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, September 9, 2012

"Living the Dream"

I’m always bemused by all belly dancers who tell me I’m “living the dream.”  Every time I hear that, I want to ask, really?  What dream?  I never dreamed of being a belly dancer in Cairo.  I didn’t even know that was possible! =D
Truth be told, I didn’t come to Egypt with a mission to be a “star,” or because someone pumped my ego with garbage.  I came to Egypt because I had a broken heart.  I hadn’t broken up with a boyfriend or anything like that.  But a couple of years earlier,  I saw something I really wanted and didn’t think I could do-- real Egyptian belly dancing.  Since attending that festival in 2006, I desperately wanted to learn.  But because achieving that level of excellence in the dance requires many years of living in Cairo, I decided that was impossible, and got depressed.

It turns out I was wrong.  I have, after all, been living in Cairo for four years.  Yet at the time, if you would have told me this could or would happen, I would have responded that I also believe in the tooth fairy.  I had just been accepted to Harvard, would spend the next two years of my life there, and would then go on to get a job and make babies.  I couldn’t imagine interrupting the very natural flow of things to fit Egypt in.  Nor could I imagine the logistics of undertaking such an endeavor.  How would I get there?  Where would I stay?  Who would hire me to work so that I could pay my rent and fund all my dance classes?  Too much uncertainty, too much impossibility, no money. 

