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. :)~

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016


My alternative title for this entry is ‘Shit Egyptians Ask Me to Bring Back from America.’ :D
Whenever I leave Egypt for a vacation, I try to be discreet about it. Not because I’m superstitious, but because if I let people know, everyone will ask me to bring them Stuff. And they’re rarely modest in their requests. I don’t mind bringing back a few necessities for close friends. But when everyone from the bawab (doorman/keeper of Islamic morality in your building) to that ‘friend’ who only and coincidentally calls you a week before your annual vacation sticks you with a shopping list, we have a problem.
You see, the airlines only allow you a total of one hundred pounds of Stuff. That would be more than enough if I were constantly going back and forth from Cairo to the US, but I don’t. I only come home once a year, which means that those hundred pounds I bring back have to last me a whole year, until my next visit when I can replenish. It doesn’t help that the Stuff I buy is heavy. Things I buy include massive amounts of clothes, impractical shoes, fabric (which is currently contraband in Egypt), supplements, more supplements, several bottles of Bragg’s organic apple cider vinegar (with the mother, in case you needed to know), several tubs of extra virgin cold-pressed coconut oil, cosmetics, lashes, tens of boxes of instant manicure, tampons, pads, and if it’s mating season, condoms and such. So I don’t have a lot of space to be bringing people unnecessary luxury items.

