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When I went to Cairo to photograph belly dancing I didn’t know how welcome I'd be.
Hello Cairo, the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab World, as well as the world capital of belly dancing. With movements that are as much an imitation of conception as giving birth, belly dancing is the most feminine art form on earth. It is also the oldest, dating back 5,000 years, but has had a troubled co-existence with Islam since the 7th century.
Crying with relief, Naïma hugs her manager, who shoves her away, annoyed. For ten long evenings this divorced mother – now three months pregnant with her third child – has waited in vain for work, and tonight her patience has paid off – a shoddy nightclub has a spot.
In the club, the atmosphere is markedly unexciting. Around 20 men sit spread out around the room staring somberly into their drinks. The air is thick with the smell of cat piss. On a podium, Naïma daringly swivels her hips. “Applause!” cries the singer of the house band; no reaction. The crowd is neither numerous nor drunk enough.
Naïma decides upon a more desperate approach. She pounces on a table where a man sits drinking beer. Such an action risks a fine from the morality police, but something needs to happen tonight. Some hands on bodies and hopefully some tips in her bra. She smiles with anticipation and invitingly drops to her knees. The beer drinker gruffly shoves her back onto the podium. Defeated, she slopes off.
“I don’t know how long I can keep this up,” Naïma says later on in the dressing room. “I want to entertain people with my dance, but everything’s changed in recent years. There’s hardly any work anymore and when I finally do perform, I’m treated as if I’m not even a person. I get felt up and abused, or ignored like I’m an idiot. I see my work as art, but more and more I’m regarded as a piece of meat, no better than a whore.
“Last time I danced, a man was waiting for me by the exit. He wanted me to spend the night with him and he got angry when I declined. I couldn’t find a taxi so I had to listen to his rant for 15 minutes, as did the entire street. My mother and grandmother were dancers, but they were seen as artists. I wouldn’t like to think of my daughters following in my footsteps – I want to spare them the shame.”
The belly dance is in a sorry state. In the west it’s more popular than ever – partly thanks to the music videos of Shakira – but in its motherland, the dance finds itself in a deep crisis, as do the women who perform it. With movements that are as much an imitation of conception as giving birth, belly dancing is perhaps the most feminine art form on earth – and one of the oldest.
Five thousand years ago, belly dancers formed part of religious rituals and performed for the Pharaoh. Egyptian rulers and noblemen valued the art form so highly that they took paintings of their favourites with them to the grave. According to some researchers, this ‘mother of all dances’ is even the basis of European classical ballet.
Severe condemnation from Christian and Muslim bodies
For many centries, the belly dance enjoyed a prosperous existence, despite severe condemnation from Christian and Muslim bodies. Only with a belly dancer could a marriage, circumcision or holy celebration be complete and “oriental dancing”, as it is called here, seemed a vital part of the national culture. Girls already swing their underbellies beautifully in front of them; they adopt the art form with ease from watching their sisters, mothers and grandmothers. In later life, they can practice the art in their bedrooms; women use their bodies to bind men to them, so the current Islamic notion maintains.
Only a generation ago, belly dancers still formed a controversial yet unassailable caste within traditional Egyptian society. A dancer was one of the few vocations wherein an ordinary woman could acquire fame, power and fortune – or at least put bread on her family’s table. Cairo was the entertainment capital of the Arabian world, the home of belly dancing. That is still the case but in recent years, conservatism, poverty, corruption and sex scandals have dragged the dance world into a freefall. Even well-to-do superstars are being sucked into the spiral. The result: Egyptian belly dancers are threatened with extinction.
“I feel like a donkey,” says the half-naked woman standing shivering underneath the roaring air conditioner of a chic hotel. Lucy, one of Egypt’s last celebrated dancers, has been hired to add a dash of splendor to an upmarket marriage. Inside are 500 guests, the men dressed in suits and the women in demure evening dresses, mostly with head scarves.
With her fierce green hot pants, glitter top and lavish wig, Lucy stands out. She knows for sure that the father of the bride only hired her in to blatantly illustrate that he could afford to. That increases his status but, as the superstar enters the hall, the crowd is all suddenly very withdrawn.
Lucy does what she can. Smiling widely, she dances around the newlyweds who stand awkwardly on a plinth. She gives a spectacular performance to the dynamic rhythm of the band, but the condescending members of Egypt’s elite hardly honor this ‘donkey’ with so much as a glance. After 30 painful minutes have elapsed, Lucy blows the joint and speeds off, several thousand dollars richer. “Not bad for a simple girl from Mohammed Ali Street,” she says.
Little apartments teeming with children they can barely feed
The Broadway of Cairo – that was Mohammed Ali Street when Lucy was growing up. But times have changed and the outcome can be seen: cheap furniture stores have ousted the more convivial music stores and flocks of ragged goats scavenge on piles of rotting vegetables from the market. Men pass their time at the coffee house; their ragged little apartments teeming with children they can barely feed.
