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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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Current Affairs

One of the reasons I allowed myself to come to Egypt was because I was burnt out.  Six years of nonstop reading, writing, and thinking about Middle Eastern politics will do that to you.  Not to mention the constant debating, arguing, analyzing, questioning and critiquing.  It’s educational, no doubt, but also maddening.  Your brain never stops.  One thought opens the door to a million new ones.  I thought learning to dance in Egypt would be the perfect way to clear my head of all the political pollution, but boy was I wrong.  If anything, living here has only the made the wheels in my head turn faster.  Especially after the revolution.  All people seem to want to do is talk politics and make history.  At work, in taxis, at cafes, in Tahrir.  There’s just no escaping the political madness these days.  It’s endemic.

This month was no exception.  Tensions reached an all time high, seemingly over that disgusting film which denigrates the Muslim prophet Mohamed.  As an American who lives in Egypt, this is something that greatly troubled me.  So I want to share some of my thoughts on the matter.  Note: they are just thoughts.  I don’t have an “agenda,” and don’t present my views as THE truth.  

Religiously speaking, Islam prohibits the visual representation of any of the prophets in the Abrahamic tradition, especially Mohamed (there have been visual representations of the prophet throughout history without incident, however).  It also prohibits blasphemy, much like Judaism and Christianity.  And though there is debate over whether the Quran and prophetic traditions directly address blasphemy, early Muslim jurists made it a punishable offense in the Shariah (Islamic law).  

I don’t want this to turn into a theological exegesis.  I simply want to convey that blasphemy is a serious matter in the Muslim world, where many are deeply religious (or like to think they are).  That mostly explains the angry eruptions we bore witness to this month—though some attribute it to other factors such as frustration with the way things are (not) going.  No doubt Muslims have a lot of legitimate political and economic grievances, especially post-revolutions.  But to suggest that offended religious sensibilities had little or nothing to do with the riots seems a bit mistaken.  

I’m fully aware that only a tiny, violent fraction of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims actually rioted and engaged in violence, and that the vast majority of Muslims don’t kill people for any reason.  I witnessed that myself here in Egypt.  Had my mother not called to tell me there were protests in front of the US Embassy, I wouldn’t have known about it.  I hadn’t checked the news that day, and by the looks of things, the city was (dis)functioning normally.  Nor did I feel threatened in any way because I’m American.  Au contraire, I conducted my life normally, going to work, running errands, hanging out, and even talking politics with taxi drivers (I don’t recommend doing this by the way.  Unless you’re dying to get a feel for mainstream opinion like I am, or you want to be harassed, don’t engage strange men in any type of conversation :D).  In short, Egyptians weren’t out hunting Americans, and there was no carnage. 

That being said, I’m having a hard time believing that offended religious sensibilities had nothing to do with the protests.  It would probably be easier to make that argument if this kind of thing never happened before.  But it has.  Or if Egyptians hadn’t held any major protests since the revolution.  But they have.  Egyptians have made plenty of opportunities to voice their very legitimate grievances almost every single week since the revolution.  To me, at least, that’s an indication that last week’s riots in front of the US embassy weren’t exactly about frustrations over rising food prices or lack of security, as some have suggested.  They were about the film.  So much so that almost every mainstream media commentator in Egypt urged people to stop protesting a film most hadn’t even seen, and start protesting the things that really matter.  Such as rising food prices and lack of security. :)   

Also, lest we forget, the Muslim world went into a similar though much deadlier uproar in 2005 over the blasphemous cartoon caricatures coming out of Denmark.  When that happened, more than 200 people died because fanatics burned churches and embassies in various countries. Again, that was in 2005.  There were no revolution-related frustrations to blame, nor any anti-American sentiment—the producers of that trash were Danish.  Not to mention the Salman Rushdie affair (no explaining needed there (I hope)), and other blasphemous incidents that have been occurring within Muslim countries, some even by Muslims.  (Click here and here for other links.)  Given that these eruptions predate the Arab Spring, and that the US doesn’t always play a role, it seems that the issue of blasphemy is one that can cause widespread outrage on its own.

Let’s put my analysis on the side though.  It might be more instructive to let people speak for themselves.  Being the curious foreigner that I am, I spoke to almost every Egyptian I knew and met about this issue.  I realize that the opinions of a few people are no substitute for scientific polls, and that they don’t necessarily represent every single person.  And, admittedly, all of the people I spoke with were of the lower and middle classes.  Yet in my 4 years here, I’ve noticed that the opinions of a few are usually a pretty good indication of how the mainstream is feeling.  Usually.  

In speaking with people, I discovered a few things.  The first was that I didn’t really have to broach the topic with anyone.  Those who know me wanted to speak with me about it, while those who don’t just wanted to speak to anyone.  The second thing I noticed was that people’s opinions changed as the days went on.  On the very first days of the anti-film protests in Cairo, people seemed to be all fired up, saying that they supported the protesters, and that if they have to accept America’s freedom of speech, then America should accept their “freedom of action.”  When I asked what the US embassy employees had to do with the whole thing, people responded that they represent the US government, and that they need to communicate to Washington that our freedom of speech needs to draw the line at blasphemy.  Pretty much how Morsi himself responded.  