And then one day, things started falling into place.  While at Harvard, I came up with the brilliant idea to apply for a Fulbright grant to study in Egypt.  I would do research on Oriental dance in exchange for a monthly stipend for the duration of 9 months.  I knew that getting the US State Department to fund belly dance research was a long shot, but I figured I had nothing to lose by applying.  So I did.  To my surprise, I won a grant.  Apparently, the Fulbright committee was interested in my assertion that Islamicization plus economic stagnation is causing cultural decay, and that it’s taking a toll on the performing arts.    
That summer, I graduated from Harvard and prepared to move to Egypt.  Little did I know that my humble desire to learn how to dance would eventually blossom into a career as a professional belly dancer in Cairo.
About six months into my new life in Egypt, I was offered an opportunity to perform at a Red Sea resort two and half hours away from Cairo.  The pay was bad, and the car ride was dangerous and nauseating.  What was worse, I felt intimidated doing an hour show for an Egyptian audience.  I didn’t know what songs to dance to, and wasn’t comfortable improvising.  The only costumes I owned were two that I wasn’t very fond of.   In short, I was totally unprepared.  Yet I took the opportunity because, well, I never turn down an opportunity.  Even if I know I’m not ready for it.  I’ve learned that opportunities come around once in a lifetime—be they work, love, or whatnot.  Maybe the rich can buy theirs, but the rest of us mortals need to seize them as they come.
And I’m glad I did.  For despite my feelings of inadequacy that night, I received the warmest welcome a dancer could hope for.  Indeed, it was more than a welcome onto the stage.  It was a welcome into what would become my future career, and one that I’ll never forget. 
After almost two years of dancing at most of the Red Sea resorts, a young whirling dervish who performed in between my sets asked me if I wanted to audition at Memphis, a Nile cruise he worked at.  Legally speaking, I shouldn’t have stepped foot on that boat.  I was already being contracted at the Semiramis, and Egyptian law prohibits foreign dancers from working at more than one venue.  Nevertheless, I accepted his offer and auditioned.  A combination of my gutsy nature plus the fact that I never performed at the Semiramis (here’s why) made me do it. 
To my delight, I passed my audition.  That same night, the management asked me to work all night, every night.  I explained that doing so was illegal—that the most I’d allow myself to give them was two nights a week, and that that was really generous of me.  But the more I refused, the more they insisted they’d make my papers in exchange for me leaving the Semiramis.  I appreciated the offer, but I turned it down.  Number one, I didn’t really believe they’d come through.  Here, talk is cheap and empty promises are plenty.  I wasn’t going to cancel my papers at the Semiramis (even if I wasn’t dancing), on the hope that the boat management would honor its promise.  Number two, there was the name/prestige factor.  You don’t get better than the Semiramis here (even if you’re not dancing!).  To “lower myself” to a Nile cruise would be unthinkable, and a major blow to my professional reputation in Egypt. 
One month later, the moment the boat had been waiting for arrived.  The manager of the Semiramis cancelled my contract and residency, leaving me high and dry.  We got into a major dispute over his ignoring my pleas to travel home for a death in the family. So he fired me. 
I cannot lie.  That little Nile cruise wasn’t looking so bad after this horrid experience.  I informed the boat management that their dream came true—that I was fired from the Semiramis—and that I was now employable.  Hearing this, the general manager of the boat wasted no time in contracting me.  He had already felt a considerable increase in profits after one month of my dancing there, and didn’t want to lose me to the belly dance police or to another venue.   In fact, not only did he contract me, but he first applied for a license for the boat to hire foreign talent, a step that took a lot of time and money.  Ever since, I’ve been performing every single night with my band—not only on the boat, but at weddings and other parties.  I’ve also been featured on Egyptian TV as a soloist and in music videos.  In that respect, I guess you can say my life has been a living dream. 
It has also been a dream in that I’ve learned how to dance the way I always wanted to.  That wouldn’t have happened without me getting my papers.   Sure, classes are important.  But there’s nothing like a stage and a set of musicians every night to teach you how to dance.  Something about the spontaneity of it all, the interaction with Egyptian audiences, gives you a good feel for the music and mood of this dance.    
The constant performing also keeps me on my toes.  I have my audience regulars, as well as agents with whom I frequently work, so I always have to produce new stuff.  Plus, I get bored quickly.  That means I’m always thinking of new routines and new costumes.  It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work.  If it’s not doing rehearsals with my band, it’s coming up with new material, or designing and buying costumes.  It really is a full time job, so I’m lucky to be able to dedicate all of my time to it. 
Despite the fantasy-like aspects of my work as a belly dancer in Cairo, it’s important to put things in perspective.  My finding steady work at a respectable place was sheer luck.  Perhaps some would call it fate.  I neither knew about Memphis nor asked for an audition.  And, that they were serious about contracting me was something out of the ordinary.  Most venues here aren’t generous about handing contracts to foreign dancers, let alone pay for expensive licenses to do so.  What’s more, that opportunity came after more than two years of just going with the flow­—not seeking opportunities to dance, but taking the ones given to me.  It also came after more than two years of suffering and disillusion.  For though I never intended to work in Egypt, that was exactly what was happening.  And it was becoming a major source of strife in many of my personal and professional relationships.  So while I acknowledge that the development of my career had a sort of fantasy ending (or beginning, depending on how you look at it), I still feel that people are a little mistaken when they say I’m “living the dream.” 
Truth be told, that dream turns into a nightmare more than I’d like to admit.  Despite all of its perks, dancing in Cairo involves quite a bit of hardship.  In fact,  the hardship is equally proportionate to the amount of satisfaction and success one enjoys. 
For starters, I’ve become pretty defensive.  There are always people in the business looking to take advantage of us, be it through money or sex.  It doesn’t always happen, but it’s frequent enough that my default mode for dealing with people is defensive.  Especially with those I haven’t yet developed a trusting professional relationship.  To me, everyone is guilty until proven innocent. 
Then there’s all the legal stuff.  The "belly dance police," or musanafat and adab, to be exact.  They’re the ones who regulate licensing and make sure you’re not “indecent” in your dance or dress.  When these guys get on your back, things can get ugly.  Punishments include fines, jail time, and deportation for foreigners, and depend on a variety of factors.  Your violation is one of them.  Dancing without a stomach covering is a lesser offense than dancing illegally.  Dancing without a stomach covering and without papers is even worse. :)  Whether or not the police were sent to you by another jealous dancer is another factor.  If that’s the case, you could either be let off the hook or severely punished for your real or perceived violations.  That depends on the nature of the officer’s relationship with the dancer who sent him, of course. :)
On a different note, adapting to the culture poses some challenges. The religious and cultural assumptions about women don't exactly resonate with me.  Nor do the unofficial yet strict codes of conduct and dress.  Not to mention the incessant sexual harassment.  It gets exhausting.  Constantly having to cover up, even when it’s smoldering outside, having to hide my profession from everyone lest I get kicked out of my apartment (which has already happened), not being able to freely express myself—all of these can get quite exasperating.
In light of the conditions I’ve described, one would think a supportive dance community would be the perfect cushion to lean upon.  Yet that, unfortunately, isn't really the case.  While there are some genuine souls whom I love like family, the community as a whole can be the antithesis of supportive.  One discovers that as they climb the ladder of success, defamatory rumors and accusations proliferate.  Many either create rumors about what you did to get your job, or else are all too eager to believe the worst about you.  Some even try to destroy your career.  Everybody loves a nobody.  But few love a somebody.  Which is why you don’t know who your friends are until good things come your way.  I swear, it feels like high school all over again.  Only, I’ve learned to rise above it in a way that I couldn’t when I was 15.  No matter what you say or do, no matter how you dance, there’ll always be someone hating, criticizing, ridiculing, and putting you down.  So you reach a point at which you just stop caring—at which you feel free to be who you are without worrying what others think.  It may sound unpleasant, but it’s also really liberating.    
All of this is beside the point, however.  It comes with the territory of dancing in Egypt, and has actually been a source of personal growth.  Personally, my biggest challenge is neither the culture nor the unfriendly dance scene.  It’s something more internal than that.  Something I like to call the “what if” syndrome.  I love my job, and I realize how lucky I am to have it.  Yet the question of what if I had done things differently haunts me.  I mean, let’s face it.  The average woman doesn’t make the life decisions I’ve made.  The average person doesn’t radically veer off the tried and tested road to success to follow some vaguely defined dream of learning to dance in a third world country.  And though a lot of people praise me for that, maybe there’s a reason the road less traveled is less traveled.  Leading an unconventional life may be fun, but it means setting yourself up for a life of uncertainty and improvisation. And I don’t mean on stage either.  I no longer have a life “choreography” the way I used to.  I abandoned that four years ago.  And I quit rehearsing for the “real world.”  I’m just living life, one day at a time.  Bohemian.  Totally not the life I envisioned for myself.  And totally frightening.
These days, with all the suffering going on in the world, I’m even starting to feel a little guilty about having my dream job.  There are people struggling to put food on their table, and people all over the world laying down their lives for freedom.  One of them was a good friend of mine in Syria recently. And here I am dancing.  Celebrating.  What, I don’t know.  But people say that dance is a celebration.  So it’s starting to feel a little wrong.  A little selfish....meaningless....hollow. 
Whatever I’m going through, I sincerely hope it’s temporary, and that I’ll snap out of it.  I put way too much effort into launching my career for me to just quit because I think dancing is “haram,” albeit for my own reasons.  (Funny how I’m more scared of myself than I am of the Brotherhood banning dance!)  If nothing else though, how I’m feeling is a testament to the fact that I am indeed living a dream.  Maybe not "THE" dream, but a dream in the sense that almost everything that happens, whether good or bad, tends to feel unreal.  Deep down inside, there’s a part of me that likes that.  I guess that’s why I’m praying I won’t wake up anytime soon.

