x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ask Ali: On the dance Umm Alaya

A dance that our faith and culture reject, and how Arab celebrities are treated.

Dear Ali, I have heard of a dance (mostly in the GCC) called Umm Alaya in which women dance in a gathering and men throw money on them. In some cases men dance. I would like to know if this is a traditional dance, and what is the history of it? Doesn't it contradict Islamic values? MX, Abu Dhabi

Dear MX: There are a lot of contradictions when it comes to what a religion teaches and how its followers behave. So just because some type of a dance is known to take place in an Islamic country doesn't mean the religion or its followers are bad or good. Such a dance is not related to our faith nor does it represent our culture and heritage.

Like many cultural practices, Umm Alaya originated in one region - Africa, evidently, in this case - and traveled with people as they migrated, with its music and words evolving.

Belly dancing is another form of dance that originated elsewhere and migrated to the Middle East. It began in India, traveled to this region and was renovated by the Egyptians. Later it went global - which is why some of the best belly dancers today are from Latin America.

No religion approves of such dances. In the Gulf, our conservative heritage adds a cultural taboo factor concerning Umm Alaya, since it takes place in an environment shared by men and women.

You can compare it to a "Drop it like it's hot" or "Shake that booty" type of dance, which is considered sexual and erotic. Hence it is not accepted or respected in our Emirati culture nor by true Arabs of the Gulf region. It is never performed as a form of national dance in any heritage village or other such event.

In fact, it could even be deemed illegal if someone complained about it.

By the way, "Umm" means "mother" and Alaya is a female name. One story goes that the mother of a little girl name Alaya originated this dance in Oman.


Dear Ali: I recently attended two film festivals in the GCC. I had an interesting experience at both of them, and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the cultural challenges that both festivals seemed to have. While hospitality seems to be something that Arabs boast about, I was shocked to find that most GCC celebrities attending the festival were not given the same treatment as international celebrities. I know it was not intentional, but mainly because most of the staff are western. Why do you think this occurred? JL, UK

Dear JL: I think you answered your own question. It is indeed because most of the staff are western.

This is not to say that they don't care to make an effort, but rather that they lack the local and cultural guidance of how to deal with GCC celebrities. Just because they are from the region, it does not make them any less of a star. In fact, they should be treated with high regard as this is their home.

We rely a lot on foreign expertise and forget about the valuable local expertise in our own culture and people. All that is needed is for the festival management to hire knowledgeable local people (there are plenty) and have them advise on and get involved in strategic decision making.

Trust me, it's not that hard, and you know what they say, experience is the best teacher one can ever get.


Language lesson

Arabic: Maharajan

English: Festival

Nothing says celebration better than the word "festival". If you are planning to go to one with a friend, you would say "Aba aseer el maharajan", which means "I want to go to the festival".