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

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Birth Control, Secularism, and the Belly Dance 'Revival'

In Egypt, belly dancers are hired for as many reasons as there are people. Some are hired for their looks. Others for their locks. Some are more affordable, while others confer status on those doing the hiring. And then there are dancers who are chosen for their personality, or because of their connections, or even their status. What we all have in common though, is that we are rarely sought out for our dancing. Even the best of us. Nevertheless, we all cultivate an audience-- a loyal set of fans that follow (and sometimes stalk) us around as we perform in hotels, weddings, and boats around the city. Amie Sultan, a newer, foreign-born Egyptian dancer and the subject of"Amie Sultan: Reviving the Art of Belly Dancing in Egypt", is no different. She, like the rest of us, has carved a niche for herself in the super competitive world of Egyptian belly dancing. No more, no less.

I'm stating the obvious here because somebody has to...because Amie makes a bold if dubious claim about her impact on the dance scene. She says: “Now I’m seeing belly dancers trying to become more elegant and trying to lose weight and, you know, tone it down a bit. People want something more refined, more studied. People want the art of it, not the tattooed eyebrows. I think because of me there’s less vulgarity.” While I'm no fan of tattooed eyebrows, I do believe that Amie is overstating her impact. Just a bit. It's not that Amie is changing the way dancers are approaching the dance or Egyptians' tastes-- in fact her influence is mostly limited to a rather closed circle -- it's that she's found her audience in a certain sector of Egyptian society that's already had those tastes. The Cairo 'posh.' The 3%. The self-serving elite and nouveau riche who prefer English to Arabic, whiskey to hasheesh, and who uncoincidently situate themselves away from the lumpen. I'm not rich-shaming, by the way. Just laying down the facts. Amie is part of and thus appeals to this sector of the society. More power to her. But let's not buy into the hype about her single-handedly changing dancers and audiences' preferences.



As someone who has deliberately chosen not to be a part of that echelon, I can tell you that nothing has changed in real Egypt. If, as Amie says, there's less vulgarity in the dance world now (and that's a big IF), it's not because dancers are taking their cue from Amie or trading in their silcone for ballerina chest. It's because the police are busy arresting the biggest offenders. Dancers like Bardees, Shakira, Sama El-Masry and Sofinar have all spent more than a few nights behind bars because of their titty-twerking and broom-stick humping video clips. So if we're seeing less of that stuff, it's because the morality police are destroying these girls' careers. However, the preferred aesthetic for belly dancers is still very much about silicone, tatooed eyebrows, perfectly ironed black wigs, and really bad makeup-- something I've already written about in a previous post about dancers and body image. 

To be honest, I don't have a problem with this. Even if it's not the way I choose to present myself. What I do take issue with is the idea of Amie saving Egyptian dancers from themselves. Saving them from what, exactly? From their T&A? From their bad makeup and baladi manners? Look. I agree that this isn't necessarily the most appealing aesthetic from a western perspective. It's also quite annoying to be told that you have to conform to that in order to be successful. On that note, I'm happy that there's room on the scene for someone like Amie. Diversity is always a good thing. However, her contention that she's changing things is a bit far-fetched, and reeks of the unabashed classism that is characteristic of many moneyed Egyptians. Needless to say, I'm not crazy about the way she uses her privilege to create an 'I'm classier than the rest' narrative that's supposed to serve as a shortcut to fame. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with wanting fame. But maybe we'd be better off if she didn't do it in a way that puts her less privileged colleagues down. It's neither their fault nor is it a crime that they don't have Amie's sense of sophistication. It's simply an accident of fate, and the fault of society that they were born below the poverty line and have to resort to 'vulgarity' to make it

