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Gilded Serpent presents...
A Trade Like Any Other:
by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Book Review by Kathleen Wittick Fraser
May, 2008

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 singers- 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.

Thirteen years later (2008) no other book on belly dancing has yet come close to matching the excellence of her materials, an extraordinary 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 art might 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 is not intended for "us" specifically, it can at times be frustrating.

First of 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) that 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" chapters.

In creating this book review for the Gilded Serpent, therefore, I determined to develop a sort of How-To guide for a belly dance readership, and to this end have considered van Nieuwkerk's book under four headings. These are: the theory chapters, the biography chapters, the history chapters, and the "missing" chapters. Each of these four groupings speaks to "us" in slightly different ways.

Theory Chapters
Three chapters 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 might have been reduced to a mere nod.

For example, in Honor and Shame, when she finally talks of ordinary Egyptians' views on professional female dancers, the chapter springs to life, full of fascinating insights.

Biography Chapters
Two chapters provide marvelous biographical materials: Life Stories of Female 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 the workplace.

History Chapters
Two chapters 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.

Yet I believe she has over-emphasized the impact of European tourism on local dance, giving this subject an exaggerated importance. Further, 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 Chapter 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, and not attempt an overall coherent picture.

"Missing" Chapters
What I call the "missing chapters" concern materials "we" would have liked to read. These might have included dancers commenting on their 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.

She relates that while the religious discourse finds female belly dancers "dangerous," ordinary 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 trade in Egypt.

I remain committed to my professional view that van Nieuwkerk has arrived 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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