Queer Identity and Israel

Imri Kalmann is a social activist that has been working for many years to increase public awareness of LGBT issues in Israel. He is a former co-chairperson of the Israeli LGBT Association and has also founded several prominent night clubs in Tel Aviv that are hubs for persons that identify as LGBT. Kalmann gave a talk at OU Hillel this March, where he spoke about his own personal experiences growing up in Israel as a gay man, and how he became involved in activism.

One of the most fascinating parts of this talk was hearing about the interactions of the different elements of Kalmann’s identity. Kalmann discussed how two of the most important aspects of his identity are his jewishness and his identification as a gay man. While the Jewish community as a whole is very accepting of LGBT people, Kalmann has found that government policies in Israel do not always reflect this due to the sway that the ultra orthodox that hold over policymakers. As traditionalists, most ultra orthodox are far less accepting of the LGBT community. Opposite this, the LGBT community tends to be a more secular sector of society.

Kalmann has struggled to reconcile his judaism and his homosexuality; while closing his popular gay bars on the Sabbath was important to him in upholding his personal religious convictions, the gay community resisted this show of religiosity. Kalmann felt that as much as the ultra orthodox did not support his sexual identity, the gay community did not support his Jewish identity. This was especially interesting for me to hear about as a fellow Jew and member of the LBGT community. I have been lucky to feel very supported by my Jewish community here in Oklahoma, and having an LGBTQ+ group within the OU Hillel community has shown me that these two identities can coexist harmoniously.

Belly Dancing

At the end of February, the Arab Student Association advertised an event that instantly caught my attention – a night of belly dancing!

Last semester I was fortunate enough to take a belly dancing workshop through the OU School of Dance, and I absolutely loved it. The movement is sensual and invigorating. As a dancer, I always enjoy new dance experiences, and learning about styles that exist in other cultures opens windows to understanding dance in the larger global context.

The workshop was led by two members of the Arab Student Association with belly dancing experience. They put together a short routine for us set to an upbeat song that had a distinctly Middle Eastern sound. They taught us a series of movements, which mainly consisted of undulations in the torso and hips. We then linked these movements together for the dance. Although the gathering felt somewhat awkward in the beginning and there was a sense of shyness in the room, we soon became comfortable with one another. This allowed us to dive into the movement, swaying our hips and shaking our shoulders together. The night ended with us dancing in a circle, improvising and free dancing as a group.

Women and the Revolution in Iran

Dr. Shirin Saeidi, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, visited OU in February to give a talk about a book she is working on that deals with women’s rights struggles in post-revolution Iran. Dr. Saeidi did field work in Iran for several years in order to gather stories from women and learn first hand about their experiences.

One of the focuses of Dr. Saeidi’s work was engaging with non-elite women to give voice to their stories, which are often left out of the larger narrative in Iranian society. Saeidi discussed the idea of “individual versus collective remembrance,” and how women’s individual “remembrance of the past” is often lost to the mainstream narrative that is created to characterize history. By considering how past experiences contribute to shaping women’s lives in the present, we are better able to understand how the history of their circumstances affects the ways they choose to engage in the struggle for a better life.

A fascinating moment during the lecture was when Dr. Saeidi discussed the word “feminism” and how it was perceived by women in Iran. Interestingly enough, she found that the majority of women engaged in the struggle for equality did not identify with this term. This term originated in the West, and therefore it should not be surprising that Iranian women view their fight for rights based on their own terms. Although feminism is perhaps a universal concept in what it aims to achieve, we must respect how women around the world choose to characterize and approach their own unique struggles if we wish to truly support their efforts.

Thoughts on Studying Abroad as a Fine Arts Major

Studying abroad is one of the most incredible opportunities that students having during their time at a university. These programs offer a window into another world; they combine the rigor of academic work with the exploration of incredible countries and cultures. They allow students to challenge themselves as global citizens and expand their understanding of what it means to live and learn in different ways.

Although there are many amazing study abroad programs out there, one area that I believe is sorely lacking is programs for fine arts majors. Because much of what we do as artists is performance based, it is very difficult to go long periods of time without continuing to practice and refine our craft. On the path toward working in a professional performing industry time is very valuable, and taking even a few weeks or a month off to study abroad, much less a semester, is often not feasible. We need specific programs to help us advance our training, and these seem to be much more rare than study programs for other majors or the general student body.

