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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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Frustrated Feminist

I’m a frustrated feminist.  I’ve always been a feminist of one kind or another, but the frustrated part is rather recent.  It has a lot to do with where I live and what I do.  Luckily, I haven’t reached the point of no return.  I still shave my legs and armpits and wear makeup :0).  And I’m still straight (whatever that means). Yet I hate men.  Well, most of them anyway.  It’s not that I hate the individuals who happen to be men.  I just hate their “manliness” – their “machismo”—whatever it is that drives them to subjugate women.   

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I live in an ultra-patriarchal society.  That means men have the upper hand in almost all aspects of life here.  They are the leaders, the law makers, the law keepers and law breakers.  Actually, this is true of most of the world, but it’s a little more exaggerated in places like Egypt than in the United States or Western Europe.  That’s not to say that Egypt is on par with Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan. Nevertheless, misogyny does have its place here.  And it takes various forms:  Female genital mutilation (extremely widespread); domestic violence (very common); sexual harassment (no comment); honor killings (much rarer but do occur from time to time); divorce, adultery and other personal status laws (overtly favor men); and the oh-so-prevalent “a women’s place is in the home” school of thought to which men AND women subscribe.  Again, all of these things exist in other countries.  It’s just that they occur with more much more frequency and much less stigma in this slice of the world.
  
 (Many justify these phenomena by claiming that they are done to “protect” and “empower” women.  People who make these arguments are called apologists.  They are masters at making the greatest evils seem benign.)


Misogyny is also apparent in the 2 mutually exclusive categories into which mainstream misogyny lumps women.  They are “Angel” and “Whore.”  It works like this.  Wears a headscarf.  Angel.  Doesn’t wear a headscarf . Whore.  Has same sex friendships.  Angel.  Has mixed-gender friendships.  Whore.  Is a stay-at-home mom.  Angel.  Is a dancer.  Whore.  No sex before marriage.  Angel.  Sex before during and after marriage. Whore.  Is not married by age 30.  Old maid with severe issues. Got it?  Good.  :O) 

So.  Which category do I fall in?  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s not “angel.”  :) 

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with belly dance.  The answer is everything.  Belly dance is supposed to be a woman’s dance.  Made for women by women.  That’s one of the things that most attracted me to this dance in the first place.  Yet here in Egypt, it’s the men who control and profit from the dance.  They are the agents, the talent and hotel managers.  They are the musicians and the majority of the customers.


The business side of belly dance seems to be a little different in the rest of the world.  In the States, Europe, Russia and Asia, the belly dancers themselves are in charge of all aspects of the dance.  They are not merely performers.  They are event organizers, agents, and in lots of cases, the majority of the customers. They are women helping other women, and they are profiting from their dedication to this art.  

Please don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against men cooperating with women to help them succeed.  However, the keyword here is “cooperate.”  Unfortunately, cooperation sometimes gives way to exploitation—financial and sexual.  For us dancers who insist on working here, this comes with the territory.  It doesn’t always happen, and there are lots of respectable men in the business, but we’re bound to encounter it at some point or another in our careers.  At that point, it becomes a question of which type of exploitation we choose to tolerate.  And that’s an individual thing.  Personally, I prefer being robbed to being groped, cajoled into bed, or even listening to some pervert talk about inappropriate subjects.  So I choose the people I deal with accordingly. 

Nevertheless, I often find myself wishing that more women would take the reigns in the business side of belly dance.  Something tells me that if they did, things would be better.  Only another woman could truly understand the value of our shimmies.  Only another woman could truly appreciate the amount of guts it takes to get on stage “half-naked” and shake it, especially in a society that frowns upon this.  Only another woman could truly appreciate the money, time, and energy we pump into learning and performing this dance.


To those social constructionists who would suggest that there’s no such thing as “women’s art” because there’s no such thing as gender, I would suggest they take a look at the facts.  It’s been pretty well established that belly dance derives from the natural movements that WOMEN do when WOMEN are PREGNANT.  The belly rolls, the shimmies, the flutters, the pelvic thrusts, etc.  The last time I checked, men do not get pregnant.  Would anyone like to prove me wrong? :0)  


What’s even further evidence of this being a woman’s dance is the fact that there is no distinct role for men in belly dance.  Unlike ballet, salsa, and the thousands of folkloric dances around the world, there are no special “man moves” in belly dance.  So when men belly dance, they take on a female persona.  They become women (if only for the duration of their performances).  And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Just saying. 