This is something to be remedied, not publicly sneered at for profit. But how does one go about doing that? Not by getting on a high horse, that's for sure. If Amie really wants to change the dance, as I've heard her say on several occasions, then I'm afraid she's going to have to change her career again. She's going to have to become a politician, or an activist (or pray for a miracle), and put her money where her mouth is, because no single dancer is capable of changing how other dancers present themselves or how Egyptians perceive the dance. (I should add that I'm skeptical of fame chasers who claim to have such altruistic motivations, whether it's Amie with her PR(obaganda) machine, or Dina with her competition, whose purported mission was to change the way Egyptians view belly dancing.) You see, vulgarity isn't a problem within the dance. It is what has come to define the entire cultural milieu of contemporary Egypt. It is the result of the distinctly Egyptian brand of corruption that has plagued the country for at least 30 years, and has affected people's manners, thoughts, behavior, and tastes for the worst. Dancers don't create vulgarity, they are born into it. And radiate it. The same way that Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, and Souheir Zaki radiated elegance in their day. They simply reflected the classy sophistication of mainstream Egyptian culture at that time. (What they were not was extraordinarily privileged, or on a mission to 'sanitize' the dance with their grace). In order for us to bring back the sophistication of that era, those of us with educations might have to stop shaking our behinds and start campaigning for secularism and birth control. Because this is the ONLY path to female empowerment. This is the only way for women to be considered full citizens, obtain equal access to resources, rights, and protections, and lead independent lives without having to worry about their social standing....which will of course trickle down quite nicely into the dance scene. But it's not up to us foreigners. It's not our place to do this. This is a job for Egyptian artists like Amie, who have the privilege of the pulpit. They need to be social engineers.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this isn't a dance of privilege. This is a dance that developed against a centuries-long backdrop of oppression, colonialism, religious conservatism, sexism, seduction, poverty, prostitution-- in short, deprivation. It's been banned and regulated, shunned and condemned. This is important because this culture of deprivation that has come to define a large part of Egypt affects the way Egyptians bodies move. How they dance, how they walk, how they talk, how they laugh, how they fight, etc. It's very hard to get it right if deprivation isn't in your genes. Even if you're Egyptian. So at the risk of sounding stupid, I'm going to say that poor women do it better. Because to be poor in this country is to experience hardship and misery. Not the self-inflicted misery that rich folk subject themselves to, but real crises that poor people face on a daily basis. Like not having enough to make ends meet; being subjected to domestic abuse; believing that all of life's pleasures will land you in hell, and then hating yourself every time you indulge in one. When this is the type of life you lead, the chances of you becoming a dynamic performer are much greater because the stage is your only escape from your ugly reality. It's your only release, the only chance you have to forget everything you're going through and indulge in sheer, unapologetic pleasure. It's not the same for rich folk, who generally lead much easier, hedonistic lives. This doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't do this dance. But if they do, they should at least harness their arrogance a bit instead of trying to 'refine' the dance/business to line their pockets.

I'll leave you with one final thought. As much as this interview has created controversy in the international dance community, it was meant to further generate publicity for Amie inside Egypt, among the three percent she caters to. And I'm sure they fell for it, hook line and sinker. Amie speaks their language. The language of pretension, that sounds something like this: Egypt, Arabic, baladi, poor = bad. West, English, Egyptians with money = good. She symbolizes (and now tells them) what they already believe to be true. I may not like it, but I'd be a fool to say that it's not working.

14 comments:

  1. Love it! :) Well said. Sharing with my American dance friends.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for this insight. This former anthropologist 100% agrees that the only way to change how dance is perceived in society is to change how women in general are perceived and treated in society--and not just in Egypt, either.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, good one for mentioning the part about privilege, or lack thereof. But I have to say, can American dancers just let Arab women speak for once without this seemingly never ending tsunami of backlash? I mean how many times have I seen slut shaming, outright racism and just plain manipulation of privilege within the American bd community and nobody says anything. Its as if there is this unspoken agreement that it has to be ignored over and over. And then this obvious double standard for Arab women as if their flaws are being viewed through a magnifying glass. Is this a subtle form of objectification perhaps? I would certainly like to see American dancers be as critical of their own dance community (and themselves) as they are of Arab women who bravely come out, whether right or wrong, with their opinions about what is going on. Arab women are human just like the rest of us and none of us are free from having to accept that we all have these issues.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your comment, but I don't need to be reminded that Arab women are human just like the rest of us. I'm very well aware of that and have never implied the opposite. In fact my willingness to engage their ideas is proof of that. Secondly, I would suggest you check out all the forums on Facebook dedicated to combating privilege and racism in the American belly dance community. There are plenty of ongoing debates-- sometimes to the point of being nauseating. And most American dancers are extremely conscious of their attitudes and speech. Thirdly, your idea to just let Arab women say whatever they want whether right or wrong sounds patronizing. Arab women are humans too, remember? Which means they should be held to the same intellectual and ethical standards as the rest of us. I already assumed they were, which is why I engaged Amie's arguments. And trust me, they need to be engaged and refuted, because her words reflect attitudes that are extremely harmful to the majority of Egyptians.

