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, November 4, 2017

Oppression-- In the Eye of the Beholder?

I’m going to take a break from trying to be FAMOUS! to be a little more intellectual. Just for now. This might be long and dense, so I apologize in advance, but the topic has been on my mind for a while. Oppression. Like most of you, I received the standard American liberal arts education. The concept of oppression permeated the general curriculum. It seeped into our political science and history classes. Art history classes. Sociology and economics classes. By now, it has probably found its way into the hard sciences, music, and physical education. In grad school, I did my master's in Middle Eastern Studies, so you can imagine how much back and forth we did over oppression—the oppression of regional populations by European imperialists, the oppression of religious minorities, the oppression of women (of course this was the biggie), and so on and so forth. Not surprisingly, the consensus among faculty and students was that women are not oppressed. Not even the ones who are forced to cover their faces, or who have minimal rights, or who suffer what to us constitute atrocities at the hands of male relatives, and by that larger body of men we call government. The reason they’re not oppressed? Because they don't believe themselves to be. It’s as simple as that. So basically, being unconvinced and/or unaware of your oppression means you are in fact not oppressed. Yes? By that logic, a very young child who is molested is not abused because he/she is unaware of it. Or a person who is born into and dies in slavery is not oppressed because as far as they’re concerned, a) things have always been that way *for their people*, b) they are unaware that things could be better *for their people* and c) they are unaware that they have been cheated out of their human dignity. Or, a North Korean. Not oppressed for the same reasons that apply to slaves. These are three different examples with one thing in common: the object(s) of certain behaviors or cultural institutions which most of us would describe as abusive/oppressive does not know that those behaviors are considered abusive, oppressive, and unhealthy by others. So that makes it ok, according to the logic behind the assumption that lack of awareness of one’s oppression equals lack of *actual* oppression.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Midnight Musings

Disclaimer: I wrote this while suffering from severe PMS.

This might sound a little strange, but I'm haunted. Not by ghosts or ghouls, but by the fact that my life is relatively... easy. I have a job that I love. I'm living 'the dream,' and I make decent money doing it. I have no husband, no kids, and no alcohol or drug addictions. Most of my family is still alive. I've traveled the world and have friends and fans all over. I speak three languages. I obtained a master's degree from an elite university when I was 24 years old. Seven years later, I'm completely debt free. My biggest concern is what color my next costume will be. And yet, I'm not completely happy. Grateful, yes. Happy? Not a hundred percent.

I know. You just want to slap me. Countless people around the globe dream of living a life like mine... doing everything they've ever dreamed of, climbing to the top in whatever they do, having so many choices without a worry in the world. Sure, I have my trials and tribulations (mainly self-inflicted and the result of poor judgment (especially when it comes to men)), but they pale in comparison to everything that's great about my life. So what's my problem? I'm not exactly sure, but in trying to figure out, I've stumbled upon a couple of scary recurring thoughts:

Dala3 on Steriods

I wrote this sometime in 2014 but never published it.
Oops.  I did it again.  I just shot another music video.  This time with an unknown singer who wants to make it big.  Nothing special.  Just your ordinary, low budget, thoughtless, uninspiring, very Egyptian clip that makes you wonder why producers make so much money.  I agreed to be a part of it because, well, because... I knew it would make for good blog content! No, that's not why. :)  I did it because a) I didn't know what I was in for, b) getting your face on screen is great promo and results in more high-end gigs,  c) I'm always up for a new experience d) I needed a good laugh, which is almost always guaranteed at these things, and e) it really does make for good blogging.
The laughs, or rather regrets, started with the makeup 'artist,' a 25-year old boy with a unibrow and a chip on his shoulder.  I arrived at the studio already made-up, as I had just come from work, and figured I'd just freshen my makeup before going on set.  Not so.  UniBoy handed me a bottle of rose water, a cotton pad, and told me to remove my makeup.  But my makeup is fine the way it is, I protested.  Take it off! he said.  So I went to the bathroom and proceeded to remove, more like smear, the makeup all over my face.  Great.  I looked like I was ready for Halloween.  Rose water proved no match for my waterproof Maybelline eye makeup.  Now, if they had given me some olive oil...

Egypt's Identity Crisis

I wrote this in 2014 but I didn't publish it back then.

Two things you don't want to be while living in the Muslim world: gay and atheist. The consequences for being either or both can be severe, and may include ostracization, imprisonment, and even death. For though many conveniently ignore major parts of their religion, almost no one denies the existence of God or believes in gay rights. And they have zero tolerance for those who do.
We were once again reminded of this last month in Egypt, when the new "secular" government publicly declared war on both groups of people. Authorities arrested four men at a party for engaging in homosexual acts. Three of them were sentenced to eight years in prison, while the fourth was sentenced to three years and hard labor. They were accused of cross-dressing and attending "deviant sexual parties."

