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. :)~

My Videos

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Foray into the Cabaret Part 2

The single most important person in this production is my singer. His voice, charisma, and knack for getting customers to throw money keep us in demand every night. More than my quivering belly. I attribute this to the fact that Arabic speakers are more auditorily oriented. It's probably because of the long-standing oral traditions of Arab and Muslim societies, and because of the hangups some Muslim societies have had over visual representation. Add to that a sprinkling of disdain for the uncovered female figure, and you have an audience that is much more receptive to a male singer than a belly dancer. This is why he makes the big bucks. He's not just a singer. He's an emcee, a server, my body guard, a psychologist, and a smooth talker all rolled into one. His job is to 'read' the sala during the performance before ours to learn where the customers are from, and to observe their tipping habits. Then he compiles a mental playlist of songs to which they're most likely to respond. During the show, he waits tables, taking requests for songs and shout outs, and warming up to the customers with friendly greetings and banter. This takes a lot of energy and experience, and an excellent memory; a successful cabaret singer must have hundreds of songs from all over the Arab world memorized, as he might perform for the same customers for weeks on end. Khaligi and mawwals are very important, the latter more so because it's when the most tips are thrown.

Mawwals are real money makers. Especially the ones that are spoken more than sung. They have a story-telling feel that can transfix an entire audience, and they are always about issues to which everyone can relate. Misery, pain, betrayal, heartache... Just the other night, my singer sang something to the effect of: "Your best friend is your money. If you don't have it, people step all over you. But when you have it, everyone greets you with hugs and kisses.' It was much longer than that, and it sounds better in Arabic. But the diction and passion with which he delivered this mawwal made everyone stop what they were doing. Myself included. For the two minutes that this lasted, people were nodding in agreement. Some had smirks of admiration for my singer's ingenuity; nearly all threw money on him when he finished. I remember being amazed not only by his skill, but by the power he held over us. It was as though he transformed the sala into a kindergarten classroom during story telling, or better yet, into a church, with an enthusiastic congregation lapping up the preacher's every word.

The writing on the top picture says 'fil dar,' which translates as 'in the house [of Islam].The writing on the bottom says 'fil bar,' in the bar. :D

Contrary to my singer, my presence on the stage is purely ornamental. I'm neither the focal point nor the star of my own show. I didn't know it would be like this when I first started. I'm OK with this though. It's a nice change of pace from my usual work on the boat and at weddings, in which I am the star, the producer, and the band leader. In this show, he takes over these roles. He is the one who chooses the songs, and decides when to start and finish them... though he doesn't give the band advanced notice. He waits until he's on stage. Then he asks the keyboard players for a generic set of notes (maqam) along with his preferred pitch, so that he can slip into a mawwal. Right before he finishes the mawwal, he cues the drummer to start playing his desired rhythm. Rarely does he sing a song in its entirety. The idea is to keep things rolling so that the patrons keep throwing money.

Usually, this works fine. But it can lead to conflict if the rest of the musicians feel they've been left in the dark. Or if the singer sings a song the band doesn't know. This is totally preventable by holding regular rehearsals, by the way, except that we don't. It's very difficult to get a large group of musicians together during off hours, as most of them work from midnight until 9 am, and then sleep all day. Plus, no one is really that invested. It's because cabaret gigs are in the garbage pile of work a performer can procure. The pay is bad, the customers are plastered, and the atmosphere is borderline dangerous. Art, needless to say, has no place here.

Indeed, the biggest mistake I made when I first started this job was actually giving a shit. I gave it my all, as I always do. I did a few rehearsals with the band and actually danced, only to have the management tell me I had to tone it down. Like, a lot. They preferred that I only dance my entrance piece (which, by the way, was to be chopped in half), and to spend the rest of the hour prancing around the stage playing with my hair and joking with customers. It would help if I could chew gum. Basically, they wanted a bimbo. Which left me wondering, why they hired me for this gig. 

I suppose it's because I'm American. Foreign dancers add an extra layer of 'prestige' to an establishment; Americans moreso. Or at least that's how it's perceived. For my part, I don't like the idea of others flashing around my Americanness as if it were a new Benz. It makes me self conscious, especially when my singer shouts that I'm Egypt's American belly dance star to a room full of people from countries the US has fucked. Not that they mind-- the alcohol washes away any tensions that might otherwise arise from my Americanness. But still... 

I'm the dancer who is anal about her work. There have been times when I'd literally change musicians as frequently as I changed my underwear. When I found ones that fit right, I'd rehearse the complacency out of them. So you can imagine the opposition I put up to the management's directives to tone it down. Tone it down? Tone what down? I felt like I was doing a disservice to the dance. And I felt like I had just jumped into the deep end of a very cold pool.  As the days went by, however, the water that once felt shockingly cold suddenly felt warm and comfortable. This both pleasantly surprised me and scared me. One the one hand, I was glad that I was able to adapt to my new performance settings-- if anything, I'd develop my entertainment skills. But on the other hand, if I could get used to this and even enjoy it, what else could I get used to under the right circumstances?



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