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. :)~



My Videos

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Blame, Shame, and Shobha


Disclaimer: This was written a year ago.
You all know the hackneyed saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Well Egypt is no Rome, but for the seven years that I've lived here, I've tried to be as 'Roman' as possible. I've quite literally walked the walk and talked the talk. Heck I've even thought the thought. I have, one could say, 'gone native' in more ways than one. But there's a limit to how much Romanness even someone like me can take, and I reached it yesterday.

Let me begin by explaining the concept of shobha (pronounced shoub-ha). This idea-word is very much indebted to Islamic thought on gender relations. As such, there is no real equivalent in the English language. But for the purposes of this entry, I'll define it as the state of shame that occurs when one puts oneself in a seemingly compromising situation. Emphasis on 'seemingly.' As is typical of shame, shobha is more concerned with how a situation *appears* to the outside observer, rather than with the actual facts of the situation known to those who are experiencing it. Interestingly, the word is derived from the root sha-ba-ha, which means to resemble, to appear to be, etc.



Here's an example. A man and a woman are sitting together at a table in their workplace, having a conversation. They are not married to each other, nor are they related in any way. So when their colleagues see them sitting together, they automatically assume that something illicit is transpiring. Illicit activities between unmarried men and women in the non-secular Muslim world include spending unnecessary time together, flirting, joking around, holding hands, dating, and everything else that could possibly happen between members of the opposite sex. The two are then harshly judged by all those who know them and see them together (If they are together in a place in which nobody knows them, there is no shobha. Onlookers will assume that they are married and hence not doing anything wrong). The actual reality of the situation doesn't matter much. The two could merely be having a friendly conversation, collaborating on a work project... one could be reprimanding the other for bad behavior, or even teaching him or her the Quran. The possibilities are endless, but all that concerns the onlookers is the fact that the two are sitting together without being married or related.

Speaking of marriage, if one or both of the parties in my hypothetical example is married, the shobha becomes much greater. More so for the woman. Even worse if she is the one who is married. If a woman who is known to be married is seen interacting with a man other than her husband or a known relative, onlookers will not only shame her, but shame her husband as well. (This is one of those rare instances in which the prevailing moral logic dishes out blame to both men and women equally, albeit in a twisted sort of way, as you'll see.) They will say things like "he didn't exercise much judgment in choosing his wife" --a condemnable mistake, since the written prophetic tradition advises men to choose their wives based on how religious (and consequently how obedient) they are; "he doesn't fulfill her desires"-- another condemnable offense, as it is a husband's religious duty to please his wife sexually, emotionally, and materially so as to prevent her from cheating and thus dishonoring his name; when all else fails, "he isn't even man enough to prevent his unruly and/or unsatisfied wife from mingling with strange men"-- meaning, he failed to physically prevent her from leaving the house and seeking the company of the strange man. Mind you, these judgments may be worlds removed from the reality of the situation, and there may be absolutely no emotional or physical connection between the unmarried man and woman in question. This, however, is of little concern in a society more concerned with how things appear than with how they really are, and in a culture much influenced by the prophetic saying about Satan being the 'third party' whenever unmarried men and women are alone together. Meaning, they will always be tempted to engage in sexual relations, which are, incidentally, unlawful.

You should have gathered by now that this is a world with no platonic relationships. It's not that they are completely nonexistent, but that society frowns upon the few that occur, for the reasons I just mentioned. In the meantime, the assumption about gender mixing always and inevitably leading to temptation remains unquestioned (so does the assumption about premarital relations being sinful, but that's a different can of worms). Never mind that it fails to account for all those things that get in the way of temptation, such as lack of chemistry, homosexuality of either or both of the individuals, lack of attraction, etc. I mean, I don't know about all of you, but I've had plenty of relationships with members of the opposite sex without either of us feeling the slightest bit of attraction for the other, let alone temptation. But I guess real life experience doesn't amount to much in the realm of myth and fantasy.

Anyway. My experiences with shobha thus far have been... pretty shitty. For starters, I take issue with all the assumptions that underpin it. You know, the ones about unmarried attraction being satanic, and about how any random pair of men and women will experience it. God forbid. Also, I can't stand shame. I find it to be such a wrongheaded, immature way of implementing morality. I much prefer guilt. Guilt is internalized shame--shame in front of one's self (and one's god, for those who believe) for failing to live up to the moral standards one believes in. It is an indication that they are truly sorry. And when one truly feels sorry after doing something wrong, they are less inclined to do it again. Shame, on the other hand, is external. One feels 'guilty' only when others have caught him/her engaging in immoral behavior. And they don't really feel guilty. They feel embarrassed. Short of being caught, there is no sense of shame--or rather no internal outrage at one's self for having done wrong. Thus the only thing capable of preventing a person from continuously engaging in immoral behavior is the threat of being caught. Absent that threat, their consciences do not kick in.