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.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Fainting Drummer

If there's anyone in this godforsaken place who can get away with staring at my ass, it's my drummer. Actually, that's his job. I pay him to observe every drop, lock, twist, twerk, clench, accent, bounce, circle, roll, shimmy, vibration, jiggle, wiggle and wobble that it's capable of doing, and to create a corresponding sound for each movement. Doom; tak; traaaaaaK!; dr-r-r-r-r-r…; dish, etc. This is called translation, and it's what draws attention to my moves. So basically, he's my butt's translator. Or spokesman. Don't laugh. It's a serious job (and a much coveted one in the land of sexual frustration). But it isn't easy. You see, my butt is a complicated thing. It has a mind of its own, and it moves in ways that even I don't fully comprehend. Somehow though, my drummer understands it. I want to say it's because we've been working together almost every single night for the past five years, but that's not the reason. Tika understood my teeze from day one. He got right on stage with me and translated every movement it did, as if we had choreographed our routine.

I don't know how he did it. All of the other drummers I worked with took at least two weeks to even begin to understand my musicality, and none of them could keep up with me. Tika, on the other hand, is so in tune with my posterior that he can anticipate how it will interpret any given measure of music... even when I try to surprise him with a new movement, a new way of doing a movement, or by altering the timing of my moves. It's like he shares a brain with my butt or something.
All this time, you probably thought it was the other way around. You probably thought the drummer calls the shots, and the belly dancer slavishly follows. This is how it works outside of Egypt, but inside Egypt, it's the opposite. The dancer decides where to add shimmies, accents, and pops, and the 
drummer follows her lead. Basically, he's her bitch. 
Artistically speaking.

Of Men and Belly Dance

I'm going to share something personal, and perhaps a bit controversial. But you're already used to that from me, so I know you can handle it. Belly dancers, be VERY careful who you fall in love with. Make sure they are sane, balanced, confident , and don't have a controlling, violent, or vindictive streak. Especially if they are from the region, even more so if they have ties to your line of work. Multiply that by ten if you're going for the big cheese, i.e. working in Cairo and/or the international workshop circuit.

As I was trying to fall asleep last night, this morning actually, it occurred to me that two former love interests had been sabotaging my career at the same time. One has fucked off, and the other recently passed away, but I am still feeling the effects of it today. While my ex was busy getting me uninvited to festivals around the world as payback for terminating our tumultuous relationship, my significant other, who was acting as my manager and whom I trusted completely (not to mention with whom I was madly in love), stunted my career in Cairo. He rejected many opportunities and powerful allies because he feared I would leave him for a movie producer or a high powered agent ( big opportunist slut that I am).

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 the stage with her. But sometimes it takes a few musicians to get the job done. They form a circle around the dancer, the way 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 that 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.

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 hang ups 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 they're most likely to respond to. 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 everyone can relate to. 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. Even I had forgotten myself. 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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

My Foray into the Cabaret - Part 3

The biggest factor in my ability to loosen up was my singer. With him in the driver's seat, I was able to relax knowing that if anything went wrong, he would be the one in the line of fire. Half of my musicians could show up mid-gig, or they could be killing each other behind me, and I could just let them carry on, because for this one hour that we're together, it's not my circus. I've learned to thrive in this informal performing environment because it frees me to do more important things. Like shaking hands with customers as they take their seats, making small talk, goofing around with the riklam, and being downright silly. Basically, I get to indulge my inner teenager. Speaking of which, I even have a crush. On my singer. You've probably figured that out by now.

Sayyid is the definition of fine. He's tall, dark, handsome, has excellent stage presence, and he serenades me on stage. He also smells like laundry detergent. I think the regulars-- the riklam, the staff, and the musicians-- have noticed our chemistry; we're practically radiating uranium at this point. They stare at us every time he comes near me and we slip into an impromptu duet. He sings to me, and I wiggle about in approval with a huge smile and batting eyelashes. Kind of like Farid El-Atrash and Samia Gamal. Not that I'm comparing ourselves to them artistically. We do have a similar on-stage chemistry though. And we quite like it, even though it annoys the band. When things get too scandalous for their prudish sensibilities, my percussionists express their collective disapproval by interrupting the prevailing rhythm with a doom, tak tak tak tak, doom tak tak!, the famous zaffa rhythm played at weddings when the bride and groom enter and exit the wedding hall. It's meant to be sarcastic, and to embarrass us. Neither of us care, though. Ma andinash dam. We have no blood, as the Egyptians would say, referring to our inability to feel ashamed.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Half Hour in Hell

The irony of a bright red sun setting so serenely as all hell breaks loose underground. People clamor for their lives, but the sun doesn't care. It sinks into the Nile with a nonchalance that budges for nothing and no one. 

I happened to be in the Attaba metro station this evening, on my way to work from a modeling shoot when the escalators gave out. Thankfully I was not on one of them. It was just my luck, as I decided that climbing six long flights of stairs was preferable to being sandwiched between a sea of men and teenage boys on the escalator. Good call, because then THIS happened. There was an electrical failure, and the four escalators going in both directions stopped abruptly. Some people fell as others were squished, and many were badly injured. Mass panic ensued. People were screaming and crying and jumping over each other to escape. Others were trying to capture the magnitude of the crowd with their camera phones-- there were already thousands of us without each arriving train replenishing the stock. 

