Known for his knowledge and love of belly dancing, a local professor of English tells Agnieszka Rakoczy how women have successfully steered him through life
A professor of English Literature and Cultural Studies at the European University of Cyprus, author of Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance, managing editor of Cadences: A Journal of Literature and the Arts in Cyprus, renowned and much loved belly dancer, Stavros Karayianni radiates a spirit of joy and lightness.
It’s palpable this winning, positive energy that you feel as soon as you are in his company. He laughs, chuckles, exclaims with delight throughout our interview, always eager to contribute some new insights whatever subject we discuss, happy to explore and exclaim. He juggles a wide range of cultural and literary concepts and theories effortlessly and enthusiastically all the while interweaving them with aspects of his own life, in the process drawing a complex portrait of a (very) sentient human being and an unpretentious, vibrant intellectual. Suddenly, as though catching himself, he will stop in mid-flow to say: “I am not an erudite and I don’t want to sound like I know everything because I know nothing”.
This kind of self-mockery and charming modesty is typical of Karayianni’s endearing sense of humour. He does it to his friends all the time. When he invites you to a splendid lunch he has cooked, he will survey the empty platters at the end of the meal and comment wryly: “I know you hated it”. And when he dances, he flirts with his audience shamelessly, again emitting such happiness that there is no doubt about his love for the dance he has chosen as his way of expression.
Karayianni started dancing quite late in life. He was in his early 30s when the idea of taking up belly dancing came to him in the context of research he was doing for his PhD in Canada. “I was taking a course on women and post-colonial theories. And I had always been fascinated by belly dancing but it was a latent fascination that I had never explored,” he recalls. “I decided to do research on Middle Eastern dancers and realised that there was a lot of material produced by European travellers to the so-called Orient and so I learnt something that I had never heard before, namely, that there were also male dancers.”
The discovery proved to be life transforming. Not only did Karayianni write a book exploring the subject but he went on to become a belly dancer himself. Ironically, the first belly dancing teacher he approached for lessons rejected him on grounds that “my girls don’t want to have a [leery] man in the class”. He found acceptance in another dance class and went on to become more and more adept until his growing mastery of male belly dancing styles and techniques was generally acknowledged.
When his book was published he was to encounter resistance of a different kind. Karayianni’s pioneering research was to land him in hot water with those feminists who viewed belly dancing per se as demeaning to women and then there were others who were of the view that this form of dance is empowering to females and that by bringing male belly dancers into the equation he was attempting to take the dance away from women to whom it rightfully belonged.
Laughingly remembering the passions and controversy aroused at the time, he recalls how in the heat of the debate some entirely missed the point. Far from making a case that men “should be everywhere”, his contention had been that this form of dance had “become feminine”, yet hadn’t necessarily always been just feminine. “It became feminine for the West because the female body is much easier to subjugate, much easier to control and commodify.”
What about masculine expression? “Not all masculine expression has to be the same. There are ways of expressing masculine desires that might be homoerotic, or queer or heterosexual, and why not to express them through this dance form which is controversial. And it is controversial because in the West the body is not accepted in all its dimensions.”
The 52-year-old academic shakes his head bemusedly at the memory of the sound and the furore. The idea that anyone could portray this mother’s son as a cynical encroacher on female terrain is jarring and completely at odds with the reality. He was brought up by three generations of strong, generous women, of whom he speaks lovingly and with unforced gratitude – his grandmother, mother and eldest sister.
“These women gave me a great deal,” he says. His grandmother Urania’s love for the old Cypriot language that she introduced him to planted, unwitting perhaps, the very seeds that blossomed into the wondrous linguistic adventure that has become an academic career.
“The amazing thing about my grandmother – and this took me years to realise – was the language she spoke. I don’t hear this language around me any more. Even my mother uses Greek differently.” He quivers with genuine excitement as he dredges up examples of long forgotten words.
“She never used the adjective ‘Greek’ about the language, she used to call it ‘christiana’ which means Christian. And instead of saying ‘milo’ which means ‘to talk’ she would use ‘sin di hanno’ which literally means ‘to chance upon someone’. All these expressions. I miss them. And again it is such a valuable possession to have that memory of your grandmother’s language.
“I loved my grandmother very very much,” he continues. “And, of course, she loved me too but I was born when she was already in her early seventies and I was born in the midst of a huge tragedy – the death of my father. So here is this woman, advanced in years, and there is this new baby coming in the midst of this family tragedy, and it is a call on her.
