The Moorish Wanderer

“Do you think she’s deeply and importantly talented?” – “No, but amusingly and superficially talented, yes”

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan History & Sociology, Moroccanology, Morocco, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on September 1, 2011

in times of low readership, there is nothing like Neo-burlesque to pick up some traffic, and of course it also provides leisure cover for serious issues. Whatever is needed to entertain the crowd.

Neo-burlesque has -and still is- been disparaged by too many people (including feminists by the way) as demeaning to women, the sign of reactionary longing for the days when women were more “feminine” i.e. more submissive. The discourse does not find its place in Morocco, however, for many reasons: our social relationship to sexuality is not only a taboo, but it has grown to be so for a majority of our fellow citizens. It is no wonder, since Moroccan households have been literally indoctrinated to embrace a viciously conservative stance, and develop a hostile reaction to all things ‘alien’ to our ‘national and Islamic identity’. Even a debate on mainstream sexuality would be followed by the deafening outcry of the bigots brigade (usually quartered in the Attajdid newspaper’s column) let alone a debate on sophisticated (er…) sexuality. In addition, this could be dismissed as a luxury: we do have some more urgent needs to attend to – and I suspect many lefties would agree and dismiss the whole things as Petit-bourgeois considerations- Still an all, sexuality remains one of the basic human needs, and does need to be attended too (got the pun there?)

Demeaning femininity? No, Glorifying it.

The golden age of burlesque -somewhere around the 1920s and 1940s- is paradoxically -when time adjusted for- the golden age of Moroccan women and their liberation. The garter might have been construed as a symbol of gender oppression in the United States or Europe, but it surely has been an instrument of liberation rather, at least on our shores. And let us not be mistaken, for men have freed themselves too from the outdated distribution of gender roles in sexuality. But then again, this does not mean Moroccans did not enjoy sexy before 1950, does it?

How about Hajja Hamdaoui? or the sensual Mal’houn poems? or our very own plump, gaudy, bawdy pin-ups, Cheikhates? These are all good pieces of evidence that some urban dwellers and the upper class did enjoy themselves thoroughly, a great deal of which involved what made up the bulk of Oriental fantasy: harem, slaves,… what have you. As for the remaining 95% other people, the leisure part took little or no place in their lives, and sex was basically there for reproductive needs only, to basically ensure the existence of a labour force large enough to make up for the mortality rate and provide a retirement insurance scheme.

And again, isn’t Burlesque just as exclusive as those items described above? isn’t it elitist, with that flavour of sexual leisure very few of us can or would enjoy? Yes! but so are education, literature, arts, etc…. these are not always at the disposal of everyone, while they should. Regardless, the mere allusion to sex as a “normal” social function is enough to belittle proponents of such claim and label them as out of touch or deviants, or both; The truth is, that selective list of items to be improved and others to be left for a while is a foolish exercise of populist conservative ideology.

The claim that the libertarian flavour of Burlesque reminds Moroccan women of a golden age when they rushed through to claim their rights and gender equality; that period embodies female empowerment through vibrant sexuality and liberation from a certain type of clothing: 1947, I suppose, is a good date to mark that change for Women in Morocco, indeed:

In the Moroccan coastal city of Tangier, frenzied crowds cheered hoarsely as a majestically robed figure on a white horse rode past to receive their homage.[…]

The man on horseback was His Majesty Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef, and the purpose of his visit that hot, sunny April day in 1947 was to give sustenance to a dream that has since become reality: freedom and independence for his country.

The next night, in the patio of Tangier’s casbah, a lissome girl in a shimmering blue silk Lanvin gown, milk-white turban and evening slippers gracefully ascended a dais piled high with priceless Oriental carpets, and turned to face her audience. Younger men in the audience eyed appreciatively the girl’s dark eyes, her rich red-brown hair and café au lait complexion. But many orthodox Moslem traditionalists just stared wide-eyed, stunned and aghast at the appearance in public of Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Aisha, eldest daughter of His Majesty the Sultan—17 years old, unveiled and unashamed. (Times, November 1957)

Princess Royal Aisha, TIME Nov.57: "a call to shake off an age-old bondage fastened on them"

By showing dressed like a movie star, Princess Royal Aisha was indeed at the vanguard of sexual liberation; the immediate years following independence only exacerbated the yearning for gender equality: if men could wear western clothes, why wouldn’t women too? And so the battle for gender equality started off, with women working outside and claiming equal pay too, while they were carrying their rights as individuals.