Interestingly enough, a relatively famous male Egyptian dance teacher once told me that there’s no way a man can truly belly dance.  According to him, a man can only “imitate” this dance because he does not have a womb, which is the source of a woman’s artistic inspiration.  (I personally “see” dance in my imagination when I hear music, not feel it in my womb, but that’s just me. :D).   Whatever you think about the relationship between wombs and artistic inspiration, I think what he was getting at was that belly dance is essentially feminine.  Only women can truly get it right, because it requires that female essence that men lack (most of them at least).  Whether or not the womb is the seat of that essence is another issue.

Given all the evidence indicating that belly dance is a woman’s dance, it seems rather odd that men would be the ones controlling every aspect of it.  But this is a man’s world, after all, and almost everything is controlled by them (even the overwhelming majority of Egyptian gynecologists are men!).   

One of the results of this male-controlled belly dance industry is that women wind up battling each other (I’m not talking about the petty cattiness that goes on in your belly dance community back home, either).  I’m talking about calling the police on each other, destroying and stealing each others’ costumes, spreading career-ruining rumors, and doing things (and people :O) they shouldn’t be doing to prevent other dancers from “stealing” their work.  

As much of a feminist as I am, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in this woman-hating behavior at one point or another. I realized this when I recently caught myself referring to another dancer as “sharmoota.” That's "prostitute" in Egyptian Arabic.  I recoiled after hearing that word slip off my tongue so effortlessly.  Not because she isn’t in fact a prostitute, but because the word is so condemning.  Moreso in Arabic than in English.  In all actuality, this sharmoota may not deserve the condemnation that the word implies. She, like millions of other women, is illiterate and skill-less.  She therefore has no other way of making and securing a living than to use her body in various ways.  That makes her a victim and a survivor, not a sharmoota.  

I’m not going to carry on about the various revolutions that needs to happen in this part of the world, but all I can say is that the realities I observe every day in my line of work alone are a big part of the reason why I’ve become somewhat of a “feminazi” :Unfortunately, I don’t really see things changing anytime soon.  Looks like I’ll be frustrated for a while. 
 O).  

19 comments:

  1. Very well written blog, didnt expect such blogging from a dancer :), well I support you and that is not a sarcastic comment. Genuinely appreciating.

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  2. I do have a Harvard education you know :) Thanks though.... but just so you know, there are many highly educated women working as belly dancers. And they are often the best dancers too!

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  3. Nice blog Luna. Why don't you work as a Belly Dancer in In the States, Europe, Russia or Asia? You will be in charger and making more money.

    Do you know how much Harvard graduate annual salary in the States? Come on Luna :-)))

    Love your pic Angel :-)

    Take care,

    Mido

    Egyptian lives in the heart of the BIG APPLE

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  4. Money isn't everything ya Mido. I've got plenty of time to make money. I'm here because I love the dance and there's no other place on the planet where I can dance my heart out every night to a live band. Most important thing is I'm happy. Hope you're enjoying the Big Apple. I sure do miss it!

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  5. Hello Luna,

    Sorry for the typo in my last post. I meant charge not charger. :-)

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  6. Is the glass half empty or half full? :-)

    Being happy living in Egypt is great. Specially when you live and deal with people from different culture. It's very hard in the beginning. Just take it easy enjoy your time. You have a night job. You will experience the beauty of the City. Being close to the Nile River at night is very nice.

    I am enjoying my time in the Big Apple. No place like NYC & Vegas. :-)

    Cheers,

    Mido

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  7. I love NYC too, more than any place on this earth... I'm used to Cairo though... and the glass is half-full... maybe a little more than half :)

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  8. Great blog. I understand what you are saying about Egypt as a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, due to the behaviors that many women have portrayed to Egyptian men, and the increasing adoption of strict Islamic laws, I do not see the situation improving in Egypt anytime soon. Of course if they elect a president who has travelled the world and seen the benefit of equal rights, they will have a better chance.

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  9. Asalamu Alaykom,

    Did you ever see the movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"? There's a line the dad shouts, "I'm the HEAD OF THE FAMILY!" Then the mom says quietly but firmly, "Yes, but I'm the neck that turns the head." This is how I feel the role of the woman in Egyptian society is. Relax into the role we are "allowed" to play and then find that feminine power working for us. We don't have to have the same power in order to be powerful.

    I'm OK with what I've got going on in my own life. However, I get the benefit of living in private with a man. You only get the times of associating in public. Those public times are very different. Men are different. In private (in a halal union) the men allow themselves to be big babies and sweet guys. In public? NO WAY! So, you're used to tough guys without that balance. Even if you have experienced time with a man in private, Luna, if it is not halal it won't be the same. They would only be your equal in a sanctioned marriage. It isn't wrong! It's just life in a Muslim country. It's actually something to admire in that a man saves his soft side for a marriage partner.