It might seem like I'm splitting hairs here, but I'm really not. The difference between guilt and shame is tremendous. Guilt, by way of creating feelings of unworthiness, can at the very least lead to spiritual purification. But more importantly, for the purposes of making my point, guilt is based on facts. Did you or did you not steal that watch? Did you or did you not murder the milkman? The answer is a simple yes or no, even when we consider the determination of guilt on a more public level, such as at a trial. Is the suspect guilty of the crime, yes or no. The answer is always based on facts. (In theory if not always in practice.) Evidence. Shame, on the other hand, is interesting because its relationship to objectivity isn't as firmly established. In shame cultures, one could be the object of shame regardless of whether they actually did something wrong. Shame is not interested in facts. It's interested in appearances, and in subsequently making assumptions about a person's character based on those appearances. So. Shame. Not necessarily fact-based. Unjust. And totally dependent on others' perceptions of reality. I have no use for it.

But back to shobha. I've already mentioned that it's usually more problematic for women, on whose shoulders most of the burden of preventing temptation lies. But I never thought it would be a problem for me. Yes, I'm a woman, but I'm neither from here nor do I accept the mainstream religious/cultural views on these things as objectively valid. I don't care much for shame, I couldn't care less about what people think or say about me, and I'm not responsible for the 'honor' of my family or non-existent husband. But, shobha still manages to affect me, albeit in a different way. Don't forget, I'm a dancer, and dancers are considered whores here. There is nothing more shameful for a 'respectable' man OR woman in this society than to associate with dancers. Just being seen with one is enough to make one worry about their reputation. Which means most 'respectable' people avoid you like the plague.

At first, if you're a foreigner like me and not used to this, you get offended. You're made to feel like a leper, or as though you have some other highly contagious disease. Taking offense is only natural, as you're not used to being ostracized based on your profession (or for any other reason, actually). Once you get used to it, though, you no longer get offended, however lonely you may feel.

This has definitely been the case in one of my former workplaces (which is actually not a terrible thing, considering all the crap that happens between dancers and owners/managers/musicians at other venues). They did take it to an extreme though. For example, in the place where I used to work, the dancer was not allowed to talk to anyone. Period. Not the managers, not the boat staff, not even her own musicians. She was to remain locked away in her bathroom/dressing room until show time, after which she would return to her bathroom/dressing room. If she needed to communicate with anyone, she did so through her personal manager. He was the one designated for that. She would tell him what she needed from the musicians or the management, and he would communicate on her behalf. I always saw this system as childish and unnecessary. They saw it as completely necessary to protect everyone's reputation.

Of course, after having worked in that place for years and creating zero problems, one would have thought that my colleagues would have realized I'm not a whore. At least that's what I believed. Until they proved me wrong, that is. You see, out of the more than 150 workers in the venue, there was one who wasn't afraid to talk to me. He, like me, wasn't the type who cared what others thought of him, and he saw nothing wrong with paying me a little attention every now and then. He would even joke around with me in front of his colleagues. Now, I knew this was 'wrong' according to Egyptian cultural norms and boat rules, but I also trusted that our colleagues would see it for what it was-- nothing. But no. The next day my manager warned me that my behavior was creating shobha. Everyone had noticed that this man, who was one of the boat managers, was treating me like a human being he had known for four years. To them, that was proof that he and I were sleeping with each other. It didn't matter that he was married, or that neither of us felt any kind of attraction for the other. It didn't matter that he joked with absolutely every person on that boat in the same exact way. All that mattered was what was in their filthy minds, and their eagerness to create and believe rumors.

I didn't care. I honestly, truthfully, didn't care. I've had many people slander me before, and I've grown a thick skin. Perhaps too thick. I know who I am, and that's all that matters to me. What I didn't appreciate was my angry manager barking at me and accusing me of making him look like a pimp. Say what you want behind my back, but disrespect me to my face, and we have a problem. And problem we had. I had no choice but to bark back, demanding that he refrain from imposing his high school morality on me. Yes, I'm in your country, but that doesn't mean you get to mistreat me when I buck against a cultural norm that happens to be retarded. I'm all for respecting your host country's culture, but not when it becomes unnecessarily oppressive on a personal level. And that was that.

