by Luna

by 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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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Being Egyptian

I’m not Egyptian and I don’t pretend to be, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t picked up a few Egyptian habits.  Being Egyptian is contagious. :) Particularly when you live here for a while and speak the language pretty fluently.  That’s all quite normal, I guess.  But it’s interesting in light of the fact that I grew up in a country where it’s common for foreigners to cling onto their native cultures and resist assimilation.  So when I step outside of myself and observe the ways in which my thoughts, mannerisms, and even speech have transformed, I can’t help but chuckle at how much I’ve unintentionally assimilated into Egyptian culture.  
For example.  I’ve gotten into the very Egyptian habit of staring at beautiful women. :)  Now, I don’t lean that way, and I definitely don’t harass them.  But like most Egyptian men and women, I can’t help but marvel at beautiful people.  Which is pretty hypocritical,  being that I hate when people stare at me.  Even if it’s because they think I’m cute.  I think staring is rude and is an invasion of personal space.  Besides, I learned not to do it in Kindergarten. :)   

But here in the land of Oz, one learns not only to appreciate beauty, but to express that appreciation.  Not to take it for granted or pretend that it doesn’t exist by averting one’s eyes (even though religiously speaking, that’s what’s supposed to happen).  Don’t get me wrong.  This is not an endorsement of harassment by men or women, and I repeat, I hate when people stare me down, but I think there’s something so human about acknowledging beauty.  In any case, it can be quite a relief from the “elevator reflex” culture we come from.
Staring and being stared at has become such a part of my daily routine that I feel like a fish out of water when I leave the country.  Outside of Egypt, nobody looks at me, and I look at nobody.  No matter how “hot” any of us is looking.  It is a refreshing feeling (and one that I need to experience every so often), but then there’s that part of me that wonders whether I’m looking particularly haggard.  I mean, why else would no one be taking notice of me? :P
My standards of beauty have also taken a turn for the Egyptian.  I won’t get into detail about the average Egyptian’s concept of female beauty.  Suffice it to say that it’s much curvier and less muscular than mainstream western standards of beauty.  And much more dolled up! :) 
I first noticed how Egyptian my eye has become when watching other belly dancers.  The ones I enjoyed the most weren’t the ones with the best technique, the best “feeling,” or the best costumes.. They were the dancers I found to be the most beautiful.  As a dancer myself, I know how incorrect and unfair it is to evaluate another artist solely based on her looks.  And I wasn’t always like this.  But I think the fact that I’m constantly hearing Egyptians approve and disapprove of dancers based on how they look has influenced me.  Now, whenever I need a dancer to cover a gig for me, I automatically think of sending the most beautiful dancers I know.  Right or wrong, it’s the way my brain is currently programmed.  Besides, it keeps agents and managers from complaining that the replacement I sent was “mish helwa”—not pretty.
It’s not just my eye that has learned to see Egyptian.  My brain also thinks Egyptian.
Last week at a wedding, my eyes fell upon a woman who was dressed quite scandalously.  While all the other women were veiled, she was wearing a super short cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and a plunging neckline, 5 inch heels, and (Heaven forbid!) no pantyhose.  And, she invited herself to dance with me on the dance floor.  There I was, jiggling around half-naked myself, and all I could think of when watching her was “sharmoota.”  “Slut” in Arabic.
Whoa.  Since when did I become so judgmental?  About women’s fashion, of all things? 
The same thing happens every time I see a man and a woman holding hands in public.  My newfound “moral sensibilities” get shocked, and I automatically balk.  How dare they, those dastards!?!  :) I even start wondering whether or not they’re married.  Not that it’s any of my business, or that I’ve never held hands in public.  But even the most innocent public displays of affection are pretty taboo here, compared with other parts of the world.
