I wrote this last year while I was still in Cairo. I did not want to publish it at the time, for obvious reasons. A slightly different version of it was published on worldofdancers.com.
It had been a while since my last run-in with the authorities. Three or four years. I was starting to feel invincible. Many foreign dancers had recently spent nights in police departments, and one had been deported. Yet here I was dancing all over town, completely unmolested by the notorious (and quite useless) belly dance police. AKA mosanafaat, and shortat il-adaab, which translates as morals/principles/behavior police. Their job is to crash weddings and turn up unexpectedly at night clubs to fine and arrest belly dancers for infractions such as dancing without a license. Or, in the case of a 'licensed foreigner' such as myself, for dancing at any venue other than the one she’s contracted with. They can also arrest us for inappropriate costuming, i.e. a two-piece bedla without shorts or a stomach covering (shabaka). Basically, they are government funded party poopers, authorized by the ‘Democratic’ Arab Republic of Egypt to stop us mid-performance and take us to the nearest police precinct, if need be.
I’m convinced the only reason such a thing exists is so the government can employ more bureaucrats. And why not? It’s a win-win situation. The government makes money from fines and jail terms, and the bureaucrats get a monthly salary in addition to the bribes they collect from managers seeking to keep dancers out of jail. Additionally, they get to fool themselves into believing they are good Muslims even though they allow belly dancing, cuz shabaka.
Well guess what. I don’t do shabaka. I never have and never will. It’s ugly, hot, and completely unnecessary. It traps my sweat and ruins my belly flutters. Plus, I’ve seen Egyptian dancers get away with wearing shabaka but no underwear. Forget shorts. In fact, I remember hanging out one night in a sleazy cabaret—the kind they call warsha (which literally means sweatshop) here—only for my eyes to be accosted by the dancer’s back and front crack as she twirled around in her unfastened chartreuse chiffon skirt. Where were the police to arrest this girl for giving every man in the club an erection?
They were probably arresting some foreign dancer instead. One with actual underwear. Like me. Ok, I managed to avoid being dragged to the police department that night, but that’s only because I have a way about me. And because I know better than to switch to bitch in these situations. Still, the officer who crashed my 1am gig at an upscale night club wrote me up for dancing in multiple venues, and slapped me with a fine of undetermined amount. I’ll find out how much when I’m summoned to court, whenever that will be. In the meantime, I was to report to the mosanafaat headquarters the following morning.
What a way to conclude my show, though. I had danced to exactly three of the five songs in my first set when the agent led me off the dance floor and into the bathroom. He told me the mosanafaat let themselves into the club, and that I should hide in the bathroom until he sorted everything out. But of course. Everyone here has super powers. And there’s nothing a little money under the table can’t fix. Right?
Not when someone’s out to get you. Or several someones. (No, I’m not paranoid.) Let’s just say there’s a few influential dancers who aren’t too happy with me right now. They would love for me to disappear, cuz competition. How did I find out? The chief of the mosanafaat told the agent who got me that job. So much for confidentiality.
The mosanafaat is located smack in the middle of Cairo’s bustling downtown district. Talaat Harb Street. It is wedged into the second floor of a building peeling with paint and desperately in need of maintenance. There are no computers, only paper files. My license is handwritten on a large index card with a picture of my face stapled to the top left corner. I am to keep it on me at all times. As a foreigner, I am required to renew it every month (even though the foreign workers’ ministry grants me permission to work for one year) because they make money from these renewals. It also raises the likelihood that my license will be expired at any given time…because if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget to renew before expiration, thereby increasing the number of days on which you’re fair game for a fine.
I showed up at the mosanafaat the next morning, bare-faced and exhausted. The office was full of fifty and sixty-year-old male bureaucrats, drinking tea with their sugar and sharing the latest belly dance gossip. Aouny, the officer who came to arrest me the night before, was sitting on a school chair, leaning on the collapsible desk attached to it. I sat on the dark green leather couch in front of him.
"Sabah il-kheir," he said. Good morning.
"Sabah il-noor," I replied.
"Eh da? Bitkalimi 3arabi?" You speak Arabic?
"Ah ya afandam." Yes sir, I said.
"Bas inti makalimteesh 3arabi imbarah, izaay?" But you didn’t speak Arabic last night. How is that?
Actually, I didn’t speak anything last night. Because the other option was to lie, as per the agent’s request. He wanted me to tell Aouny that I was hired to perform for a customer’s birthday party in the club, and that it was a one-shot deal, not an ongoing weekly gig. This would make it a private event, and thus legitimate in the eyes of the law. I hate lying though. Can’t do it. Not even to save myself, and especially not to authorities. Even if I think they’re corrupt or the laws are unjust. So I kept my mouth shut. Besides, everything is public knowledge these days thanks to social media, and I was sure he knew that I had been performing at that club once a week for the past three months. I was right. When the agent lied about the birthday party, Aouny said, "Oh please, you think I’m falling for that? She’s been performing here every week for the past three months. Her license is expired too."