“You know it took me decades of my life to realise all of this and what the magnitude of my arrival must have meant for her life. A woman already tired, who has raised nine children, a widow for many years, whose husband, a simple farmer, was a difficult man (he died many years before I was born). So I think my coming into this world was like a call on her again to be nurturing, be giving, to be mother to me as well as grandmother.”
Stavros Karayianni’s father, farmer of Ayia Varvara village, was murdered in June 1964, possibly an act of vengeance for Greek Cypriot acts carried out against the Turkish Cypriots of the neighbouring mixed village of Mathiatis. “He wasn’t part of the raids but he paid the price. It was one of those senseless murders that Cyprus at this time was full of,” says Karayiannis who was born eight months after his father’s death.
His mother, left to raise four children, faced a life of constant struggle. There was no insurance, no government money, no assistance. “It was very hard. My mother was cleaning houses in Nicosia, taking the bus every day. When she stopped cleaning houses she did embroidery. Always something. What is great is that I learned so much from her example.
“In traditional Cypriot society if a man loses his wife he is allowed remarry – everybody understands that. But if a woman, a mother, loses her husband, remarrying is not really an option. Years later when I was a student in Canada and I told my story to my Canadian friends, many asked me ‘so your mother never remarried’? And I thought ‘remarried… oh my god…”
His mother never spoke about her husband’s killing when young Stavros was growing up. It was only much later in life, when he was studying, that he came to the realisation that “when something in your life becomes a huge trauma, it usually silences you. You are not able to discuss it.”
Yet even as he admits that years of studying literary theories have enabled him to define and analyse his own traumas, he finds the subject difficult to tackle. “I don’t know who killed my father and I don’t want to know,” he says with a deep conviction.
“But I want to know the circumstances in which he was murdered and I also have learned that cycles of violence have to be stopped. They must not continue and you cannot live your life hating. Because then you allow hate to govern your life. So what is the alternative one might ask me. Forgiveness? Well, I don’t care for forgiveness. I think it is a Christian concept and it is not part of my thinking. In other words, I am not really this kind of person who will say ‘I don’t know who killed my father but I forgive him’. I do not forgive them but at the same time I am not full of grudges. I am not interested in taking revenge. I believe that you cannot allow extremist ideologies to take advantage of your pain.”
How did he acquire this philosophy and, one wonders, does his mother feels the same way? Karayianni smiles and says: “Do you know why my mother never partakes in such nationalist sentiment? Because she had her own struggles as a woman who lost her husband very early, with four children to raise, in a very masculinist society. Her struggles were struggles of survival, not struggles of hate against a certain community or certain people. They were the struggles of a woman who had to survive in a very harsh society. She was only 32, and as a widow, she had to maintain a certain demeanour, her honour. It wasn’t easy at all.
My mother’s struggles were not against ‘the Turks’ in quotation marks, she struggled against social strictures.”
Women were significant influences and played a catalytic role in ensuring his life moved in the right direction. His eldest sister who, their difficult circumstances notwithstanding, took his village school teacher’s advice about her bright younger brother to heart and made her way to the English School to get the application form that led to his scholarship to study there. Later, there was the friend’s aunt who when he was doing his military service turned up at the camp with the application forms for a Commonwealth scholarship to study in Canada. “I will never forget her. I still remember my name being announced on the camp’s loudspeakers and going to the gates and seeing her there, standing next to her car”.
It was thanks to yet another woman, the famous Greek singer Mariza Koch, that Stavros discovered his love for music. “I was madly in love with her,” he remembers. “In 1974 when soldiers from Greece were stationed close to our village I loved hearing them talk kalamaristika [mainland Greek] because it was the language of Mariza Koch. “She was very different. Back then, we called her ‘eccentric’ and I love this term ‘eccentric’ which means ‘off the centre’, ‘away from the centre’. I loved her sensibility.”
He stops for a moment and then, with a gleam in his eye, says that this is actually his favourite English term – sensibility – and that he has yet to find a Greek equivalent. “I love the etymology of the term – an ability to sense. I think it is our [human beings] most valuable possession. But sensibility is not something that is said, it is not something concrete, I think it is something that moves, it shifts, and varies, within a person as well as from person to person. And I think, all of us, every single one of us cultivates our sensibility according to our priorities in life. For some people the priority is to make money and I don’t judge it. My priority is to read all the authors I haven’t read, and I would describe myself as an art lover, not only in the sense of paintings, or let’s say visual art but also artistic expression in general. Because I think art serves a very important purpose in our lives and the purpose is that it helps us to understand our life. Therefore I love art, I love artistic expression, I love the transformations that are possible through different artistic expressions.”