The 1960s, in the minds of the greatest generation Morocco ever had yet, -and that is not an overstatement- is associated to a sense of freedom – the late 1960s in fact, as reported by Paul Pascon in his comprehensive survey with young rural dwellers. And unless some other survey comes to contradict this and confirm that Moroccans have all lilly white morality, then the ad hominem argument about opposition between morality and fitness for government should be dropped altogether.

The conservative side of Moroccans cannot be denied, but it has been pointed out that generally speaking, there are specific items young Moroccans tend to gainsay; indeed:

Au Maroc, l’attachement à la tradition est généralement valorisé. Ce qui est des fois remis en cause, ce n’est pas la tradition en tant que telle mais tel ou tel élément traditionnel. L’évaluation se fait selon divers critères. Certaines traditions sont bannies parce que jugées hétérodoxes, d’autres sont rejetées au nom de la science et du progrès.

(50-years report – Values annex, page 35)

The conservative variable can definitely be put aside, save for activists who tend to bully public opinion into endorsing them, the current state of mind is rather that of “individualistic conservatism” where each individual comes up with a customized interpretation of what they consider ‘true traditions’, which is not precisely what tradition is about…

In any case, and even though stripping falls into the category of ‘vice’ -per the Moroccan law, anyway- conservatives would do well to heed Bernard Mandeville‘s advice in the “Fable of the Bees“:

THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive

To make a Great an Honest Hive.

T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniences,

Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,

Without great Vices, is a vain

Eutopia seated in the Brain.

(Fable of the Bees, 1732)

Bottom line: Dita Von Teese rocks, and what she stands for should mean a lot to Moroccan women.

PS: Post is dedicated to Shiftybox, may she take the bait.

Politics Away, Bring the Burlesque

I don’t feel like discussing politics today.

I sometimes wonder: are the Moroccan leftS built for democracy? Or rather, are our left-wing politicians party to leave behind their personal griefs and over-sized prides (as well as shamless u-turns for the governmental of them…), and build the Unified Left (no less). Not one party, you understand, that would be too difficult and I for one, wouldn’t be at ease with it (that’s the sectarian part of me, I can’t rid of it, sorry…).

Let’s talk about something superficial, or something too elaborate in its superficiality perhaps. Let us leave aside the average populace to their regular uproars; Although these times, new records were set it seems. Naciri junior went a bit berserk on his way home, he seemingly did beat up some random guy for a minor car friction. Other than that, I didn’t find Naciri father very convincing in explaining himself: I did lap it up though; the “on my honour” part. Very dignified, very much indeed. It just happened he has a turbulent son that needs protection (with a justified record of bad behaviour I am told)

Then there’s the Elton John outcry: Attajdid lost the initiative it seems, and wanted to gain it back, you know, call up the primary islamic/islamist instincts of their public to get a grip on their (average) readers.The facts Elton John being gay and performed a concert in Israel are just irrelevant. No parallel intended,  but I didn’t recall Attajdid chums protesting much against the concert the Red Army Choir presented before HRH Prince Rashid for the FAR’s 50th anniversary in 2006. And they, the Red Army Choir, did too perform in Israel, and moreover, the Russian army is killing Chechen Muslim brothers. Attajdid, and the PJD too, it seems, are just trying to re-attract attention to them after the blow related to the surreal fatwas. They eventually caved, as Elton John did come to Morocco, and he did perform a wonderful piece last night.

What worries me more is the AMDH business. Leaving aside political loyalties, I am very fond of Annahj -although I am not a member, and it so happens I disagree with some of their stands- but the fact they had the majority at the last conference should not prompt their “comrades” in the PADS and the PSU to deafened us with their plaintive cries: “but look, they’ve got everything and they are party to turn the NGO into their own boutique !”. What upsets me more is how delighted the Makhzen left was, to this. I can hear them already: “hey, you can’t even get together on this”, plus you know, there’s still a look-down attitude towards the radical left; Because parties like the USFP and the PPS gambled, lost their bet and are in the process in loosing some more, while trying to sank promising projects with them. And it’s not like the “little” ones are fond of pursing their own project. No, they are under the despicable illusion they still can do some good in ‘discussing’ with the other side. Politics-fiction is nothing compared to Moroccan politics, we’ve just got cross another layer of surreal politics.

I drifted a bit, sorry. I was about to discuss something interesting (to those of us who have any interest in it).

Let us talk about Neo-burlesque. First off, do we need it to be construed as demeaning to Women ? As a matter of fact, it is indeed. It boils down to stripping but with an elaborate choregraphy, with music, all elegantly of course a real change from “regular” stripping, though it must be pointed out, that all this takes place in a very 1940’s-1950’s mood: the clothes (or what’s left of them, that is), the performer’s features (haircut, makeup, etc…), as if the “new sexy” (and I am not referring to the Lady Gaga sort of sexy, or what the teenage girls want to look like) is to bring back the gorgeous Pin-ups so much fantasized about for many decades.

