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Rahme Haidar – The Performer

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This post is written by Amanda Eads, a Sociolinguistics student at NC State University. Her previous writing includes a 3-part series on language and Lebanese identity. You can read Part I, Part II, and Part III on from the archives. 

In the next installment of this series, author Amanda Eads will discuss Rahme Haidar, the Writer.

 “For it is only by a native that the East can be rightly portrayed.” (Haidar 1929, 9)

Figure 1: Princess Rahme Haidar. The Evening Record, August 16, 1918, page 4. Ellensburg, Washington.

Figure 1: Princess Rahme Haidar. The Evening Record, August 16, 1918, page 4. Ellensburg, Washington.

Rahme Haidar, also known as Princess Rahme Haidar, was both a missionary and a performer who travelled the United States and Canada with her secretary Louise Burgess from the 1910’s through the 1930’s. She gave lectures and performed short dramas to hundreds perhaps thousands of people in protestant churches. Haidar’s mission was to enlighten her audiences about the true nature of the Holy Land [1]. Born in Baalbek, Syria in 1886, she was educated in a local English school in Baalbek as well as the American Seminary for Girls located in Sidon, Lebanon [2]. Her conversion to Protestant Christianity as well as her missionary school education contributed to her desire to migrate to the United States.

Arriving to the U.S. in 1899, Rahme Haidar situated herself as a representative of Eastern culture while also maintaining a western Protestant American identity [3]. Before beginning the lecture circuit in the 1910’s, Rahme continued her education at the Shepardson Preparatory School at Denison University in Ohio and she obtained a Diploma of Public Speaking from the University of Southern California. Her appointment as Superintendent of the Baptist mission in Los Angeles, California in 1909 is what required Rahme to begin travelling to local churches giving speeches. Her speeches promoting the local mission soon turned into lectures on the “Holy Land” and performances such as “ Naaman, the Syrian,” “Ruth and Naomi,” and “Esther, the Queen.” Like many other Arab American performers during the time, Haidar used Edward Said’s notion of orientalism, the positioning of the other, in order to further her message [4]. This is seen not only in her self-designation as Princess, but also in her performances.

In her book Under Syrian Stars, Rahme Haidar claimed that her motivation for giving lectures and performances was due to how little “truth” Americans knew about her homeland. While her goal was to break down negative stereotypes and falsehoods concerning the “Holy Land” thereby providing enlightenment, her “self-orientalization” contributed to the notions of East versus West. In her performances, Rahme Haidar positioned herself as a Syrian princess with a 2,000-year lineage dating back to the tribes of Beni-Ghassan who governed the district of Hauran from 85 B.C. to 600 A.D [5]. She wore the “traditional” Syrian dress during her lectures and she often performed orientalised biblical plays she had written. Because of her role as a biblical princess, she constructs the idea of traditional Syrian dress as being extremely modest including a veil [5].This was in stark contrast to the images Americans were experiencing in popular culture of “Arab” belly dancers wearing increasing less clothing. Haidar used clothing as a signifier of orientalism, but in the opposite way of what her audience likely expected at least in terms of female costumes. As American Orientalism increased in the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century belly dancing had increased in popularity and transitioned from an indigenous Middle Eastern dance into an exotic Oriental performance [6]. The belly dancing costumes worn by the Middle Eastern performers included mesh or over-net to cover the stomach region [7]. However, as the commercialization of the Orient increased and as more American women began performing, the belly dancing costumes became more revealing and the image of the “Arab woman” became more sexualized in society. Perhaps because of her own convictions and rural background or perhaps due to the Christian audiences she was addressing, Haidar portrayed the “Holy Land” as even more conservatively dressed than the typical American attire of the early twentieth century. 

Figure 2: Scene from Naaman the Leper. A play written by Princess Rahme Haidar. The Sunday Oregonian, October 24,1915, Section 5, page 10.  [8]

Figure 2: Scene from Naaman the Leper. A play written by Princess Rahme Haidar. The Sunday Oregonian, October 24,1915, Section 5, page 10. [8]

Haidar performed in churches and schools all over the United States and Canada. Often her visits to these places lasted for three days in which she would give a lecture “Under Syrian Stars” and perform one or two of the plays she had written concerning the biblical characters of Naaman, Ruth and Naomi or Esther. After 1929, her performances began to include “Gems of the East” a moving picture show of the “Holy land” that she and her secretary Lucille Burgess filmed during 1928 while sojourning near Baalbek -Haidar’s home. There are many instances where Haidar and Lucille, her secretary, musical assistant, and travelling companion, stayed in an area long enough to offer drama lessons to the local community and perform a play with a local cast. For example, in St. Petersburg Florida, The Evening Independent (February 28, 1935) reported that Haidar was presenting the play of Ruth and Naomi with a cast of over 100 students sponsored by the Order of the Eastern Star [9].

What is unique about Rahme Haidar as a performer is that she often included her would-be audience into her performances. Haidar’s self-orientalisies and constructs herself as an ancient Syrian princess, which causes her cast members from within the community to engage in this orientalism. Her intention to teach and enlighten the American audiences of the “true” nature of the Holy Land merely resulted in a shift to another mistaken one-dimensional perception. Instead of viewing the Holy Land as filled with evil men taking advantage of half naked women, they may have come to view it as a place filled with Christians wearing flowing robes and a landscape lacking any industrial progress. Both images, are thus constructed and at variance with the complex and multi-dimensional realities of the Middle East or “Holy Land” region during the early twentieth century.

Figure 3: Princess Rahme Haidar (sixth from the right) rehearsing with a group of girls from the Northrop School in Minneapolis Minnesota, 1926.  [10]

Figure 3: Princess Rahme Haidar (sixth from the right) rehearsing with a group of girls from the Northrop School in Minneapolis Minnesota, 1926. [10]

A lecturer and performer, Rahme Haidar used her body and her voice to construct herself as a Christian oriental princess. Without access to the scripts to her plays or her moving pictures, it is difficult to know what was actually said during these performances on stage. But, thanks to her popularity on the lecture circuit, she was encouraged to turn her lecture “Under Syrian Stars” into a book. While her autobiography may not be exactly like her lecture, it does provide a representation of how she portrayed herself to her audiences and provides a glimpse into how she viewed her identity using her own words.

Sources

 [1] Montreal Gazette, The. “The Syrian Princess Rahme Haidar.” March 25, 1927.

[2] Haidar, R. (1929). Under Syrian Stars. Fleming H. Revell Company: New York.

[3] U.S. Census Bureau. (1910). Department of Commerce and Labour- Bureau of the Census: Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910 Population. Los Angeles Precinct 76, Pg. 4. 

[4] Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books: New York.

[5] Pittsburgh Press, The. “Syrian Princess.” January 19, 1930. Pg. 5. 

[6] Rosenblatt, N. (2009). “Orientalism in American Popular Culture.” Penn History Review 16(2):51-63.

[7] Milwaukee Sentinel, The. “Little Egypt, Oriental Charmer of 1893, Sues, Says Film Version Does her Wrong.” April 30, 1936. Pg. 3.

[8] Sunday Oregonian, The. “Young People of Christian Church to Appear in Play Tomorrow Night.” October 24, 1915. Pg. 10. 

[9] Evening Independent, The. “Oriental Drama to Be Presented at High School.” February 28, 1935. St. Petersburg, Florida. 

[10] Tatler, The. (1926). Ed. Margaret Louise Newhall. Ebook produced by Williams, A. et al.

 

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