I believe artists are the perfect candidates for going abroad, and that experiencing life in other places can greatly expand their desire and ability to create art. Speaking from personal experience, traveling to other countries has been deeply inspiring and has helped me grow in my understanding and appreciation of the human experience, which is what we seek to exemplify and exaggerate in our crafts.
I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad in Barcelona through a dance program sponsored by the OU College of Fine Arts. This is one of the few programs that this college offers, and is currently the only one involving a performing art. I have friends studying performing arts at other universities who have run into similar scenarios; some may have one or two limited options, while others do not have any study abroad programs available to them. Because what we do is so specific and intensely focused, we need training of relatively equivalent rigor no matter where we are in the world. Finding this is often so much of a challenge that fine arts majors discount it as a possibility. It is my hope that in the future, more programs will be developed and offered for these majors, and that more young, aspiring artists will have the ability to sing, dance, and experience the magic of art around the globe.

Reconnecting with Hebrew

About two weeks before finals, the Hebrew Club finally held their first event of the semester. It is a small but mighty student organization, and although the meetings are few and far between, they are always heartfelt and enthusiastic. I have observed that those who choose to take Hebrew usually seem to be drawn to study the language for a specific reason, and are very committed to their learning. I myself chose to become involved in the Hebrew program at OU because I wanted to connect with a cultural aspect of my Jewish heritage. Others I talked with told me they wanted to deepen their understanding of the Bible by learning the language of the Old Testament; one of my former classmates mentioned that they were studying archaeology and felt learning an ancient language might come in handy. Regardless of the reasons that students signed up to take Hebrew, I was always amazed by how eagerly everyone embraced the language and the culture associated with it. Hebrew has always been a part of my life through my Judaism, but I never assumed that people who had not grown up with it would want to immerse themselves in it. Being able to share a culture that is so special to me and study it with people from different walks of life is something I have always loved about Hebrew at OU.

This was the first semester I was not able to fit a Hebrew class into my schedule, and attending Hebrew Club provided me the opportunity to reconnect with the langauge and my peers who had continued in the program. Hebrew is difficult to keep up outside the classroom because of how uncommon it is, especially in the middle of Oklahoma. It is not a language that one is likely to come across in daily life. While I hear Spanish quite frequently in day-to-day encounters and can utilize my Spanish-speaking skills in various situaions, the only time I have ever been able to apply my Hebrew skills to the real world was when my brother and I traveled to Israel during the winter break of my freshman year in college. I was surprised, however, by how much I remembered for not having spoken the language in quite a while. Phrases came back to me quickly, and although I probably botched a lot of the grammar, I was able to hold short conversations successfully. I hope that I have the opportunity to take more Hebrew classes while I am at OU, because reconnecting with Hebrew was invigorating; it reminded me why I chose to study this beautiful language in the first place.

Africa Sanke: West African Drumming and Dance

Ever since I took a class entitled African Repercussions, which focused on the music and dance of Africa, I have been fascinated with the rhythms and movements that define various African cultures. When I saw an advertisement for an African Sanke event in Catlett Music Center, I was intrigued; here was an opportunity to see the music and dance I had learned about in live performance!
When I entered the theatre, many drums were placed in a line across the back of the stage, and there was also a keyboard player and a guitarist positioned behind them. When the musicians began playing, I was immediately gripped by the energy of the performers and the the intricate layers of rhythm that they created together.
The dancers wore colorful and brightly patterned clothing, and utilized various kinds of movement to tell a simple love story. A man and woman fall in love with one another and subsequently celebrate their joyous union, despite the disapproval of village elders. The slower, calmer sections featured more languid movement, with the dancers utilizing basic stepping patterns to move around the stage and set the scene. The more exuberant sections featured the dancers rapidly moving their hips and torsos to the furious rhythms, shaking and vibrating in tandem with the drums.
What surprised me the most about this performance was the athleticism of both the dancers and the musicians. The drummers threw their bodies into their instruments, embodying the pulse they created through their playing. They were dancing through their playing as much as the dancers were creating visual music with their bodies. One of the biggest takeaways from my African Repercussions class was that African culture views music and dance as synonymous; they are not separate art forms, but rather a single harmonious artform. After watching this performance, I finally understood this union of music and movement.