Then, when people learned that extremists killed the US ambassador in Libya during the riots, I started detecting a slightly different tone.  Everyone who spoke with me, as well as everyone who made an appearance on TV, condemned the violence that claimed the lives of the ambassador and others in the region.  Some even apologized for the actions of their violent co-religionists.  They maintained that while Muslims should protest the film, they should do so peacefully.  They also explained that the violence has nothing to do with Islam, which is true.  Religion might explain why people were outraged, but it doesn’t sanction violence against blasphemers.  Yes, the Shariah criminalizes it, but it’s the job of the courts to mete out justice, not angry individuals or mobs.  

Come day three and four of the protests, people seemed to change their tune completely.  By that point, mostly everyone was fed up with the whole thing.  They realized that the film was distracting them from more important matters.  I also heard a lot of people say that this was an evil plot by the West to create fitna (sectarianism) between Muslims and Christians.  And for that reason alone, Muslims shouldn’t give the West what it wants.   

The thing that I found most disturbing, however, was the contention that the protesters who went a little overboard were nothing but lowly thugs (baltageeya) who were paid by Mubarak and the West to instigate riots.  So that the revolution fails.  So that Egypt is prevented from developing into the great nation it is destined to be.  I don’t know.  I have hard time digesting this one.  Honestly, every time there’s a national catastrophe, Egyptians brush it off by blaming “thugs and foreigners.”  The Port Said soccer massacre, the gang rapes that occur in Tahrir, the crime wave, etc.  As if no one in this country does anything wrong.  As if no one does anything of his own volition.  As if ordinary Egyptians don’t have intellects and beliefs and feelings!  I don’t know about all of you, but I find this kind these implications patronizing, and a bit untrue.  There were reports of ordinary people peacefully protesting the film, including students from the American University in Cairo.  

Perhaps one of the reasons Egyptians tend to brush everything off as baltaga (thuggery) is that many of them are in denial.  They simply aren’t used to all the mayhem that’s been happening.  It’s almost as if Egypt’s national conscience has been shocked.  Blaming violent catastrophes on thugs and foreigners is thus more psychologically convenient than coming to terms with reality.  

Secondly, foreign powers have a history of meddling in regional affairs.  In Egypt’s case, foreigners ruled the country for most of its history.  Most recently, the United States has been the major player.  It’s thus no wonder that history has conditioned Egyptians (and Arabs) to point their finger at foreigners every time there's a catastrophe.  

The other factor I hold responsible for people’s unwillingness to take responsibility for national catastrophes (and this is just a thought), is the absence of a culture of self-critique.  In the US, for example, we learn in our elementary schools that Christopher Columbus was a murderer, that the Founding Fathers were slave holders, that America was built upon a genocide, that we stole land from Mexico, and that patriotism is for losers. We learn that Christianity is oppressive, that capitalism is evil, and that our involvement in world affairs has been entirely destructive.  For Heaven’s sake, not even Santa Clause gets a pass! :)  We’ve reached a point in America where none of our founding myths or values remain unchallenged.  We know we are capable of terrible things, and lots of us have no problem admitting that.   

The same can’t really be said of this part of the world at this point and time.  Though I’m sure there are a few intellectuals doing the relevant research to question their countries’ historical, religious and political myths, western-style skepticism hasn’t infiltrated the mainstream universities and media.  Here, schools teach patriotism and skimp on the humanities—subjects that teach you how, not what to think.  Given that, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people go through life never once wondering whether everything they ever learned was a big fat lie (the one's who do may wind up in jail).  This lack of critical thinking results in an inability to see how ingrained customs and beliefs may actually be a cause some of the turmoil that afflicts their countries—that it’s not just outside powers doing all the damage. 

Back to the film.  Based on what I was hearing, most Muslims seemed to be outraged by the film.  As they had every right to be.  That’s NOT to say that they all became violent, or even protested.  I myself saw the 14-minute trailer before they banned it in Egypt, and I can tell you that as a non-Muslim, I was deeply offended and saddened.  I can only imagine how Muslims felt. And though I firmly believe in free speech, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a mockery of someone else’s faith.  Especially knowing what the consequences are likely to be.  

As for those of us who refuse to be swept up in holy wars, rather than deny Muslims’ sensitivity to blasphemy and make excuses for it, we might do better to acknowledge it.  Maybe we should appreciate that on the whole, the Muslim world’s relationship with religion is a little different than the West’s. And that admitting so (as many Muslims themselves do), does not make us guilty of being “Islamophobes” or of promoting negative stereotypes.  We also shouldn’t assume that since anti-Christian blasphemy doesn’t create as big of a stink, that it’s OK to insult other religions as well.  I’m not suggesting we change our free speech laws to prohibit blasphemy. That would be  establishing a state religion.  It would also be sliding down a very slippery slope of silencing legitimate intellectual discussion.  Nor do I believe that any creed should be above critical examination.  However, with great freedom comes great responsibility.  If people absolutely MUST engage in religious polemics, they should do so factually and respectfully, not with mockery.  Though honestly, I can’t understand why in this day and age, we’re still doing this.  Can’t we all just get along already?!


  1. Based on what I've heard most non-Muslims here in the US found the film outrageous and offensive as well. I guess that is something that we have in common even if those in Egypt don't know it.

    I found your analysis of the political situation there in Egypt fascinating and want to give you this really long and intellectual response. Then I found that Jon Stewart had already summed up what it's been like here pretty succinctly.

    Yeah. That about covers it.

    Ariadne Eleni.

    1. OMG that was so funny, thanks for sharing! Obama's spin notwithstanding, I still maintain that a lot of those eruptions were a spontaneous reaction to the film. I don't know why the media failed to talk about similar incidents in the recent past that prove that blasphemy is a sensitive topic here.