Middle Eastern Women in Film: Women as Entertainers and the Art They Create

Middle Eastern Women in Film:  Women as Entertainers and the Art They Create

In this article I explore the role of Middle Eastern female entertainers as seen through the lens of three films:

  1. The Silences of the Palace
  2. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, And Egyptian Society In The Twentieth Century (a film made from the book)
  3. Gabbeh

Middle Eastern Women

Women as Entertainers and the Art They Create

Written on 2/27/02

The cultural history of dance in Arabic society dates back to Pre-Islamic times, and carries with it much controversy.  I choose to call this article “Middle Eastern Women”, rather than Arab and Persian Women, because we are primarily looking at Arab women, but I take a look at one Persian film.   Also, The Silences of the Palace is a Tunisian film; they are not technically all Arab, so I felt it was easier to just say “Middle Eastern Women” to accommodate these differences.  Dance as creative self-expression for the soloist, or as a national or regional identity for the group conjures up many emotions that define an individual and a culture; our individual and collective identity can be articulated through the language of dance.  Women in Islamic societies have different forms of art to express themselves, and they are related by similar themes; some of these forms are rug weaving, singing, dancing, and poetry.

However, when the art form is taken out of the context of the home, and presented to others as “entertainment”, such as with singing and dancing, it can be potentially transgressive for the woman’s honor.  Despite the love of dance by most Islamic cultures, it is viewed as something that should only be shared with one’s own family.  Therefore, entertainers, while much beloved by the society, are relegated to the lower spheres of society.  They do not hold a desirable position in society, even though their talent is envied.

The stigma of being a performer in most Islamic societies for women is particularly worse than for men, I believe.   As men’s natural sphere of influence is the public, it is not unusual for them to mingle with strangers.  However, for women the home is her domain, so a woman that congregates with strangers is seen as “loose”, or immoral.  This question of moral character brings many issues with it for women’s lives; from the microcosm to the macrocosm I see them as starting with the woman herself, and her physical body; then issues surrounding her social status and family dynamics; then ending with issues related to the growth and survival of her art, and the story it tells, whether it be carpet weaving, or dance.

As examples I will use three films:  1) “The Silences of the Palace” as an example of how women relate to their bodies, how the body is viewed, and the relationship to dance; 2) “Umm Kulthum” as an example of a female entertainer that defied all the stereotypes and used her public position to further herself and her family, as well as Egypt; and 3) “Gabbeh” as an example of the dance as art, and comparing it to the story-telling of the rug-weaving.

“The Silences of the Palace”:

In this film we see an excellent example of the lives of two entertainers, a dancer mother, and her singer daughter.  Most of the film is seen through the eyes of the singer, Alia, as she is a child, then an adolescent, then as an adult.  Her growing awareness of her lot in life brings her full circle to realize that her life is not much different than her mother’s, which is quite tragic.  Both women are orphaned, and have no other family; both women are entertainers, but this only degrades their social status; and both women cannot find proper husbands, and hence, have legitimate children, because of their roles as servants, orphans and entertainers for the rich.

We see Alia’s growing awareness of her body at her menarche, or the onset of puberty.  She is ashamed that she is bleeding; she tries to hide it from her mother, and her mother tells her that it is natural, that every woman goes through this.  Her new body brings on a sexual awareness that helps her to identify with men; she becomes curious about who her father is, but her mother never tells her.  Alia’s consciousness of her body as a sexual vehicle is at its height when she sees her mother with the King, and realizes that he is perhaps her father.  She faints, only to find herself awakened by her mother getting raped by one of the Princes.  This throws Alia into an illness that is based on her psychological shock; her mind cannot comprehend what she saw, and so her body temporarily shuts down.

This experience really marks Alia’s adolescence; seeing her mother getting raped enforces the society’s notion that women’s bodies are dirty and immoral.  As her mother, Khadija, is a dancer, this links this idea with dance, that women dancing is somehow unclean, just as their bodies are.  Khadija becomes pregnant as a result of the rape, and is horrified by her body.  In a particularly tense scene in the film Khadija begins to cry and moan in the kitchen amongst her servant peers that she hates her body, that she is disgusted by it.  Poor Alia witnesses this, and it is a foreshadowing to the eventual self-imposed abortion that Khadija does to herself; she takes a stick and beats her belly until she feels that she is loosening the child’s grip on her body.  These images are the first things Alia sees in her life as an example of womanhood and fertility; and it also foreshadows her own fate of her future abortions.  As an illegitimate child, Alia starts to see herself as a product of this immorality, I believe.  However, she has little control over her fate; she feels helpless to make her life better than her mother’s was.

