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Première partie

Arrows of Desire: Dance and Power in Transnational Cinema

Les flèches du désir : danse et pouvoir dans le cinéma transnational
May Telmissany
p. 157-169


Cet article s'intéresse à la pratique de danse orientale en tant qu'expression de la joie et de la puissance féminine célébrée par les réalisateurs de la diaspora arabe et nord-africaine. Associée à l'émancipation de la femme plutôt qu'à son déclin moral, la danse orientale est désormais perçue comme un symbole de la prise de parole subalterne, un site de solidarité féminine et un outil de libération sexuelle. La réhabilitation de la danse orientale dans le cinéma transnational permet de réfléchir sur les dispositifs de désir et de pouvoir comme les principes immanents permettant la réorganisation des forces dans la société. En utilisant le concept des machines désirantes de Deleuze et Guattari, cet article tente d'élucider le rapport problématique entre la danse, le désir et le pouvoir dans quatre films de réalisateurs Nord-Africains vivant en France: Satin Rouge [Raja Amari, Tunisie, 2002], Viva Laldjérie et Délice Paloma [Nadir Moknèche, Algérie, 2004 et 2007], et Whatever Lola Wants [Nabil Ayouch, Maroc, 2007 ; cf. note de l’auteur).

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Notes de l’auteur

Raja Amari was born in Tunis in 1971. She trained for many years as a belly dancer at the Conservatoire de Tunis. She completed her film studies at the Paris film school FEMIS. Satin Rouge is her first feature film.

Nadir Moknèche was born in Paris in 1965. He lived in Algiers most of his childhood and his adolescence and went back to Paris in 1984 where he studied theatre and cinema. Delice Paloma is the third part of his Algiers trilogy including Le Harem de Madame Osmane and Viva Laldjérie

Nabil Ayouch was born in Paris in 1969 to a Moroccan father and a Tunisian mother. He studied theatre in Paris between 1987 and 1990. Whatever Lola Wants is his third long feature film.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Karine van Nieuwkerk, 2006, c1995, A Trade Like any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, (...)
  • 2 I concur with Ezra and Rowden in their definition of transnational cinema as a cinema that "arises (...)

1« Their dance was at first voluptuous, but then it became was no more than the most outrageous and indecent expression of bestial desires." This statement was not uttered by an Islamist fanatic commenting on a belly dance performance ; it was written by the Baron de Denon in his Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt published in the early xixth century.1 Afflicted with all sorts of misconceptions and stereotypes throughout its history, oriental belly dance was rehabilitated in the past few decades by Western writers and scholars (Buonaventura, van Nieuwkerk, Jarmakani) only to fall in total disgrace with the rise of Islamism and religious conservatism in the Arab World. Perhaps if it were not for cinema, the culture surrounding this profession would have gone astray or simply vanished. In fact, this culture prospered on Egyptian screens throughout the xxth century and its strong coming-back in Arab and transnational cinema2 today is the living proof of its cinematic revival.

  • 3 Hassan Imam directed several films based on the biography of women dancers including the famous Sha (...)