Exactly. And this is why I don’t lie. Other people are never as stupid as you think. "Ok Aouny, we’re sorry," the agent said. "Please don’t arrest her." He then slipped him an envelope with money, but Aouny self-righteously refused it; he was under strict orders to turn me in, having been sent by the chief of the mosanafaat himself.
"The reason we asked you to come in this morning is so we could complete the police report," Aouny told me.
"Proceed," I said.
But first, he leaned further over his desk and whispered into my ear. "The costume you were wearing was wahsha awi (very ugly/bad). It didn’t have a shabaka or shorts, and for that I have the right to arrest you. But I feel sorry for you, and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have come after you in the first place. So I’m going to do you a favor. I’m not going to mention your costume in the report. I’ll just say that you were working in a venue other than the one you’re contracted with, and that your license was expired."
"Shokran ya ustaz Aouny. Allah yekhaleek," I said. Thank you Mr. Aouny, and may God preserve you. I don’t know if you’re being sincere, but may God preserve you nonetheless.
Aouny hand wrote the report in front of me, complete with the two charges, and then asked me a few questions. Why hadn’t I renewed my license for the month. Why did I work at a venue forbidden to me. Did he or any other officer treat me badly or take money from me the night before. I didn’t bother answering the first question. Aouny answered the second question: "Because you don’t make enough money dancing at your venue, especially since the Egyptian pound is now .056 to the dollar."
The third question, I was nice enough to answer in the negative. To conclude, did I want to add anything else to the report? Why yes, I did. I told them what hypocrites they were. That while they were busy hunting licensed dancers who pay the yearly requisite dues and taxes, they turn a blind eye to the dozens of foreign dancers working illegally all over the country. "Ok, Madame, tell us their names and where they work and we’ll crack down on them so they stop taking work away from the legal dancers."
"Nice try," I said. "I’m not doing your work for you."
As with everything, there is a way around all of this. Two ways, actually. The first is to follow the licensing and costuming laws to the tee and make no enemies. The second is to get married to an Egyptian in order to obtain citizenship and full working rights. Unfortunately, neither was an option for me. The former is ridiculously impractical, the latter, degrading and risky. No woman with a shred of dignity would voluntarily put herself at the mercy of a conniving, abusive man (that’s really the only type that marries belly dancers in Egypt, with few exceptions), and a corrupt, unpredictable government just so she could shake her ass in three night clubs instead of one. Marriage for love is one thing. Marriage for work benefits is another. Apparently, I’m one of the few who see it that way, evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of foreign dancers opt for choice two.
(I’m fully aware that historically, marriages all over the world have been contracted for all types of reasons, love being the least important and relevant of them. My statements thus reflect my very 21st century western notions of love and marriage. This is my bias, and I’m being upfront about it. You may want to counter that we shouldn’t judge a dancer’s decision to enter one of these marriages because we don’t know what circumstances are ‘pushing’ her to do this. To that I would argue that all of the foreign dancers in Egypt are coming from privilege. They are not escaping war or famine or poverty. They are all from America and Europe and were doing just fine in their countries. They come to Egypt seeking recognition in the larger dance community, and so for them, getting married in order to work more is never a choice between dance and destitution, the way it is for many Egyptian dancers. It is the path to fame.)
There is a third way, which is to get one of those new pimp type agents who has the government in his pocket to manage your work. This way, you can perform anywhere and everywhere, and the government will pretend you don’t exist. Of course, he’ll cheat you out of your hard-earned money, and may even demand to manage your body in addition to your work, but that’s another sack of onions.
I don’t let this affect me personally anymore, because I’ve decided to throw in the hip scarf. But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt my brain. Here’s why. The extreme and obnoxious regulation of the belly dance industry is the result of religious and cultural prejudices against dancers, and women more generally. That right there is problematic. At least from a rational, secular standpoint. Especially when considering that men are allowed to whip their dicks out in broad daylight and pee wherever they please. Second, the extreme circumscription of foreign dancers’ working rights and by extension income is unjust and wrongheaded. They should either give us full working rights upon obtaining residency, or not give us any so that we give up and go home. Unless one becomes a nationally recognized superstar (which is impossible to do when you’re limited to working in one venue), wages are low, expenses are high, and frustrations are higher. Why fuel our hopes by giving us one measly gig, knowing full well we will barely be able to support ourselves? Oh wait, it’s because the government wants to have its baklava and eat it too. They would love to ban us because they know the market prefers foreign dancers to local ones, yet they also want our taxes, fines, and bribes. So they let us work, but only at one place.