This leads me to questions about ownership of a woman’s body; who decides their fate?  Ultimately, it is the family who decides; and if a woman has no family, she has little or no social support, and is fair game for men’s amusements.  As this is a patriarchal society, men rule women’s fates; a woman needs a good husband to protect and shelter her from sexual predators, and provide her with the children that will take care of her in her old age.  Without family support, a woman can very easily become pawns in the hands of men, especially if the woman is an entertainer, as in Khadija and Alia’s cases.  Ultimately, it is men that define a woman’s fate; being a mother elevates a woman’s social status, but being a single mother can lower it.

As Alia grows up her best friend is really her half-sister.  It is an interesting dynamic between the Queen and Khadija, and Alia and the Princess.  The Queen despises Khadija, and even tells Alia that she is “bad, just like her mother”, after Alia sneaks into the Queen’s room to look at her pretty, feminine things that help to define her upper class status.  The Queen is obviously jealous of Khadija because she has the King’s heart; it seems to me that the royal marriage is for convenience, and that the King really loves Khadija; Alia is their love-child.   But Alia and the Princess, Sarra, love each other as sisters; the King even shows affection for Alia, but never claims her as his own.

It is only at the onset of puberty that a rift occurs in Sarra and Alia’s friendship.  Once Sarra reaches menarche she is suitable for marriage; suitors are sought, and a decision is made for her to marry her cousin.  When Sarra tells Alia this news, there is awkwardness, as Sarra cannot ask Alia whom she will marry.  There is no one to petition on her behalf, no family to look after Alia, only her mother.  Sarra loves her friend, so much so, that before her own wedding, she brings Alia some of her old, but still very nice, dresses to wear, as she knows Alia does not own any clothes fancy enough for the party.  Sarra lives the privileged life of a rich legitimate child; she does everything “right” in the eyes of propriety and society.  Alia must take what she can get in order to survive.

The scene where the King allows a photo to be taken of himself and his two daughters was particularly touching to me; as the King walks away, the Queen says to him, “you have really sunk low (to be associated with these women)”, and you can see by his face that he is aware of how others perceive him, but he does not really care.  I believe he portrays a positive image for Arabic men; all too often they are seen as brute, heartless beasts, but from my own experience I can say that this is the exception, not the norm.  Sit ‘Ali shows us a man who has a big heart, and is a big “softie”; he has a quiet authority about him, and gets his point across by gentleness, not force. It is no wonder that Khadija finds refuge in him.  The King shows us a character that is trapped by the social mores of his time; he cannot break custom as he would set an example to the rest of the country.  However, he cannot deny his heart; he loves Khadija, and so by extension of course he would love the product of this love, his daughter Alia.  The King is helpless in this situation, even though he possesses the most authority in the country by his people.

As fate would have it, a man comes to hide in the palace, and Alia and he end up falling in love.  Despite the love that is felt between them, her lover will not marry her, even though she gets pregnant countless times.  Each time but the last ends in abortion; even though she has a man taking care of her, she still is not married to this man.  Possibly her low status as an orphan and a singer keeps this man from marrying her.  She is also having premarital sexual relations, and this too carries a stigma; the price of virginity at marriage is almost priceless.  As she does not have this going for her, she does not have much to bargain with to maneuver her position in society.  She feels trapped, just as her mother did; her headaches began when she saw her mother get raped, and it seems that she continues to get them whenever she feels helpless.

I found the black nurse, Cherifa, as an interesting figure in the movie.  She holds perhaps the lowest position on the social scale, but yet represents many positive attributes.  She is not low class because of some immorality; her job is as a healer, beautician, and a kind of transformer.  She is almost separate from the society of the palace, as she does not live there, and this gives her a kind of freedom.  Certainly she has her own world with her people and a different status with them, of which we are unaware, but amongst the Arabs of the palace she is a positive influence.  She is the healer of the body, too, and this brings a positive association with women and the body.

Alia has her own type of freedom, too; it is music.  Learning to play the oud brings her a joy that was absent in her life before then; when she sings she seems to be lifted out of her depressing situation.  It seems to be a self-medication for her sorrow; just as her mother showed us through her movements while she danced that she was surrendering to the fate of her life, Alia abandons herself while she sings.  Playing the oud and singing become Alia’s passion during her adolescence; they begin to define how Alia thinks of herself, and how others perceive her, too.  While everyone is impressed with her talent, and she is sought after for almost every party, it is also known that by becoming an entertainer she will have a hard time finding a husband.  However, performing becomes the one area of Alia’s life that she can control, therefore it is hard for her to let it go.

