by Luna

by Luna

Luna

Luna

Blog Intro

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. :)~



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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The "P" Word


No, it’s not what you think.  It’s another word that starts with the letter P—one that has been pestering me for quite some time now.  The word is “prestige,” or bresteej¸ as the Egyptians say.  :)  It means the same in Egyptian Arabic as it does in English, except Egyptians also apply this concept to belly dancing.  I’ll show you what I mean. 

A few days ago, I got a call to perform at a restaurant after my shows on the Nile Memphis.  I would dance to CD, change my costume 3 times, and collect plenty of tips.  I told the agent I would do it, and arranged for a friend in the business to accompany me.  Upon arriving at the restaurant, however, we discovered that there was no dance floor.  In fact, the entire restaurant was no bigger than my kitchen, and there was absolutely no room to dance.  At most, I could prance around the tables and bop to the music.  To make matters worse, the majority of the customers were drunken men.

When he saw this, my friend went on an angry tirade about how jobs like this are not “prestigious,” and how I’m setting myself up for failure.  He went on and on until I snapped and threw a temper tantrum in the street.  Mind you, I was supposed to be “on stage” in 5 minutes. 


“That’s it!!!  I’m going home!” I barked, and jumped in the first cab that passed by us.  He had gotten me so fired up that I didn’t care if I ruined the agent’s business or my reputation for that matter.  I just wanted to go home and be away from everyone. 

Not expecting such a theatrical reaction on my part, my friend hopped in the cab alongside me.  We each argued with the taxi driver—me to take me home, and my friend to take me back to the restaurant; he didn’t want to be responsible for my ruining the night.  The driver was swayed by my friend’s orders over my tears and pleads to take me home, and we wound up parked in front of the restaurant again.  I refused to get out of the cab, let alone work, and stubbornly sat in the taxi until the singer came out to extract me from the car.


Now I was really angry—enraged.  I resented the fact that the driver didn’t listen to me because I’m a woman.  I resented the situation I was in, and I resented that I would now have to dance for drunken men.  I felt degraded. 

After all was said and done, I managed to compose myself and bop around the tables.  I did make a ridiculous amount of tips, but when I finished, I had a long conversation with my friend about “prestige” and why I can’t dance in places like this.  Well, according to Egyptian logic, anyway.

First, he apologized for talking to me so harshly before my show and making me cry.  He then went on to tell me that because I’m now legally contracted to dance in Cairo, there are certain matters of prestige I must take into consideration.  Such as, a “classy, contracted dancer” does not work in cabarets or restaurants taht il-silim, “down under the staircase,” no matter how good the money is.  Nor does she perform to CD in the Red Sea resorts 2 and 3 hours away from Cairo—she’ll be considered an amateur by Egyptians in the entertainment industry.  The contracted dancer must give the impression that she is too good for these kinds of jobs.  She must give off an air of arrogance and walk with her nose in the air.  Why?  Because in Egypt, that is the only way she’ll be respected.  Humility gets you nowhere. And because once word gets around that such-and-such dancer performs to CD or in sleazy venues, she will never be asked to dance with her band in the more “prestigious” 5-star hotels and boats, no matter how talented she thinks she is.

I was still angry at my friend, but deep down, I knew he was right.  At least in a general, Egyptian kind of way.  Indeed, it wasn’t the first time I was hearing this.  Countless Egyptians in the business, including my manager and other high profile dancers, have told me the same thing.  But still, something about this whole notion of “prestige” in belly dance wasn’t sitting well with me. 

Here’s why.  First, in English (and Egyptian Arabic), the word prestige is usually used for doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other professionals held in high esteem.  It seems ludicrous to apply this concept to belly dancing, which the overwhelming majority of Egyptians equate with prostitution!  That includes musicians, hotel, boat and cabaret managers, and even some dancers.  I mean, is there such a thing as a prestigious prostitute?!?  You might argue with me on this, :), but for the sake of making my point, I’m going to say no!


Second, I’m a firm believer in humility.  I have never and will never toot my own horn, let alone say that I’m too good for something (providing that “something” is respectable).  I can’t stand people who always talk about how good they are at this or that.  They are just massaging their bruised egos, affirming their perceived greatness to make themselves feel better about failure.  So I avoid this kind of thinking.  I am not pretentious, and I do not put on airs of arrogance.

Third, I am practical.  If something stands to benefit me without harm, I will do it.  Such as dancing in this tiny restaurant or performing in the Red Sea resorts to CD.  In the restaurant, I can make a lot of money without breaking a sweat.  Nobody touches me or insults me, and nobody knows my name, which is a good thing (I wouldn’t want word getting around that Luna dances at a tiny restaurant taht il-silm! :D).  In the Red Sea resorts, I make peanuts, sweat buckets and break my gorgeous dance shoes performing outdoors on broken concrete surfaces.  But, I get major recognition from Egyptian audiences, make important contacts, and get many high profile, well-paying parties from people who watch my show.  In both situations, I stand to benefit. 

