discount it as a possibility. It is my hope that in the future, more programs will be developed and offered for these majors, and that more young, aspiring artists will have the ability to sing, dance, and experience the magic of art around the globe.
About two weeks before finals, the Hebrew Club finally held their first event of the semester. It is a small but mighty student organization, and although the meetings are few and far between, they are always heartfelt and enthusiastic. I have observed that those who choose to take Hebrew usually seem to be drawn to study the language for a specific reason, and are very committed to their learning. I myself chose to become involved in the Hebrew program at OU because I wanted to connect with a cultural aspect of my Jewish heritage. Others I talked with told me they wanted to deepen their understanding of the Bible by learning the language of the Old Testament; one of my former classmates mentioned that they were studying archaeology and felt learning an ancient language might come in handy. Regardless of the reasons that students signed up to take Hebrew, I was always amazed by how eagerly everyone embraced the language and the culture associated with it. Hebrew has always been a part of my life through my Judaism, but I never assumed that people who had not grown up with it would want to immerse themselves in it. Being able to share a culture that is so special to me and study it with people from different walks of life is something I have always loved about Hebrew at OU.
This was the first semester I was not able to fit a Hebrew class into my schedule, and attending Hebrew Club provided me the opportunity to reconnect with the langauge and my peers who had continued in the program. Hebrew is difficult to keep up outside the classroom because of how uncommon it is, especially in the middle of Oklahoma. It is not a language that one is likely to come across in daily life. While I hear Spanish quite frequently in day-to-day encounters and can utilize my Spanish-speaking skills in various situaions, the only time I have ever been able to apply my Hebrew skills to the real world was when my brother and I traveled to Israel during the winter break of my freshman year in college. I was surprised, however, by how much I remembered for not having spoken the language in quite a while. Phrases came back to me quickly, and although I probably botched a lot of the grammar, I was able to hold short conversations successfully. I hope that I have the opportunity to take more Hebrew classes while I am at OU, because reconnecting with Hebrew was invigorating; it reminded me why I chose to study this beautiful language in the first place.
Ever since I took a class entitled African Repercussions, which focused on the music and dance of Africa, I have been fascinated with the rhythms and movements that define various African cultures. When I saw an advertisement for an African Sanke event in Catlett Music Center, I was intrigued; here was an opportunity to see the music and dance I had learned about in live performance!
When I entered the theatre, many drums were placed in a line across the back of the stage, and there was also a keyboard player and a guitarist positioned behind them. When the musicians began playing, I was immediately gripped by the energy of the performers and the the intricate layers of rhythm that they created together.
The dancers wore colorful and brightly patterned clothing, and utilized various kinds of movement to tell a simple love story. A man and woman fall in love with one another and subsequently celebrate their joyous union, despite the disapproval of village elders. The slower, calmer sections featured more languid movement, with the dancers utilizing basic stepping patterns to move around the stage and set the scene. The more exuberant sections featured the dancers rapidly moving their hips and torsos to the furious rhythms, shaking and vibrating in tandem with the drums.
What surprised me the most about this performance was the athleticism of both the dancers and the musicians. The drummers threw their bodies into their instruments, embodying the pulse they created through their playing. They were dancing through their playing as much as the dancers were creating visual music with their bodies. One of the biggest takeaways from my African Repercussions class was that African culture views music and dance as synonymous; they are not separate art forms, but rather a single harmonious artform. After watching this performance, I finally understood this union of music and movement.
Last year, students from the OU School of Dance were invited by Beijing Normal University to perform at an international dance festival hosted by their school. This year, OU reciprocated their generous outreach by inviting the student company at Beijing Normal University to participate in a short residency and to perform alongside OU dancers for a special evening of dance.
The night began with an acapella vocal performance by an OU graduate who has become a major personality in China. He sang two traditional folk songs in mandarin, and his voice filled the entire theatre. It was my first time listening to sung mandarin; it’s always interesting to hear how foreign languages sound in song versus when they are spoken colloquially.
The next performance of the evening was a traditional Chinese dance. The movements of the solo dancer were stunningly fluid; her long, flowing skirt accentuated this quality. She also wore an extravagant hairpiece that made her appear to have a larger, more pronounced presence. I was amazed by the delicate movements of her hands; Western dance styles often hyper focuses on virtuosity, but her performance was proof that subtle beauty can be equally as powerful.
The Beijing Normal students then performed two striking contemporary pieces. The first was extremely intense and acrobatic, the dancers flying across the stage to mechanical noise as a clock in the background ominously counted down. The movement of one of the dancers was continually manipulated by the other dancers, giving the impression of a story of the one against the many. The second piece, entitled “The Wall,” involved actual blocks that the dancers used to construct a wall around the body of one of the dancers. The breaking down and building up of the blocks was a powerful reminder of how we as humans have the ability to both create and destroy. It was interesting to me that both of these pieces seemed to be rooted in darker themes; these contemporary performances stood in sharp contrast to the light, spirited traditional dance of the evening.
Overall, I found this evening of dance to be extremely inspiring. Although the performers were from the other side of the world, they were able to communicate with the audience through a powerful, universal language: art.
As part of the OU in Puebla Mexico Week festivities I attended a screening of the movie “Coco.” It was shown in Spanish with English subtitles, which provided me with the opportunity to revisit my Spanish language knowledge and practice my listening skills in a very engaging way.
The plot of the movie was crafted around the traditions and vibrant visual representations of the iconic Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. Having some previous knowledge of this holiday, it was interesting to see how the filmmakers blended elements of real celebratory practices with fictitious embellishments. The bright colors and intricately animated skeletons instantly drew me in, creating an electrifying cinematic experience that made me feel as if I was experiencing the holiday first hand. While this film was very entertaining, it also carried an important message: that above all, family should come first in our lives. Even when the people closest to us make mistakes, we should recognize how important the bonds of family are and how the love we share can help us through difficult circumstances. I think this is a beautiful message. I came away from this film feeling incredibly happy, and was inspired to text my family afterward with a reminder of how much I love them.