15 comments:

  1. First of all, you're such a great writer.
    Second of all, I can understand why you feel that way about dance with all the sh.. that's going on in the world, but if you continue in that direction, not only could you give up dancing, but also come to think life in general is pointless. Sure, you dance for yourself, because it makes you happy, but it's a butterfly effect - this what you think of as food for your soul is also bringing joy to others. It's a mechanism made so that everyone could fulfill their role in the world as small parts of the whole. So who could blame you for that? Yes, it's a celebration, of everything we people are, what we could be and what we are supposed to be. In that sense it's the light in a dark tunnel, and definitely not "haram". It's a word invented by people who don't understad art and true wonders of the universe, so don't let it get you down. :)

    Zinka

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    1. Hi Zinka,
      Thanks so much for your insights and for reading. I agree with you completely on one level, though I'm afraid I already decided that life in general is pointless a few years ago. Doesn't affect me or anything. It's more of an intellectual conclusion I made than anything else, and one I'm making my peace with. It doesn't stop me from functioning or finding happiness in different things. I'm totally with you though that the whole concept of "haram" was developed by people who just don't get it. Hope they "get it" soon, because they seem to outnumber (or at least overpower) the rational and enlightened ones. Thanks again for your comments. Sending you love and light. :)

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    2. ...if I could just add... me believing that everything in the end is pointless is what allowed me to derail my life in the first place and work in Egypt. It's what allowed me to realize that whether I use Harvard to become a top international lawyer for example, or forget about Harvard and become a lowly dancer in a third world country really doesn't matter in the long (or even short) run, so I might as well just do what makes me happy, while I'm still young enough to do it. Wonder if that makes sense? LOL

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  2. Hi Luna,

    Nicely written and I loved many things about your article, especially the line "Everybody loves a nobody. But few love a somebody." How true is that.

    At any rate, I'm proud of you for the life you're leading and for the person you are becoming.

    I'm excited about bringing you to Chicago next fall. I told the girls and they are really looking forward to meeting and dancing with you.

    Take care of yourself and keep the posts coming.

    Raksanna

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    1. Thanks so much for your support Raksanna. Guess I just had to get some stuff off my chest. I'm really excited to work with you in Chicago too, it'll be so much fun!

      Thanks again and congrats on your book. Would love to get my hands on a copy. :)

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  3. I have to say that I your honesty does affect people. I just love the way you keep yourself real and you are very smart. Maybe you are moving in a new direction and a new inspiration will be coming soon! Best wishes xoxo

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    1. Thanks for your kind words and appreciating my honesty. Wishing you the best in dance & life. :)

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  4. Hi Luna, I wanted to say thank for writing about your experiences and connecting to dancers with both your words and your movement. I think any career path particularly those in the arts can be a trying existential journey, that at times lead to profound feelings of ambivalence and even emptiness. Being at the top of your game can be as isolating as it is rewarding especially in an art form where even those who recognize and admire you may not respect you. I applaud you and all individuals who fight the good fight (whether internal or otherwise) and forge ahead. As they say, with great privilege comes great responsibility and I believe this holds true whether you are privileged with monetary wealth or a wealth of talent. You are a shining example of taking the reins in your life despite what others may perceive and doing your best with the privileges life has bestowed upon you.

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  5. Thank you so much for responding and for shedding some light on something that's been keeping me in the dark. I'm glad you understand and really appreciate your support. Kisses from Cairo. :)

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  6. Hi Luna i am Hassan From Cairo but i am living abroad i like your dance and most thing i like Your smile i hope i watch u live soon .. Good Wishes and Happy New Year.
    Btw u are Mouzza ;)

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  7. Hello Luna, I hope you are in the sun now that shadow that crossed his heart has broken. The world can be evil and difficult times, but the joy is essential to life. And is not that what we are celebrating? Celebrate the joy of life. And the dancer is an instrument to radiate this joy wherever he goes. People can talk about dance, talk about the ballerina, but when the dancer enters the stage and begins to dance the energy imana for everyone, fascinates and radiates joy. Kisses from Brazil.

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    1. Thank you for your inspiration Amanda. Best to you. :)

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