Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Taste of traditional Arab Hospitality

Cynthia Wilder in Second Life is the owner of a boutique and sim which she has named 'Cynthia's Heaven'. In fact, she has her own website at:

Cynthia's Site

A friend of mine took me to visit a Dance Emporium where hundreds of dances were displayed and demonstrated on platforms that resembled wine goblets turned upside down. It was a clever concept but quite frankly, I hated most of the 'solo' dances that were being demonstrated. They were the typical sex dances that bear titles like 'glazing the cherry' or 'whipped cream delight'. Movements tend to be gross rather than subtle, designed mainly to thrust sexual parts at viewers.

Dances of this sort are extremely popular, but my avatar never would be inclined to burlesque. What this place did bring to mind, however, was the ancient form of dance known in the West as 'bellydance'.

It is rather an ugly name for a beautifully expressive art form. Unfortunately, for the most part, it has been combined in Second Life with striptease. Role play based on the fantasy world of Gor has made a form of attire suitable for traditional bellydance extremely popular in the guise of 'slave silks'. Often these silks contain scripting that allow them to be 'stripped' from the wearer.

It is possible that the island devoted to dances may have included some bellydancing, but I did not see any. Instead, I performed a search and found a boutique that advertised 'bellydance' and 'Lebanon'. The inclusion of the latter made me believe that the place probably was fairly genuine in terms of dance rather than simply using the keyword of 'bellydance' to draw punters.

I was correct in this assumption. Cynthia Wilder is a Lebanese artist living in Austria who has brought some of the beauty and joy of traditional Arab dance and music to Second Life.

She has been involved in Second Life for less than a year and yet has made a name and reputation for herself not only for her fashion designs and dance animations but for her dance parties and a wonderful place where visitors can play backgammon and enjoy themselves at the beach as well as browsing in her shop.

She exemplifies all the traditional warmth for which Arab hospitality is known. She immediately invited me to a dance party at the 'Alhambra' in Andalusia.

The sim of Al-Andalusia deserves an article of its own. It is an incredibly beautiful, detailed reconstruction of medieval Moorish culture and is becoming a sim where Muslims can perform salat (prayer) at mosques as well as meet for social gatherings. True to the spirit of old Andalusia, however, it is a sim where Christians and Muslims both are welcome, as well as any one who eschews religious affiliations of any kind. The entire philosophy of the sim is based on harmonious co-existence between all religions and all people.

The dance party at the Alhambra was a wonderful opportunity to dance in traditional Arab style while listening to popular Arab music. Cynthia provides dance balls at her parties as well as offering live 'streaming' of Arab music. Her dance balls cleverly are designed to allow more than a dozen individuals to use them at the same time. For individuals who wish to control their own dances, she has designed a HUD that is simple to operate but allows the owner to choose which dance to perform at any given moment. I myself purchased the HUD and found it truly added to the versimilitude of the event as I could match my dance moves to the rhythm and words of the songs.

Cynthia herself is the centre of the performance, although she does not covet the limelight in any way. She has her own special dances that are not included in the dance balls or HUDS that she sells. As an artist, she combines dramatic outfits and dance moves to create a personal performance that commands attention. At the same time, she always is conscious of every one who attends a function, drawing the shy or reserved individual into the group and with her own infectious enthusiasm, making certain that a 'party spirit' prevails.

At her own place, she has created a magnificent venue for dance parties on the beach. Her own shop is located there as well, and she has rooms that are devoted to dance, clothing and furniture, including tents.

A detail that I found particularly endearing was the inclusion of backgammon at the sim. Backgammon is central to Arab culture and social life and Cynthia's determination to bring the spirit of Arab hospitality to Second Life is exemplified by her attention to details like this.

On display and for sale in the furniture section of her bazaar are wonderful traditional Arab tents as well as 'igloos' with sleeping bags. She has created tea and coffee services, traditional Arab tables and beautiful beds with Arabic calligraphy of 'Alf Laylah wa Laylah'. In English, this translates as '1001 Nights'.

Cynthia has created a line of cradles for infants as well, inspired by a friend who had a baby in Second Life. Creating a virtual family has become a popular trend in Second Life. Weddings now often are followed by an annoucement that the happy couple is 'expecting' a child. The woman's avatar actually can develop physically and proclaim all the traditional symptoms of pregnancy, including swollen ankle and and aching back.

For an artist who has been in Second Life for less than a year, Cynthia has created an incredible array of items. Unlike other artists who tend to specialise in one area, Cynthia appears to have no fears of the unknown. Her husband has helped her, in particular by creating the scripts used in her dance pose balls and HUD.

A fashion show she orchestrated was the subject of an article in a Second Life publication. One of the most spectacular events she organised, however, was a wedding. Photographs of both wedding and fashion show are included here, and more can be found at Cynthia's own website in her Gallery.

She can create a lavish traditional Arab wedding similar to the one shown in these photographs. The Arab styles appeal to a Second Life sub-culture based on a fantasy world named Gor although Gorean philosophy does NOT emulate traditional Arab values or behaviour. The wedding shown here actually was a Gorean wedding in SL.

In terms of clothing and fashion, Cynthia has created many traditional Arab outfits both for men and women, from desert to urban styles. She has created outfits in contemporary fashion as well. Dance outfits include some with disrobing scripts, otherwise known as 'strip silks' that allow another individual to remove specific items of clothing with the owner's permission.

I myself was most interested in the outfits that included a traditional abayah, jalabiah, thob and hijab. Although Goreans are attracted to Cynthia's designs, many of them would appeal to devout Muslims in Second Life as they are modest and offer an optional head covering as well as face covering in the form of a burqa.

The international aspect of Second Life is one that has unlimited potential. If a resident can 'travel' to the Alhambra or a French Canadian village instantly by teleport to become immersed in another culture without leaving his/her computer, this only can contribute to a wider understanding of the world. At this point in time, unfortunately, one may travel to another 'country' in SL only to find it devoid of any human presence. This is changing, however, as international cultural organisations attempt to foster a permanent presence in the virtual world. In the same way that Universities and other academic institutions are beginning to utilise Second Life in education, cultural institutions and organisations have started to take note of the potential that this virtual world offers.

Cynthia Wilder in her own way is bringing traditional Arab culture to Second Life, not with any overt political or social agenda, but simply by being herself. She is a warm-hearted, attractive and intelligent woman with traditional Arab values in terms of hospitality and friendship. Her talents as an artist, coupled with her social energy will contribute to her growing reputation in the world of Second Life.

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