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Permits, IDs, Licensing

Me filming- in a TV series starring Medhat Salah and HayetemMe filming- in a TV series starring Medhat Salah and Hayetem

Foreign Dancers in Cairo

by Caroline Evanoff
posted July 7, 2011

Would you surrender your passport and freedom just to dance in Cairo? This is just one of the conditions foreign dancers agree to when applying for a license in Egypt. With the future of foreign dancers in Cairo in the balance, due to the recent Egyptian Revolution, you must consider the arduous process of obtaining and keeping a dancer’s license and what the future holds for those harbouring "the dance dream"!

Like most dancers who are arriving in Cairo for the first time, I was not fully aware of what it meant to obtain my "papers” in order to work. After signing a contract with Candella Nightclub in 1998, I began the long licensing process. After a few months, I needed to return home to Australia to attend my brother’s wedding.  At the time, I asked my manager if he could just get my passport back from the Mogamma (a government building in Tahrir Square) in order for me to travel. He informed me that the manager of the Candella did not agree, and that he was the one responsible to sign the permission for release of my passport.

It dawned on me that some dodgy nightclub manager, whom I didn’t know personally, had complete control over my passport and my freedom to leave!  So, I had no alternative other than to end my contract in order to get my passport back which also meant halting the lengthy paper process.

When I returned to Cairo, I was back to square one. I had to face the obstacles that all  dancers dreaming to work in Cairo must also face. The first and most important step is to obtain a signed contract (and that means signed by yourself as well). A manager  simply telling you that “yes, there is a contract” and that they are “doing your permission for you” is of no use.

Without your seeing and signing a contract, nothing can happen from there because this is the first and crucial step in the trail.

I have seen many dancers waiting for elusive work permits that never materialize because someone had promised them work and had  told them that they were sorting it all out for them. It happens all the time, and there have even been cases where a contract is even offered as a prize for winning a contest…

 In order to secure a contract, you will need to audition in a  venue (restaurant, hotel nightclub or cruise boat)  that is able to employ foreign dancers, meaning that it holds a permit to be able to make a license for a foreigner. This is a crucial point as not all places can legally employ non-Egyptians, and trust me, even though the manager of a place says that it’s no problem , that may not be the case! Checking this alone can save a lot of time and you will find it is usually only 5-star hotels that are able to do this (such as Pharaohs cruise boats which used to be run by the hotel chain Oberoi and Inter-Continental Semiramis). In actuality, there are very few venues (and even fewer now) that can obtain your permit, hence, the extremely low number of foreign dancers legally working in Cairo at any given time.

However,  before this step,  you must put together a band or find a manager to organize the band for you. You will need to rehearse  them to prepare your audition show which usually entails studio hire fees and payment of the musicians and their endless cups of tea- all from your own pocket. The alternative is to be your own band manager, but it really requires a few years experience in the scene first as well as cultural understanding and fluency in Arabic.

If successful, you need to go get at least  12 passport photos taken and with a contract in hand, you are ready to commence making your "paper trail",  which is also documented in  Yasmina‘s film "Journey of Desire":

gameboard to permitvilleStep 1. Take the contract and passport photos to the Artist’s Union (Necaba) office downtown. Join the Union, and pay the annual fees;  they will give you two papers, one for Immigration (Gowazet) and the other for the Censorship Board (Mousanefat).

Step 2. Go to the Employment Department (Koamala) either in Giza or Cairo, depending upon the location of your place of employment, with a copy of your contract and passport photos to apply for a work permit (which all foreign employees require, not just artists). You will have to undergo an HIV test at an unhygienic government clinic where in the back of your mind you are praying that the needles are, in fact, only used once. Then there’s the horror story to haunt you about the foreign dancer who was returned a positive result and told to pack her bags and leave. Luckily for her it turned out it was a false positive!  (At various points in history, the dancer was also  required to leave the country in order for the permit to be issued upon re-entry.) After payment, you will be issued a receipt and a temporary paper.

Step 3. Go to the Immigration Department (Gowazet) located in the  government building in Tahrir Square (Mogamma) and give them a copy of the contract, the paper from the Artist’s Union and the paper from the Employment Department. They will forward copies to State Security (Amn alDawla) for clearance. This has to be one of the dustiest, dirtiest and most crowded of the government institutions; I suggest that you wear old clothes and be prepared to stand for hours in the airless corridors.

Step 4. Go to the Censorship Board (Mosanefat) located in Kasr el Aini Street with copies of all the papers that you have collected from steps 1-3, and you guessed it, passport photos. Buy a folder (melaf) beforehand into which they can put your documents. There is a little kiosk (koshk) on the opposite side of the road with a photocopier and the little old lady who runs it knows exactly what photocopies you need (and how many of each) and even sells the right type of folder that you will need.  They then send your documents to the Vice Department (Adeb) and the Tourist Police (Shortat Siaha) and you are required to visit both offices in person and sign various forms. After payment of annual fees, you will be issued a pink receipt which means you are almost there, and some agents swear that this enables you to work, but legally, you must wait for your actual Censorship Card which is unique to the field of performers.

Step 5. Once you have been granted permission from all the above departments, you can then return to Immigration where you hand over your passport to be issued with your plastic ID card in it’s place. The person responsible for your passport and identification card is a mirthless man named  Shokry, whom both Liza Laziza and Lorna Gow mentioned  by name, and I think he takes great delight in seeing us dancers, who are known to be night owls, required to be at his dinky stall of an "office" before midday, yawning, and hardly being able to stay awake.

