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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Monday, July 11, 2016

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."

Mind you, homosexuality isn't illegal in Egypt--there are no laws criminalizing it. However there is legislation against "debauchery," "moral depravity," and "violating the teachings of religion." This is how the state puts homosexuals on trial.
This recent outburst of homophobia by Egypt's security forces is painfully reminiscent of the famous "Cairo52" trial that occurred in May 2001. In what was one of the most theatrical operations against homosexuality in Egyptian history, police raided a gay nightclub on the Nile called Queen Boat and arrested 52 men. They accused them of having gay sex. Twenty-three of them were sentenced up to five years in prison with hard labor for debauchery and for defaming Islam. Many were tortured and raped while detained. To add insult to injury, the media published their names, photos, and professions to publicly humiliate them.
What happened last week wasn't an isolated incident. In fact it's only the latest in a series of crackdowns on gays by Egyptian security forces.  In November 2013, they arrested nine men at a Valentine's Day party in a private villa. In February 2014, three men claiming to want a sex change were arrested in the Red Sea city of Hurgada for allegedly dressing as women, engaging in gay sex, and forming a gay network. On April 3rd, police arrested several young men from a private house in Alexandria for "acting like women" and engaging in gay sex. All of this happened after the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government, mind you. One can only conclude that combating homosexuality has become a top priority for Egypt's security forces, right up there next to fighting Islamists.
This is not to say that the year that the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt was devoid of these antics. Just four months after Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as the country's first Islamist president, police raided a medical center in Cairo and arrested dozens of men for "homosexual acts." The courts ordered the men to be sent for "forensic reports," which are basically a series of anal probe tests used to determine the sexual activities of men in question. Talk about sick.
I hope I don't need to point out that Egyptians' treatment of gays is a result of religious proclamations on homosexuality. That should be obvious. Both the Quran and Hadith (sayings and traditions of the Muslim prophet) harshly condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. They also mete out punishment.
Similarly, it should be painfully obvious that religion condemns disbelief in God.  The Quran states that atheism and other forms of dis/misbelief will be punished in this life as well as the in hereafter, and that they should have none on this earth to protect or help them. The Hadith takes it a step further and calls for the killing of those who choose atheism over Islam. Given that the majority of Egyptians are heavily influenced by these religious sentiments, their negative and sometimes violent reactions to atheists and homosexuals makes sense. (That's NOT  me saying I agree!)
As if Egypt doesn't have any real security threats, Alexandria's security chief announced on a talk show the creation of a new task force to apprehend atheists for their "crimes." His announcement was a direct response to the appearance of an atheist on a popular TV show, whom the host invited to debate a Muslim sheikh.
Though the idea to create a task force to combat atheism is novel, persecution of this (anti)religious minority is not. In 2007 under Mubarak, an Egyptian blogger was sentenced to four years in prison for calling Al-Azhar, the country's top Islamic institution, "the university of terrorism." During Morsi's presidency, an out-of-the-closet atheist named Alber Saber was convicted of blasphemy after allegedly promoting the film Innocence of Muslims, which satirizes Islam and its prophet.
Of course, one would expect an Islamic theocracy to target atheists and homosexuals. But what about when the supposedly "secular" enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood do it? How do we explain that?
We explain it like this:
a) they are trying to distract people from a the major failure of security-- from the bombs that are going off almost every day in relatively "safe" Cairo neighborhoods such as Doqqi, Mohandiseen, 6th of October, Pyramid Street, etc.
b) they are trying to distract people from the power outages that occur three times a day every day, and the gasoline shortages (coincidentally the same power outages and gas shortages that caused 30 million to demand the ouster of the previous regime.) :)
c) they are trying to demonstrate to the masses, a large percentage of which is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and is extremely devout, that they are no less Islamic than their theocratic predecessors.
d) they think they can appease Islamists by incarcerating "sinners."

e) they are just as religious (but not as violent--well, that's debatable actually lol) as Islamists, thereby making them genuinely homophobic and intolerant of religious minorities.

While these are all definitely factors in the post-Islamist government's decision to crackdown on homosexuals and atheists, I want to focus on e). It's the most interesting and least popular assertion anyone has made about the current government, the armed forces, and those who support them.

