The circumstances of my being contracted and de-contracted at the Semiramis were rather odd. One typical Cairo evening, I found myself sitting in the Semiramis’ disco with a dancer friend and the two managers of the nightclub where Egypt's most famous dancer performs every week. Embarrassingly enough, it took me a whole hour to realize that the man sitting across from me conversing with me was THE big shot manager who hires talent at the Semiramis Hotel. In my defense, I wasn’t told who this man was. I was simply asked by my dancer friend to accompany her to a party with some artists at the Semiramis disco, and “by the way I’m auditioning here tomorrow.”
Huh, ok. We’re going to a party with artists and she was scheduled to audition at the Semiramis tomorrow. Fair enough. As the night when on and the conversation got deeper, however, I realized that the man sitting across from me was, in fact, THE manager of the Semiramis nightclub. Figured. That’s why he knew so much about that famous dancer!
Arabic pop music was blasting and we were all eating, drinking, dancing, and having a good time. And then suddenly, Mr. Manager began showering me with compliments, telling me I have everything it takes to dance in Cairo—looks, talent, youth, blah blah blah and then some. He told me he could set up an audition for me at the nightclub and would even pay for my band!
By this point in the night, any other dancer’s head might have been spinning with excitement. I, however, have been the victim of many empty promises, and my gut instincts told me that Mr. Manager wasn’t really interested in my dancing. Besides, my friend (who is a phenomenal dancer and a genuinely nice person), was scheduled to audition the next day. It didn’t make sense that he would need to contract a third dancer at the Semiramis, when there is so little work to begin with. So when he asked me for my phone number and said he’d call to set up the audition, I politely told him that I was here to accompany my friend, not stab her in the back.
My disinterest in his proposition notwithstanding, I received a phone call the very next morning from Mr. Manager himself! He had taken my phone number from Mr. SleepyHead, who was supposed to be processing my contract to work on a Nile Cruise in Maadi!
Mr. Manager told me that he had set up an audition for me next week. I asked him why he was doing this, and he assured me that the Semiramis needed a third dancer. Ok then, very well.
I showed up at the Semiramis nightclub the following week with a 15 piece band that Mr. SleepyHead arranged for me at the very last minute (10 minutes before going on stage, I STILL didn’t have a drummer!!!) I paid good money for that band, and Mr. SleepyHead promised that I would rehearse with them 3 times. This, however, was another of his many empty promises to me, and I never got to rehearse with the band before auditioning.
When all was said and done, I passed my audition. But of course. Truth was, I passed the audition before I auditioned. Waaay before I auditioned. Perhaps some time, oh, the week before in the discotheque. All of this was a game, a sort of “setup.” Basically, Mr. Manager thought I was cute and naïve. He wanted certain things from me other than work (use your imagination). But because he couldn’t outright tell me that, he went through all the motions of hiring me to work as a belly dancer in the Semiramis. Audition, contract, work papers and all.
That’s when all the fun and games started. Mr. Manager called me several times a week, inviting me to dinner, coffee, you name it. When I ran out of excuses for why I couldn’t accept this or that invitation, I simply stopped answering his calls. Then came the text messages. When I stopped replying to those, Mr. SleepyHead paid me a visit to inform me that Mr. Manager was very angry at me.
“Angry at me for what?” I asked. “He’s angry because you won’t go out with him,” Mr. SleepyHead answered. “But Mr. SleepyHead! Didn’t you make me agree that under no circumstances should I accept Mr. Manager’s invitations? And didn’t you tell me that technically, there’s no reason for me to speak with him at all, being that you are the official liaison between us?” “Yes,” he responded, “but I didn’t think Mr. Manager would get this angry over it.”
Oh well. I guess that meant that any chance I had of actually performing at the Semiramis had now been squashed. See, Mr. Manager’s reputation preceded him, and I had heard of this kind of situation happening before with other dancers at the Semiramis. Basically, the manager dangles a chance to dance at the Semiramis on a stick in front of the dancer, like a piece of bait. If she takes the bait, she must then comply with his wishes. If she doesn’t comply, she’s a dead fish hanging on his hook.
And that’s exactly what I was—a dead fish hanging on Mr. Manager’s hook, rotting in the misery of knowing that my decency cost me my chance to dance!
Things only got worse two months later. It was Ramadan, during which there is very little belly dance work in Cairo in observance of the holy month. I received a phone call from my younger brother in New York, who told me that his father was on his deathbed and would be passing any day now. Though this man was not my father, he was my stepfather, and spent a good 10 years raising me. I was devastated upon hearing the news, and wanted to travel back to New York immediately to help my brother through this ordeal and say goodbye to my stepfather.