    ReplyDelete
  5. In all honesty, my comment was not directed at you or your article. It was in response to a trend that I am observing. So how do Egyptian dancers feel about what Amie said? How about Egyptians in general? From my perspective, this is what is missing from the conversation, especially the less privileged voices. We simply need more balance. What is critical is the diversity of the discourse and the acceptance of that. Its less important if people agree or disagree or if what someone is saying is right or wrong. In the US, even though the discourse has begun, we are literally at the very beginning of the process. In the 'politically correct' social system of the west, we have the same issues of racism and the manipulation of power as everyone else. It just doesn't look like that from a perspective of privilege. And right now, with all the aggression and hate crimes directed at Muslim women around the world; there has never been a better time to fill in the gaps where we need our cultures to connect. There has never been a better time to just learn about all the 'human' perspectives on the other side of the fence. And I have been on those bd forums and all too many times the power dynamics are dominated by those who have the subtle hand of privilege. And the conversation just goes around and around. That is my experience, its not an argument. Privilege is a defining characteristic of bellydance in the US. There is nothing wrong with privilege as long as we stay aware of what is needed to keep things balanced. This means looking outside of our limited perspectives. Balance is crucial right now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that privilege is part of the BD dynamic in the US and Europe. But that has more to do with the fact that our economies are better, and, more importantly, that dancing isn't considered sinful. Which means that women of privilege have no contention about doing this dance. I also agree that it would be nice to hear what Middle Eastern women have to say. But we also can't force them to speak. The truth is that for the most part, they're not interested in joining our hair-splitting conversations about things they consider to be trivial. (Remember the whole Randa Jarrar debacle? How she took it upon herself to be angry on behalf of all Middle Easterners, when in reality the population she claimed to speak for couldn't care less about white belly dancers, appropriation, and the rest of our first world problems.) Otherwise they would. Also, I'd be really careful about classifying what Amie did as starting discussion. While that's certainly the effect it had, her goal was to create publicity, not dialogue.

      Delete
  6. I love your blog, Luna! I read every posting two or three times and don't get bored. :) While every topic cannot be exhausted in one writing and pro and con arguments can be made any given time, your analyses are spot on for me. I'll keep this short, so I'm looking forward to your next posting!
    Cheers!
    Anca

    ReplyDelete
  7. I liked your post as a whole quite a bit.

    On a personal note, I related strongly to this section of your post: "believing that all of life's pleasures will land you in hell, and then hating yourself every time you indulge in one. When this is the type of life you lead, ... the stage is your only escape from your ugly reality. It's your only release, the only chance you have to ... indulge in sheer, unapologetic pleasure."

    This struck me so much that I'm at a loss for words to really dive into it more right now. I grew up in the United States, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, and we grew up very poor. Waiting for days between meals and seeing other kids bringing delicious food with new clothes to school right alongside me made me feel subhuman, lacking worth.

    When I started dancing, it was for a college PE credit, and I never imagined before then that I could achieve more than what my parents did in their lives: working their butts off six days a week to barely manage to keep their heads above water, living in a hell they couldn't escape. Dance changed all that for me. It signified opportunity.

    I haven't danced in almost four years (can't afford it), but I just wanted to comment on the part of the article that really jumped out at me, personally.

    Your points are excellent points, and I think your writing on this is clear and objective. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about that article. I wasn't much a fan of what I read in it, for various reasons.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Luna,
    Although I didn't mind the Amie article, I know her personally and although she has said she wants to change the scene I think that it does need changing. She might not be able to change it to what everyone will deem "respectable" but I think that she is a great addition to the scene and it MIGHT be more widely accepted if she continues to dance and try to change the perspective. You make a lot of good points, but in the end, I think it was all publicity and she got what she wanted. hehe But I always love your writing and your viewpoints.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks for reading. :) You're right, this was her latest publicity stunt. And I wouldn't have even responded to it had I not seen that it caused an uproar. I also agree that things need to change. I just think that has to happen on a macrolevel before it happens in the dance. But if we're going to zoom in on the dance scene, she can SAY she wants to change things till the cows come home, but when she does splits in sheer chiffon skirts that expose more ass and thigh than any of the modern 'slutty' costumes, it's difficult to take her seriously.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a great analysis! Thanks for your great posts!

    ReplyDelete