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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

From the Site

Arab Song Translations

By Lennie Clark


Why Is It Important
To Know What the Lyrics Mean?

by Lennie Clark




[Lennie Clark's "Arabic Song Translations"] web site began due to a thread of discussion on the Middle Eastern Dance listserv which was an e-mail-based forum for dancers, musicians, and others interested in Middle Eastern dance. The discussion was begun by Osama el-Gohary, an Egyptian musician who resides in Texas. He posted a message which brought up the troubling incidents he had witnessed of American belly dancers dancing sensual dances to religious music.

There was a lot of pro and con discussion on the issue. Many dancers voiced the opinion that they were American dancers, dancing as a hobby, and that no one had the right to tell them what to dance to.

Other dancers and dance-students did strongly agree with el-Gohary's sentiments, and decried the lack of English translations available to belly dance music. Feeling strongly that way myself, I began this web site to help dancers find good dance music which does have translations available.

The more I learn about this music, the more strongly I feel that dancers can interpret it better if they understand it. Knowing the meaning will also help them to choose which song to dance to.

For instance, I was recently listening to the Best Songs album of Emmad Sayyah, picking a selection which I would perform in a routine at an upcoming student recital. My favorite cuts on the album, musically, are #4 and #5. But reading the translations, I decided not to choose those. The lyrics are about the immigrant longing for home, and about how there is now a telephone line through to Beirut. Not being an immigrant, and not having lived through the horrible civil war in Lebanon, I feel personally that these lyrics would be difficult for me to interpret well. (I wouldn't comment on another dancer's ability to interpret them.) But there are many songs on the CD which are about dancing, or drumming, or the one I ended up selecting, which just says "Oh my Night!" over and over.

Another example is the song "Batwaness Beek", by Warda. The music sounds like it would be good for dancing, but now that I read the summaries on the liner notes, I have chosen to use it for listening only. The faster paced songs have sentiments such as "Beware the envious who try to bring us down", or about how it is difficult to live in a strange culture. The latter song has an Andalusian feel to it, and might suit a tempestuous Gypsy dance, but not a happy-smiley bouncy bellydance. The only song with an upbeat message is rather long and slow for a dance performance.

My dance teacher, Adayna of Phoenix, had the following experience: She had performed a sword dance to a particularly beautiful Arabic song. A woman in the audience who was an Arabic speaker came up to her and said, "You are a wonderful dancer, but please do not perform to that song. That is a very, very, very sad song."

Robyn Friend, the well-known authority on (and performer of) Persian dance and music, has said that if one does not know what one is dancing to one can make some horrible errors. As an example of such an error, I quote at the bottom of this page, a message which Robyn posted on the Middle East Dance Listserv, an email-based on-line discussion forum about Middle Eastern dance and music. (See below).

In his excellent essays on the subject, Osama El-Gohary goes even deeper into the dancer's interpretation of the lyrics of the song. Of course, this type of interpretation is not possible without knowledge of the meaning of the lyrics!

There is a more universal reason for knowing the meaning of the lyrics. The tragedy of 9-11 has made us all conscious of how much lack of understanding there is, between the culture of the East and the culture of the West. The more we know about what the songs are saying, the more we understand a culture which has given us, (I assume that if you are reading this you are a fan of Middle Eastern music and / or dance) so much enjoyment.

Discussions after 9-11 made me realize that, sadly, there are many Western belly dancers who really could not care less about the culture which lies behind the music they love to dance to. Unfortunately, I fear that this attitude is symptomatic of a general arrogance of many people in the West, in regards to cultures different than their own.

But I do believe that there are many Westerners who love Middle Eastern music and are also interested in understanding more about the culture and the people from which it comes!

The last reason I will give for knowing the meaning of the lyrics is that they are often so beautiful! Many are like lovely poems.

To sum up, knowing the meaning of the lyrics of Middle Eastern songs can save the Western dancer from misinterpreting a song, can save him / her from performing to a song which is not appropriate, can give understanding of the culture of the Arabs, and can give enjoyment at the beauty of the sentiments expressed.

I thank all of my readers for their interest in this subject.



What Can Go Wrong

The following was posted to the Middle East Dance Listserv, an on-line email-based discussion forum, by Dr. Robyn Friend during October, 2002.

"I have been informed of an incident which occured recently at a concert by Faruk Tekbilek. I was not in attendance, but someone who was there, who knows of my friendship with Faruk, and our mutual respect, and is aware of my feelings on the subject, has asked me to bring this matter to the attention of the List, in the hopes that together we can spread the word throughout our dance community.

"Faruk performed in a concert as part of the Sacred Music Festival here in Los Angeles. While Faruk was playing Sufi music, chanting the beautiful names of God, a group of 15-20 women got up and began dancing Oriental dance at the front of the stage.

"This was highly inappropriate for two reasons: First of all, though I know we dancers itch to move to music that "moves" us, it is simply rude to put ourselves in front of the stage and dance without being invited. This is true no matter what the nature of the music. Such behavior shows a lack of respect for performers, and for other audience members, and is a distraction for both musicians and the audience. The second reason is that Sufi spiritual music is not for Oriental dance, and to do Oriental dance to this music in a context like this one is highly offensive to people from the Middle East. My own philosophy is that when to act is to offend, whereas to refrain causes no offense, it is far better to refrain."

Dr. Robyn Friend granted Lennie permission to use the above quote in this article. See the Acknowledgements section below for more information about her.



About Lennie Clark, The Author

Iliana is the performing name of Grace "Lennie" Clark, the creator of the "Arabic Song Translations" web site where this article originally appeared. (More information about that web site appears below.) She lives in the Phoenix, Arizona area. An instructional aide at a local middle school, she also enjoys singing music of the Middle East, Spain, and Eastern Europe. She started her "Arabic Song Translations" web site as a private, non-profit activity.

A more detailed profile of Lennie appears on the menu page for the "Arabic Song Translations" site.


About Dr. Robyn Friend, Quoted At the End

Robyn Friend, Ph.D., is a scholar of Middle Eastern and Balkan linguistics, folklore, and ethnology, with a particular emphasis on the cross-influences of Turkish, Iranian, and Balkan culture. She teaches dancing and singing in the Los Angeles area, choreographs dances for dance companies, designs and consults on costumes, and teaches body conditioning for dancers.

Visit Dr. Friend's web site for a more detailed biography plus information on her music CD and videos featuring performances of Central Asian and Iranian dance.

About the Source

This article originally appeared on Lennie Clark's web site, "Arabic Song Translations." Lennie created this web site in 2002 as a response to discussion on the Internet regarding incidents of dancers who performed inappropriate sensual dances to religious music. Lennie's web site resided on a free web hosting service known as Geocities.

When the planned October 2009 closure of the Geocities web hosting service was announced, Lennie and Shira agreed to move the contents of Lennie's site to To explore all the articles and song translations that once appeared on Lennie's Geocities site, visit Lennie's portal page here on

Lennie Clark



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