Sometimes though, word gets out. Or I’m forced to tell colleagues that I’m going bye-bye. Then, politeness dictates that I ask if they’d like anything from Amrika. Politeness also dictates that they modestly decline. Or, that if they must ask, they choose something easy to find and small enough to transport. Decency also requires that they give you money up front, especially when asking for expensive Stuff. But that rarely happens. People ask, and they expect.
And then there’s me, who tries to keep everyone happy and close, even the friend that only calls before my vacation…for purely selfish reasons, by the way…because I’m all alone in a volatile environment and never know when I’ll need their help. Like the time I had my first panic attack last year. It was so severe that my body went into death mode. I was losing consciousness, but I knew enough not to bother calling an ambulance. I called my Stuff buddy instead. At that point, I could barely speak, but I managed to communicate that I was dying and needed her to either take me to the hospital, or meet me there with a wad of cash, lest I be turned away and left to die in a taxi cab.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t in Cairo when this was happening, but she assured me that if she were, she would have been the first person to meet me at the hospital with money. And I believed her. If I died, there would be no one to bring her keratin hair cream, Victoria’s Secret G-strings, or boxed manicures.
There are no friends here. Only favors. Though people often confuse the two.
So this is why, weight limitations for checked baggage permitting, I dedicate a significant chunk of my vacation time to shopping for other people. And I go above and beyond. I take pictures of Stuff on shelves with their prices and send them to my ‘customers’ in Egypt so that they can choose, amazingly nice person that I am. You’d think that after all my efforts, they’d at least have the decency to select something. But no. Last summer, I photographed literally tens of pairs of sneakers in various stores and sent the pictures, only for my Stuff buddy to tell me that everything was too expensive and she wouldn’t be buying anything! Nike sneakers for $45 was too expensive, yet she didn’t want to buy the crap sneakers available to her in Egypt. Instead, I wound up buying a pair of sneakers that I never would have bought had I not visited Foot Looker and Finish Line on her behalf—a pair of rainbow colored Nikes that I couldn’t resist. J
Coincidentally, Stuff Buddy commissioned me to help her apply for a US tourist visa two years ago. Of course she got rejected. When she asked me why, I told her it was because she applied for the wrong visa. That she should have applied for a shopping visa instead. In all seriousness though, I was very enthusiastic about doing her visa application. And I was really hoping she’d not only get in, but permanently overstay her visa. Then that would be one less person for whom I’d have to bring America back.   
Here’s a list of the things Egyptians have asked me to bring back: vitamins, magic potions for this or that problem that’s not really a problem, push up bras, Victoria’s secret G-strings, men, women, all types of epilators, makeup, nails, cameras, camera parts, a very expensive pair of watches that allows parents to spy on their kids, and, get this, a professional surfing kite that is so big it qualifies as its own piece of luggage! You can find a lot of this Stuff in Egypt, by the way. It’s just that Egyptians buy into the myth that anything and everything from the US is infinitely superior to what’s available to them. The sand must be softer on the other side of the oasis or something.
I shouldn’t talk. I feel the same way about Stuff. As far as I’m concerned, American Stuff is preferable to local Stuff. It’s better, cheaper, and there’s always a wider selection. But at least I have the excuse of actually being American. You see, I’m used to a certain standard of quality (and life, but that’s another story) that just doesn’t exist in Egypt. So it’s only natural that I’d want to maintain that standard. I don’t know what everyone else’s excuse is, though. They’ve been living on Egyptian Stuff since forever, but then they see me and all of a sudden their possessions turn to shite. Well didn’t you know.
I’m also guilty of asking fellow expat Americans to bring me Stuff. In fact, I do it all the time, providing they are able and willing. I try to be tactful about it though. I only ask for one or two important and/or lightweight things, like wheatgrass powder, or shitake mushroom extract pills to boost my immune system. The best, however, is when Americans come to Egypt for a dance vacation. A lot of times they bring one or two empty suitcases with them, intending to fill them up with belly dance costumes to take back to the States. If any of these girls are my close friends, I have them fill entire suitcases with Stuff I order and have shipped to their homes. When that happens, it’s like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one. God bless the friends who have done this for me.
Then there’s another category of people. The ones for whom I bring stuff back even though they don’t ask for anything. Like my musicians, because they’re my babies and I like to spoil them every now and then. (Last year I bought them deodorant and aftershave.) And certain managers and staff people at my workplace. Because again, there are no friends here. Only favors. And because your only defense against a manager who wants to replace you with a dancer more amenable to his ‘proposals,’ or against a bribe made by an enemy against your favor, is an even bigger bribe in the form of a thoughtful gift. To thrive in this country, you’ve simply got to play Battle of the Bribes.
I have to be careful with what and how much Stuff I bring though. Ever since the revolution, Egyptian customs now has the terrorism excuse to rummage through your luggage and basically take whatever they want. It happened to me last September, when I was returning to Cairo from the Essence of Belly Dance Festival in Atlanta. I had been cultivating a collection of sequin fabrics that I ordered from China, and decided to take it with me back to Cairo. All sixty pounds of it! It wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, except that fabric is now contraband in Egypt, and apparently, I look Egyptian when I wear makeup. I also have an invisible sign on my forehead that says please fuck with me. So a customs officer pulled me over as I was exiting the airport and requested to check my bags. I let him. Not that I had a choice. He then proceeded to take all of the fabric out, and accused me of intending to sell it. I tried to play the dumb foreigner, knowing that Egyptian authorities generally treat foreigners better than their own. But that didn’t last very long. I lost my patience with his rudimentary English and switched to Arabic. Big. Mistake. If he had any doubt about my intention to sell the fabric, now he had none. In his mind, I was Egyptian, and I was guilty.
This situation quickly turned from bad to embarrassing. I came up with the brilliant idea to tell him the truth. That I’m a belly dancer and a fabric whore, and that I b(r)ought all that fabric to make costumes for myself. He wasn’t buying it. Why did I need soooo much fabric? Because I do soooo many parties and I need a lot costumes so that neither my audiences nor I get bored. But of course you’re going to sell some? No, sir. I wouldn’t want competiting dancers to have the same beautiful costumes as I do. That was the most convincing line I could come up with. I didn’t know what else to say.
Long story short, he sent me on my way without my bags. I was livid. I spent a good thousand or so on those fabrics, and now they were going to sit in the airport for months rather than wrap themselves around my body. My only recourse would be to pay a huge fine and take the material back to the US with me on my next flight out. Whenever that would be. I should have just given him a bribe. That’s what this was really all about. I didn’t know how to do it though. Plus, the more he accused me of something I never intended to do, the more self-righteous and stubborn I became. Fuck you and your bribe, I could hear my mind screaming.
Five months and a shift in attitude later, I decided to go back to the airport and see what a little flirting could do. So one night after a late night cabaret gig, I kept my makeup on and went straight to the customs office. It was eight in the morning, and I flirted with everyone. Men, women, even the guy who brings tea to the lazy, useless bureaucrats who fill these dilapidated offices featuring rotary dial phones and large black notebooks instead of computers. I turned on the charm. I let the male officers gawk at my body. I laughed at their stupid, predictable jokes about making me their second, third, or fourth wife. I even gave them my phone number so they could call me for future ‘gigs.’ I told the women all about my trials and tribulations as Egypt’s only belly dancer who wasn’t a sharmoota. I made them sympathize with me, and I let them shuffle me around from office to office. I put up with this for a good three hours, maintaining my smile until the male officers decided to let me take more than half of my fabric. Of course, I had to pay a fine: 2300 EGP, or the equivalent of $250 USD.  And I had to leave the other half in airport storage until I was ready to take it out of the country. But it was better than leaving empty handed.
The most important thing here was the lesson I learned. Not ‘never bring fabric into Cairo,’ but ‘never speak Arabic in Cairo Airport unless you’re prepared to pay a big juicy bribe.’ And, ‘a little flirting goes a long way.’  (Actually, this is advice that could be extended to all of Egypt.) Two weeks ago, I had to fly back to Cairo during the middle of my America vacation. Of course, I took advantage of this unexpected trip to bring back Stuff, and to smuggle three pieces of fabric into the country. This time, however, I made sure I looked as foreign as possible while traveling. I wore ‘tourist’ clothes, eye glasses, and no makeup. I threw my hair up in a tangled bun. Most important, I didn’t speak Arabic, and pretended not to understand it either. When the customs officers greeted me with a hamdillah 3lsalama, welcome back, I replied with a big confused WHAT?!. He repeated the greeting, and I repeated my what. He then asked me inti gaya min ayn, where are you coming from. What?! I’m sorry I don’t understand, I said. He repeated the question again, this time picking up my carry on bag to see how heavy it was. I looked at him, confusion written all over my face, and shrugged my shoulders. Itfadali, he said, with a frustrated wave of his hand. Go. Be on your way.

1 comment:

  1. All this you tell is so true! Egyptians do not ask bring stuff only fm America but fm all the western countries.Even though, as you say, some of the stuff is Made in China! I live in Finland. I've many Egyptian friends 'cos I studied Arabic in Cairo many years ago. Nowadays I visit Cairo at least once a year 1-3 months. As soon as I tell my friends that I'm coming they start to ask me to buy "this and that" for them. I think I've brought many hundred kilos "stuff" for them over the past years and I'm so tired of it.
    I've brought for them e.g. irons (!), batteries, mobile phones, vitamins,medicines for "ishaal" and "imsaak", shampoo, soap, deodorants, skin cream, lots of brown bread, cheese, spices (!), shoes, jackets etc etc. All this "stuff" you can buy also in Cairo (e.g. in Carrefour) but when bought in a western country this "stuff" is simply better. So they tell me....
    rgds Shiribaan