2Within the context of main-stream Egyptian cinema, oriental belly dance delivered two main messages to Arab audiences: in melodramas, it was equated with prostitution and often denoted social strain and moral decadence ; in musicals and comedies, it represented a candid source of entertainment, a profession like any other and a trigger for repent and happy endings. Yet Egyptian stars of belly dance such as Taheya Carioca, Samia Gamal and Naima Akef, despite the stigma put on their practice, inspired admiration thanks to their stunning elegance, their gracious beauty and their unapologetic affiliation to the profession. Carioca's soft style, a fusion between baladi (local) belly dance and cabaret techniques was often compared to and contrasted with Gamal's playful and hybrid style. Gamal's full use of the stage and the ballet steps she introduced into oriental dance improvisations were bold and graceful at once, confirming her regional as well as her international reputation throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Later on, actresses such as pin-up star Hind Rostom and Souad Hosni (nicknamed the Cinderella) were also known for the magnificence of their belly dance performances in film. Rostom successfully incarnated the professional belly dancer in popular melodramas such as Al Jasad [The Body, Hassan Imam, 1955] and Shafiqa al-Qubttiyah [Shafiqa the Copt, Hassan Imam, 1963]3; in both films, the character had to face death in the end, a melodramatic punishment reserved for "sinful women" who dare uncover their bodies and seduce men. Yet it was not before the 1970s that one could witness an important shift in the representation of belly dancers in Egyptian cinema thanks to the character of Zouzou in Khalli balak min Zûzû [Beware of Zouzou, Hassan Imam, 1972]. The stardom of Souad Hosni in this box-office success was sealed as she played the role of a university student during the day and a weddings' belly dancer during the night. The rehabilitation of belly dance as a profession in this film was enhanced by the homage paid to Taheya Carioca who played the role of a retired dancer and Zouzou's mother. The rather jubilant representations of belly dance that one could depict from the 1930s to the early 1970s in Egyptian film were dismissed from the late 1970s onward, under the pressure of religious conservatism (Hammond, 2007). This resulted in restraining belly dance in cinematic representations to brothels (e.g. Darb el hawa [The Street of Love, Hossam Eddine Mostafa, 1983]; Khamsa bâb [Five Doors, Nader Galal, 1983]) and ill-famed cabarets (e.g. Al-Raqisa walṭabbâl [The Dancer and the Drummer, Ashraf Fahmy, 1984]).

3Film scholar Viola Shafik denounces the disintegration of the female body through editing into close-ups and the male voyeuristic gaze associated with belly dance performances on screen (Shafik, 2007: 165). While her reading remains accurate, one could argue that belly dance cinematic representation is also the site of tensions between the exhilaration and celebration of the female body and the conservative views of a society in which female dancers are demonized and cinematic productions are tightly censored. While these conservative views are scarcely challenged by the narrative, famous belly dance stars who incarnated married characters, or characters in love with the male protagonist (e.g. the famous cinematic couple Samia Gamal and Farid El Atrach) were box-office sensations. Thanks to the family/love relationship maintained in film as a decree of proper manners or bienséance, many 1940s and 1950s' belly dance characters were saved from public aversion. Interestingly enough, the alignment of both systems, the family system and the star system, seems to have protected the image of the belly dancer from both censorship and public disgrace. On screen, the representation of the family as an honoured socio-cultural organization preserved and maintained the society's central value system, while the star system allowed for the profession to become a "desiring-machine", an assemblage of desire and power, in which both male and female characters were engaged in a process of production-consumption of desire. The power of the star system subverted in a way the organisation of forces in society in response to the paradoxical love-hate relationship to belly dancers. Dichotomies such as dominant/dominated, powerful/powerless, oppressive men/oppressed women, were destabilized on screen thanks to stars such as Carioca, Gamal and Akef. Edward Said, writing about Carioca, emphasizes her role as a public figure and praises her seductive yet respectful style which never sank into vulgarity. Said sees Carioca as "the emblem of all that was unadministered, uncontrolled, uncoopted in her culture." He rightfully adds: "You could feel the assurance she had brought to her relation with the centers of authority, the challenge of a free woman" (Said, 2000: 355).

  • 4 In The Road to Love, a French-Algerian sociology graduate discovers he is gay while shooting a docu (...)

4Transnational films directed in the last decade by diasporic filmmakers of North African background convey this "challenge of a free woman" in order to destabilize notions of male power and social/religious hegemonic discourses. They replicate the Egyptian melodramas and musicals of the Golden era by putting under a friendly light belly dance performers, practices and places. French-North African co-productions such as Satin Rouge [Red Satin, Raja Amari, 2002] and Whatever Lola Wants [Nabil Ayouch, 2007] highlight the sophistication of belly dance choreography, explore the shrewd world of cabarets and nightclubs, and rehabilitate the professional belly dancer on screen, not without denouncing social hypocrisy in Tunisia or religious and social conservatism in Egypt. French-Algerian filmmaker Nadir Moknèche celebrates oriental belly dancing by introducing two main characters: a former dancer who stopped working during the 1990s terrorism in Algeria in Viva Laldjérie [Viva Algeria, 2004] and a young belly dancer who performs Egyptian belly dance in a movie theatre before the screening in Délice Paloma [2007]. The revival of the social practice of belly dance on screen and its manifestation as a desiring-machine can also be depicted in films such as Tariq el hob [The Road to Love, Rémi Lange, 2001] and Dûnia [Jocelyne Saab, 2005] where belly dance is used as a metaphor of sexual and social liberation.4 Other films such as La Graine et le mulet [The Secret of the Grain, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007] draw on amateur and improvised belly dance numbers to entertain and capture the attention of upset clients in a French restaurant.

