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 1

A strange thing happened in my dance career recently. The Nile cruise I'm contracted with now moonlights as a cabaret. It operates its regular tourism sails in the early evening, and then remains docked for the rest of the night as patrons from the Gulf come to do everything that's forbidden in their countries. They dance, drink, smoke, and pick up strange women, sometimes until ten in the morning. They check their 'harameters' at the door, and give their reputations the night off-- the cabaret is a no shame zone. It is one of the few places in the Muslim world where a person can let loose without fear of being judged.

I've never been comfortable dancing in this type of environment. Cabarets are dens of vice, and serve as outlets for large scale sexual repression. The potential for objectifying, if not compromising situations, is real. There is rarely any security at these places, which means that should something go wrong, a dancer's only recourse is a brave musician shoving himself between her and the offending customer. Her first line of defense is her singer, because he's already on stage with her. But sometimes it takes a few musicians to get the job done. They form a circle around the dancer, the way we imagine dolphins do when protecting humans from sharks, and pound their drums extra hard to ward off the offender(s). It's actually quite funny to watch, unless you're the dancer experiencing it. The fact that these people are paying for you to entertain them means you can't react the way you would if someone tried to grab your ass on the street. You can't scream or curse at them, and you definitely can't clobber them over the head. You have to somehow keep a smile on your face, pretend that you're oblivious to what's happening, and wait for your musicians to keep your ass from falling into some drunk patron's hands. At three in the morning. In the meantime, you hope the bastard will shower you with tips. Fives, twenties, hundreds, whatever. Egyptian pounds, riyals, dollars. This is how you keep your job. It's not that you're entitled to a percentage of the tips, but that the venue won't ask you to come back unless customers throw money at you.

Picture by Clifford Faust of NYC circa 2006. It was made in the likeness of
American belly dancer Vanessa Raqs.

Before the revolution, when the economy was better and there was an actual 'Arab season,' performers and their bands were entitled to two thirds of the tips. The house would take the remaining third. But now that Arab tourism has declined and night clubs are struggling to stay in business, artists do not get tips. Unless they are superstars who can leverage a good deal...   
I understand. With so many night clubs having closed due to the economic downturn, extremist violence, and more recently, unjustifiable government raids, many performers are lucky to be working at all. This is why I don't bitch about the tip situation. If we want to keep working, then these venues need to stay in operation. Extra money in the form of tips helps them do this. I just wish my musicians would understand that.

To be honest, I'm not crazy about the concept of tipping, anyway. I know, it's every belly dancer's dream to be showered with money, especially if she's getting a piece of it. However I've given this a lot of thought and have concluded that there is plenty wrong with tipping, both in the way it's done and with the sheer quantity of it. To me, the physical act of dumping money on the floor is the equivalent of throwing food in the garbage. It's a sacrilege, especially when there are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on the floor. Imagine how many villages could be fed with all the money people waste in cabarets. Imagine how many girls could be educated, how many hospitals could be opened, how many towns could have running water and electricity. Especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which have some of the highest poverty rates across the globe. Instead, the money lies under the feet of belly dancers, making the dance floor even more slippery than it already is. (What's that Arab proverb about heaven lying under mothers' feet?)

The problem is that these patrons have more money than they know what to do with. I call this Arab privilege. These are people who, for the most part, were born into wealth in countries that pay their citizens a monthly salary. Most of them could probably get by without working a day in their lives, so they go to places like Egypt and Bahrain to dump all their money on hookers and belly dancers. Contrast this with the ugly economic realities of the Egyptians who work in these places, either as waiters, musicians, singers, dancers, sex workers, or riklam, an underclass of destitute women who get paid to sit in the club all night. Sure, Arab money is putting food on their plates, but it's also cornering these women into a sector of the economy that endangers their physical and mental well being.

The Arab patrons seem to be completely oblivious to how damaging their privilege is. Or maybe they don't care? Not even when song after song is about misery. Nothing is more of a mind fuck than watching a rich Arab blow his bank account on a dancer while the singer sings 'fuck you, poverty, and a curse on want. What would happen if I rolled the dice and suddenly became rich, while my opponent became poor? I would give him money, and give money to everyone who needs it. But I'd also tell him that money isn't what makes you a man.' This is the most popular song in Egypt right now. I love dancing to it, but I love the lyrics even more. They obviously don't penetrate the patrons' consciousness though.

Most likely I'm the only one in the whole establishment being cerebral about this. The owners of the cabaret certainly aren't. In fact, they love this because they sell tips (keet) to the customers. Usually, they sell a stack of five pound notes equaling 1000 EGP for 50 EGP. The price varies depending on the customer's nationality. In that sense, it's a little like Khan Il-Khalili. They lower the price for Egyptians to 30 EGP, but rip off the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Iraqis, charging them as much as 200 EGP a stack. This isn't instead of customers throwing their own money, but in addition to it. They're free to throw their fifties and hundreds as they like, and trust me, they do. But selling them a thousand pounds worth of fives is a good way of generating extra revenue--customers are more inclined to spend money on neatly wrapped stacks of fives if it means not having to break their hundreds at the gas station on their way to the club.

More often than not, the keet bundles make it to the tables before the people do; customers will have called in advance to reserve a a specific amount. Sometimes the number of bundles they request is so large that they require their own table. The customers won't arrive earlier than 2am though. So unless it's a particularly busy night, I start my show dancing for a room full of riklam and unthrown keet. By the time I'm on to my third song, people start trickling in. At that point, it's simply an issue of when and how they throw the money. The when is pretty simple. It's when they see or hear something they like--an impressive dance move or a good singer. Or when they want to compliment other customers (i.e. show off). Then they'll throw keet at their tables. I love watching the fives flip-flop in the air as they descend onto people's heads and sliced pineapple. Still, the how is much more interesting.