Luckily, I’m not that far gone that I can’t recognize the backwardness taking root in me.  And, I am able to quickly snap out of it—and back into reality.  My reality.  According to which, the woman wearing a short dress is the way I want to dress, and to which more couples should be free to express their love publicly (within reasonable limits of course! :D).  I am—well, I thought I was—a firm believer in personal freedom.  Yet my immediate reaction to these kinds of things is the same as most Egyptians.  Interesting how that works. 
Admittedly, language plays a huge role in the cultural assimilation process.  Unlike many foreigners who have spent years in expat bubbles, I made an effort to become fluent in Egyptian Arabic.  Were that not the case, I’d probably be much less integrated than I am.  That’s because Arabic is one of those languages that is inextricably linked with its culture.  It’s thus almost impossible not to be Egyptian on some level if you speak Arabic well, and, conversely, impossible to be Egyptian if you can’t speak.  Not that “being Egyptian” was ever my goal—I just think it’s stupid, arrogant, and potentially risky to live in a foreign country without being able to communicate effectively with people, many of whom speak little to no English.  So I learned the language.  
Being able to speak with everyone has generally worked to my advantage (though there are some times I wish I didn’t know a word!).  But seeing how much of the mentality I seem to have absorbed, it raises the well-known question of whether language influences thought, or if it’s the other way around.  I personally think it’s a little bit of both, although there’s probably more evidence to support the former. 
On the subject of language, it’s worth noting that Egyptian Arabic borrows a lot of words from English (and French and Turkish and Farsi).  Especially words that have to do with technology and fashion.  Like “Ploetoes” (Bluetooth) and “bloovr” (Pull Over). :D.  What’s funny is that many Egyptians think these are Arabic words, and pronounce them in their Egyptian way.  What’s even funnier is how effortlessly I now pronounce these words that same way in the midst of a conversation in Arabic.  In fact, sometimes I think I forget that “Ploetoes,” “Micdoonaalds,“combooterr,”bresteej” (prestige), “boolees” (police), “billydoncer” (belly dancer), “uncle” (ankle) and “rimoot” (remote control) are English in origin. :)  I just love it.  It’s one of those things that adds to Egypt’s charm.  And, it shows how much of a hodgepodge of globalization this world has become.   
My absolute favorite word in the Arabic language, however, is not one of these English loan words.  It is “insha’allah.”  God willing.  It is, in my opinion, the most perfect word in all human languages.  Insha’allah means that things can and will happen only if God (or the universe or destiny or whatever you want to call it) wants it to happen.  I like that.  It serves as a reminder of the inherent frailty of the human condition—something we humans tend to forget from time to time.  Though that means we may not always accomplish what we set out to, it also means we’re not completely responsible for our failures.  If we don’t become millionaires or superstars, it’s not because we’re losers.  It’s because God didn’t want that for us.  And if we don’t show up to that appointment we scheduled, it’s not because we’re lazy and slept too late.  It’s because, well, God didn’t want that either. :)  
Now do you see why I love this word?  It has major cop-out capabilities. :P
In Egypt, where the pace of life is mellow, the work ethic is relaxed, and unforeseen circumstances arise on a daily basis, people punctuate every statement of intent with insha’allah.  “I will meet you tomorrow at 9am, inshallah.”  “I will have your work ready for you tomorrow, insha’allah.”  When there’s no follow through, technically, it’s nobody’s fault.  God just wasn’t willing.  Insha’allah is thus a great way to divest oneself of responsibility for noncompliance, and a word you’ll always hear on the lips of the lazy. :) 
Since my sense of timing has become quite Egyptian, insha’allah works out quite well for me.  Here, 3pm means 3:30, 5:00, tomorrow, or never.  I’ve always had a problem with punctuality and keeping appointments, but it’s gotten considerably worse since moving to Egypt.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that I keep really late hours, as do most Egyptians who don’t work normal 9-5s.  Since I rarely wake up in the mornings, I wind up conducting all of my business at night when I finish dancing, whenever that may be.  Or bukra.  Tomorrow.  My second favorite word in the Arabic language. And when bukra never comes, I can always play the insha’allah card. :)