5This essay poses the question of desire and power as an attempt to challenge some readings of belly dance as either an expression of male voyeurism or an allegory of female liberation. Is belly dance merely an expression of sexual liberation, or does it entail other freedoms, other forms of social and gendered role subversion? How does belly dance reflect, act upon, re-enact power relationships through the performance and within the binary of female performer vs. male viewer(s)? In other words, what are the powers at play in a situation where the female dancer is both subject and object of desire, in a context where she becomes a desiring-machine within the circuit of production-consumption of desire? A closer look at the films mentioned above will allow us to reflect on desire and power in new "dance films" from a deleuzian perspective, and in light of the Spinozian ethics of joy deployed against the sad passions religious and conservative beliefs have stimulated in Arab societies.

Belly Dance from a Transnational Perspective

6Transnationalism in the context of film production refers to the diminished importance of national borders which seem to be neglected for the sake of a much liberal approach to film co-production (circulation of funds) and distribution (circulation of commodities) across cultures and nations. Transnational filmmakers today benefit from the ability (and the privilege) to move across geographic borders, to dwell in and belong to different cities, and to mix languages and cultures in reality and in film without having to justify or disentangle the interwoven layers of their cultural identities. This social and global phenomenon has an impact on how filmmakers reflect on their cultural heritage within new settings, and how they manifest new ethnicities associated with the "fluidity of constructed styles" (Vertovec, 2009: 7). On the other hand, belly dance has grown to be a world cult, a practice promoted by schools, teachers, stars and admirers across the globe, and a mainstream exemplification of the dichotomy of the veiled and unveiled, the oppressed and the liberated Arab womanhood. For instance, perceptions of belly dance changed from the regular combination of repulsion, disgust and exotic attraction in the late xixth century in the U.S. to the restoration of the practice in the 1970s' feminist discourses to its original meaning as an ancient matriarchal ritual "invoking a concept of feminity that claims to be universal in nature" (Jarmakani, 2008: 85).

7The realistic approach adopted by the diasporic filmmakers contributes to the revival of the "dance film" using classical aesthetic conventions. No ground-breaking new forms of narration are deployed, to the contrary: the storyline respects a rather classical linear structure, the plot cling to very few dramatic surprises and the representation of time and space is rather realistic and transparent (except when flashbacks and voice over narration eventually disrupt the narrative's linearity). Satin Rouge introduces us to a cinematic triangle of a mother-daughter-lover relationship: Lilia, a widowed mother who is a regular woman with a great deal of moral conviction, is attracted to the practice of belly dance at the nightclub where Chokri, her daughter's lover, works. Lilia's irresistible desire to dance grows in line with her irresistible desire to sleep with Chokri. Ultimately, Chokri gets married to the daughter Salma while Lilia performs one last sensual dance during their wedding. In Viva Ladjérie, Papicha, a former cabaret star, moves to a hotel with her daughter Goucem in fear of Islamist attacks against her apartment in the old medina. Papicha sporadically teaches belly dance to the genitor's young daughter Tiziri. With Tiziri's help, she is able to find old friends in the nightclub business and to start working again as a singer. In Délice Paloma, mafia lady Madame Aldjeria recruits a young woman (Rachida/ Paloma) to trap the director of a movie theatre into adultery and force him to divorce his wife. Paloma is hired by Mr. Bellil to perform oriental belly dance on stage before each screening, an exceptional treat for film audiences. Her passion for belly dance is disturbed by Madame Aldjeria's schemes and by her rebel attitude within the group. Whatever Lola Wants introduces an American young woman (Lola) who travels to Egypt in search for a legendary belly dancer (Ismahan) in the hopes to learn the art of oriental dance. The film title refers to a famous song in the musical play Damn Yankees (1955) where Lola's character, the devil's assistant in the play, pays homage to Lola Montez, the renowned xixth century's dancer and courtesan. This lineage of strong feminine figures mirrors the filmmaker's desire to bring together East and West, past and present, and to honour Carioca and Gamal's memory by the same token. Ismahan's character is an incarnation of Carioca (poor origins, unsuccessful marriages, etc.), while Lola, who is trained as a ballet dancer, seems to follow Gamal's steps by mixing oriental and western styles.