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.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Blame, Shame, and Shobha

Disclaimer: This was written a year ago.
You all know the hackneyed saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Well Egypt is no Rome, but for the seven years that I've lived here, I've tried to be as 'Roman' as possible. I've quite literally walked the walk and talked the talk. Heck I've even thought the thought. I have, one could say, 'gone native' in more ways than one. But there's a limit to how much Romanness even someone like me can take, and I reached it yesterday.

Let me begin by explaining the concept of shobha (pronounced shoub-ha). This idea-word is very much indebted to Islamic thought on gender relations. As such, there is no real equivalent in the English language. But for the purposes of this entry, I'll define it as the state of shame that occurs when one puts oneself in a seemingly compromising situation. Emphasis on 'seemingly.' As is typical of shame, shobha is more concerned with how a situation *appears* to the outside observer, rather than with the actual facts of the situation known to those who are experiencing it. Interestingly, the word is derived from the root sha-ba-ha, which means to resemble, to appear to be, etc.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Belly Dancer's Body

Back home, we have this notion that belly dance has a more accommodating aesthetic than other dances--that this art is for all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. And that may very well be the case, because, we insist on it being that way. And also because belly dance is not a mainstream form of entertainment there. The majority of high profile performances are unpaid and occur within the context of festivals, produced and attended by other dancers. It can therefore get away with having dancers whose bodies would be unsuited for traditional mainstream performing arts like ballet, hip-hop, music video, ballroom, etc. In the real world--and by that I mean the part of the world in which belly dance is a major pillar of mainstream entertainment--things are little bit different. OK, a lot different. In the Middle East, your numbers-- inches and years--are just as important as they are for a ballet dancer in the US. There is an ideal standard of beauty held by a good majority of the people, and any deviation from that is less marketable. Now we don't want to lump all the Arab countries together when it comes to this issue; the ideal aesthetic in Egypt is a bit different than what it is in Lebanon and in some Gulf countries. However within each of those countries, you'd be hard-pressed to find people who have an alternative vision of beauty.

That being said, fellow belly dancer and author Zaina Brown and I decided to share our experiences with body image, as we've both been working as professional dancers in the Arab world for years--Zaina in the UAE, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Mali, and India, and myself in Egypt. By the way, you can follow Zaina on her own blog, "Where's Zaina." And if that's not enough, you can purchase her book "Stories of a Travelling Belly Dancer" from Amazon. It's a great read that documents her experiences working as a dancer in the Middle East. Zaina also just produced a documentary called "Traveling Belly Dancer in India," which is currently screening in film festivals around the US. It will be available for public viewing by the end of 2015. In the meantime, Zaina is dancing in the New York / New Jersey area and is working on a new book about dancing in the Middle East.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Competition Craze

Belly dance competitions are a lot like sex. You'd rather your kids not have it, but you know it's inevitable. So you teach them the right way. The 'safe' way. Sorry for the analogy, but this is how I feel about competitions. Not exactly the best our art has to offer, but an undeniable part of its current landscape. As someone who has both judged and entered competitions (back when I had no idea how terrible I was), I think I'm pretty qualified to talk about this subject, as well as give a few pointers on how to do it the 'right' way. And I have a lot to say. As always. :)

First I should mention that I  have many friends who have both entered and won competitions. I'm very proud of them, as I do see this as an accomplishment on some level. When truly deserved, winning a competition can bring a dancer recognition, esteem, and even jump start her teaching career. Which is great. None of my subsequent criticisms of the competition world are meant to detract from their success in any way.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Creating Your Own Style

There's a recent trend emerging in the international belly dance community that's come to my attention. It's the obsession with creating your own style. Over the past year, I've had several workshop attendees ask me how to do this, and how I created mine. This is an important question, but also a bit least as it pertains to me. I didn't create my own style. It created itself. I didn't sit down with myself one day and say hey, I've been dancing professionally now for x amount of years, it's time to create my own set of moves and combinations. I mean it's OK to have that conversation with yourself, but it's neither necessary nor guaranteed to result in your own signature moves. Rather, as I suspect happens with many dancers known for being different, we stumble upon new moves as we advance in our careers. Not while taking classes, but on the stage and while practicing in the studio. I've noticed that the more we perform and choreograph, the more our bodies reveal different ways of moving to us. 