There’s something important I should note here…a bit of a mathematical concept from my high school calculus class. :)  In the Egyptian belly dance world, “prestige” is inversely proportional to money.  Meaning, the more prestigious the venue and the job, the less money you make.  Dancing with your band at 5-star boats and hotels is not as remunerative as shaking your booty to a CD in a restaurant or sleazy cabaret.  That’s just the way it is.  In cabarets and restaurants, dancers usually make a lot of tips.  Sometimes up to thousands of pounds.  In the 5-star boats and hotels, tipping is strictly prohibited, because hotel and boat managers think it’s a sleazy gesture—even if the tip is placed in your hand. Thus, they try their best not to emulate the Haram Street cabaret atmosphere. I remember the first time I danced on a Nile cruise with a band 2 years ago, a women in the audience placed a 100 pound note in my hand.  All hell broke loose behind me and my singer instructed me to return the money to the woman while I was still on stage.  So I did.  No doubt, she was slightly offended, and I was slightly embarrassed at having to return the tip.  Tipping is a sign of appreciation, and the performer should be appreciative of that appreciation.  At least that’s how I see it.

Let me tell you, this thinking gets taken really far—a little too far, if you ask me.  I’ve encountered many other issues of prestige, such as never dealing directly with costumers, agents, venue managers, or musicians—the reason being that the belly dancer is “above” all of that.  That’s why she hires a manager to deal with all of these people on her behalf. 

Along with the “I’m too good to work at your restaurant, take your tips, and deal with you personally” prestige policy, is the issue of pricing and availability.  When an agent or client calls you—your manager, I mean :), to perform at a wedding or private party, prestige dictates that you quote an unreasonably high price and pretend that you’re not really interested in the job.  Even if you get called to dance at the president’s daughter’s wedding!  Even if you’re sitting home and really need the work!  The high price and careless attitude make the client think that you are in high demand, have more work than you can handle, and are the best belly dancer on the planet.  Supposedly.  You can imagine how difficult this one is for me, coming from the States.  Back home, when you want to work in any field, you express your enthusiasm to prospective employers.  You follow your interview with a phone call to reiterate your interest in the position.  This is a good thing, and makes people want to hire you.  You also try to keep your prices reasonable to encourage employers to hire you instead of your competition.  Here, it’s the complete opposite. 

Then there’s the whole issue of not dancing “droob.”  “Droob” is the word Egyptians use when a licensed dancer doesn’t show up for work.  She may be sick, or may have decided to take a better paying job somewhere else.  Either way, the venue she is supposed to be dancing at is now stuck, and will desperately seek for a last minute replacement—another dancer, any dancer, good, bad, ugly, pretty, licensed or unlicensed.  The replacement dancer “gaya droob,” meaning, she is just substituting for one night.  Why is this a no-no according to belly dance prestige protocol?  Because it gives the impression that you are not working, available, and desperate for work.  And if you’re not working and desperate, there must be a reason for that. 

As you’ve probably gathered, all of this has been a learning experience for me.  As an American, I have my own ways of thinking and doing things, oftentimes quite different from Egyptians.  And with all of these restrictions, I feel a bit stifled.  It is, however, liberating in the sense that all I have to do is show up and dance. :O).  I don’t think I’ll ever buy into the whole idea of prestige in belly dance, but, as the good old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  Well, Cairo isn’t exactly Rome, but believe me, I’m doing my best!

5 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to read you blog, Thank you. I really would like to get to understand and know how to handle Arabs both in the Middle East and here in the US.

    Please clarify: You write about needing to give an air of "prestige" and one of the pit falls is a. taking a subsititue position or b. failing to show up as the scheduled dancer? Thank you for your clarification.

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  2. I'm explaining what Egyptians think. These are not my views. They think you should give off an air of slight arrogance. And yes, substituting for another dancer at the last minute is not considered prestigious. Again, not my opion. Hope this helps. As for "handling Arabs," I'm afraid I can't give you any advice about that. Good luck.

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  3. i know for sure that every job got its rules and that a chief knows better than me when we are in a kitchen, but in this matter of Prestige, opinions may vary, recently the people started to translate prestige into the amount of money gathered from a job whatever the job itself was cuz it reflect the gift earned from this job, the good car and the classy cloths they own, while some still thinking that a doctor or an engineer simply got the prestige cuz they got these titles earned at work after spending years studying to got these jobs.
    in my own point of view, beleive in somthin right, know how to do it and then make sure u are doing it in a right way, that makes a Prestige for me, Sure Romans knows better when it comes to Rome, but Romans themselves used strangers to build their own civilzation, it is not a shame to apply what i know even in a strange country, maybe i am implementing the right concepts for people who never knew it before.
    Regards,
    Tamer

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  4. Wow! Love this post and the whole blog! I liked the "4th Floor" story and the manager story. It is really interesting how this information applies to working in the Egyptian or Assyrian-owned clubs in the US. It helps the reader understand the foreign mentality the different subjects you write about.Very helpful.

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  5. Glad you liked it Phaedra :) Good luck in all your dance endeavors.

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