Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Beirut Man Puts a New Spin on Belly Dance

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Dark eyes peep bashfully over a black, sequined veil. Silver tassels tremble as the belly dancer's hips move in a sweeping circle.

His sideburns and muscular torso are less typical. Beirut's celebrated male belly dancer, Mousbah Baalbaki, has taken the floor.

To the cheers and whistles of the mixed audience, the veil is thrown aside and the dancer picks up a gold cane. Holding it with his fingertips and biting his lips, he playfully taps his thighs with the cane and leans back, shimmying his shoulders.

The drums quicken and pound. Mousbah bounds across the stage moving his hips and shoulders faster and faster to a blur of silver tassels and chains. Head thrown back, mouth open, eyes half closed, he looks as mesmerized as his whooping, stamping audience.

"He's the best dancer I've seen. The music, the show, everything just puts a kind of spell on you," said Nassim Shadi, 23.

Mousbah is a showman, six-feet tall and wearing stage makeup and with his own take on street style: tasseled satin combats, ripped jeans jangling with belts and chains, tiger-print see-through tops, bandanas -- a new outfit for every show.

"I'd prefer this if he was a woman, I think," said Faisal Shams, 28, who faces the other way for much of the show. "Though he's a great dancer, better than most of the women who do belly dancing."

Being a man in what is seen as a woman's role was hard at first for 31-year-old Mousbah, a Sunni Muslim who grew up in Sidon, a large town in Lebanon's conservative south. "At first my family were against it, but with success they started to accept what I did. Now it's normal because I've made my name."


Mousbah's act has proved a hit in cosmopolitan Beirut where he has regular bookings at clubs and gives occasional performances at wedding receptions. An album of music for belly dance is soon to come out in his name.

"It's great to watch but I think people like it partly because it's weird, and in Beirut everything goes in fashions," said Layla Abdullah, 31, watching Mousbah at Music Hall, a new live act venue where clubbers book weeks ahead to get in.

Nazih Khater, arts columnist for the leading daily An-Nahar, agrees. "Everything unusual attracts. But he is nonetheless an artist, he has creativity, style and personality, which makes him a star."

At private family gatherings, Khater says, it is normal for Lebanese men and women to dance the same undulating moves, thought to trace back to sacred rites performed by their ancient forefathers, the Phoenicians. "But if a man did that in public, normally people would laugh," he said.

Mousbah and the others might be seen as of dubious repute elsewhere in the Arab world, Khater said. "In Lebanon people rate culture highly, they appreciate Mousbah as an artist and make an exception."

Mousbah says that apart from the odd comment or sarcastic look, he has never been harassed. "I love Lebanon, I love this society and it's changing, even the mentality. I'm not seeking to liberate, I'm liberated by myself."


Beirut's hedonistic nightlife has made it the undisputed party capital of the Middle East. Alcohol is widely drunk and single men and women go out together to streets spilling over with bars.

But they go home to parents in close-knit communities and face strong pressure to have a family. Being gay is taboo to many Lebanese, whether Christian or Muslim, and gays run the risk of being charged with "unnatural sex" under the country's law.

Police largely turn a blind eye to a handful of known gay bars, and Khater says most people's attitude is "live and let live. It's not accepted, but it's not a drama."

Mousbah's performance of a dance hitherto reserved for women -- mixing slapping his own buttocks with more classical steps -- was bound to be risque. He seems at ease with controversy.

"I'm breaking down barriers but not on purpose. I never did this thinking I wanted to change society. I'm just a dancer."