As with everything, this is a process that comes easier to some of us than others. After all, life is not fair. We don't all have the same opportunities, abilities, experiences, or resources. And we're talking about art here. Art is a very personal enterprise. It depends on factors that vary from individual to individual, such as access to training; how long you've been dancing; training in other dance or art forms; body type and overall health; technical ability; cognitive ability; personality; psychological disposition, aptitude for creativity; ability to think abstractly; intellectual background; life experience; worldview; spiritual inclinations; economic and social status; the environment one grew up in; the languages they have access to; childhood experiences, etc. Art depends on all that-- on everything that makes you unique. That's why one person's art will look different from another's. If it doesn't, that person is a copy artist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review of "Al-Raqisa" Episode 2

Disclaimer: I'm not trying to be snarky or offensive with any of my observations, so please don't take this personally. Understand that if you're going to put yourself in the public eye, then you have to expect and accept criticism.
The other day I posed a controversial question on Facebook. Is it fair to pit Egyptian dancers against foreign dancers in a competition? Almost all of the Egyptians who responded said no. Egyptians have a natural advantage in that they've been Egyptians their whole lives. They grew up with Egyptian music, the Arabic language, and have been dancing baladi since the day they were born. Interestingly, the non-Egyptians responded by saying that it's perfectly fair to compare Egyptian dancers with foreign ones because the latter compensate for their cultural disadvantage with years of hard work, passion, and amazing technique. While I generally agree with that, and while there are many excellent foreign dancers, I have to say that I'm with the Egyptians on this one. It's not that Egyptians are inherently and always better dancers than non-Egyptians, but that both groups bring a different set of skills to the table. Comparing the two would be like comparing apples to steaks. One is pretty and polished, but the other is juicy and well done.

Watching round one of the "Al-Raqisa" competition really drove this home for me. Three dancers competed in front of Dina and the other two judges (a Tunisian actress and an Egyptian comedian). The first dancer was Australian, the second French Algerian, and the third, Egyptian. None of them went through a real audition process by the way. What I felt after watching all of their performances was that it was impossible to compare the first two with the Egyptian dancer. Granted everybody was nervous and probably didn't perform as well as they would have liked to, but I found the first two dancers to be technical and somewhat stiff. The Egyptian dancer was the exact opposite. She barely had any moves, but the few that she did were very juicy... very Egyptian... very baladi. She danced to the original version of a shaabi baladi song called "Ya Gazelle Il-Darb Ahmar"-- a song that most foreign dancers have never heard of unless they've worked in Egypt. She entered the stage with a melaya leff, and then left it to continue dancing in her typical baladi way, replete with baladi facial expressions and baladi gestures. The whole routine was improvised and simple, but undeniably Egyptian.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Always Let Your Music Be Your Guide: Choreography vs. Improvisation

Something I’ve always been curious about was whether Cairo’s belly dance stars choreograph their shows.  I remember watching Dina, Randa, Soraya and Asmahan for the first time seven years ago, thinking there's no way such artistic genius could be produced spontaneously. At the time, I was a choreography junkie, and I imagined everyone else to be. I couldn't believe that improv could look so good.  Until now, I still don’t know whether/which dancers choreograph. I’ve never asked any of them, and I don't exactly suppose I’d get honest answers if I did
If my onstage experiences are similar to those of other Cairo dancers, however, I think it’s safe to assume that most of us do both choreography and improvisation--depending on where we are in our careers. I’ll speak for myself at least. Currently, I mostly improvise. But that wasn’t always the case. When I first started performing regularly here four  years ago, I relied heavily on choreography. My own, of course. Back then, the thought of dancing to live music for live Egyptians :) terrified me. I was afraid that if I improvised, I would be boring, or “mess up,” so I choreographed every single doom and tek until the piece was airtight. I also figured that performing choreography would free my mind to concentrate on posture, hands, emotions, and presence, and that if I were too busy thinking up the next step, all those other aspects of my performance would suffer. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cabaret Day

You know that feeling of being stuck in a rut and not being able to get out of it?  That's what it's been like for me these past two months. I think it's a combination of feeling like I've accomplished everything there is to accomplish in Egyptian belly dance land, and that what's to come is more of the same, plus a sense that I may have outgrown this country. I'm not faulting Egypt.  I'm faulting myself.  I have a tendency to get bored... with things, places... people. And just when I was seriously starting to contemplate a major life change, the gods distracted me with the mother of all gigs-- a birthday party at one of the seediest cabarets in town.   

You're probably wondering what the big deal is.  The big deal is that, aside from jolting me out of my boredom, a "5-star" dancer performing in a sleazy cabaret is a no-no.  Here, if you're a featured dancer at a 5-star hotel or cruise, dancing at low-class venues puts your reputation and sometimes even your career at risk.  That's because well-to-do Egyptians have a tendency to be very classist. They despise whatever they consider to be beneath them, and condescendingly dismiss lower class mannerisms, behaviors, and tastes as baladi, or (my favorite) bee'a-- lowlife.  (There are some deep historical/psychological reasons for this, but I'll refrain from getting into them here.) If the rich owner of the ritzy-by-Egyptian-standards Nile cruise that you work on finds out that you moonlight at cabarets, he just might fire you-- you are now tainted. :)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Belly Dance and "Cultural Appropriation"

I never intended to respond to Randa Jarrar's article "Why I Hate White Belly Dancers," but I did.  And now I'm going for round two.  This time, I want to unravel Jarrar's whole argument by chipping away at her assumption that white women's "appropriation of the art causes others harm."  Without that element of harm, her argument falls apart. White belly dancers (or black or Asian or Latina ones) cause no harm whatsoever to the people to whom this dance "belongs."  No bodily harm, no economic harm, no social harm.  Quite the opposite really.  The vast majority of Arab women and men appreciate non-Arabs learning and mastering their dance.  At the very least, they fetishize us, similar to how some of us exoticize them.

