Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.
Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.
In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.
I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~
Friday, September 21, 2018
Sunday, July 1, 2018
I wrote this last year while I was still in Cairo. I did not want to publish it at the time, for obvious reasons. A slightly different version of it was published on worldofdancers.com.
It had been a while since my last run-in with the authorities. Three or four years. I was starting to feel invincible. Many foreign dancers had recently spent nights in police departments, and one had been deported. Yet here I was dancing all over town, completely unmolested by the notorious (and quite useless) belly dance police. AKA mosanafaat, and shortat il-adaab, which translates as morals/principles/behavior police. Their job is to crash weddings and turn up unexpectedly at night clubs to fine and arrest belly dancers for infractions such as dancing without a license. Or, in the case of a 'licensed foreigner' such as myself, for dancing at any venue other than the one she’s contracted with. They can also arrest us for inappropriate costuming, i.e. a two-piece bedla without shorts or a stomach covering (shabaka). Basically, they are government funded party poopers, authorized by the ‘Democratic’ Arab Republic of Egypt to stop us mid-performance and take us to the nearest police precinct, if need be.
I’m convinced the only reason such a thing exists is so the government can employ more bureaucrats. And why not? It’s a win-win situation. The government makes money from fines and jail terms, and the bureaucrats get a monthly salary in addition to the bribes they collect from managers seeking to keep dancers out of jail. Additionally, they get to fool themselves into believing they are good Muslims even though they allow belly dancing, cuz shabaka.
Friday, June 15, 2018
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Monday, July 11, 2016
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Friday, June 24, 2016
Saturday, March 19, 2016
I've never been comfortable dancing in this type of environment. Cabarets are dens of vice, and serve as outlets for large scale sexual repression. The potential for objectifying, if not compromising situations, is real. There is rarely any security at these places, which means that should something go wrong, a dancer's only recourse is a brave musician shoving himself between her and the offending customer. Her first line of defense is her singer, because he's already on stage with her. But sometimes it takes a few musicians to get the job done. They form a circle around the dancer, the way we imagine dolphins do when protecting humans from sharks, and pound their drums extra hard to ward off the offender(s). It's actually quite funny to watch, unless you're the dancer experiencing it. The fact that these people are paying for you to entertain them means you can't react the way you would if someone tried to grab your ass on the street. You can't scream or curse at them, and you definitely can't clobber them over the head. You have to somehow keep a smile on your face, pretend that you're oblivious to what's happening, and wait for your musicians to keep your ass from falling into some drunk patron's hands. At three in the morning. In the meantime, you hope the bastard will shower you with tips. Fives, twenties, hundreds, whatever. Egyptian pounds, riyals, dollars. This is how you keep your job. It's not that you're entitled to a percentage of the tips, but that the venue won't ask you to come back unless customers throw money at you.
Mawwals are real money makers. Especially the ones that are spoken more than sung. They have a story-telling feel that can transfix an entire audience, and they are always about issues to which everyone can relate. Misery, pain, betrayal, heartache... Just the other night, my singer sang something to the effect of: "Your best friend is your money. If you don't have it, people step all over you. But when you have it, everyone greets you with hugs and kisses.' It was much longer than that, and it sounds better in Arabic. But the diction and passion with which he delivered this mawwal made everyone stop what they were doing. Myself included. For the two minutes that this lasted, people were nodding in agreement. Some had smirks of admiration for my singer's ingenuity; nearly all threw money on him when he finished. I remember being amazed not only by his skill, but by the power he held over us. It was as though he transformed the sala into a kindergarten classroom during story telling, or better yet, into a church, with an enthusiastic congregation lapping up the preacher's every word.
