Trade Like Any Other:
FEMALE SINGERS AND DANCERS IN EGYPT,
by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Book Review by Kathleen
In 1995 Karin
van Nieuwkerk recast her PhD research as a book for
the general reading public, A Trade like Any Other: Female
Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Her original research included
months of field experience in Egypt interviewing dancers and
following them to their places of work at modest weddings,
saints' day celebrations and small nightclubs. Becoming friendly
with many of her interview subjects, she received their confidences
as they spoke freely into her tape recorder about their lives,
and the hardships and joys of their profession. She also interviewed
Egyptians of all classes on their views about both male and
female entertainers. Van Nieuwkerk had as her main objective
an examination of the professions of musician and belly dancer
in contemporary Egypt and an identification of the influence
of these professions on the status of their practitioners,
the underlying question being "Are dancers and singers considered
disreputable, and if so, for what reasons?" This basic
question determines the thrust of her book.
years later (2008) no other book on belly dancing has yet
come close to matching the excellence of her materials,
glimpse inside the world of contemporary Egyptian entertainers.
That being said, the average North American belly dancer
intent on enlarging her knowledge about the source of her
find my remarks overly enthusiastic. As both a belly dance
historian and a past belly dance amateur practitioner I
can sympathize with such a readership. For, as this book
intended for "us" specifically, it can at times be frustrating.
all van Nieuwkerk is a social scientist primarily interested
in the sociology of work, hence her title A Trade
Like Any Other. The questions she asks of her research
material relate broadly to the field of occupations and often
are obscure or of minimal interest to "us." Second,
the theoretical frameworks (derived from the social sciences)
introduce a number of her central chapters make for lengthy
and dense reading. Third, she does not address certain topics
of vital interest to belly dancers and indeed dance historians
in general, hence for "us" there are "missing"
creating this book review for the Gilded Serpent, therefore,
I determined to develop a sort of How-To guide for
dance readership, and to this end have considered van
Nieuwkerk's book under four headings. These are: the theory
the biography chapters, the history chapters, and the
"missing" chapters. Each of these four groupings speaks
to "us" in
slightly different ways.
in particular provide the major theoretical portion of the
book: Marginality (Chap.5), Honor and Shame (Chap. 6), and
Gender (Chap. 7). Under Marginality, van Nieuwkerk asks whether
Egyptian entertainers form a distinct group set apart from
other social groups in Egypt because of their ethnicity, language,
religion, or innate despicable nature. Under Honor and Shame
she asks whether the professions of music and dance cast shame
on female entertainers, or whether being female in public brings
shame in itself. Under Gender, she examines how femaleness
and maleness are defined in Egypt, and the notion of the body
in the Egyptian context. Each chapter begins with a theoretical
framework derived from Western thought, and includes citations
of numerous authorities on various aspects of the theory. "We"
appreciate van Nieuwkerk's need to place her work solidly within
the traditions of her field, but wish these introductory sections
been reduced to a mere nod.
in Honor and Shame, when she finally talks of ordinary Egyptians'
views on professional
female dancers, the chapter springs to life, full of fascinating
chapters provide marvelous biographical materials: Life Stories
Entertainers (Chap. 4) and Female Entertainers: Feminine and
Masculine (Chap. 8). In Life Stories van Nieuwkerk presents
us with dancers directly, not through the veil of theory. The
chapter sings, vibrates with life, with names, dates and events.
One meets in person the dancers of Muhammad Ali Street. One
can weep, rejoice, approve, sympathise. Chapter 8, Female Entertainers,
while partially theoretically based, gives much detail on actual
dancers coping with real life situations, in particular redefining
themselves in the work situation as "men among men" in order
to legitimize themselves as females in the “male” setting of
provide a historical background for the book, Female Entertainment
in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Chap. 2) and Female Entertainment
in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Chap. 3). Van Nieuwkerk based the
latter on accounts in Egyptian newspapers and magazines, and
on interviews with performers who remembered earlier days.
This chapter deals with world exhibitions, the growth of the
local nightclub in Egypt, the eventual decline of Muhammad
Ali Street, and the recent influence of religious extremism.
The account is readable and highly accurate, being based on
first-hand local accounts. Chapter Two, dealing with the nineteenth
century is, by contrast, based on the accounts of European
travelers to Egypt, local materials on that period being entirely
lacking. Van Nieuwkerk has done a remarkable job in collating
a major bibliography of important sources for Egyptian dance
of the period and her judicious reading of these sources brings
us a carefully crafted account of the period.
I believe she has over-emphasized the impact of European
local dance, giving this subject an exaggerated importance.
her gloomy portrait of official bans, declining standards,
and rampant prostitution at the end of the century does
not square with a dance tradition (as she describes in
3) springing to life in the early twentieth century. It
might have been more useful to relate this chapter more
closely with the topics she dealt with in her own research,
attempt an overall coherent picture.
I call the "missing chapters" concern materials "we" would
have liked to read. These might have included dancers commenting
artistry, their dance standards, how they see the future of
the development of belly dance in Egypt, how they suit their
performance to individual situations. It would have been wonderful,
for example, to read a chapter entitled "An evening with..."
to include in-depth descriptions, hour by hour, of a full performance
within the context of a wedding or saint's day. Since van Nieuwkerk
attended numerous performances, presumably such materials would
be among her field notes.
In her important
Conclusion (Chap. 9) van Nieuwkerk summarizes her research
in an accessible manner. Here theory speaks clearly and significantly.
She points out the importance of the setting of the dance in
terms of the esteem it generates, with weddings/saints days
approved and nightclubs highly suspect. In other words, van
Nieuwkerk tells us that these are not the "same" dance- a
key point that "we" would do well to remember. She also informs
that different classes of Egyptians view female belly dancers
differently, with the upper classes most highly critical of
the morals of female belly dancers. She finds that belly dancers
are not marginalized people, but fully Egyptian and part of
the lower-middle class.
that while the religious discourse finds female belly dancers
people do not share this view. Yet there is widespread congruence
of opinion that a public exhibition of the female body is
shameful, such ideas casting a long shadow on the entertainment
remain committed to my professional view that van Nieuwkerk
at an extraordinary achievement in belly dance scholarship,
but I am selfish in saying it leaves me a little disappointed.
So little of excellence has been published in this field that
the might-have-beens remain significant. My concluding remarks
might be a plea that she dig out those old field notes and
recast a new book for "us" with more of the personal and biographical,
and a greater sense of performance.
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