Let's dissect this a little bit.  Of course the idea that one woman's dancing causes another woman physical harm is ridiculous. So let's put that aside.  But how about economic harm? In order for Jarrar to suggest that the alleged "cultural appropriation" we're engaging in is economically detrimental to Arab women, it would have to be true that white women are taking opportunities away from them.  This is patently false.  Due to a very unfortunate mentality that demonizes women, women's bodies, and women's independence, not too many Arab women aspire to become professional dancers (and this mentality has NOTHING to do with European imperialism. It's much older than that.). The few who do take up the profession desperately need the money, and are brave and skillful enough to dodge the social stigma.  However, most of them would rather die of starvation than dance for money.  It's therefore simply ignorant to state that white appropriation of the art is "harming" Arab women by taking away their opportunities. That's like saying illegal immigrants are hurting Americans by taking away all of the toilet bowl cleaning jobs.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Racism in the Middle East

I'm glad Randa Jarrar wrote that article entitled "Why I Hate White Belly Dancers" in the left-wing online magazine Salon.  Not because Jarrar brings up good points, or that her piece created "much needed" dialogue on "cultural appropriation." I couldn't care less.  Everyone appropriates everything these days.  As long as we appropriate respectfully without damaging the cultures or persons whose cultures we're borrowing, I have no issues with it.  Rather, I'm happy because the author (and the publication) exposed what a racist she is.  And because this now serves as the perfect launching pad for me to shed light on yet another problem in the Arab Middle East that is relatively unbeknownst.  I am referring to the unabashed racism that is rampant in the Arab world. Not just the anti-white racism that Jarrar spews, but racism against black people.  The latter is much more common, despite the irony of brown people hating other brown people.  In a region in which the "n" word still enjoys wide currency, in which anti-semitic (not to be confused with anti-Zionist) speech is the norm, and in which the stereotypical ranking of the intelligence and beauty of different races is considered knowledge, it's no surprise that Jarrar, a Palestinian-American writer who spent her formative years in the Middle East, is a racist. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Festival Farce

I’ve decided to lay off the politics for a while and get back to writing about dance.  Though admittedly, there's not much of a difference…

I’ve been wanting to write about Egyptian dance festivals for a while, but have refrained for fear of pissing people off.  Now, I no longer care.  I've realized that no matter what you do, people will be pissed, so you might as well give them a reason.  Like telling the truth.  Which is exactly what I will do in this post.  I want to talk about what really goes on in the world of dance festivals.   Not that we don’t all already know.  But after 5 years of witnessing this stuff, I feel like sharing it.  Because what I’ve discovered is that the policies, practices, and philosophies that go into creating festivals have nothing to do with art, and everything to do with greed.  And it’s high time someone called it out. 

The original idea of creating A dance festival in Egypt was brilliant.  It was intended to be an annual event in which the best of Egypt’s folklore and belly dancers would teach foreign dance enthusiasts.  Licensed foreigners performing in Egypt would also be featured.  The mission was to promote Egyptian dance.  The rationale was that since belly dance originated in Egypt, who better to teach it than Egyptians and foreigners licensed to dance in Egypt?  

Friday, September 27, 2013

Egypt: Reasons for Hope

We all know how much of a pessimist I can be when it comes to Egypt.  And with good reason.  For a while, it seemed that rottenness knew no limits.  Not only had a demonic, Islamist/Nazi regime hijacked the country, but the quality of life had quickly deteriorated (not that it was any good to begin with).  The economy had imploded, unemployment went through the roof, huge lines of cars wrapped around the city, angrily waiting for a few liters of gas in the 100* heat, fights broke out everywhere, the traffic was impossible, and the heaps of garbage rivaled the tallest pyramids.  Then, as if things weren't bad enough, the country broke into a mini war, with one side attempting to bring down the Brotherhood regime, and the other attempting to preserve it.  The rest is history.

Three months later, I'm strangely happy to report that my signature pessimism has turned into optimism.  Yes, me, ever the naysayer, has found reason for hope.  Let me share with you why.