Third, it is the epitome of jackassedness for the state to pump scarce resources into harassing dancers when it’s not even capable of stopping terrorist attacks on churches and police stations. We’re talking about a government that is incapable of preventing ‘doctors’ from kidnapping and butchering children so that they can sell their organs for a small fortune. A government that will not properly educate its people, let alone provide for them… that watches idly as all manner of animals feast on heaps of garbage accumulated in all but the tourist areas. To me, that’s a massive amount of failure. Dangerous, inexcusable failure. And yet what do they worry about? Belly dancing. Because the biggest threat to public order in Egypt is my naked navel.
Fast forward twenty-eight days. I get caught dancing at a new club. I knew this was a possibility—a probability, rather-- yet I decided to risk it. A, I needed the money. B, I will not live in fear. C, everyone else is doing it. When I finished my show, my manager informed me that, surprise, Aouny was waiting for me in the café on the Nile outside the club. As I walked toward the café, I could see the belly dance beaurocrat sitting behind the glass doors. He could see me too. He could also see the club manager approach me, whispering in my ear to tell Aouny that I had merely been auditioning, not performing. Ha! The oldest trick in the book. You think Aouny doesn't have that line of bullshit memorized? And could you be a little more obvious about telling me to lie? Not that I’m going to do it, but damn, you guys are amateurs.
'Tani inti?' Aouny asked as I walked in. You again? I pursed my lips and shrugged my shoulders in response. 'What am I supposed to do with you? You’re embarrassing me,' he said.
I shrugged my shoulders again as I lifted my long red coat to take a seat beside him. The club manager sat to my right, directly across from my manager, who was the last in row of men including his partner, the club’s owner, Aouny's armed assistant/witness, and a fourth man whose position was unclear to me.
"This is your second violation in a month, Madame. Why are you dancing here?" All of the men with the exception of Aouny's assistant answered on my behalf.
"She was doing an audition, ya ustaz Aouny." Aouny chuckled. He said he saw my manager tell me to deliver that line as I was walking in. Then he looked at me and said, "Madame, tell me what happened. I know you don’t lie. Only Egyptians lie."
True. But that doesn't mean I'm going to incriminate myself, or that I'm going to embarrass all of these grown men here by making them look like liars. I’m going to plead the fifth. Wait, you don’t have that here do you?
I didn’t actually plead anything. I remained silent and looked at Aouny, who said, "I really pity you," and something else about me not being 'shimaal' like many of the other dancers, i.e. not being the 'do anything and anyone in order to get ahead' type. This was my cue to speak my truth.
"Exactly, Mr. Aouny. On the one hand, your laws are unjust. On the other, I don’t believe in degrading myself in order to circumvent them. I’m not sleeping with some influential club owner, and I refuse to get married just to get my papers. I think that deserves some kind of respect?"
Aouny agreed. "That’s why I’m going to let you off the hook. Completely. I’m not even going to write you up. Because if I write you up this time, you’ll spend a few nights in jail before shipping off to your country."
Deportation. I could think of worse things at this point. After all, it's not like they’d be sending me to Afghanistan. I’m on my way out anyway, I figured. Any day now. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the longest time. Maybe deportation is exactly what I need to get myself out of here. Because I really need to. This whole belly dance thing… it can be a life waster if you don’t harness it. Take it from me. I dumped many, perfectly good, fertile years into a profession as barren as the land it comes from. And once it decides it’s done with you (or you’re done with it, whichever comes first), you’re left with the wreckage…in my case, the shattered pieces of past possibilities for a future I am no longer entitled to. Because to have a future, you need a past that you can boast about on your CV. The Stage has no past. It only has a present. I spent years living on the stage in the present, shimmying and undulating to the exclusion of all else. But I can’t write that in the experience section of my resume. Or can I? Maybe in the ‘skills’ section, alongside Arabic language, always getting my way, and never exceeding sixty-five kilos? Let’s see what kind of job that’ll land me. One with benefits, inshallah.
So go ahead, Aouny. Mete out justice. You’ll be doing me a favor. You’ll be making a decision for me that I’ve been unable to make for years. But I know you won’t. Your pity is genuine, and you believe you’d be hurting me by ending my Cairo career. You don’t want that on your conscience, so you’re going to let me go. You don’t even want a bribe. I appreciate it. I really do. But there’s a part of me that wishes you would just decapitate my career. The same part of me that secretly wished the Muslim Brotherhood would criminalize dancing when it took over, so that I’d have no choice but to go back home.