Dance and the Postcolonial Stalemate

Fouad Mami
Professor of English
University of Adrar, Algeria

Synopsis: By overlooking the Naïliyat dance, both postcolonial nationalism and Islamism maintain an Orientalist bias against the body thus impeding the development of a more egalitarian postcolonial order.

Keywords: dance, postcolonialism, development, Orientalism

What if dance is never just a dance? Under the trajectory of neoliberalism in which postcolonial North Africans, among others, live, ‘just a dance’ suggests a weekend recreation or a touristic attraction for an established bourgeois or that assumed bourgeois-in-the-making. Dance thus showcases a given community celebrating either a long forgotten or dying heritage, presenting it for senseless consumption. Is it possible then to think of dance beyond this reductive representation? What if dance incorporates a way of life at odds with almost everything and anything humankind takes for granted? And finally, what if dance should rather be viewed as a social relation endowed with the capacity to reverse capitalism?

Such is the case of the Naïliyat’s art of women dancers of what used to be the Ouled Naïl community from the hinterland of Algeria’s steppes, covering a triangular territory of Boussada, Djelfa and Biskra. Among their performances, one stands out as fezāai; it honors the shivering pigeon that animates the spirit of the community, flying back and forth. Well before the French conquest of Algeria in 1830, the Naïliyat used to accompany their tribesmen in a seasonal journey to the b’ni m’zab oasis in the south during autumn and back to their homelands just before summer. Ouled Naïl’s territory is known for its glacial temperatures during the winter; the land though is famous for its high-quality wheat. Exchanges between Ouled Naïl herdsmen and the inhabitants of the Sahara used to be in kind. Shearing sheep and collecting dates were among the activities that keep Ouled Naïl herders busy. Resuming the journey for the homeland northward in late Spring, they headed first for coastal towns to sell the dates and return to harvest the wheat. They stored the grains in secret root cellars that preserve the cereals for up to seven years of drought. Before coercing Naïli men as indentured laborers and women as belly dancers, the colonial authorities had had to ban underground granaries.

Wealth among Ouled Naïl translates no money and no central authority. Daily life is a horizontal encounter between people, less as individuals and more as communities in a world that is constantly open for negotiations, disputes, fights, alliances and repositioning of marked communities. The Naïliyat’s performance synthesizes this worldview, foreign to attachments, identification, representation, consumption and senseless accumulation. The piercing sound of the zerna (a woodwind instrument) prefaces and accompanies the dancer’s movements. The zerna dis-alienates the audience by clearing off both anticipations for the future and memories of the past. Dancing to the zerna, the Naïliyat enchants the audience that rivets in the moment. Indifferent to whether they are toiling or recreating, people carried out their lives for millennia. Evidence exists that words such ‘unemployment’ and ‘crisis’ simply did not figure in the language. Difference, any difference, cannot be a stigma. From a contemporary perspective, such an account sounds too happy to be true. But the same account does not deny uncertainties, alternation of peace and wars, pandemics, losses and obviously broken hearts along moments of bliss.

Aware that such a life cannot corroborate with their exploitative plans, the advancing colonial armies propagated the theory of ‘whores by nature’ in respect to the Naïliyat. Their art was renamed ‘Belly Dancing,’ with prostitution being a byword for the region, particularly its women. Beginning from 1859 onward, restrictions on movement under the slightest of pretexts turned the Naïliyat’s life figuratively into hell. Under duress from the systematic destruction of their lifestyle, the stigma of prostitution took mythical proportions. French soldiers travelling to the then ‘desolate’ Algerian interior had to be entertained in the ever famous/infamous BMCs (bordels militaires de campagne) or military whorehouses. Meanwhile, the colonial authorities were busy selling to the world how self-denying their penetrating armies are, just by choosing to serve in the darkest of territories, bringing the torch of Christian civilization to undeserving savages!

Postcolonial development as outlined and pursued by both nationalists and Islamists falls into a neocolonialist immanence that knows only how to impoverish the multitudes.

What should we retain from the story of the Naïliyat dancers? Both not much and too much. Suffice it to recall that the denigration of such a deeply-steeped North African art has been perpetuated for the purpose of getting Algerians involved against their will in a political economy which from the start aimed at dispossessing them, turning them subservient to global capitalists. This account should not be confused as a cheap or convoluted attempt at exonerating postcolonial experience from a share in the misery of the present. Instead, it is historicism in action, illustrating how the present has been boobytrapped to lead Algerian and other North African youths for ill-equipped zodiacs desperate for Spanish and Italian seashores!

Instead of reversing the sorry state of affairs, decolonization—on the contrary—reinforces the stigma of Algerians against their own bodies, not least of which lies the stigma against the dance, the dancers and would-be dancers. Little wonder how more than 97% of Algeria’s sources for foreign exchange are to this day generated from oil. Alienation continues as Algerians are repeatedly sold the lie that no matter how industrious they can be, they just cannot make it without oil. The creativity in the dance and the multiplicity of its movements contradict that endemic dependence on hydrocarbon exports. In 1993, when an Algerian sociologist M’hamed Boukhobza, working for the Prime Minister’s cabinet, tried to convince his superiors for bottom-up administrations and decentralized development, something the Naïliyat had always excelled in, he was assassinated. Postcolonial development as outlined and pursued by both nationalists and Islamists falls into a neocolonialist immanence that knows only how to impoverish the multitudes. How can people then not realize that dancing is not just a dance, regardless of what the official narrative keeps saying?

Fouad Mami is Professor of English at the University of Adrar (Algeria). He graduated from the University of Algiers in 2010 with a thesis on the oeuvre of contemporary Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah. Apart from contemporary African Literature, he is interested in postcolonial theory, diaspora studies, Deleuzian criticism and the history of thought largely conceived. His research has appeared in Amerikastudien/American Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, Cadernos de Estudos Africanos and other outlets.

This piece draws on a research article published by the author in August 2020 titled: “Decolonizing Algerian Development via Decolonizing the Body: The Nailiyat’s Dance Alternatively Considered” in the journal Postcolonial Studies:

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