Ultimately, Alia decides to keep the baby that is inside her this time; by the end of the movie we have seen the progression of her growing awareness of herself and her life, and the situations that brought her to this state.  She does not want to go through another abortion, despite the knowledge that her life will be more difficult as a single mother.  This marks her shift from adolescence into adulthood; Alia becomes the director of her life, and she does not let men make a decision about her body.  This seeming independence for the time being gives Alia the strength that she needs to endure.  Feeling like she has some kind of control over her life and fate gives Alia more confidence by the end of the movie.  It seems she is determined to not let her mother’s memory die, and to honor her by trying to make a better life for herself and her new baby.  Singing and playing the oud have given Alia the confidence that was not instilled in her by her mother while she was growing up; entertaining helped her to develop the skills that she would need as an adult to survive.

I find it interesting that Alia’s mate would be a teacher; he not only teaches her how to read and write, but he teaches her how to become a woman.  After the death of her mother, Alia has no family; also there is a lot of chaos as a result of the war.  Her only link to survival in the outside world is this teacher, her mate.  While he does not want to marry her, and we can only speculate the reasons why, he still supports her.  They are living together in sin, and he acts as a sort of manager for her singing career.  While it is obvious that he loves Alia, I find him a weaker character than the King.  The teacher does not have much face to lose if he marries Alia; he is not setting an example for the whole country, as the King would have done if he had married Khadija.  He even tells Alia that she is “crazy” to keep the baby; however, she is resolute in her decision and goes against his wishes.  He teaches her to follow her heart, even though she is doing something that he does not approve of.

The movie is set during the 1950’s revolution in Tunisia against the French colonial government.  There are many correlations between the country seen as the “motherland”, the body of the mother, and Khadija and Alia’s own body and motherhood.  All are trapped by an outside force; for the country it is France, and for the two women it is men.  The independence of Tunisia represents the empowerment of Alia as an adult; she has learned from her past, and that of her mother’s, and is ready to take responsibility for her own future.  The coming revolution puts Sit ‘Ali in a similar situation as Khadija; as he is Tunisian he has always lived under French colonial rule, just as she has always lived under the Palace’s rule.  Perhaps this is a key to understanding his sympathy for her; Sit ‘Ali was merely a puppet for the French, just as Khadija was a puppet for his palace.  The King shows kindness to the body of Khadija, whereas the Prince, his brother, shows cruelty by raping her.  Even though this is a sad film, I believe that it shows that one can only savor freedom after one has fought for it.  While Khadija does not get to savor victory in her life, Alia may be able to, just as Tunisia has a new hope for future without colonial rule.

“Umm Kulthum”:

In the documentary film about Umm Kulthum’s life by Virgina Danielson we see the legendary Egyptian singer as the antithesis of the usual Arabic entertainer in her public life.  In the last film we saw Khadija and Alia play a more typical role as the underprivileged lower class entertainers, but Umm Kulthum defies all stereotypes.  In this section of the paper I will take a look at her life as a social phenomenon for a female entertainer, and speculate as to why she was able to achieve this.

Umm Kulthum came from a very close peasant family from the Lower Egypt Sa’id district.  She was taught to recite the Quran in a local madreses school along with her brothers.  At an early age she was noted for her exceptional voice, and her family got together as an entertainment act and traveled to different towns to perform.  The role of Umm Kulthum’s family is vital to her success; whereas Khadija and Alia did not have familial support, Umm Kulthum did.  Without this support I doubt if she would have been as successful.

As Umm Kulthum became more popular she and her family moved to Cairo.  This move proved vital to her later success; Cairo was and still is the center of the entertainment industry in the Arab world, and only there could she become a true star.  When she started out as an adolescent girl she still wore her peasant clothes, and even dressed as a boy, as she had in her hometown as a performer.  She began to get engagements with the elite class of Cairo, and saw how their women dressed.  These upper class ladies took a liking to Umm Kulthum and helped transform her into a lady of society with her clothes.

