Khaliji Raqs Na’ashat Dance & Iraqi Kawliya

Khaliji Dancers Kuwait 1979Khaliji خليجي is the Arabic word for “gulf”, in context it refers to the Persian Gulf also sometimes called the Arabian Gulf, a name promoted by Arab nationalists. The word Khaliji also refers to the people, music and customs of the Arabic gulf states, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman & a small corner of Iraq. The word Khaliji is also sometimes transliterated as Khaleegy or Khaleeji.

There is a lot of beautiful music and several distinct styles of dance that come out of the gulf region. When interpreting dance from this region, many Oriental dancers have gravitated to a particular style of women’s dance done with a large decorative dress called a Thobe al-Nashaal ثوب النشل . Thobe is the word for a ‘garment’, in this case a long dress. I have yet to be able to verify the translation of Nashaal in this context outside of it being a descriptor of this particular style of dress, possibly a reference to the kind of embroidery, please let me know if you know for sure. (Nashaal is also the Arabic word for pickpocket, but that isn’t the correct translation in this context.) Women would bring their beautifully decorative thobes rolled up in their bags to fancy celebrations, weddings, school graduations or parties, then put them on over their party dress after arriving to dance in and show off. This was still common as recent as the 1980s, maybe 1990s. These dresses are currently considered old fashioned in the gulf, and it is no longer popular, so far as I know, to bring one’s thobe to a party, although, you will still see them appear in traditional dance presentations.

Raqs Naashat by Cole.

Dances done with the Thobe al-Nashaal vary somewhat as you move from one coastal area to another. Evident in this style of dance are influences from other regions, brought in from trade and slavery (legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962). For example, it is very easy to see a strong relationship between some Khaliji dances and some Nubian dances. The dance is called different names, sometimes just Raqs Khaliji رقص خليجي , Raqs Na’ashat رقص نعاشات or Samri سامري . You may also hear it occasionally referred to as Saudi, in reference to Saudi Arabia, not to be confused with Saidi, a dance from Upper Egypt.

The word Na’ashaat by itself translates roughly to a liveliness, like a blossoming flower, or a joyousness (I couldn’t get a succinct description from my translator), however in the context of Raqs Na’ashat it is referring specifically to the dance form where the women toss their hair from side to side. I’ve heard it translated as hair dance or hair toss dance, but I don’t think those are strictly accurate translations of the word, as much as a description of the dance that it names.

Shems in her Thobe NashaalSamri is the the name of a rhythm commonly used in the gulf and played for this style of dance. The dance is sometimes called after this rhythm. It is also the name of a Saudi men’s dance performed at weddings, where the men kneel in lines across from one another and sway.

Although there are several rhythms used in the gulf, the one we most often associate with this style of dance is called Khaliji or Saudi (which I believe is the same as Samri, but I’m having trouble finding documentation to back that up). The khaliji rhythm is a 2/4 rhythm, Dum Dum Tek. Listen to the rhythm Saudi on Jas’s rhythms website. It is often played polyrhythmically with other layers of percussion and added embellishments. Traditional instruments include the tabl, def, oud, but these days you will hear modern arrangements with more varied instruments, fuller orchestration and synthesizers. Syncopated and rhythmic clapping patterns also are a great highlight in Khaliji music.

Khaliji dance has a certain groove to it. It requires Khaliji music and rhythms for it to feel right. It includes head slides and circles, shoulder shimmies, hair tossing, some hand gestures and different footwork, but relatively little is done with the hips which are hidden under the thobe.

Much of the footage we see of Khaliji dances being performed is by foreign Arab women (like Egyptian or Syrian women, for example, hired to perform Khaliji for a Gulf television program) or by former slaves or servants. Many women in the Gulf would never agree to being filmed, because for them it could be considered a blight on their honor to be revealed in public. There are few exceptions from some of the more liberal Gulf countries and with children.

Shems’s Women’s Khaliji YouTube Playlist

Shems’s Men’s Khaliji YouTube Playlist

Khaliji in Oriental Dance

Khaliji style dancing became very popular with Oriental dancers when the oil money in the the Gulf states brought Gulf Arabs into Egypt and Lebanon as tourists, and Oriental dancers were also hired to work in some parts of the newly wealthy Gulf region. Including a reference to Saudi music and dance in a dancer’s set could make for a really great tip night. Some oriental dancers would put on a thobe over their dance costumes for this part of their sets, like the Egyptian dancer Lucy in her Khaliji Performaance. Others would just perform the Khaliji in their Oriental dance costume, like Mona Said doing Khaliji in the middle of her set here (starting at 2:38). You will find a Khaliji section as a popular addition to many Oriental magencies (entrance pieces) or an entire Khaliji Number might be included in a dancer’s set. When performed in Oriental costume and by Oriental dancers, Khaliji will often become larger, more theatrical and hip movements will be exaggerated somewhat. It is important however to maintain the groovy feeling of the original dance.