The garbage. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Ugly & The Inevitable

I'm currently in the US, but by the way I'm conducting my life, you'd never know it. If I'm not teaching or performing Egyptian dance, I'm glomming up Egyptian news. Or I'm on the phone with Egypt. I left my life in Cairo a little over a month ago, thinking that as usual, I'd spend Ramadan in the US, and go back to Egypt for the Eid holidays. But that's not how things played out. You see, I would have gone back 10 days ago, except that my parents were making my life miserable over that hoax of a terror alert for Americans in the Middle East. For the first time in a long while, I listened to them. Their constant insults and screaming at me for wanting to go to Egypt during such times was more than I could handle. So I dragged my butt to JFK Airport and told Al-Italia that I wanted to postpone my flight another two weeks.

Well, the two weeks aren't even finished, and I'm about to delay my return once again. As you all know, the situation in Egypt right now is a little bit, err, "uncomfortable." Not to mention there's no work. My presence there would neither contribute to Egypt nor to my wellbeing, so I see no reason to go back at this point. I mean, I guess I could go and just sit in my apartment all day and night, listening to gunfire. Or watch the news 24 hours a day. Or tell Facebook how brave I am for living in Egypt through these turbulent times, even though I really don't have to. I don't know. It just doesn't sound like the brightest idea to me. And it's not like I have something to prove. So I've decided to hang out in the good old US of A until things subside, or if they don't, until I feel it's safe enough for me to go back, collect my belongings, and say my goodbyes.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Democratic Republic of Egypt

This is long overdue. I would have published it earlier but I was busy traveling and doing workshops. So here you have it, my thoughs on the June 30th revolution.

I am newly in love with Egypt. I don’t know any other place on Earth where millions of people can oust two dictators in less than three years. I don’t know any other country where the military intervenes to execute the will of the people yet leaves the governing to civilians. Since the revolution, I’d lost my faith in this place, but what happened last month restored it.

Well, partially at least. I realize that the Egyptian armed forces are no angels, and that they’d committed a litany of crimes since the outbreak of the revolution. I’m also aware that technically (from an American vantage point at least), the army shouldn’t be meddling in domestic affairs or running the economy. And I can see how that could rub Americans the wrong way. That’s because in the United States, we can’t even begin to imagine the army commanding the president to step down! We’re used to power being neatly compartmentalized. Each branch of government, including the armed forces, has its responsibilities and limitations. There’s no overstepping of boundaries. (In theory at least.)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Revolution Part II

I have to admit, I've been feeling a bit uneasy.  I'm afraid of what's going to happen starting on June 30th.  Or really, about what's already happening.  In just two more days, the world is going to watch round two of the revolution—Egyptian People vs. the Egyptian Government Part II.  Egyptians will take to the streets in droves and try to topple their government yet again.  And while I fully support them, me suspects that the sequel is going to be a little longer. And a bit bloodier. :/

Why do I feel this way?  Well, because as of now, clashes between those who support Morsi (aka Big Beard) and those who don't have broken out all over the country.  So far, four are dead (one of them is a Brother), and hundreds are injured.  Morsi's speech the other night only made things worse.  All he did was make veiled threats, blame people for his failures and advise Egyptians to solve the electricity crisis by shutting off the lights!    

Friday, June 21, 2013

Leela Draws Luna

I'm so happy to share this outstanding work of art by Leela Corman, who in addition to being a belly dancer, is a top graphic novelist. After reading several of my status updates about my rather dramatic life in Cairo, Leela was inspired to illustrate a bit of it! :D 

A sneak peak of "Luna of Cairo" by Leela Corman.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

2013 Summer Workshops

Hey everyone!  It’s almost that time of year again (Ramadan) when I get to come home and relax from my busy life in Cairo.  Though honestly, I don’t think I’ll be doing much relaxing.  I’ve got a pretty busy workshop schedule set up for me, and I wanted to share that with all of you.  I’ll also be available for private lessons, and will be bringing plenty of new and used costumes for sale!  Please don’t hesitate to contact me or any of my sponsors for more information or to register.

In chronological order:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Egyptian Weddings

As much as I love performing on the Nile Memphis, nothing beats the excitement of dancing at weddings.  Weddings are considered the “holy grail” of the belly dance industry, and with good reason.  Everything from the money to the exposure to the band and the dance floor is bigger.  (You know what they say about bigger. :D)  Though it’s often impossible to put on a show when hundreds of jubilant guests are crowding on top of you, I still enjoy dancing at weddings more than anywhere else. 
The main reason I prefer weddings is that my show is longer and my band is bigger.  Instead of my usual two costume changes and 6-piece band, I change my costumes four times, and expand my band to at least twenty members.  The music is rich, layered, detailed, and powerful.  Providing the sound system is decent, the music is so loud it takes over my body and does the dancing for me.  Suffice it to say that most of the time, I have no idea what I do/did on the dance floor—until I see a video (if there is one). 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I don’t know what to title this post.  “The Flight from Hell;” “I Hate Air France/Delta,” “Why I Love Egypt,”  “Flying Stinky;” “The Worst 48 Hours of My Life,” “Everything Works Out in the End” would all do, but none on its own would do justice to the magnitude of the disaster that was my flight from Egypt last weekend.  Let me explain why.