Monday, March 14, 2016
Wael is the definition of fine. He's tall, dark, handsome, has excellent stage presence, and he serenades me on stage. He also smells like laundry detergent. I think the regulars-- the riklam, the staff, and the musicians-- have noticed our chemistry. They stare at us every time he comes near me and we slip into an impromptu duet. He sings to me, and I wiggle about in approval with a huge smile and batting eyelashes. Kind of like Farid El-Atrash and Samia Gamal... not that I'm comparing ourselves to them artistically. We do have a similar on-stage chemistry, though. And we quite like it, even though it annoys the band. When things get too scandalous for their prudish sensibilities, my percussionists express their collective disapproval by interrupting the prevailing rhythm with a doom, tak tak tak tak, doom tak tak!, the famous zaffa rhythm played at weddings when the bride and groom enter and exit the wedding hall. It's meant to be sarcastic, and to embarrass us. Neither of us care, though. We have no blood, as the Egyptians would say, referring to our apparent inability to feel ashamed.
Friday, January 22, 2016
I happened to be in the Attaba metro station this evening, on my way to work from a modeling shoot when the escalators gave out. Thankfully I was not on one of them. It was just my luck, as I decided that climbing six long flights of stairs was preferable to being sandwiched between a sea of men and teenage boys on the escalator. Good call, because then THIS happened. There was an electrical failure, and the four escalators going in both directions stopped abruptly. Some people fell as others were squished, and many were badly injured. Mass panic ensued. People were screaming and crying and jumping over each other to escape. Others were trying to capture the magnitude of the crowd with their camera phones-- there were already thousands of us without each arriving train replenishing the stock.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
I'm stating the obvious here because somebody has to...because Amie makes a bold if dubious claim about her impact on the dance scene. She says: “Now I’m seeing belly dancers trying to become more elegant and trying to lose weight and, you know, tone it down a bit. People want something more refined, more studied. People want the art of it, not the tattooed eyebrows. I think because of me there’s less vulgarity.” While I'm no fan of tattooed eyebrows, I do believe that Amie is overstating her impact. Just a bit. It's not that Amie is changing the way dancers are approaching the dance or Egyptians' tastes-- in fact her influence is mostly limited to a rather closed circle -- it's that she's found her audience in a certain sector of Egyptian society that's already had those tastes. The Cairo 'posh.' The 3%. The self-serving elite and nouveau riche who prefer English to Arabic, whiskey to hasheesh, and who uncoincidently situate themselves away from the lumpen. I'm not rich-shaming, by the way. Just laying down the facts. Amie is part of and thus appeals to this sector of the society. More power to her. But let's not buy into the hype about her single-handedly changing dancers and audiences' preferences.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
Let me begin by explaining the concept of shobha (pronounced shoub-ha). This idea-word is very much indebted to Islamic thought on gender relations. As such, there is no real equivalent in the English language. But for the purposes of this entry, I'll define it as the state of shame that occurs when one puts oneself in a seemingly compromising situation. Emphasis on 'seemingly.' As is typical of shame, shobha is more concerned with how a situation *appears* to the outside observer, rather than with the actual facts of the situation known to those who are experiencing it. Interestingly, the word is derived from the root sha-ba-ha, which means to resemble, to appear to be, etc.
Monday, May 4, 2015
Back home, we have this notion that belly dance has a more accommodating aesthetic than other dances--that this art is for all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. And that may very well be the case, because, we insist on it being that way. And also because belly dance is not a mainstream form of entertainment there. The majority of high profile performances are unpaid and occur within the context of festivals, produced and attended by other dancers. It can therefore get away with having dancers whose bodies would be unsuited for traditional mainstream performing arts like ballet, hip-hop, music video, ballroom, etc. In the real world--and by that I mean the part of the world in which belly dance is a major pillar of mainstream entertainment--things are little bit different. OK, a lot different. In the Middle East, your numbers-- inches and years--are just as important as they are for a ballet dancer in the US. There is an ideal standard of beauty held by a good majority of the people, and any deviation from that is less marketable. Now we don't want to lump all the Arab countries together when it comes to this issue; the ideal aesthetic in Egypt is a bit different than what it is in Lebanon and in some Gulf countries. However within each of those countries, you'd be hard-pressed to find people who have an alternative vision of beauty.