In case you haven't already figured it out, Sisi & Co. are not exactly secularists. They have more in common with the Brotherhood than many of us like to think, and are just as ardent in their religious beliefs and prejudices. In fact Morsi appointed Sisi field marshal precisely because of his religiosity. The man comes from a religious family, his wife is veiled, and he frequently quotes the Quran when speaking. And he is known to pray. Additionally, he was the first member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to admit that the armed forces had conducted virginity tests on women protesters in 2011. He even justified the procedure by stating that it was done to protect the women from rape and protect the officers from rape accusations! Sounds like something an Islamist would say. Now add to that the persecution of homosexuals and religious minorities (atheists) that is happening as we speak, and you have a regime that isn't all that different from the Muslim Brotherhood. Heck, they've even adopted the Brotherhood's practice of referring to Muslims they don't like (in this case Islamists), as infidels, as "not real Muslims." And what's the icing on the cake? That millions of Egyptians who support Sisi agree with the way things are going. :)
The funny thing is that despite seeing eye to eye with the Muslim Brotherhood on many issues, the current "secular" government has declared the group an enemy of the state . So what is going on here?

Plainly and simply, the MB is NOT the military, and the military doesn't want any other group taking its place as the sole ruler of Egypt. Obviously. But that's exactly what was happening during the year of Islamist rule in Egypt. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Brotherhood had all intents of marginalizing the role of the army. They virtually declared this during last year's October 6th celebrations when they broke the tradition of inviting the military families of former presidents Nasser and Sadat to the festivities, and invited the family of Sadat's assassin instead. The army rightly perceived this as a slap in the face and concluded from that day forth that the Brotherhood had to go.
(In case you're wondering, October 6th is a big deal in Egypt. It marks the anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the most important result of which was the Camp David accords that returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt (Israel had seized it in the 1967 war). It is perceived by Egyptians as a major victory and source of pride, and has become a national holiday. Every year, the government puts on a large celebration, inviting all the top military families in the country.)
The struggle between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is one of power, not of  ideology. It is a war to determine which of two mobs gets to rule and rob Egypt.  This is why I dislike using the term "revolution" to describe what happened in 2011 and again in 2013. Revolution means change, yet other than who's ruling the country, nothing has changed. We still have religious and political intolerance, oppression of religious and sexual minorities, oppression of women, corruption, bribes, and military rule. Heck we're even suffering from the same power cuts and gas shortages that wound up becoming the reason for millions' call for the fall of the Morsi regime.
And it's going to remain that way until (or unless) Egypt experiences some sort of anti-religious enlightenment.

So that you can further understand how similar the two camps are, let me backtrack a bit and say this: the armed forces were perfectly happy to hand the 2012 presidential elections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether or not Morsi won fair and square is beside the point. If the generals were uncomfortable with the idea of an Islamist government, they would have handed the election to Morsi's opponent, Ahmed Shafiq. Or not let the Brothers run in the first place. Yet they did. Which is telling. They were more than happy to watch the country turn into another Pakistan so long as they were able to secure their interests with the Brotherhood. Remember, they forced the Brotherhood to agree to continued economic and political privileges for the military. And they were happy to squash peaceful protests against the Brotherhood, and to do nothing while Copts and Shias were being slaughtered at the hands of belligerent Sunni fanatics. They were happy to watch the Islamists in government discuss the legalization of pedophilia and necrophilia, forge an alliance with Iran, and force business owners to close up shop by 10pm. None of that seemed to bother the generals, as it didn't threaten their economic situation, and it didn't necessarily offend their religious/cultural sensibilities.
Once the Brotherhood's true intentions vis-a-vis the generals started becoming clear, however, things started to change.  Sisi & Co. started scheming up a way to get rid of them. But rather than opt for the traditional bold faced military coup, which would mean bad PR for Egypt and even more civil unrest than it experienced, he chose to depose the regime through the people.  With the help of its large network of alliances in the media and in the rebel group Tamarrod, the army engaged in a smear campaign against the Brotherhood. The goal was to turn Egyptians against the Islamist regime by blaming it for everything that was wrong in Egypt. The electricity and running water cuts three times a day? That's Morsi's fault. There's a national shortage of gasoline that's immobilizing people and causing mega traffic jams? That's Morsi's fault too. The prices of food are getting too expensive and you can barely afford to feed yourself? You can thank Morsi for that. While the incompetence and corruption of the Brotherhood was definitely a factor in these problems, I can confidently say that had the army, its media, and its Tamarrod not created the "US-supported Brotherhood is to blame for all of your problems" narrative, the vast majority of those who protested the Islamist regime on June 30th, 2013 wouldn't have done so.
Never mind that Egypt's problems are so many and so vast that no leader, regardless of political/religious orientation, could solve them in four years, let alone one. Never mind that the courts and the media, members of the old elite, did everything in their power to make Morsi look like an incompetent buffoon (I'm not saying that he wasn't). Politics is a dirty game in which people blow their enemies' real or perceived failures out of all proportion. The military played that game really well... the same military that put the Islamists in power one year earlier. The fact that Egyptians are on the whole largely uneducated, highly credulous, and easily manipulated made accomplishing this stunt that much easier.
But more importantly and to the point, notice how "we don't want an Islamic state" wasn't part of the anti-Brotherhood narrative. Virtually none of those calling for Morsi to step down said peep about Islamification. That's because your average Muslim Egyptian sees nothing wrong with mixing politics and religion. In fact he/she probably sees it as desirable. A recent study called "The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society" conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that 74% of Egyptian Muslims want shariah (traditional Islamic law) to be adopted as the law of the land. ( Of the shariah-supporters, 88% favor capital punishment for converting out of Islam, and 74% believe that Islamic law should be imposed on non-Muslims as well as Muslims.( Of course, I don't need a study to tell me all this. My casual conversations with ordinary Egyptians have made that clear to me. Again, of course, many of those who say they favor Islamic law don't actually know what it is, as a lot of it is unclear and varies from nation to nation. But the general sentiment vis-a-vis shariah is overwhelmingly favorable.