East Meets West: A Celebration of Culture Through Music and Dance

Last year, students from the OU School of Dance were invited by Beijing Normal University to perform at an international dance festival hosted by their school. This year, OU reciprocated their generous outreach by inviting the student company at Beijing Normal University to participate in a short residency and to perform alongside OU dancers for a special evening of dance.
The night began with an acapella vocal performance by an OU graduate who has become a major personality in China. He sang two traditional folk songs in mandarin, and his voice filled the entire theatre. It was my first time listening to sung mandarin; it’s always interesting to hear how foreign languages sound in song versus when they are spoken colloquially.
The next performance of the evening was a traditional Chinese dance. The movements of the solo dancer were stunningly fluid; her long, flowing skirt accentuated this quality. She also wore an extravagant hairpiece that made her appear to have a larger, more pronounced presence. I was amazed by the delicate movements of her hands; Western dance styles often hyper focuses on virtuosity, but her performance was proof that subtle beauty can be equally as powerful.
The Beijing Normal students then performed two striking contemporary pieces. The first was extremely intense and acrobatic, the dancers flying across the stage to mechanical noise as a clock in the background ominously counted down. The movement of one of the dancers was continually manipulated by the other dancers, giving the impression of a story of the one against the many. The second piece, entitled “The Wall,” involved actual blocks that the dancers used to construct a wall around the body of one of the dancers. The breaking down and building up of the blocks was a powerful reminder of how we as humans have the ability to both create and destroy. It was interesting to me that both of these pieces seemed to be rooted in darker themes; these contemporary performances stood in sharp contrast to the light, spirited traditional dance of the evening.
Overall, I found this evening of dance to be extremely inspiring. Although the performers were from the other side of the world, they were able to communicate with the audience through a powerful, universal language: art.

Coco

As part of the OU in Puebla Mexico Week festivities I attended a screening of the movie “Coco.” It was shown in Spanish with English subtitles, which provided me with the opportunity to revisit my Spanish language knowledge and practice my listening skills in a very engaging way.
The plot of the movie was crafted around the traditions and vibrant visual representations of the iconic Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. Having some previous knowledge of this holiday, it was interesting to see how the filmmakers blended elements of real celebratory practices with fictitious embellishments. The bright colors and intricately animated skeletons instantly drew me in, creating an electrifying cinematic experience that made me feel as if I was experiencing the holiday first hand. While this film was very entertaining, it also carried an important message: that above all, family should come first in our lives. Even when the people closest to us make mistakes, we should recognize how important the bonds of family are and how the love we share can help us through difficult circumstances. I think this is a beautiful message. I came away from this film feeling incredibly happy, and was inspired to text my family afterward with a reminder of how much I love them.

Understanding the Middle East

This semester I am taking a course entitled “The Middle East Since WW1,” and it has had a profound influence on how I look at the world. Western society has come to dismiss the Middle East as a backward and war-torn region, and both Arab and Muslim identities are often viewed with suspicion. The unfortunate reality is that enduring conflict and violence are true characterizations in many Middle Eastern nations. However, the course I am taking explores the historical foundations of these conflicts, and aims to paint a different picture from conventional stereotypes. For example, I previously had no idea how influential Western nations were in drawing the borders of modern day Middle Eastern countries. Many problems stem from such interference by the West, which continued in the form of imperialism for many years, and yet people assume that the region is “backward” because of an inherent problem with Islamic, Arab, and more general Middle Eastern identity.

Taking this course has shown me that despite the many problems the region has faced throughout its history and continues to face today, the Middle East is home to an incredible mixture of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. These people have unique identities and cannot simply be placed into a single box under the broad label of “Middle East,” which is to deny the true nature of the region. I believe that if more people took the time to learn about its history and development, it would humanize the conflicts that many people dismiss as simply more problems in a problematic place. There would be greater understanding and less prejudice, which is exactly what our world needs in the global effort for peace.

GEF Day

I was unable to make it to any of the Global Engagement Fellowship Day events last year, and I was so excited to be able to participate this year! I attended the presentation on how to apply for the Peace Corps and for a Fullbright Grant, and both speakers did an excellent job of walking us through the process. The Fullbright speaker also talked about his personal experience as a recipient, having been awarded a grant to do research in South Africa. When he spoke about options for the kinds of research and projects that recipients could choose to pursue, I was thrilled when he mentioned a musician friend of his who pursued a project based on musical performance. I came into college as a Ballet Performance Major, and although I have since added a degree in International Studies, my first love will always be dance. I intend to pursue a path based on movement after college, and it would be amazing if I am one day able to combine my interests in dance and international studies through a Fullbright project.