Shems’s Khaliji by Oriental Dancers YouTube Playlist

Khaliji Resources

Instructors reputable for Khaliji Dance
Khaliji Dance Articles Online

Iraqi Kawliya Dances

Kawliya كاولية , also transliterated as Qawliya, Kowawlah and Kawleeya refers to the “gypsy” or Roma women of Southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf (Kawli for the men). It is also the name of a town. I put “gypsy” in quotations because although it is the most recognized term, it is considered derogatory. The Kawaliya, like so many of Roma descent are widely persecuted in Iraq.

The Kawliya perform a traditional dance called al-haedja/al-hecha (the daggar dance), more modern dances influenced by the dances of Amarah Radhi (regional dances popular in Bagdhad & often featured music style in video clips) and dances from the south near Basra: Basrawi.

Sometimes these dances are referred to as Iraqi Khaliji or Iraqi Belly Dance. Although the dance styles of the Kawliya women hold several elements in common with Raqs Na’ashat, most notably the exuberant hair tossing, there are several differences in music, energy and dress which lead many to consider this a dance very distinct from what is typically referred to as Khaliji dance or belly dance.

The music for Kawliya will often include the rapid fire drum called Khishba or Zanboor, which is also found in other styles of Iraqi music, like the music used for a traditional line dance called Chobi.

The dress follows current fashions, and is often flamboyant and colorful. Recent fashion includes long and fitted thobes, often decorated with sequins and embellishments that emphasize hip and shoulder movements. Older traditional costumes are more like the Egyptian Ghawazee, except the skirts were worn longer (calf to floor length).

The Kawaliya dancing is very energetic, has a lot of fast hopping steps along with shimmies and dramatic hair tossing. You will also see the dancers sometimes stabbing themselves with knives or pretend knives, in al-hecha/al-haedia (the daggar dance). This is symbolic, they do not actually break the skin. I’ve hears some say it is symbolic of the pain of love and relationships.

In the past, the Kawliya women did a more hip focused dance and they would play the “chumpara” (finger cymbals), like in this old film Tableau and this clip of the famous Nasiriyya singer Dakheel Hassan with two dancers.

Malayeen, is a very famous Iraqi dancer who left Iraq and does her own style of Oriental Dance as well as Iraqi Kawaliya dancing. She is looked to as a great example of this style of dance, although she is purported to be not Kawali herself. In addition to dancing, she has managed a restaurant in London and worked as an actress in several fawazeers (a fawazeer is a TV feature),like “Mrs President” and the bollywood-esque Arabiyat

Thank you to Emma Osmani for help and corrections on the Iraqi dance portion of this article.

Several of these dancers are non-professionals:

Shems’s Iraqi Kawaliya YouTube Playlist


  1. [...] Khaliji Thobe Nashal Dance – Arabian Gulf [...]

    Pingback by Professional Oriental Dance Set Primer — May 28, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  2. This is a great description Shems! Thanks for posting all the info and photos :) I’m Persian and we do this dance as well.


    Comment by Masa — October 17, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  3. Thank you Shems! I have just found out about Kawliya. I have absolutely fallen in love with the music and dance. I performed it for the fist time at one of the haflas here in Raleigh. It is such a great dance style.

    Comment by Basanti — July 4, 2012 @ 2:33 am

  4. I think the admin of this web site is in fact working hard for his web page,
    since here every information is quality based stuff.

    Comment by local bellydancer — February 25, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

  5. Maybe it’s “Thobe al nashaal” (‘Robe for/of the pickpockets’) since it’s so big it gives you plenty of room to store what you pickpocket. I’m a new dancer so this might be old news, but just a thought (:

    Great read, thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Melanya M — March 28, 2014 @ 6:22 am

  6. […] For further research, recommend starting at the following page.  The article begins with information about Khaliji Arabian Gulf dance but has some information about Kawleeya on the bottom, including a link to a playlist with different clips. […]

    Pingback by Iraqi Dance | Hannah Romanowsky: Dance Artist & Instructor — July 2, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

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