Another interesting Arabic phrase that’s impacted me a bit is “wakhid 3ayn.” (wakhda 3ayn for women). Kind of like one would catch a cold, one can catch “eye.”  And I’m not talking about Pink Eye either.  I’m talking about The Evil Eye.  You know, the one that causes you to get sick, or injure yourself, or be robbed, etc.?  If you’re wondering about the relationship between eyes and maladies, the idea is that the eyes are the source of jealousy and envy.  The eyes see others who may be richer, smarter, more beautiful, more successful, and thus can possibly lead to the seer being jealous and sending out destructive vibes.  Egyptians use the phrase “wakhd(a) 3ayn” anytime something bad happens to them.  For example, that Bubonic Plague-like cough the singer came down with?  Has nothing to do with the fact that he drinks out of everyone’s cup and may have ingested some germs.  It’s because another singer was jealous and sent him negative vibes.  The football player broke his leg?  That too is the result of a jealous teammate.  Never mind that violent tackle he was engaged in.
I distinctly remember the first time I ever “caught the eye,” or at least thought I did.  It was during a span of 2 weeks last winter, before I got contracted to perform in Cairo.  I was doing a series of performances in some resorts along the Red Sea, when I got into 2 pretty scary car accidents.  Thankfully, neither the driver nor I were injured, but both times, the car whipped around itself 3 times and left us with our hearts in our mouths.  Same driver, same road, same day of the week, same time, same destination, same stupidity.  Though both times, the cause of the accidents was obvious (and totally preventable), the only thing the driver and I could come up with was that one of us had “caught the eye.”  Since then, every time I catch a cold, or things aren’t going my way, I try to figure out who’s hating on me before I even think to look for more logical explanations. ;)
Since this is supposed to be a belly dance blog, I guess I should mention how all of this relates to my dance.  Indeed, my dancing has become more Egyptian since moving here, as anyone would expect.  That’s what happens when you live in Cairo, and in my case, pretty much learn how to dance here.  What really amazes me, though, is how Egyptian my approach to the dance has become.  Whereas I used to be a choreography freak, I now improvise all the time. Which is what most Egyptian dancers do.  For them, belly dance is something that just happens.  They don’t “do” it, if you know what I mean.  So choreography is a bit of an alien concept to them.   In my case, being on stage with my band every night is the reason why I’ve stopped choreographing and learning others’ routines.  I no longer have the time, need, nor desire to map out every little doom and tak the way I used to.  Too much hassle.  That was OK when I performed once a week to CD.  I had way more time and way less experience back then.  And much more of a clear head!  Now, I even improvise my way through TV shoots, though admittedly, choreography might serve that purpose better!
Though I’m fascinated by all the ways in which my life has become Egyptian, there are still some things I retain from my native culture.  Like wanting to know how much things cost before I buy them.  Like saying what I mean and meaning what I say.  Like not chucking my garbage outside the car window.  Or into the Nile. Indeed, I love how Egyptians giggle at me whenever we’re in a car together and I refuse to throw my empty pizza box outside the window. :)  Or when I yank the empty cigarette boxes out of their hands before they have a chance to toss them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained the importance of keeping the environment clean, but in the end, I think they still see me as a dirty garbage-collecting foreigner. >D


  1. Thanks for this wonderful post! It's really fascinating to hear about your life! And I think it's great you learned arabic. I live in Switzerland, but am German. Swiss people have their own language, swiss german, and most German people who come and live here think that they don't need to learn swiss german as everyone understands high german. In my opinion this is very arrogant and ignorant and lacks of respect for this country. So I think it's really great what you're doing. Assimilation is not bad, at least in a moderate way. Keep on going, love your blog! Greetings from a bellydancer from Zurich! ;) xoxo Elissar

    1. Hi Elissar,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I can totally relate. Assimilation is never a bad thing. Going totally native is another. As you said, not learning language is a sign of arrogance, amongst other things. Glad you like my blog, and thanks for reading! Happy Dancing - Luna

  2. Love your posts. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy the dance and keep working 'inshallah <3 Sharifa

  3. Interesting
    Posting it to my FB profile :-)