8Unlike social dance which is part of the people's expression in private settings or within the family boundaries, the professional practice has long suffered social stigma and is still considered in Arab and diasporic societies as a dishonorable activity (van Nieuwkerk, 2006; Hammond, 2007). The diasporic North African filmmakers oppose to the moralistic judgement of good and evil inherent to the perception of this profession, an ethical critique of "sad passions" (Deleuze, 1981/2003 ; Bignall, 2008) which brings about the joy and the will to power of their female characters. The sumptuous and untamed dancer's body is shown in their films as making part of a desiring-machine, drawing a line of resistance against hegemonic discourses and moralistic judgments. Although desire is "the process by which society seems to contradict itself" (Tuck, 2010: 645), it is important to examine how diasporic filmmakers view and attempt to resolve the contradiction between the commonly accepted social expression and the despised form of art and public practice. What Said refers to when he writes about Carioca is, so to speak, an understanding of Carioca's aura beyond good and evil, and a confirmation of the inherent contradiction related to her public persona. One could explain Said's remarks in light of the politics of joy (Spinoza's ethology) as they are deployed in belly dance. Joy expresses the infinite possibilities of crossing back and forth between the moral attitude (imposed by religion and honoured by society at large) and the immanent principle of desire (the organization and evaluation of forces) articulated in films. It is in this sense that Carioca (as well as the characters she inspired) becomes an ethical figure of social freedom rather than a model of good or bad morality.

9The human ethological stand adopted in this essay brings together Spinoza's politics of joy and Deleuze's conceptualization of desire. According to Deleuze, Spinoza's human ethology focuses on nothing else but "the power to be affected" (Deleuze, 1981/2003: 40), a power that expresses itself through both actions and passions. Simone Bignall explains:

Ethology involves an awareness of what one may become if one makes the effort to desire in a way that initiates and sustains joyful encounters and modes of sociability. Furthermore, ethology suggests a normative ethical practice: everybody should be disposed to act in relation to others according to a type of desire that will bring about joy. The experience of joy is necessarily mutual, since joy is simply the creation of enhanced power of being, through the development of a more complex and richer community. (Bignall, 2008 : 141)

10Moreover, the experience of joy allows us to understand desire as a process of mutual interaction rather than a relationship between a subject and an object of desire. As a process of production, desire does not express internal conflicts of the subject because the constituent elements of the desiring-machine are actually " distributors of agency "; these agencies are not necessarily persons and do not necessarily reflect inter-subjective relationships (Sibertin-Blanc, 2010 : 19). Therefore, if desire is not fundamentally an expression of need (besoin) or lack (manque), the reference to the subject in need of a desired object can no longer define the process of desire. One should address the question differently in order to understand the nature of those "arrows of desire" involved in the production/consumption of belly dance which seem to draw a circuit or a loop, like boomerangs, rather than a straight line or direction between a male subject and a female object.