Earlier this year, I had been asked to do some workshops and performances in Cincinnati in April.  Given that I enjoy teaching, needed a break from Egypt, and needed to get the remaining two puppies to their new mommies in the US, I gladly accepted the invitation.  My sponsor booked me a roundtrip flight from Cairo to Cincinnati with Delta/Air France, which are one and the same now.  What ensured thereafter was a travel catastrophe of epic proportions, and another example of how Murphy’s Law hijacks my life every now and then.  Well, rather frequently actually…

Sunday, February 3, 2013


There’s been some talk about ethics in the belly dance community lately.  This is always a good topic, and something that needs to be discussed in any field.  But not when the discussion comes from a false position of self-righteousness, or when it’s a masquerade for a personal problem between people, or when it’s meant to embarrass and “expose” someone you don’t like.  When a discussion about ethics becomes the choice weapon in our own personal battles, then maybe it’s time to step off the podium and examine whether we’re living up to the standards to which we hold others.  

There seems to be an assumption in the belly dance world that the only issue of ethics pertaining to us is that of the casting couch.  Meaning, as long as we don’t have sex with managers, venue owners, or other “men of power” to procure work, we’re completely ethical artists.  While this is definitely one of the biggies, being an ethical artist entails much more than not selling your body for work.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Touch of Life

An "ambassador" greeting us at TOL. :)
It’s no secret that animal cruelty is endemic in Egypt.  Anyone who has been here can tell you that.  From dogs to donkeys, cats to cows, it’s almost impossible not to witness an act of cruelty or neglect on a daily basis.  I know this isn’t unique to Egypt, and that cruelty to animals exists all over the world.  But the sheer magnitude and visibility of the problem here is overwhelming.  In fact, it’s so commonplace that many Egyptians don’t even consider it to be an issue.  Like sexual harassment, it’s a fact of life, not a “problem.” 
Examples of brutality to animals include but are not limited to: senselessly beating donkeys that are too “stupid” to obey their masters; beating, torturing, poisoning and shooting stray dogs; spraying toxic chemicals on dogs and cats causing them blindness; starving “work animals” such as donkeys, horses, and cows; transporting hordes of cattle, sheep, and donkeys in pickup trucks.  I’m sure there are other examples of abusive acts, but I’m incapable of imagining them. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Crazy Dog Lady

Two brown puppies up for adoption.
Yep.  It’s official.  I’m the crazy dog lady of Cairo. :)  I am now the proud caretaker of 5 dogs.  One mum and four pups.  I swore I wasn’t going to rescue anymore dogs, but alas, I lied. 

It all started a few months ago.  I was coming home from a long night of work when I noticed a sad-looking dog curled up in the entrance of my building.  That’s odd, I thought.  Street dogs usually avoid people.  There’s probably something wrong with it if it’s decided to seek refuge inside the building.  So I decided to find out.  I approached the dog slowly, not knowing if it was wounded or scared, or if it would bite me.  “Hiwoy,” I said (that’s “hi” in the super retarded doggie language I invented :D).  I got closer and crouched down to pet its head until it finally acknowledged me by wagging its tail.  Very well.  It didn’t seem to be hurt, so I made my way to the elevator.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

From Ballet to Belly

I’ve forgotten the names of all of my elementary and high school teachers, but one name that will remain with me till the day I die is Dorothy Lister.  Dorothy Lister was my ballet teacher at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.  I studied--more like suffered--under her tutelage until the age of 15ish, at which point she quit the Joffrey, and I quit ballet. 

Miss Dorothy was, oh, just your average ballet nazi. :) Old enough to be my grandmother, she was a stickler for discipline and had zero tolerance for lazy feet, lifeless limbs, and other similar ballet crimes.  And she’d punish us too.  Whenever she caught us slacking off at the barre, she would angrily clap her hands and let out a shrill “STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!!!”  At which point the class, the piano player, and all of 6th Avenue would freeze in frightened paralysis. She would then sarcastically imitate our mistakes to show us how dumb we looked, and literally yank our body parts into the correct position.  Miss Dorothy always ended these torturous episodes with her signature dirty look, which masked her grin of sadistic satisfaction.  She’d then carry on with class.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Current Affairs

One of the reasons I allowed myself to come to Egypt was because I was burnt out.  Six years of nonstop reading, writing, and thinking about Middle Eastern politics will do that to you.  Not to mention the constant debating, arguing, analyzing, questioning and critiquing.  It’s educational, no doubt, but also maddening.  Your brain never stops.  One thought opens the door to a million new ones.  I thought learning to dance in Egypt would be the perfect way to clear my head of all the political pollution, but boy was I wrong.  If anything, living here has only the made the wheels in my head turn faster.  Especially after the revolution.  All people seem to want to do is talk politics and make history.  At work, in taxis, at cafes, in Tahrir.  There’s just no escaping the political madness these days.  It’s endemic.