As Umm Kulthum approaches her adult life she becomes a different person.  She is very clever to recognize how to gain respect from her peers; her manner of dress improves, and she is keen to keep a clean reputation in regards to men.  She still has her family sing with her at the beginning of her adult career, but then decides to let them retire as she hires mainly musicians for her new concerts, and remains the only singer.  This change shows her public that she is an evolving artist; however, even though she transforms as a singer, she still holds onto tradition.  In fact, she is known for only having authentic Arabic instruments in her accompanying orchestra, and is not open to much innovation, unlike her rival, Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

This very traditionalism is a part of what made Umm Kulthum’s public love her so much.  She was a national symbol for Egypt, and yet she defied all stereotypes of the Arabic woman.  It seemed that she stood as a symbol for freedom, just as Egypt was going through their own revolution to free themselves from British colonialism.  In this way her story is similar to Alia in the former film; however, Umm Kulthum was a real person, and this makes her story even more incredible.  She gained respect as a female entertainer in a way in which no other woman has before or after her.  Umm Kulthum’s morality was spotless, and only later in life does she marry, for convenient purposes of her career; she never has any children.

Her insistence on her music being traditional also brings her closer in the hearts of Arabs.  Just as the country is rejecting colonial authority, she defies any Western influence in her music.  She helps Egyptians to define their character and identity during a time of crisis in the Revolution.  She even helps to raise money for arms for Egypt; no other woman has had this kind of power in recent history.  She is a role model for modern women to aspire to, yet she is almost unattainable in her status.  She is an anomaly to the typical entertainer, and even changes the face of Arabic music forever.  Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab formed Arabic music, as we know it today; they created their own genre of classical music by separating the traditional from the innovative along with the help of the Ministry of Culture in Cairo.  Today one can go see a concert of TAM (traditional Arabic music), but it will not be the same as it was in Umm Kulthum’s day.  Her influence on the face of popular/secular music of today is seen in the lack of quality of most pop music entertainers.  During her time she was singing popular music, but over time it has become classical.  This level of quality is not seen in the musicians of today.

Umm Kulthum is still the most listened to singer in the Arab world.  As Virgina Danielson states, she never sings of herself; people see their own lives and situations in her songs, and this is what makes her so beloved.  She sings of love, lost hope, and fate in her songs; they can be interpreted many different ways.  Her style of delivery fed on the audience’s reactions, too; if they particularly identified with a line in her song, she would break it down, sing it over and repeat it in different rhythmic ways, and sing with a melisma that pierced the hearts of those who listened.  The ultimate function of Arabic music and dance is tarab; this loosely translates as “ecstasy”.  There is a trance effect from the altered state of consciousness that Arabic music brings; Umm Kulthum was a master of this.  In a way she was a modern shaman helping to heal those who listened to her; she brought tears to many who heard her, and this is why they came to her to heal their own sorrows through her voice.

The lyrics that she sang were written by Rami, a man and poet that held a secret love for Umm Kulthum; it was unrequited, and he wrote that in his poems that she sang.  What a strange relationship they had; it was this foundation that created the passion in his lyrics, as she knew they were written for her.  As she did not return his love, he kept writing; perhaps if she gave in to his love their success would have ended.  Perhaps she was clever enough to figure this out, and therefore did not want to end their careers by retiring into his love.

The fact that Umm Kulthum did indeed marry later in life raises questions to her sexual preference.  It has been speculated that she was a lesbian; as her society was very conservative, even if she was she was clever enough to not reveal it, or act on it, that we know of.  She knew that a spotless reputation was a part of what kept her at the top; self-control brought her honor.  She was married to her singing career; it was her one true love, and like children, it ensured that she was taken cared of in her old age.

Umm Kulthum is perhaps the most gracefully defiant woman in Arab history; while breaking all the rules she acquires the most love and acceptance.  Many would say that this is her fate, but she certainly knew how to behave to achieve and sustain her success.  I would say that destiny is only half of her story, whereas propriety is the other half.  She gives hope to Islamic women everywhere that they can achieve respect and honor outside the home.  While not everyone will be able to scale the heights of society that she did, she has paved a path for her cultural daughters after her to break the mold of the Arabic woman and find freedom in the outer world.


Now I would like to take a look at the actual art of the dance, and compare it to the art of rug weaving.  This is a Persian film, and while there is no dancing in it, it does deal with the issue of women and the art they make.  I found that by watching this film I came to understand the social hierarchy that dictates if a woman’s art is seen as worthy or not.  There are many similarities between Islamic arts in that they all lead the observer to the center, or to an idea of Unity in the piece of work.  This is taken from Islam’s emphasis on linking up with God, or Allah.  In the carpet of Gabbeh the eye leads you to look at the man and woman riding on the horse; they are the central focal point of the piece, and it tells a story.  The film attempts to tell the story of the man and woman on the horse, and why their lives ended up the way they did.  In a similar fashion, dance leads the eye to the focal point of the body, the torso; this is where the womb is on women, and where life begins.  This is also where the umbilical chord is that links up the child with the mother, just as the central pieces of artwork link up the view with the idea of Unity.  However, dance deals with the carnal body, and therefore can be seen as immoral if not used properly and with taste.  Abstract art does not have this problem, as it does not use the body as a canvas for its art.