11To pose the problem of desire differently, then, one should ask how the belly dance machine (with components such as the exposed female body, the lustful choreography and music, the mise en spectacle of desire through close-ups and lighting, and the presence/interaction of the general public) subverts dominant power relationships in film. I argue that all film directors referenced here deploy the force of oriental dance against 1) the ideology of domination imposed by male/religious/social powers, and 2) the common disdain of commercial Egyptian films (and its major genres such as musicals, dance films and melodramas) among filmmakers and film critics of North African background. They excel in "turning strategic weakness into tactic strength", to use Robert Stam's phrase (2003 : 32). Features of classical narration such as linearity and transparency as well as thematic motifs inspired by Egyptian commercial cinema (the melodramatic withdrawal of Ismahan following a love scandal; clear distinctions between shameful escort girls and innocent dancers such as Paloma ; dancing lessons offered to Lilia, Tiziri and Lola) are explored and highlighted by the filmmakers without sacrificing their realistic approach for the sake of entertainment.

  • 5 See Mouny Berrah's "Malédictions des cinémas arabes" and Ferid Boughedir's "Les falbalas du mélo ég (...)

12It is equally refreshing to notice within this new generation of transnational filmmakers (Amari, Moknèche, Ayouch) reminiscences of the French politique des auteurs of the 1950s-1960s. As much as their counterparts, the French critics and filmmakers of Les Cahiers du cinéma who acknowledged popular rather than politically committed forms of cinematic expression (i.e. Hitchcock's thrillers ; Hawk's comedies and gangster films), transnational filmmakers of North African background pay tribute to cinematic genres (melodramas and musicals) and authors (Hassan Imam) which were demised or ignored by their predecessors. After independence, masterpieces directed by Youssef Chahine and Salah Abou Seif were acclaimed by the emerging North African directors as opposed to commercial films which suffered neglect and condescension5. Direct references to the Egyptian Golden era in the 2000s' transnational films allow for the rehabilitation of influential genres and stars : all four films deftly evoke the light and ecstatic atmosphere of the Egyptian dancing floors, the sensual choreography of oriental dance, the interaction and the friendship between old and young dancers. Paloma is hired to dance in a movie theatre which specializes in Egyptian films. During her audition, she mentions Gamal and Carioca as her major source of inspiration. Lola admires the posters and photos of Egyptian belly dance stars and considers Ismahan as a "national treasure". Ayouch's film also echoes the North American infatuation with belly dance in the last decade, an infatuation which reached its peak with Shakira's music videos Hips don't lie (2006) and Beyoncé/Shakira's Beautiful Liar (2007). Hybridity and bricolage seem to be the key word to describe this new transnational vision of belly dance, working its way through artistic syncretism and recuperative (nostalgic?) intertextuality.

13Save for the critique of social and religious conservatism and the rehabilitation of main-stream Egyptian cinema, what might be the "tactic strength" of belly dance practices depicted in transnational cinema? To answer this question, I argue that: 1) the oriental dance choreography ensures the control of the dancer over her body and consequently over the audience; 2) the politics of joy deployed while performing subvert the power relationships between the performer and her audience. Representations of oriental belly dance on screen enhance one or both aspects (control over the body and expression of joy) depending on how conventional the filmmaker's cinematic style is, and to which extent he/she is willing to explore different modes of expression.

Choreography and Body Control

14Belly dance performance is grounded in artistic as well as cinematic traditions and challenges them at the same time. Choreography codes such as the isolation of movements and their multilayered swirling effect, the balance between motion and stillness, the significance of improvisation and the coordination between body parts using a gravity center (head, legs, hips), the body posture and the artistic composition in space, all these codes and features emphasize the erotic and sensual expression of the uncovered female body (with a special attention paid to the belly and the hips). They arouse admiration, bring joyfulness and culminate in a sensual flow of emotions and affects. This form of communication between the body parts on one hand, and between the dancer and her audience on the other hand, is counterbalanced by a constant dislocation of the body parts and by the disconnection between dancer and audience, mainly when the dancer enters into a self-contended state of trance. One could argue that the tensions between holiness and fragmentation, body and body parts, dancer and public, allow for a different experience of totality, universality and dominance. This is enhanced by the cinematic tactic which consists in orienting the viewer's gaze (using medium shots and close ups rather than long shots) to participate at the deconstruction of dominance (dominant body, dominant view) while appreciating the fragmentation of the body. Malek Chebel writing on desire reminds us that the rule of fragmentation was respected in traditional Arabic poetry when poets write stances on the beauty of the beloved's eyes, lips, thighs or belly button (Chebel, 2000: 122). Following this line of thinking, one could assume that similar to traditional poems, the cinematic representation of belly dance defies totality : body parts dominate the body while movements (like words) temper and liberate the flesh from both the duality of subject/object of desire and the hegemony of social aïb (shame) imposed on the female body manifestations.