That being said, fellow belly dancer and author Zaina Brown and I decided to share our experiences with body image, as we've both been working as professional dancers in the Arab world for years--Zaina in the UAE, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Mali, and India, and myself in Egypt. By the way, you can follow Zaina on her own blog, "Where's Zaina." And if that's not enough, you can purchase her book "Stories of a Travelling Belly Dancer" from Amazon. It's a great read that documents her experiences working as a dancer in the Middle East. Zaina also just produced a documentary called "Traveling Belly Dancer in India," which is currently screening in film festivals around the US. It will be available for public viewing by the end of 2015. In the meantime, Zaina is dancing in the New York / New Jersey area and is working on a new book about dancing in the Middle East.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Saturday, December 13, 2014
There's a recent trend emerging in the international belly dance community that's come to my attention. It's the obsession with creating your own style. Over the past year, I've had several workshop attendees ask me how to do this, and how I created mine. This is an important question, but also a bit misguided...at least as it pertains to me. I didn't create my own style. It created itself. I didn't sit down with myself one day and say hey, I've been dancing professionally now for x amount of years, it's time to create my own set of moves and combinations. I mean it's OK to have that conversation with yourself, but it's neither necessary nor guaranteed to result in your own signature moves. Rather, as I suspect happens with many dancers known for being different, we stumble upon new moves as we advance in our careers. Not while taking classes, but on the stage and while practicing in the studio. I've noticed that the more we perform and choreograph, the more our bodies reveal different ways of moving to us.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Friday, September 27, 2013
Saturday, August 17, 2013
Well, the two weeks aren't even finished, and I'm about to delay my return once again. As you all know, the situation in Egypt right now is a little bit, err, "uncomfortable." Not to mention there's no work. My presence there would neither contribute to Egypt nor to my wellbeing, so I see no reason to go back at this point. I mean, I guess I could go and just sit in my apartment all day and night, listening to gunfire. Or watch the news 24 hours a day. Or tell Facebook how brave I am for living in Egypt through these turbulent times, even though I really don't have to. I don't know. It just doesn't sound like the brightest idea to me. And it's not like I have something to prove. So I've decided to hang out in the good old US of A until things subside, or if they don't, until I feel it's safe enough for me to go back, collect my belongings, and say my goodbyes.
Thursday, August 1, 2013
I am newly in love with Egypt. I don’t know any other place on Earth where millions of people can oust two dictators in less than three years. I don’t know any other country where the military intervenes to execute the will of the people yet leaves the governing to civilians. Since the revolution, I’d lost my faith in this place, but what happened last month restored it.
Well, partially at least. I realize that the Egyptian armed forces are no angels, and that they’d committed a litany of crimes since the outbreak of the revolution. I’m also aware that technically (from an American vantage point at least), the army shouldn’t be meddling in domestic affairs or running the economy. And I can see how that could rub Americans the wrong way. That’s because in the United States, we can’t even begin to imagine the army commanding the president to step down! We’re used to power being neatly compartmentalized. Each branch of government, including the armed forces, has its responsibilities and limitations. There’s no overstepping of boundaries. (In theory at least.)
Friday, June 28, 2013
Friday, June 21, 2013
|A sneak peak of "Luna of Cairo" by Leela Corman.|
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Friday, January 11, 2013
|An "ambassador" greeting us at TOL. :)|
Friday, December 21, 2012
|Two brown puppies up for adoption.|
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Sunday, September 9, 2012
It turns out I was wrong. I have, after all, been living in Cairo for four years. Yet at the time, if you would have told me this could or would happen, I would have responded that I also believe in the tooth fairy. I had just been accepted to Harvard, would spend the next two years of my life there, and would then go on to get a job and make babies. I couldn’t imagine interrupting the very natural flow of things to fit Egypt in. Nor could I imagine the logistics of undertaking such an endeavor. How would I get there? Where would I stay? Who would hire me to work so that I could pay my rent and fund all my dance classes? Too much uncertainty, too much impossibility, no money.