Courtesy of Layaill Mustafa.

Ma tegi hena wana hebbak 3ashan a3aish 3la hessak

Habibi danta donya wana mout law gheiri ymessak

My mom, sisters and I would dance for hours as Nancy Ajram, a famous Arabic singer, rang out of the kitchen speakers. She was a part of the endless rotation accompanied by Fares Karam and Shakira who would transform dinner meals into dance parties as my mother taught us the dances of her youth.

Similarly, on days spent with my sito (grandmother), she would let me adorn her heels as she taught me dabke — a traditional dance — and we would practice different moves and tempos as she shared remnants of her childhood. It was in these moments, our feet slamming on the ground and wrists twisting, that I learned of the parties she attended in Lebanon, the days she spent with her sisters and the memories of her childhood. We laughed over strong drums, and she never failed to tease me over the scud marks I formed on her new department store shoes — purchased, of course, with a coupon. 

In my childhood, dancing was happiness and liberation — as a young girl, I could be free to nourish my body with the energy that surrounded me. I moved through the music, focusing solely on the pleasure of my own self, feeding into the freedom of my swaying hips and arms alongside the strings of the oud (Arab string instrument). I was content.

I was not much older than 10 when I realized that the ways in which I danced around the hallway of my childhood homes would not be accepted — that my body may have been mine, but others would look at it and in their gaze seek discontent. Dancing was where I discovered how free and beautiful my body could feel as I moved to the beat of the tarabaki, and dancing was where I learned some people could see me moving to the beat and call it shame. It was how I became aware that as a woman, my body was something that people didn’t understand to be mine or, at least, not solely for me.

This notion was further perpetuated by the way men, both Arab and non-Arab, would be taught to see an Arab woman like myself. Arab American culture, in seeking to maintain an antiquated sense of “heritage,” created binary systems of “good” or “bad” Arab girls — and I never wanted to be “bad.” What would people think of my upbringing? Who would deem me worthy? Similarly, through false media representations and imperialist feminism, I was depicted as an oppressed woman waiting to be freed. Through colonial depictions that associated women of the East with unbounded sexuality, I was deemed a hyper-sexual being. Told I need to be protected, as U.S. politicians staked their need to “save” the women and children of the Arab world, while bombing their homes as a mechanism for war. These notions placed burdens upon my body, weights I was forced to carry and push against in efforts to combat a representation that never represented me. I was a girl who loved raising my hand in class, playing sports with my cousins and dancing. 

My freshman year of college, I attended the Arab Xpressions show, an event put on by the Arab Student Association and Arabesque Dance Troupe where the community showcased fashion, music and dances from the Southwest Asia and North African Regions. It was there where I saw the belly dance team perform, and I was taken back to the kitchen with my mother, swaying our bodies to the rhythm, laughing and moving freely. I craved to be free like that once more. As I watched the women glide across the stage in their colorful skirts and elegantly roll their hips, I pointed and told my friends, “I want to do this.” They laughed in mockery. The following year, I secretly went to auditions and fell in love with the support of the women around me — the new music and moves from Egypt, Morocco and Iraq that were different from my Lebanese roots, and the feeling of utter serenity that surged through me as I danced. I found power and peace in the way my body could effortlessly form movements before my mind willed them, and I knew I had to dance. 

I was scared to tell my friends, my family or anyone I knew about my latest endeavor. I constantly questioned myself — “Was I playing into the trope of harems and belly dancers that orientalist views had created of Arab women? Was I letting down my Sito and her sacrifices for me to have a better life? Was I giving people an opportunity to look at my body as an implication of my worth?” As these questions passed through my mind, I fought back against every negative thought I had and told myself this was for me. Though I wish I could say it was a simple decision, that I was doing something that nourished my soul, it was an endless internal battle. I would hide my costume on my walk to practice, thankful for the Michigan weather that cloaked me in my parka. Blush if anyone asked why I couldn’t grab dinner during Thursday evening practices and say I had an exam, and enter a panic mode for days before the big performance. I was constantly worried about what people would think or say, but then, I would dance. I would dance and be brought back to the euphoria of onions and lentils frying in the kitchen, the feeling of beauty as I moved my hands to the Arabic tongue and the realization of my body as an extension of my soul. Every time I danced, I was told by my inner self that my body is my own, how I move it is by my own volition, how I feel when I dance is pure bliss. 

In the last three years, I have danced with a team of beautiful and empowering women who have challenged and supported me. We rehearsed for countless hours, shared hugs among struggles of MCAT exams and relationship drama, and found pleasure in our shared motions. It is in these women that I have learned to serve myself in my journey to self-love. It is in those moments when I am dancing that I am connected with the freedom and liberation of loving a body and art that is my own. 

MiC Columnist Layaill Mustafa can be reached at