By far, the most common (and respectful) method of tipping is the money shower. It consists of placing an opened stack of bills on the palm of one hand, and quickly and repeatedly slapping it with the other hand until all the money has fallen over the performer's head as though it were coming out of a shower faucet. But this only happens when the customer steps onto the stage. If he can't be bothered, he'll throw the money from his seat. Usually he takes the rubber band off the bundle and chucks handfuls of fives at me and my singer. This isn't too bad, but I've actually gotten paper cuts on the area between my eyes and nose from bills that were thrown too close to my face. It's worse when customers leave the rubber bands on and hurl entire stacks at us, in tact! Just the other night I was clocked in the head by two projectile bricks of money. My singer fared better, dodging them as skillfully as George Bush dodged the Iraqi journalist's shoes. It hurts though, and it's embarrassing, but I suppose worse things have been thrown at performers.

My two least favorite ways of tipping are what I like to call the 'dribble,' and the stripper tipper. The dribble, as the name suggests, happens when a patron places an opened stack of fives on his palm and lets the bills lazily slide off each other onto the floor. I hate this. It's anticlamactic, unenthusiastic, and communicates that the tipper didn't think I was worth a proper money shower. (It also evokes inappropriate images of virility, but let's not go there.) Out of all of the possible ways of tipping, however, stripper tipper is the worst. It's when a customer feels particularly daring, or should I say entitled, and ventures to place currency inside the belly dancer's bra, as though she were a stripper. Interestingly, it's usually the Gulf Arabs who attempt this. They know better than to try to stuff my bra with fives though. Instead, they pull out multiple two hundred pound notes, thinking I'll be more inclined to let them touch me if the stakes are higher. I know this is supposed to be flattering, but somehow it winds up feeling like a game of pin the tail on the donkey. And it's always frustrating, as the burden is on me to delicately navigate the situation without violating my own principles and Egyptian law, on the one hand, and without offending the customer, on the other.

Whenever this happens, I back away and stick my hand out. It's a (not so) subtle way of manipulating them into parting with their money. Once they've taken it out, they can't put it back in their pockets without looking like cheap and petty perverts. So they're forced to place it in my hand to save face. What happens next makes me feel even more uncomfortable. I have to throw the money on the floor, and I have to be obvious about it so that none of the managers accuse me of slipping a few of the bills into my costume. It's not that I want to keep the money. I just don't like the act of throwing it on the floor as if it were a chocolate bar wrapper.

Obviously, the money doesn't go to waste. It goes to the venue, and helps pay salaries. And, there's always someone there to pick it up off the floor. Or rather, several someones. They are typically two or three guys in their early twenties with low employment prospects. Their job is to collect the cash that has amassed under my feet, and reassemble it into bundles to be resold. They do this while I'm dancing, which is extremely annoying because I already share the stage with ten musicians, a singer who literally runs circles around me, and a handful of dancing riklam. These guys just take up more space, and I wind up accidentally kicking them as they' crouch down to pick the fives from between my toes. Don't get me wrong. They need to get the money off the stage, because by the middle of my show, the floor is completely covered. It would just be nice if they could sweep it up with a broom, or blow it away with a leaf blower. It would be easier on them too, being that they have to do this for nine hour-long performances before and after mine.

On any given night, the boys' work extends beyond the stage into the sala, the seating area. This is because customers throw keet at each other. Sometimes they hand it to the singer and tell him which table to throw it over. It's kind of like ordering a drink for a strange woman in a bar, except the bartender throws the drink on the floor instead of serving it to her. :D Whichever way it happens, no one throws keet without first commissioning a 'shout out' to the country of the keet's intended target. My singer could be in the middle of a song, but if a customer grabs his ear and asks him to welcome the table of Iraqis, he signals to the band to momentarily interrupt the song with a 'tribble aalee.' Translated as 'tripple loud,' the tribble aalee is a boisterous, percussion-heavy jingle that all bands have memorized specifically for this purpose. It's very much like happy birthday in that it's always the same tune and lyrics, but any country's name can be inserted. This lasts all of ten seconds, during which the person who requested the shout out showers his intended table with keet. The singer then seamlessly transitions back into the song he was singing, as if nothing happened. If it's an unusually busy night with patrons from various countries, it can feel like an Arab League meeting up in there. The singer will shout out to Saudi Arabia, the king of Saudi Arabia (as he's been very generous with President Sisi), Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, etc., and even sing the political anthems of some of these countries. Personally, I feel silly dancing to an ode to the Saudi monarchy, or to a eulogy to the Egyptian military. The customers seem to get off on it though. They fall for it every time.

If it's a slow night and no one is requesting shout outs, the waiters will intervene and do it for them. They know that when patrons hear their country or names called, they will throw money to avoid looking cheap. The goal, then, is to get them to finish their keet as quickly as possible so that they buy more. This is what is called biyeshtaghaloohom in Egyptian Arabic. It translates as 'working on them,' or more precisely, suckering them out of their money. In Egypt, this is a survival skill that has been elevated to an art. It's especially true of the lower classes who deal with Arab tourists. 

There's always a customer who remains impervious to the bamboozling, however. He'll sit all night in the sala, exhibiting no signs of wanting to part with his money. In these cases, the waiters bring in the heavy artillery. They call on the owner of the club himself to come in and shower keet over customers who need a little extra 'encouragement.' This is hustling at its finest, disguised as a gesture of goodwill, but even the most recalcitrant of patrons succumb to it...because at this point, one's dignity is at stake. In a part of the world in which one's masculinity is directly proportional to the size of his bank account, these antics serve to prove that one can dump half of his life savings on the floor and still be able to live like royalty.