The rug of Gabbeh is set against a blue background with varying shades; it appears like water with the horse and riders to the right side on the rug.  It seemed that every time the color blue was brought up in the film there was some kind of change happening; first was the wedding of the Uncle, then Gabbeh’s own elopement happens only when the Uncle persuades her father to take a nap, hence traveling to the dream world on the carpet.  Gabbeh herself wears blue throughout the film, both as a young woman and as an old woman.  Perhaps this also represents the hopes and dreams she has for a future with her mate.

Another striking feature that helps the rug tell its story is that the horse and riders are the only things on the rug; they are alone and isolated.  This hints at the outcome of their love; as they must elope to escape her father’s grip, they become permanently isolated from society and their families.  We do not know where Gabbeh’s mate comes from; he appears as a solitary rider chasing after Gabbeh, but we see her tribe throughout the film.  It is this tribe that they are eventually isolated from, and this seals their fate; with family one cannot have children, as it takes a whole village to raise a child.  As an old man Gabbeh’s mate resents her for not giving him any children, but she could not have prevented this.  If she had stayed with her tribe she would have never been allowed to marry him.  So, their fate was either together childless, or not together at all.

Gabbeh’s mate would call to her from a distance with a wolf-call; as an old man he still howls his love for her, but it is different.  As a young man his cry is that of a mating call, but as an old man it is the sad wailing of a man who’s love is not fulfilled.  He questions Gabbeh’s love for him, as they see their lives were very difficult after they came together; it was not the way they thought things would turn out.  In a way this is poetic justice for Gabbeh’s father; he did not want her to leave with her lover, but she did anyway, and their lives became isolated from then on.  Gabbeh got what she thought she wanted, but in the end it did not bring her fruit.

In a similar fashion dance can tell a story.  A dancer weaves different arabesque and geometric patterns on the floor just a weaver weaves the yarn on a loom.  Both canvases have a story to tell; the rug is a product of its environment, both physical and psychological, and the dance is a product of the dancer’s imagination and heart.  One cannot separate ones psychic and interior experiences from ones art; they are intertwined, just as the yarn is intertwined to form a rug.  What does the story attempt to tell?  I believe that these stories show up how to raise our consciousness and link up with Allah; they help us to attain the “big picture”, so that we may learn from our experiences.  There are many paths to the top of the mountain; no one path is any better than the other, because ultimately they have the same end.


Taking a look at all three films has helped me to recognize the place of dance in Arabic society.  Even though it has questionable moral significance for the Orthodox Muslims, it has a firm footing in the history of Arabic peoples, much older than Islam.  Being an entertainer in general for a female can mean destruction for her reputation and future, but if one is clever, such as Umm Kulthum was, one could maneuver a place in society for oneself.  Learning an art form can give a woman the tools with which she will need for survival in real life.  Also, storytelling through art is a way in which women teach their children how to behave; whether it is through an actual story, a rug, a song, or a dance, women can pave the paths to freedom for their children by showing them different alternatives to the top.

Being an entertainer means being a transformer; you can change others mind and hearts through art, and you can change your status in life with this type of career, also, whether it be for better or for worse.  I would go even further with this definition and apply the term “shaman” to entertainers; as with Umm Kulthum, people see their own stories through her art, and they are brought closer together with a fuller understanding of their lives.  The function of a shaman is to bring change, whether it be social or personal.  This change can be threatening to the establishment; therefore many people who bring transformation are seen as dangerous.  Perhaps this is a part of why entertainers are thought to have questionable morals, as well; in an attempt to undermine the entertainer’s power, authority figures must control the “masses” through controlling the forces that inspire them to revolution.  Art can be a great inspirer for change, and the people that bring it to the society at large must act as rebels, defying tradition and authority.  Telling stories through metaphors can be a secret language that artists use to motivate changes in the collective unconscious of a people, and hence influence history in a subtle but dramatic fashion.  While entertainers do not hold the elite positions in society in the Arab world, they certainly do get respect from a historical point of view for their bravery to make a change in society and in the individual.