“Pleasure prevails in solidarity,” says Lucy. “If someone cooks up something tasty, they share it with the neighbors. I love Mohammed Ali Street!” And in the street, everyone loves Lucy because she’s famous – and rich. But would she still be so highly regarded if she were forced to dance at weddings for peanuts?
Duaa is just 26 years old, but she already makes a striking impression – an overbite, flat eyes and a fluttery voice. “Every evening I go to the local hair salon to do my hair and make up,” she says. “Then I go to my manager’s office, in the hope of getting some work. I dance at weddings and in clubs.”
Sometimes I’m handled like an animal
If Duaa has any luck tonight, someone will shove a bank note down her top that she’ll be able to smuggle away. The rest of her tips are hauled in by the man who hired her in: either the club manager or the father of the bride. Duaa tells, “At weddings, I often have to fight to get my pay. They say that the guests have given too little gift money, so I get the blame. I see my work as art but sometimes I’m handled like an animal. A few days ago was a low point, I was only able to dance for 15 minutes. Drunken guests were groping me all over and then started fistfights with each other. I sat on a stool the whole night until it was time to go home.”
Mervat, 27, Ekrami’s star dancer and partner, also finds the wedding climate in decline. “More and more, we’re treated with less respect. Guests egg each other on to feel me up and even to go further. Last time I had to fight a man off with a stool. My son is now a year old, I want to stop with my work soon. Why? I don’t want him to be ashamed of his mother!” Her point is reasonable in a country where the saying ‘son of a dancer’ is a terrible insult. Duaa’s six-year-old daughter may under no circumstances learn of her mother’s evening adventures. Her 18-year-old colleague, Noha, laughs cynically. Although Duaa may manage to keep the details of her job under wraps, she’s already squandered her family’s reputation.
“Western women find the concept of honor and reputation laughable,” says Egyptian sociologist Sherine Badawi. “They have complete freedom, money and possibilities. Many Egyptian women have nothing. Their honor is all they have to lose and therefore vitally important. Do you want to become an outcast in your neighborhood? That’s what happens if they start gossiping about you – and who’s going to look after you when you’re old or become ill? Some older women have no family; they’re dependent upon the alms of neighbors and acquaintances.”
Their honor is all they have to lose
As the entertainment world collapsed further in on itself and political Islam won favorability, a kind of reverse emancipation took place. In poorer circles, belly dancing was already considered to be a vocation of questionable honor, but at least women were able to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. These days, dancers aren’t necessarily hired in for every celebration and are paid much less than before; modesty reigns over ‘sin’. Femininity and the display of it raise eyebrows of suspicion and disdain. Dancers are seen to be sinful – and above all, they lead men to conduct themselves dishonorably.
In contrast to the recent past, most Muslim women now cover themselves on the streets with a head scarf. What honor they still have is vigilantly cherished. “I’m proud that my daughter has not become a dancer,” says ex-dancer Samia, who now dresses exclusively in black veils, “she’s a housewife!” That is the collective dream of the women in Mohammed Ali Street, but unfortunately difficult to attain because of the bad economy.
To that end, many girls take to dancing out of necessity, only they receive much less financial and societal regard for it than their mothers and grandmothers once did. At the same time, men sit and openly watch Swedish porno films in their coffee houses via satellite.
Even stronger is the feeling of guilt these folk dancers must contend with as a result of the strengthened conservative morality. Many famous dancers have taken a very public distance from their ‘scandalous professions’. Poorer dancers, frightened by the threat of a place in hell or a pariah status declare that they deeply regret their past and are saving money for the haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Only there can they truly be absolved of their sins.
I would dance through the streets the entire night
But just how successful has the conversion of belly dancers really been? Amel, 45, now only appears in public wearing long, black garments, and has discarded many of the photos from her dancing career. “Haraam,” she says, meaning forbidden, according to Islam. I ask her to tell me of the films in which she danced. “I was 13 when I first performed as a dancer. It was such a happy time!” She realizes she’s dropped her guard and adds quickly, “But I’m very sorry for it!” Only to continue, beaming, “Before I used to make a wedding party. I would dance through the streets the entire night, I felt so free. I went completely unchecked.
“I promised my first husband I would stop dancing, but I kept taking on work in secret. I would tell him that I was staying with my mother. One evening, my husband came looking for me at her place – and she, who didn’t know I’d been lying about my work, told him I’d gone to a party on the corner. He searched for me in vain amongst all the party guests, until he heard, ‘And now let’s hear it for the famous dancer Amel!’ He beat me up that evening, ay ay ay!”
Thirty-year-old Abyr unfortunately has no man to offer her the respectable status of housewife. Clad in shimmering blue fringed leggings, she wiggles her fleshy thighs for an audience consisting only of male wedding guests. “We can see this in a movie, but it’s much better in the flesh,” beams a young man. He stoops as his friend roughly leans over him to stuff a banknote into Abyr’s décolleté. Abyr delivers a grateful smile but keeps her wits about her. She has seen the hash and hard liquor on the tables.