    You write about misperceptions of women. A more archetypal way of thinking about it is the "Madonna/Mary Magdalene" view of women. It's been this way through the centuries and in every country. Even with women who wear the hejab, Hon! A woman who wears but doesn't cover her chest, or wears but also wears pants...I mean there are levels of observance and judgements from others. Human nature! Don't take it personally.

    You say that you're mad at the men who control the biz. You have bought into that but you don't have to! Be the agent of change you wish someone else to me. Let it be YOU!

    As for the bad words which get hurled at us by other women. Shame on any of us who perpetuate the cycle. No one needs to be called nasty names. We all need to drop out of this behavior. There's better ways to live.

    Let's work on living better and loving where we are. It's not perfect and you and I are not perfect. Still, it's good to be here and I hope we can enjoy our time here before it's all done. We might as well!

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  10. Thanks so much for your response Yosra. I actually have been in a "halal" union and found myself dying to escape. I just prefer not to write about my personal life on here. Something about marriage, be it Muslim or other, makes men (and women) take their partners for grranted. As for men being "big babies" and "sweet guys" in public, well you are making a huge generalization. Maybe your husband fits this description, but the sad reality is that domestic abuse is extremely widespread in Egypt and other Arab countries and is considered quite normal. Another thing to consider is that usually, you can predict how a man will treat you based on how he treats others-- family, friends, children, animals. If he's a "toughy" in public, rest assured he's a toughy in private.

    I actually tried (and I think succeeded) NOT to make generalizations. I specifically mentioned that not all the men in the business are terrible. That also means that not all of them are NOT terrible. You suggest that I'm "buying into" the chauvenism inherent in my art form, and that I should be a source of change for the better. Easier said than done. If you haven't noticed, this is a male-dominated society through and through. Female artists have no choice but to make sacrifices for the sake of their art. That's what I'm doing. Me not being an artist will not change the reality on the ground. The change shouldn't be starting with me. It should start with Egyptian society and the way it perceives gender, art, and many many other things. Not to mention, it's almost impossible to be a woman without making sacrificies. We sacrifice our freedom and many times our better judgment when we get married. We sacrifice our intelligence and dignity when we succumb to the man-made laws (and religions) imposed on us. So glad you brought up these issues because they definitely need to be discussed.

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  11. @ Anonymous... thanks, and I also don't see the situation improving any time soon.
    At least, not until the women themselves wakup and realize the oppression that defines their daily existence. Not so sure a well-traveled president is the answer either. So many well-educated Arab and Muslim men abroad do not become convinced of the virtues of equal rights and that sort of stuff. Like I said, it's the women that have to start a gender revolution here, much like the women in the States did not so long ago.

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  12. ...I'm NOT implying that we've reached perfection in the West, by the way... just that we've made more progress than other parts of the world.

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  13. why the hell would an American Harvard educated women work as a belly dancer and in Egypt one of the shittiest places on earth (its not an insult, i am Egyptian and i am just being honest with myself) that's the strangest thing i have seen for a while!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  14. Takes all kinds of people to make this world go round right? Other than this being one of the "shittiest" places on earth, as you say, what's wrong with a Harvard grad being a belly dancer? Must I be like everybody else? Conformity's a bit boring you know...

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  15. loved this, thank you.

    and the first thing in my mind after one paragraph was "hurrah, another dancer with a BRAIN"

    Artemisia (feminist, historian, dancer, not necessarily in that order)

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  16. Thanks for your comment Artemisia :) I feel exactly the same way when I see other intelligent women in the dance. Best of luck to you in daNce and life.

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  17. I certainly understand the pull of dancing every night to live music with audiences who can really appreciate what you are doing. It is a dream.
    I must say that it is hard to reconcile my love of a product of Egyptian culture with what I see as some extremely negative aspects. (I am by *no means* saying that I come from a blameless culture, btw!!!)

    Political issues in the Arab world (Yes,I know misogyny is not limited to the Arab world.) really cause me alienation from the dance.

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  18. I totally hear you. Misogyny and other social ills exist everywhere, but they're really exaggerated here. Sometimes I feel that all the negativity is eating away at my passion for the dance. I usually snap out of that funk, but it's not fun dealing wiht it time and again. We really do give up so much to be full-time performers here, not the least of which is sanity and self-respect.

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  19. "Not to mention, it's almost impossible to be a woman without making sacrificies. We sacrifice our freedom and many times our better judgment when we get married. We sacrifice our intelligence and dignity when we succumb to the man-made laws (and religions) imposed on us. So glad you brought up these issues because they definitely need to be discussed."

    Amen.
    Thank you for writing about your experiences in Egypt. I've been very much enjoying reading your blog.

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