Just as I was about to purchase an airplane ticket online, I remembered that I didn’t have my passport. Mr. SleepyHead had taken it to the Egyptian Immigration building, where it would be held for the duration of my contract at the Semiramis! No passport meant no airplane ticket, which meant no going to New York before my stepfather passed away. I immediately called Mr. SleepyHead, explained my situation, and asked if there was any way to get my passport back into my hands in 24 hours. He said it was possible, that he would just need to get a letter from Mr. Manager authorizing me to temporarily take back my passport.
Sounded simple enough, but that meant that 1) I was at the mercy of Mr. Manager, who already hated me for not indulging his desires, and 2) I was at the mercy of Mr. SleepyHead, who as you can tell by the nickname I gave him, is extremely lazy and never does what he’s supposed to do on time (or at all).
As it turned out, Mr. SleepyHead made no efforts to contact Mr. Manger, nor did Mr. Manager answer any of my million frantic phone calls to his mobile. He didn’t want to hear from me for any reason. At this point, with no one bothering to help me or stand by my side, I decided the only option left was for me to call the American Embassy and ask if I could obtain a temporary passport or some kind of permission to travel in an emergency. The Embassy employee I was speaking with asked me to describe my situation in detail. So I did. I said that I was contracted to work as a belly dancer in the Semiramis, which meant that my passport was being held in the Immigration building, which meant that I needed a letter from the manager, who was nowhere to be found. The employee said she would call me back and hung up the phone.
The next thing I knew, I received an irate phone call from Mr. SleepyHead, who said that Mr. Manger was enraged because the American Embassy filed an official complaint against him for holding my passport “hostage!”
Ok, OBVIOUSLY something got lost in translation there, or else Mr. Manager was lying about the official complaint (which I never got to see by the way), and blowing things out of proportion to make me look bad. I never accused Mr. Manager of holding my passport “hostage,” let alone mentioned his name to the embassy employee!
After all was said and done, I didn’t get my passport back, the manager admitted seeing my 1 million phone calls and refusing to answer, my stepfather passed away the next day, AND the manager forced Mr. SleepyHead to cancel my contract at the Semiramis.
Boy did I lose, big time! And I got played. Between the cost of processing my work papers for the Semiramis, the cost of the band for the audition, and the cost of international airfare (foreigners being licensed to work in Egypt are required to leave the country and then come back), I must have lost about $3000USD. Not to mention the emotional pain I was in for not being able to be with my family at such a critical moment. All of this for nothing—because Mr. Manager was waiting for any little excuse to kick me out of the Semiramis, because he couldn’t deal with the fact that I didn’t play his game.
I (re)slipped into a depressive slump. Was this really what dancing in Cairo was all about? Would I really have to sacrifice all my self-respect in order to be successful here?
I called a few belly dance friends of mine to ask about their experiences at the Semiramis and at other high profile venues, only to hear similar horror stories. I started losing hope, even cried… all the while reminding myself that there were successful belly dancers here who made their careers decently. But would it happen to me? Or would I just give up?
And then, just one month later, I experienced a sudden twist of fate. I did an audition at the Nile Memphis and the management immediately decided to apply for a license to hire foreign dancers and give me a contract. No games, no bait, no rotting fish. Granted, this boat didn’t carry the name or prestige of the Semiramis Hotel, but at least I’d be able to perform my heart out without having to succumb to some filthy manager’s desires!
The most important thing about my very negative experience at the Semiramis, however, is that it became one of the reasons I was able to have my work petition approved by the Egyptian government just one month ago. The new policy of the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs vis-à-vis foreign workers is that the ones who were already here before the revolution could stay, and that new workers submitting a petition after the revolution have to meet certain criteria before being approved for work in Egypt. As a foreign belly dancer, I didn’t really meet any of the criteria, which mainly have to do with proving that your skills are necessary for the prosperity of Egypt. However, the fact that I had been licensed to work last year was the overriding factor that convinced the minister to approve my petition.
Actually, it couldn’t have worked out better if I did stay at the Semiramis and was on good terms with the manager. For although I might have still been contracted at the Hotel right now, there is little to no work there (pre or post revolution). I would be sitting on my butt right now instead of working every night. Being kicked out of the Semiramis was what allowed me to sign a contract with the Nile Memphis, which has me working every night (pre and post revolution)! I now know what that larger esoteric reason was for me getting kicked out of the Semiramis. And with that said, I’ll end this entry with another hackneyed, yet true, cliché: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” Amen.