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That Sensual Sufi Beat: Paris Goes Ecstatic for Exotic ... Again

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris

07 Apr 2011 18:12Comments

A first-hand encounter with the persistence of Orientalism.

[ review ] Last month, in celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Pouya Musical Ensemble performed at Paris's Théâtre du Gymnase-Marie Bell. With its proscenium stage, the lovely 19th-century theater -- featuring a gilt balcony, boxes covered in scarlet velvet, rococo paintings, and a disturbingly shaky ceiling lamp -- offered a superb acoustic setting for an artistic event that was both joyful and grotesque.

The Pouya Musical Ensemble is directed by singer and percussionist Abbas Bakhtiari. Born in 1957 in southern Iran, Bakhtiari has lived in Paris since 1983. His music education began with his father, a master of the ney (Persian flute). After he settled in Paris, he studied voice with the Iranian Kurdish singer and songwriter Shahram Nazeri. In the French capital, Bakhtiari also directs the Pouya Cultural Center, which offers courses in traditional Persian music.

The Gymnase-Marie Bell concert was performed by Bakhtiari's own musical collective. The repertoire focused mostly on instrumental solos -- oud, daf, tar, and kamancheh -- and tasnifs -- popular songs based on Kurdish ballads -- by contemporary composers such as Nazeri, Abbas Kamandi, and Ali Akbar Moradi.

I didn't know much about Bakhtiari's music nor was I familiar with the dancers who would also be performing. But this event in celebration of Nowruz was an opportunity to join the community of Iranians living in Paris. This is one of the oldest among the Iranian diaspora communities around the world. Right after the Islamic Revolution, many artists and intellectuals left Iran for Paris. And year after year, political refugees, art students, and members of the urban middle class have joined these cultural pioneers.

On a sunny Sunday, it was pure joy to watch the happy Iranian youth attending the concert: visual artists, dancers, musicians, writers, many of whom had recently departed their homeland for the city of lights. Among the predominantly Iranian crowd, one could also see French people. Whether friends, lovers, relatives, or simply music amateurs interested by Persian sounds, they were also clearly excited by the event. The result was a fascinating mix of Iranian and French attendees, all looking forward to sharing a Persian mystical and musical experience. Indeed, the concert would also feature three non-Iranians who were supposed to perform a Sufi women's dance.

Unfortunately, a few minutes after the concert started I had to admit that Bakhtiari's voice, in a song he composed himself, was simply unbearable to me. "Che Konam" (What Should I Do?) was the title of his first number. As he repeatedly moaned the question, I started wondering what I should do, as well. Departure seemed an excellent option but my solidarity with other musicians ultimately obliged me to stay. Beside his lack of both charisma and vibrato, what I disliked most was the gravity of his attitude: this man seemed to believe he was a great singer and no humility was to be found in his vocal gestures or facial expressions.

Even though the concert was celebrating the Persian New Year as well the Arabic spring, as one after another Muslim country rebelled against its dictatorial leadership, I lost hope in Bakhtiari's voice and started waiting for the dancers, whose talents had been loudly promoted.

And here they were: three overexcited women in white dresses and long hair came onstage and started violently shaking their heads. They had nothing essential in common nor were their movements coordinated: one of them, full of grace, was moving delicately and, despite her shaking head, paying too much attention to her movements; the second was definitely not a dancer and seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the last was so hysterical that her paroxysms made not only the two others nervous and uncomfortable but me, as well. As a whole, their whirling was most unstable and I feared some bad stiff necks in the morning. Needless to say, such a delirious notion of Sufi dance, which seemed to find its core in a great mass of curly hair, was no more than spectacle. There was nothing sacred or even spiritual in these ridiculous movements.

The Kurdish sama and zikr rituals are usually practiced by groups of exclusively male or female dervishes. The combination of percussion instruments and collective singing produces an ecstatic state in which the participants gain greater understanding and closeness to spiritual enlightenment. The most spectacular Sufi ceremony is the Qaderi's. The Qaderi Sufi order hails from western Iran and Kurdistan. Reciting rhythmic, repetitive sacred chants and talismanic words, Qaderi dervishes let their long hair down and start moving to the music. Percussive instruments such as the daf and tabla play a major role. Head movements in which the hair brushes the ground are also part of the ritual. Once they enter a trance, the dervishes may approach the ecstatic state of tigh bazi by hurling knives into their bodies.

Of course, nothing of the kind was happening this Sunday afternoon. Bored by the "Sufi dance," I started looking at the audience. The contrast between the reactions of the Iranian and French audience members was striking. While the Iranian faces looked baffled, the French faces seemed hypnotized, as if a deep trance experience was being revealed to them. "Fabulous," said one at the end of the show. "I almost went into a trance," said another. Whether Turkish, Kurdish, or Persian, Sufi ecstatic dance provokes interest and admiration. I know French people well enough to analyze such bombastic sentiments as the product of a fascination for Oriental spirituality, and their naive reception of this disastrous interpretation is, I'm afraid, quite understandable. I could observe the vestige of an antique exoticism, one that persists in the imagination as an unconscious archetype, full of nothing but sweet dreams and perfumed illusions.

Oriental exoticism blossomed in France during the 18th century, with the translation of The Thousand and One Nights by Antoine Galland, who adapted the text to Gallic taste. The apparition of an enchanted Orient, festooned with exotic clichés -- indulgence in opium, sensual women with dark skin, eyes, and hair, a warm, heavy wind perfumed with ambergris, carpets and cushions and ornate bowls full of pistachios, gardens with fountains and magical birds -- made a deep impression on the French imagination, as evidenced by a wide range of 19th-century literature. Gérard de Nerval, François de Chateaubriand, and Charles Baudelaire, among many others, described an enthralling, idealized Oriental universe that became the symbol of spiritual refuge and exhilaration, far from reality and pragmatism.

In his short story "L'Orient" (1883), Guy de Maupassant evokes the wild "desire of the Orient." In his description, "it captivates and penetrates one's soul, it reaches the heart and doesn't leave you alone, it seeps into your body through the eyes, the skin, by all kinds of invisible seductions, and it holds you with an unseen thread that is constantly pulling you wherever you are...."

And this is what I could see in the eyes and smiles of the French audience members around me. A great fascination for a show that looked grotesque, even ridiculous, to my eyes. Through the rhythmic ostinatos played by percussive instruments, through the lilting sound of the poetic songs, and through the vision of these women dancing -- with their long hair floating in the air, their colored scarves and bare feet -- the French spectators' souls were transported, and they had the opportunity to reach the shores of another world, a fanciful, nostalgic land promising spiritual truth, happiness, and of course, incomparable sensuality.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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