That's why the anti-Brotherhood protests had to be about electricity, gas, food, and the economy. They couldn't be about taking religion out of politics, i.e. secularism, because that's a language most Egyptians don't speak. This is evidenced by the fact that the new and improved constitution of 2013 still holds the "principles of shariah" to be the main source of legislation. Meaning Islam is the official state religion, as it has been since the 1971 constitution actually. That's technically a theocracy, folks. Not to mention that the corpus of personal status and family law in Egypt is pretty much pulled straight from the shariah (Hanafi school). This means that all matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, bearing witness in a court of law, and the rights of women, children, and religious minorities, are regulated in accordance with Islamic law.
With so much of Egypt already Islamized both on paper and on the ground, what exactly was left for the Brotherhood to Islamize?! I don't think they themselves know.  I mean, even the construction of mosques is regulated and paid for by the government's Ministry of Waqfs (religious endowments). It seems then that "Islamification" was merely a buzzword the Brotherhood created in order to win the vote. And an excuse to make the lives of women and minorities even more miserable while simultaneously robbing the country of its resources.

Ideology & Creating Enemies

But wait, let's talk about those minorities for a minute. It's no secret or surprise that the Brotherhood regime made enemies out of the Copts, Shiite Muslims, homosexuals, and Egypt's few but true liberals. That's because Islamism, like all ideologies and religions, needs enemies to justify itself. Minorities serve that purpose wonderfully because they're often too different and too few for the rest of society to care about.
In the year that Egypt was ruled by Islamists, there were government crackdowns on atheists and homosexuals, and mob attacks on the Shia community. The Copts experienced the lion's share of violent harassment, however. Though comprising only six to nine percent of the population, they are a more numerous and visible group than other minorities. This, coupled with the fact that Egypt has always had issues with sectarianism, made them a natural target of Islamist aggression.
Like the previous regime, the new government has its own ideology--Egyptian nationalism--and its own set of enemies. They include first and foremost Islamists of all stripes, who, according to the narrative of Egyptian nationalism, form a transnational cabal whose goals of restoring a global caliphate are incompatible with the nationalist ambitions of the Egyptian people. (That's not entirely incorrect, by the way.) Indeed, starting with the dispersal of the violent Islamist protests in August of 2013 until the present day, security forces have engaged in a bloody war to virtually exterminate the Islamist enemies and their sympathizers.
Despite the bloody crackdown, however, Sisi & Co. have inherited most of the Islamists' enemies--the main exception being the Copts. Unlike the Brotherhood (and even the Mubarak regime), the current government has made repairing Muslim-Christian relations a priority. But it's not because they are secularists and view members of other faiths as equals. It's because Muslim violence against the Christian minority looks really bad to the rest of the world, on which Egypt depends for tourism and investment. And because it's not good for the economy. The Copts own a large percentage  of the country's financial and creative capital; the more they flee the country as a result of persecution, the more Egypt loses out on that capital. So now, rather than broadcasting hateful televised debates between Coptic priests and Muslim sheikhs -- something that was very common in the days of Mubarak and Morsi-- the government-controlled-media airs not-so-subtle religious harmony commercials, songs, and programs. My favorite is a commercial in which the camera zooms in to the bricks being used to build a church and a mosque side by side.  It then shows a cross next to a crescent, and priest and a sheikh who look at each other, smile, and hold hands. The more I'm forced to watch these things, the more I gag--I mean "appreciate" just how desperate the government is to put an end to Muslim aggression against the Christian minority.
Evidently the message of religious harmony isn't enough to undue the recent eruptions of violent religious bigotry (let alone centuries of it). So the media has adopted another strategy to bring these two enemies together: creating/finding a common enemy that they can both unite against. And guess who that might be?
Atheists. Hence the anti-atheism task force that the security chief of Alexandria is forming. Atheists make a perfect enemy because Islam and Christianity both have something to say about them. And, they are such a small percentage of the population that it's easy for Egyptians of both faiths to gang up on them without anyone coming to their aid. Of course, Muslim-Christian unity is a good thing, but not when it comes at the expense of another minority group whose lives are in peril. That's just foul.