They didn’t dare to watch the belly dancing
So where are the women? Before Abyr’s performance, they’d watched the men getting drunker and rowdier from behind the safety of a partition and their head scarves. They didn’t dare to watch the belly dancing; they left that up to the men. Together with the very religious bridal pair, the women left early – leaving Abyr behind in the lion’s den. Naïma was right; her daughters should definitely not follow in her footsteps.
“Belly dancing in Cairo? You guys are too late!” says Samasem, one of Egypt’s first foreign belly dancers. This tall blonde Swede now gives lessons and designs costumes. “I saw the renowned Aza Sharif on a business trip and I was blown out of my seat. For the first time, I understood that femininity and power could be combined in an exceptional way.
In Sweden it was thought that if you wore lip gloss you were a ‘victim of male impression’ but this half-naked woman controlled all she surveyed; she played the men and women in her audience, along with her orchestra. A successful belly dancer isn’t just some bouncing tart; she’s the general manager of the show. She has her own musicians; she determines the music, the choreography, the costumes and everything. I wanted that too!”
After years of training, Samasem made the leap. “I started out in the years when sheiks came from the Gulf States to Cairo to let their hair down, carrying suitcases full of gold. I’ve danced for countless hotshots, from Omar Sharif to Saudi dignitaries, along with their entourage of male and female prostitutes. One evening I earned $1,500 in tips, but those days are over. The sheiks of then are old now and sit home with their wives and mothers; their sons would rather be in
Paris or Miami. Young Egyptians themselves prefer to dance in discos, if they have the money and the time. Cairo once had countless dancers with their own orchestras; I had 22 men in service. Now there’s only a handful who can obtain the permit for a band – that’s in a city of 17 million inhabitants, the epicenter of belly dancing!”
I had to fire half of my orchestra
Dancers from the better circuits have had their fair share of corruption and power abuse – and prefer to remain anonymous. “I have to pay the entertainment manager of a five-star hotel 40 per cent of my honorarium as baksheesh (tips). Otherwise he won’t take me on. I had to fire half of my orchestra.” “My boss gave me the choice: either go to bed with him or give him half my salary. Since then I’ve been out of work and live with my mother out of necessity.
“We Egyptian girls cut the cord earlier if the deal turns to sex with the boss or the payment of protection money. That’s why the foreign girls tend to dominate the expensive nightclubs.” Professional jealousy? Some dancers would rather see the others dead, especially now the work is scarce.
Raqia Hassan, who has taught dancing successfully for 25 years, doesn’t want to hear of all the negative stories and gossip. While her grandchild Norane performs an elegant belly dance, she says, “I hope she becomes a dancer; it is a respectable profession. It’s such a shame; we Egyptians are sitting on a pile of gold but we don’t know how to exploit it. The people are confused; they confuse belly dancing with sex, or they think it compromises their beliefs. But in Islam it’s important that you have a good heart. If you have a good heart, then there’s no problem.”
Egypt is poorer and more conservative than when I started
Raqia takes an interest in young talent and also organizes the annual Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival for international fans of the dance. While the art in Egypt is at an all-time low, millions of women in Europe, Japan, Australia and the US have discovered their ‘feminine power’ or ‘inner goddess’ in dance schools and New Age centers. Asked about new emerging talent, Lucy says, “I’ve no idea who’s going to take over the helm here. Egypt is poorer and more conservative than when I started out. In the United States, there’s more money and more interest, I think.”
Lucy says, “Through my acting roles and interviews, I try to bring new ideas to women. It’s the men who want us to sit inside and look after the children, and who look unfavorably upon us if we do our own thing – but that’s nonsense. Women have to work; it benefits the marriage. What do you have to talk to each other about if he comes home with his head full of work and you’ve sat at home twiddling your thumbs the entire day? Don’t you lose interest in one another? I’ve been dancing since I was 12 and was married at 16, and I don’t think at all about stopping.”
When Lucy steps on stage at 4am, backed by a 30-piece band, her nightclub goes wild. Next to Lucy, even Madonna would look like a timid wallflower. Her hips swivel enticingly and her tummy shimmers, all done with a great sense of humor. She allows men to shower her with money but also gives the women lots of loving attention.
This is belly dancing at its best: naughty by nature yet simultaneously a highly skilled art form that can bring you to tears.
When I went to Cairo to photograph belly dancing I didn’t know how welcome I'd be.
Much of our knowledge of belly dance is from Hollywood where it has been distorted through the lens for the silver screen and exported back to its places of origin in the Middle East and India, complete with revealing costumes and decadent image.
The structures the pharaohs left in Egypt, such as the Giza Pyramids near Cairo, are still the base of the tourism industry in Egypt which attracts more than 12.8million visitors annually and employs about 12 percent of Egypt’s workforce.