This month was no exception.  Tensions reached an all time high, seemingly over that disgusting film which denigrates the Muslim prophet Mohamed.  As an American who lives in Egypt, this is something that greatly troubled me.  So I want to share some of my thoughts on the matter.  Note: they are just thoughts.  I don’t have an “agenda,” and don’t present my views as THE truth.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Living the Dream"

I’m always bemused by all belly dancers who tell me I’m “living the dream.”  Every time I hear that, I want to ask, really?  What dream?  I never dreamed of being a belly dancer in Cairo.  I didn’t even know that was possible! =D
Truth be told, I didn’t come to Egypt with a mission to be a “star,” or because someone pumped my ego with garbage.  I came to Egypt because I had a broken heart.  I hadn’t broken up with a boyfriend or anything like that.  But a couple of years earlier,  I saw something I really wanted and didn’t think I could do-- real Egyptian belly dancing.  Since attending that festival in 2006, I desperately wanted to learn.  But because achieving that level of excellence in the dance requires many years of living in Cairo, I decided that was impossible, and got depressed.

It turns out I was wrong.  I have, after all, been living in Cairo for four years.  Yet at the time, if you would have told me this could or would happen, I would have responded that I also believe in the tooth fairy.  I had just been accepted to Harvard, would spend the next two years of my life there, and would then go on to get a job and make babies.  I couldn’t imagine interrupting the very natural flow of things to fit Egypt in.  Nor could I imagine the logistics of undertaking such an endeavor.  How would I get there?  Where would I stay?  Who would hire me to work so that I could pay my rent and fund all my dance classes?  Too much uncertainty, too much impossibility, no money. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Feelings About Feeling

Let’s face it.  We foreign belly dancers are under a lot of pressure.  Not only do we have to look good, but we have to dance as Egyptian as possible.  Some get closer than others, but none of us ever hit the 100% mark.  Personally, I think it’s impossible.  Being Egyptian is one of those things you’re either born with or you’re not.  No matter how immersed we are in the culture or how well we speak Arabic, we’ll never be as Egyptian as an Egyptian.  And we’ll certainly never out-Egyptian one. :)  Not that that’s necessarily the goal...  Our “disadvantage” notwithstanding, however, we’re constantly being compared to Egyptian dancers.  And one of the points of comparison is feeling.
“Feeling” is one of those words that has no real meaning.  Yet we use it all the time to refer to some vague concept of Egyptianness in the dance.  We can’t exactly pinpoint what it is, because it can’t be defined, quantified, counted, or taught.   Yet somehow, we know it when we see it.  Most interestingly, feeling is the thing a lot of Egyptian belly dancers (claim to) have, and that we non-Egyptians strive to obtain. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Joker. Are You Joking?!

Because I have something to say about everything. ;)

This year more than ever, I had really been looking forward to coming home.  I was homesick, missed my family, and was having cravings that could only be satisfied in New York.  More importantly, Egypt was starting to get a little unbearable.  People have grown irritable and quarrelsome.  The traffic is worse than ever.  It’s impossible to go anywhere any time of day or night without sitting for hours in a cab, inhaling toxic amounts of exhaust.  Most cabs don’t have air conditioning, and it’s disgustingly hot and humid.  Some do, but lots of times, drivers lie and say the AC doesn’t work. 

I’m also a bit fed up with wearing long pants and long sleeves in this weather.  But what can I do?  Anything less and I’d be asking for real trouble.  These days, women are being assaulted in ways that never happened before the revolution.  I should know.  In just one month, I was targeted three times!  The first time, a man jumped out of a microbus and chased me down the street in broad daylight.  Next, I was in a cab when a gang on 10 motorcycles spotted me and tried to crash their bikes into the cab.  The driver got angry and tried to run over the motorcyclists.  Had I not barked at the driver to stop engaging them, we would have had a catastrophe on our hands.  Most recently, teen-aged boys sprayed tear gas in a cab that my friend and I were getting into.  Both she and I and the driver started tearing.  And I started losing consciousness.  We eventually drove away and the gas wore off.  

Monday, July 2, 2012

Woe to Egypt

I would have posted this earlier last week, but I've been insanely busy.  I apologize in advance, as there will be no sacred cows.  If you have any, don’t read this.

I feel like I just woke up from a nightmare.  Only, that nightmare continued into reality.  Islamists won the Egyptian presidency, fair and square.  That’s after winning 70 percent of the (now dissolved) Parliament.  Not to sound like a jackass, but I told you so.  

Even before this so-called revolution, I knew that religious fanatics would eventually come to power.  It was only a matter of time.  I guess studying the Middle East at Harvard is responsible for my political foresight.  But honestly, anyone with half a brain would have reached the same conclusion. The writing was on the wall.  Egypt has been ripe for Islamification for some time now.  One need only have noticed the growing number of veiled women and bearded men, and the widespread illiteracy, unemployment and poverty to figure that out.  If that’s not the perfect recipe for Islamist governance, I don’t know what is.