By far, the most pathetic attempt to bring Muslims and Christians together at the expense of atheists was done by a popular talk show host named Riham Said. Riham is the Egyptian equivalent of Oprah Winfrey, and is about as liberal as you get in Egypt. So it was disappointing to watch the episode in which she got a priest, a sheikh, herself, and an 11-year-old boy(!) to gang up on the atheist guest she had invited to her show. She broached the topic by stating that atheism is a dangerous phenomenon that is spreading like wildfire in Egypt (it is not), and as such needs to be brought to light and defeated. She had the guest, a former Christian-turned atheist, explain why he doesn't believe in God. But not without cutting him off every two seconds to insert some snide comment about how stupid he was. If that were me, I would have exploded in the woman's face, so I was surprised at how calm and patient and polite that man was while being mocked on national TV. I admit, he did a poor job of explaining atheism, saying ridiculous things like man has complete control over his health and over fellow human beings. In fact I doubt the man was even atheist. He was most likely an actor imported from the non-Muslim world being paid to play an atheist. It's really dangerous for someone to publicly declare that they don't believe in God here, so most likely, this atheist guest was a fake.
But I digress. While the man was talking, the camera would focus on the priest and the sheikh sitting in the backroom waiting for their turn to speak. They were looking at each other with a look of worried disbelief. The priest remained silent while the sheikh muttering something about the man being "mentally ill" and thus undeserving of a rebuttal. The episode culminated with Riham telling the man she does not respect him as a human being, and with the two "holy men" explaining their respective religion's stance on atheism. She asked them if their religions allow believers to kill atheists. The sheikh said yes. The priest said no, because an atheist is "already spiritually dead."  She then asked them if he was an infidel (kafir). They both responded "without a doubt." And that was the reason for the whole episode--to redefine the word "infidel" and the people to whom it applies. Riham contextualized her question on kufr by reminding the holy men that since the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood, people had been using the word "infidel" rather loosely to refer to non-pious Muslims, Muslims of other denominations, Christians, and people of other faiths. She wanted to establish that Muslims and Christians can never be infidels because they believe in the same God. Only atheists and pagans can be infidels.


While watching this program, I was filled with a sense of despair that made me want to cry for that poor man being interrogated and insulted. The whole ordeal was ugly on so many levels, and reconfirmed my belief that the modern world would be a much nicer place without religion. Though I'm not an atheist (I reject all belief systems that claim to KNOW something about our existence) I absolutely hate how religions put people into categories, as though they were inanimate objects. Believers. Non-believers. Misbelievers. People of the Book. Infidels. Pagans. Hypocrites. The Chosen. The Saved. The Damned. Men. Women. For crying out loud, we do a good job of creating false divisions between ourselves without "God" chiming in. And then we wonder why we kill each other?
Any creed that puts people into categories based on the degree of their belief or lack thereof in one's imaginary friends should be relegated to the dustbins of history. There, I said it.

And so Egypt has successfully replaced one enemy with another. Unfortunately, however, I'm not sure what the alternative to this is. It is a fact that all ideologies create enemies. There is no such thing as a completely inclusive ideology. Enemies, be they other people or other ideas, are what legitimize ideology. This is because it's impossible for a system of belief to stand for something without simultaneously standing against something else. Even the seemingly more inclusive ideologies of tolerance and diversity are against something. Against conservatism, traditionalism, and complete freedom of thought and speech. Egypt is not unique in this respect. It's just that its choice of enemies seems a bit odd from a western point of view. Especially since they claim to be fighting Islamists, who have pretty much the same enemies and worldview as "secular" Egyptians.  

It's also important to keep in mind that Egypt is experiencing an identity crisis. Egyptians don't seem to know who they are anymore. Their values and religious outlook are most certainly in line with those of the Islamsits, yet they are fighting them as aggressively--no, even more aggressively-- than they are fighting homosexuals and atheists. They say they don't want the Muslim Brotherhood, yet they most definitely support further Islamization of the state. One thing's for sure. They need to figure themselves out before they even begin to think of progress.

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