Thousand and One Nights theme wandered from Efteling and proliferated Olivier’s bedroom in no time. His dreams pulsed with qanun and oud. In his early teens, at a hotel lobby in Cario, dance of the belly uncoiled his kundalini. Olivier has been shaking and shimmying this awakened serpent ever since.
I was in Antwerp for totally different reasons. It was like a jigsaw, perfectly assembled. Leisure and work sat side by side. A wedding anniversary of dear friends Paolo and Giuliana, a visual anthropologist and a cultural manager. Europalia was in full swing. Friends and artists were programmed within Cinema Zuid. Screening of I am Kalam followed by Q&A with Madhab and I, chaired by Paolo and a thought provoking presentation by Rahaab on Dawn of Photography couple days before Unveiling India opened in Brussels. Talks were scheduled at Antwerp University, Madhab on Visual Aesthetics and Analysis, and my talk on Photography and Intermediality. Celebrating a year on from their wedding which we called Love and more Love, we partied hard. Surrounded by friends and great food that we had all cooked, I met Daisy, Paolo’s neighbour.
Daisy’s dance moves were wicked and soon our conversation threads got deeper. She is a Flamenco dancer and teacher. We talked about the cultures and forms that arose from the syndrome of ‘beg, borrow and steal’. Commonalities offered between Flamenco and Kathak, and its music that is almost as vernacular as the architecture of Andalucia resulting from near 900 years of Islamic presence. We talked of power and control and what is pure and what is seen as a ‘contamination’. The beauty of migration and the osmosis it offers where one can only but marvel at the ever evolving cultures. We touched upon Zwarte Piet and the problematics of political correctness. The difference of living with ‘tolerance’ as opposed to love and respect. And suddenly I asked her about her dance students. Were there any men learning it? “We are a VERY conservative society’, is how Daisy responded. We talked further about what is acceptable and what is not. “However, I have a friend who is a belly dancer – a man!” Amidst a full-on schedule, we managed a lunch meeting at Dansing Chocola in Kloosetrstraat, to hear out the story of her friend Olivier. It was a joy to see his face alight as he talked me through his journey. I managed to arrange another evening for a quick interview with him at Daisy’s studio in Sint Andries, a cultural centre which I found most alive and cosmopolitan in the whole of Antwerp.
The way belly dance has evolved over the years, whether it be in North America, Australia, Asia or in Europe, the cultural referencing points to the Middle East. Belly dance is a Western coinage for Raqs Sharqi and Baladi, and Egyptians do not consider it a respectable profession. Most belly dancers performing for tourists in Egypt are foreigners. A dance form accredited to women, there are some rare examples of men coming forth. There is a feminine aspect to the way Olivier costumes himself, it’s not over the top nor is he in drag… I like this ambiguity!
The short meeting and interview made me contemplate many questions. Is this a 21st century orientalist in warped time zone where he finds comfort in an identification with a cultures foreign to that of his birthplace? In a country where the far-right chants fewer fewer… Moroccon restaurants invite Olivier to perform belly dance almost on a regular basis. In one of his youtube videos’ it is amazing to see the men create a tight circle of percussive claps in rhythm with Olivier’s dancing. Inversion and subversion of cultural exoticism at play simultaneously, is it a trans-cultural dialogue? Is it naivity? Is it politically correct? Can we accept this as an innocent gesture? Am I capable anymore of seeing and enjoying things for what they are??
I am deeply happy for Olivier to be following his heart and wish one day Radja occupies the world stage as he desires. In a seemingly simple act of dancing, he is unwittingly creating a myriad readings on globalisation, on the industry of otherness, consumerism, masculinity and hybridisation. No doubt he is quietly inspiring many to take up the challenge and express – with a shake here and a shimmy there!