15There are codes pertaining to the representation of belly dance in cinema, mainly the alternation between long and medium shots of the dancer and the audience and close-ups of the dancer's body part, the music instruments and the spectators' facial expressions. While Ayouch respects more or less these conventions, Amari attempts to present the belly dancer under a different light, favoring for example the swirling movements when shooting Lilia : the semi-circular movement of a subjective camera alternatively captures Lilia and the audience from Lilia's viewpoint ; this movement is accented by the use of the shoulder-cam which adds a flawless rhythm to longer dancing scenes. Lilia's first public performance attests to a total loss of control over her body. Her dance is wild and the audience immediately falls under her spell. The nightclub owner has to remind her that she is not supposed to be dancing for herself, and that she has to learn how to be an artist. One of the rules of artistic composition is total control over the medium. Lilia has to learn how to gain command over her dancing, and while she does so with the help of her teacher friend, she learns how to express and set free her erotic self. The love scene with Chokri is shot in close-ups focusing on Lilia's face; no dialogue, no music, a continuous flow made of fragmented body parts/fragmented frames similar to Lilia's feverish movements at her first public appearance. The wild performance of Lilia in public is matched by her equally wild performance with Chokri in bed. Yet, the artistic composition in belly dance seeks out complexities that could not be confused with the expectations and outcomes of sexual behavior (involving completion and satisfaction). The artistic composition transcends sexuality as sexual attraction becomes part of the belly dance composition. Whence sexual expression becomes a machine connected to other machines within an infinite and multilayered system of desiring-machines, "with its points of deterritorialization, flux and combination" which cannot be reduced to a "molar instance, sex" (Deleuze, 1997 : 5).

16The reality of seduction (seduction as real) depicted and represented in these films produces a constellation of desiring-machines to which the female body is connected and by which its actions are determined. Thus, the performance becomes not only the site of temptation, decoding dance in erotic terms, but also the site of artistic composition (choreography and music) that helps deterritorializing the body as a sexual machine. By offering the body the opportunity to connect with others (dancers, dancing floors, rules of choreography) and to be disconnected from others (family, community, value system) belly dance performances help anchoring the dancer within a multiplicity of social and personal realities. For Brian Massumi, the body benefits from the rule of fractality in order to create new connections, to maximize its own potentials and virtually achieve its freedom (Massumi, 2009 : 84). And, when Deleuze and Guattari confirm: "There is only desire and the social, and nothing else" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 29) they actually do not speak about the desiring-machine metaphorically ; they rather consider it as a system of interruptions and disjunctions which is engaged in a process of producing, recording and consuming the real :

If desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality. (...) Desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 26).