Dita Von Teese, Neo-Burlesque star show, draws a lot from the 1950's pin-up presentation.

When I was doing my research about it, I found this book, “The Happy Stripper: pleasures and politics of new burlesque” on the matter; Very interesting indeed. Jacki Willson went to see a performance -a stripping presented as artistic-. After the show, she felt a mix of confusion, anger and pleasure. The author is definitely a feminist, but she didn’t know what to make out of the performance: was Ursula Martinez (the stripper, but then again she is a little more than that…) a dis-empowered worker, or was she shining indeed in all its provocative sexiness? Is it fine to sell stripping as art, while the public is in a voyeuristic state? All of these questions prompted J. Willson to write the present book we are discussing. Right from the 1950’s all the way to the 1980’s, the feminists struggled to make women more minds than bodies; To redefine all the essential parameters of femininity in order to overcome, as Willson puts it, ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ state. As it was rightfully pointed out, normative clothes and behaviour were -and to a certain extent, still are- designed function to the male gaze/pleasure. Think about it in our own societies: why does a young woman put the veil? the very quick, simple and completely acceptable motivation (within the society’s normative set of references) is that of protecting the lady’s virtue from male temptation. Is it not that the veil, the burqa, the niqab, or any piece of clothing considered to be of shari’a origin are for protecting and shading women from men’s temptation?

Western feminists wanted too -in their whole heterogeneous lot- to bring intelligence and wittiness in women’s personalities. Away the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘hot redhead’ stereotypes, women can too have witty repartee, biting intelligence and holding senior offices at work. What Willson just saw in the cabaret joint was a shock: there she was -the stripper/artist I mean- getting rid in the sexiest way possible of her incredibly sexy clothes, but in the same time, with a majesty, a self-confidence and afterwards, with a wit and humour that indeed, it must be troubling for the feminist the author is to sort it out.

She then goes on: “ We are in the thick of a new wave of burlesque. This formidable display of flesh seductively draws us back to a time of the eroticized pin-up. It propels us back into that era of hard glamour where such cinematic characters as Marlene Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor reigned supreme. This provocative sexuality bubbles breathlessly from the fashion pages of glossy magazines and lures up from pop music videos and film. Does this forthright display of sexualized women take us right back to a pre(-)feminist 1950’s state, or does it communicate something much more pressing about our present post-feminist condition?

Though not a 1950's Pin-up, Greta Garbo was of first class in her own.

The more interesting part of course, is when Willson finds sociological ties to the whole business of burlesque. As an American, she drew mainly from the late 19th century (when Burlesque was first introduced in the US) to the Neo-Burlesque of late 1990’s, when iconic performers, like Dita Von Teese brought back the sexy pin-ups then so much revered in the post-WW2 period. In facts, she found that in times of economic crisis -such as the current one-, times of uncertainty and confusion, all unsettling, the burlesque, the theatrical representation of sexuality was brought back. She does however points out that as time goes by, and with the steady middle-class shaping of US society, these representations, tend to be of, as she puts it, of “bourgeoisification” of burlesque: the French Can-Can has little to do with the current shows, much more elaborate, sophisticated, very 1950’s like (which is not a coincidence, the 1950’s/1960’s where the âge d’or of US bourgeois middle-class society, as well as the fore running signs of sexual liberation)

So, is there any link between (post)feminism and burlesque? It is true the 1950’s pin-ups have something of a sex-appeal, and in facts, some of them indirectly provided role model for sexual-liberty aspiring young women. After all, Marlene Dietrich and, to some extent, Greta Garbo are iconic within the lesbian -and more widely, for GBT as well- community. Not only because of their sexual orientations, but because of how at ease they seemed and acted with their personal choices. Dita Von Teese might as well be a model for aspiring post-modern, post-industrial young women: witty, openly sexual with a great taste (I am sorry, but Men and Women alike dressed in a much better fashion in the 1950’s than they do now. Arguably, clothes were of far inferior material, but the cuts and looks were much better, as far as I am concerned).

Marlene Dietrich in a Boyish oufit. One of the Hollywood stars with an assumed bisexual identity. The cold sexual allure of her "blonde mystery" was Dietrich's trademark.

Why would the male gentry feel threatened by this horde of sexually aggressive Femina? Or is it just because the old paradigm of the predator male is actually outdated? It looks as though some would be happy to watch Dita in her giant Martini glass, but would be too afraid to have something like her at home, or at bed. Too much intimidating perhaps?