Fast forward six months, when the friendly manager decides it's not working out for him. The pay isn't worth it, and he's getting tired of his colleagues' small-minded antics. So he quits and opens his own business. Before leaving, however, he hears that I'm going back to the US for a vacation, and asks if I could bring back some stuff for his wife, with whom I subsequently became friends. Her and I get along quite well and hang out every now and then, but not as often as we'd like. One night, a colleague of ours had his wedding party in our venue. The former manager and his wife attended. I danced. When I finished, his wife told me not to go home so that we could hang out, and that she and her husband would drive me home later. I innocently and stupidly agreed. The next day, my personal manager berated me for not going home alone that night. By leaving the place with the former manager, his wife and two kids, I had given all of our colleagues the impression that I was sleeping with him. Never mind that his wife and kids were there. Never mind that it was his wife who asked me to stay and hang out with them. Never mind that I had never done anything to make anyone doubt my personal and professional ethics. I left the place with the man, his wife, and two kids, and that meant I was fking him.

Unfortunately, this wasn't my only or first experience with shobha. I first learned about it five years ago when the manager of the place I worked at decided to be angry with me for two whole months based on a false rumor he had heard. Some unmentionable who at the time was on a mission to ruin my life told him that I had accused him of sexually harassing me. He had done no such thing, nor had I accused him of such. The manager decided to believe this without even bothering to ask for my version of the story. Not only was he quick to believe, but he ever so passive aggressively made my work environment uncomfortable. Little by little, I noticed that all of my privileges started fading away. After two months of this, I got fed up with the immaturity and demanded to know why he was acting this way. Still not wanting to explain himself, he had one of the other managers lie to me and tell me that angry manager number one was afraid of 'shobha.' He was afraid of the shameful conclusions people would draw about my (nonexistent) relationship with him as a result of him giving me special treatment. He didn't want anyone to think that his having treated me nice in the past was an indication that there was something between us. And so for that reason, he stopped me from eating from the buffet after my shows, from videotaping my shows, and from doing other things. I didn't know it at the time, but shobha was his bull$h!t excuse for his passive aggressiveness. But this was the first time I had ever heard of anything like this. And mind you, I still hadn't learned of the rumor that had gotten him upset in the first place. I wouldn't learn of it until a good two months later, when I threatened to quit on account of his unprofessional behavior and he finally told me the truth.

I have many more experiences with shobha, but I think I've illustrated my point sufficiently. Obviously, this is one of those things I detest about Egypt. However I do have hope because some of the country's most influential opinion makers have been addressing this issue on television. They've been questioning the whole concept of making unverified assumptions based on how things seem to appear, and have been criticizing their countrymen for worrying so much about what others think of them. This is a conversation that needs to be had. And this is a cultural norm that needs to be dismantled. It is oppressive and stifling, and it prevents too many people from doing what they really want to do. In some cases, it prevents them from doing what they really should be doing. But I have faith that with time, this, along with other unnecessarily restrictive social norms, will be relegated to the dustbins of history.



5 comments:

  1. You are brave, living in a foreign country, with such a different culture. I guess it's not that easy. It's hard and you must have good reasons for that. Anyway, it gives you so many rich experiences as a human being. Thank you for sharing it with us. Many kisses from Brazil !

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aloha, im Natalia. im from Hawaii and now reside in New York, i have traveled all over the US and danced with many groups, im now with bellydance america in new york. i just recently did my first solo performance and will love to continue. im coming to egypt and im looking to have private lessons. do you have contact info and are you providing private lessons in cairo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Natalia, nice to hear from you. I'd be happy to give you lessons. Please email me at lunaofcairo@gmail.com to discuss this further. Thanks.

      Delete
  3. Guilt and shame are symptoms of the same calamity: an unhealthy, disconnected value system that services illusion at the expense of humanity. Working with Rwandans I have come to see western society as truly backwards in terms of values. Internalized guilt cuts us off from experiencing grief, which in turn inhibits our ability to forgive and heal. I suppose if one is invested in the illusory, superficial world of concepts and ideas, then guilt would seem to be the best option for controlling bad behavior. Human beings are capable of more, however, I have seen it. The illusion feeds our ego and the stuff in our heart feeds our soul. Just being honest. Its funny how afraid people are to take the first step out of the world of superficial values into being a nobody. At that point it becomes pretty obvious that the real shame is how we are treating the Earth and all life on it; how we worship external images at the expense of our ability to feel compassion and love.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I admire you very much for not allowing yourself to be bullied and for standing up for yourself. Im afraid i would have given up and run home crying years ago! X

    ReplyDelete