17The fractal body is pulled together and reconstructed within an assemblage, including fragmented frames, dance codes, dance floors, music and musicians, viewers (male spectators and female dance partners), etc. The dancer's body is also connected to two inevitable props : the costume (the second skin of the dancer) and the mirror. One can see the costume as a fetish, the way Lilia and Lola touch the costume for the first time evokes this erotic embrace of two bodies yearning for one another. The costume is not an object of desire, nor the belly dancer is a desiring subject; both are caught in a flux of material and social encounters determining the function of the costume as a fetishized body (displacing and replacing other desiring-machines) connected to the female body which touches it, adjusts to it, embodies it. Mirrors, on the contrary, impose a distance. They are bodies in which desire can be territorialized through the mimic/representational reflection of the self. In Satin rouge and Whatever Lola Wants, the female body awakens twice: in the intimacy of a dance in front of the mirror and in the performative act of dancing in presence of an audience (the dancer's mirror). Mirrors are mediators and connectors which allow the fragmentation of the body and the doubling of the self. They enhance multiplicity and capture the Other from within. Papicha and Tiziri during the dancing lesson are captured by Moknèche in two opposite mirrors: the ten years old Tiziri is asked to move like the sea, or like waves, in other words to fight her stiffness, to become imaginatively deterritorialized. The mirrors are the reflection of this ubiquitous self: the territorial body and deterritorialized reflection. A metaphoric mirror is also created when two dancers face each other on the dancing floor; this symbolic mirror connotes competition or conciliation. It territorializes desire in oppositional or in anti-oppositional situations, as much as the large audience is a mirror that tends to ground desire in sexual expression, lack or need. During belly dancing lessons, Ismahan the teacher becomes the mirror of Lola the performer. Their relationship translates the power conflict inherent to the specific position of knowledge transfer from a dominant leader towards a dominated follower. On the other hand, the teacher who lives in the shadow because of social stigma, regains power while teaching dance, while serving as a mirror.

The Politics of Joy

18This communication between remote bodies of same nature (e.g. the teacher/dancer) or of different nature (e.g. the dancer/mirror) has an appealing aspect to it ; it is seductive beyond seduction so to speak. The encounter of compatible bodies (e.g. the mirror and the dancer), is source of power and joy ; it brings reconciliation with one's self and with competitors (e.g. the cabaret's dancers in Satin rouge) ; it also has a transformational function (e.g. the teacher/pupil relationship in Viva Laldjérie and Whatever Lola Wants). Each of these films participate at the theory of affections as they situate the body in a dynamic environment of negotiated actions and passions. For Deleuze, when our body meets with another body of compatible nature, its will to power is added to ours, our passions are joyful passions and our capacity of action is augmented (Deleuze, 1981/2003: 41).

19In Whatever Lola Wants, Ismahan explains to Lola how to bring about energy from within in order to grasp the spirit of belly dance; her words have a spiritual as well as a physical impact on her pupil :

Close your eyes. Now show me with this (touches Lola's hips). Use your body, be the instrument, show me what's inside... Keep it up (raises Lola's arms). When you feel your way through sorrow you'll find the joy. When you let yourself be vulnerable you'll become strong. That's the way to tarab.

20Evoked again at the end of the film, this central notion of tarab (ecstasy, trance) seems to articulate the expression of delight, grace, and will to power inspired by oriental dance and music at their deepest and most recognizable senses. Entering into trance is a defining moment for both the dancer and the audience. In Délice Paloma, while Paloma is dancing on stage, Mr. Bellil watches her from an upper window facing the stage. Her dance is captured alternatively from the audience's perspective at the eye level and from Mr. Bellil's perspective from a high angle. The triangle of gazes is enhanced cinematically by the long shots and the swift editing, transmitting the feeling of joy from Paloma to the audience, and from both to the discrete voyeur behind his window. As the camera cuts to Mr. Bellil in the room, we see him dancing alone at the sound of music and sheer applause coming from the theatre. Paloma experiences on stage the "puissance d'agir", the power to act upon other bodies, to get connected to other bodies. The power to produce joy and affection is transmitted to Mr. Bellil who becomes in his turn a dancing machine captivated by and connected to Paloma's body despite the distance. The camera captures him from a low angle to balance the high angle used in the previous shot joining together the scattered pieces of this desiring-machine in trance.

21The desire to seduce, as one can see in these films, is deterritorialized for the benefit of a desire to control and release energies, to gain power over the other (the lover, the teacher, the audience) in a constructive way, the power of constructive action being affirmative and reactive at once, evaluating the forces at work in a relationship between bodies (Bignall, 2008). The triumph of the female domination through belly dancing destabilizes the relationships between the two poles of the regular equation, the powerful male and the subjugated female, by subverting the power dynamics between an active female dancer and a reactive male viewer. This been said, there is no doubt that these empowering segments in film do not necessarily address the whole ideology of male domination denounced in other sequences using other tools. Belly dance scenes merely explore forms of domination within a different setting, in connection with different bodies in action, at a specific moment of liberation, beyond social norms and religious rules. The politics of joy expressed through belly dance do not necessarily bring about total liberation; but they certainly create space for power negotiation.

22Seductive is also this emerging transnational cinema with its hybrid nature and it numerous spaces for contestation. Its hybridity elaborates on "the strategic redemption of the low, the despised, the imperfect and the “trashy” as part of a social overturning" (Stam, 2003: 35). Its seductive nature stems from its power to rehabilitate forms of expression that would otherwise disappear or fall into oblivion. When Deleuze specifies that "power is an affection of desire" (Deleuze, 1997: 5) giving the primacy to desire over power, he offers a wonderful tool to analyze and understand cinema (as a system of desire) away from the dominant ideology of repression. Perhaps he wants to tell us that collective desiring-machines have several dimensions; the system of power and the politics of repression are only two of these dimensions. The rest is a hybrid amalgamation of resistance, contestation, lines of flight and joy.

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Abu Shadi Ali, 1996, "Genres in Egyptian Cinema" in Arasoughly Alia (ed.) Screens of Life. Critical Film Writing from the Arab World, Quebec, World Heritage Press, p. 84-129.

Berrah Mouny et al., 1987, Les Cinémas arabes, CinemAction 43, Paris, Cerf/IMA.

Bignall Simone, 2008, "Postcolonial Agency and Poststructuralist Thought. Deleuze and Foucault on Desire and Power", Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 13-1, London, Routledge, p. 127-147.

Chebel Malek, 2000, Du désir, Paris, Éditions Payot et Rivages.

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1 See Karine van Nieuwkerk, 2006, c1995, A Trade Like any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, Austin, University of Texas Press, p. 1. Citation from Denon, 1803 : 175.

2 I concur with Ezra and Rowden in their definition of transnational cinema as a cinema that "arises in the interstices between the local and the global" ( Ezra and Rowden, 2006 : 4) and as a "postnational version of the 'imagined communities' that Benedict Anderson famously theorized" ( Ezra and Rowden, 2006 : 8). Ginsberg and Lippard (2010) specifically mention the ubiquitous use of transnational co-productions in Middle Eastern cinemas and the capacity of transnational filmmaking to "forge connections and to build community across borders".

3 Hassan Imam directed several films based on the biography of women dancers including the famous Shafiqa al-Qubtiyyah [1963], Bamba Kashar [1974] and Badiah [1975] presented in those melodramas as "victims with high morals" (Ali Abu Shadi, 1996 : 102).

4 In The Road to Love, a French-Algerian sociology graduate discovers he is gay while shooting a documentary on gay culture in the Arab-Muslim-Parisian community. His belly dance performance in front of a mirror highlights his androgynous sexuality. In Dûnia, a young female graduate wishes to follow her mother's steps by becoming a dancer. Learning belly dance with a male choreographer reconnects her with her own body and helps her expressing her desires and her fantasises. Both characters remind us of Beware of Zouzou where opposite worlds such as the university students' world and the world of belly dance intermittently collapse into one another.

5 See Mouny Berrah's "Malédictions des cinémas arabes" and Ferid Boughedir's "Les falbalas du mélo égyptien" in Les Cinémas arabes, dossier réuni par Mouny Berrah, Jacques Lévy and Claude-Michel Cluny, CinemAction 43, 1987, Paris, Cerf/IMA : 10-17 and 116-120. See also the interviews with North African filmmakers in Ferid Boughedir's documentary Caméra Arabe (Tunisia, 1987).

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May Telmissany, « Arrows of Desire: Dance and Power in Transnational Cinema »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 134 | 2013, 157-169.

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May Telmissany, « Arrows of Desire: Dance and Power in Transnational Cinema »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 134 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2014, consulté le 01 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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May Telmissany

Associate professor, University of Ottawa

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