Without a passport, you no longer have the freedom to leave the country (as Lorna also found out during the recent revolution when our embassies were advising us to get out); she could not leave even if she had wanted. Tahrir and Mogamma were inaccessible during the riots. That is not the only concern; your replacement ID states your profession on it. So what? We are proud of our art! However,  remember this is Egypt, and dance is not viewed the same way as it is in the other parts of the world.

The significance of that did not dawn on me until I filed a minor complaint with the police, and they asked to see my ID. When they saw that I was a dancer, they strongly advised me to drop the complaint  as I would not be taken seriously! I didn’t even have the "power" of flashing a foreign passport to protect myself anymore!

However, lucky US citizens can avoid this pitfall and have a second passport issued. It was during a workshop in Sydney that I heard from Shareen el Safy that she was issued  a second passport. Some embassies will provide this service for certain individuals such as journalists and diplomats. When I approached the Australian embassy in Cairo, they scanned their list of applicable professions and Bellydancer was not on it; end of story!

If you are wondering how does one navigate the steps above, then one answer is to hire someone to do it all for you. As a dancer, you mainly work at night and probably sleep in ‘til late; so the idea of going to the government offices early is daunting. (Most of them close by 2pm.)  Not only that, but each step may entail several visits, not just the one. The process must be followed up, pushed along, etc…

It can make life easier, but can you be sure that the job (for which you pay handsomely) actually has  been done? I heard many times over the years of dancers being caught by the authorities and threatened with arrest because they were dancing without permits. The dancers had no idea that the slime-ball whom they paid to do it for them, took the money without doing the job! The other thing is that I want to know exactly where my passport is physically located  and also not to have to hand it over to a third party. So, I opted to do it myself which many people thought was crazy at the time –but it is possible.

Either way it is a lengthy, frustrating process that can take months to finish. Once you start earning money, you must apply for a Tax Card and make sure the venue is paying taxes on your behalf. Then, if you wish to perform in weddings at  the Shaoon Manaweya (subsidised wedding venues for the military and their families) means access to a huge market of weddings  then this involves another security clearance which can take up to a year to be granted! Most dancers follow this path as in order to "keep" their band  as you have to ensure that there is enough work for them. 

The golden ticket
The "golden ticket" a copy of my Mousanefat permission to dance

However, it doesn’t all end there…

Now that you have joined the ranks of the privileged few by managing  to get the "golden ticket’ to dance in Cairo, the task is to keep it. You have agreed to certain conditions in those documents you signed, and if you break them, in theory, you could be arrested or have your permit terminated. It is usually people from the Censorship Board who come to check on you, especially when you begin.

Some of these conditions have changed over time, but mostly, they are the same:

1. Your license must be current and on your person when you go to work. Both Yasmina and I remember times when we were between contracts or renewing licenses but still had  to work. During that period, someone from the band was on the lookout for the Censorship Board before we commenced work. On a cruise boat, once it set sail you were fairly "safe" if no inspector was spotted before.  However, one time does come to mind when  I nearly fell into the Nile, avoiding them by scaling the side of the boat in heels…

2. Foreigners can only work in one venue, where their contract is.

3. Your midriff must be covered either by wearing a dress or a "shabaka" net over the stomach and your costume is supposed to cover your legs. Yes, many dancers have flaunted these rules ( Yes, of course Dina springs to mind!) and have managed to have gotten away with it (Connections! Connections!) Still, they are the rules!

4. You may make no moves that are classified as too suggestive! Yasmina was once pulled up by the censorship inspectors whilst dancing at the Meridien Heliopolis being accused of having movements in her show that were classified as "lewd"; management and her musicians were mystified, because, at the time, Yasmina was classed as one of the most elegant performers.

What can happen if you do break the rules? Diana Tarkhan has precautionary tale about a nightclub manager in Alexandria who convinced  her to commence work without completion of her new permit. He assured her that he had an agreement with the tourist police and all was okay. (I heard that many times myself!) After a week, Diana heard that  a specific guest had booked a table to see her show. It turned out to be an enemy who was just ensuring that she would be at work that night in order to send the tourist police to catch her. Fortunately, Diana was suspicious and did not perform that night; otherwise, she would have been arrested when the police, in fact, did turn up. Either way she was still summoned to appear at the tourism police office and six months later in court. She was fined 50 Egyptian pounds but had to pay 1000 Egyptian pounds for a competent lawyer to help her with her case.

So what does the future hold for foreign dancers of Cairo? Now, in post-revolution Cairo the feeling is definitely  “Egypt for Egyptians”, regarding the workforce (not just for dancers –but across the board).

My Filipino cleaner was accosted in the street recently by Egyptians, yelling "What are you still doing here?" Companies are advertising (with pride) that they only employ Egyptians.  We have heard within dance circles that there will be no more licenses issued to foreign dancers nor will the current dancers be allowed to renew their permits. However, I have spoken to a couple of current dancers and they have successfully renewed their work permits for the rest of the year. So, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction these days, and I guess, time will tell and we will have a much clearer picture after the elections later this year.

Dancing at teh Pharaohs in 1999
One of my earliest contracts on the Pharaohs circa 1999
(back when I was a blond and the days when dancers provided  "uniforms" for our own bands!)


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  1. Yasmin Henkesh

    Jul 8, 2011 - 10:07:09

    Thank you for sharing this with the community. Reading it, I kept thinking how lucky I was to have come before all the rules and regulations. Things were VERY different in the early 1980s!
    You were brave to do this on your own – without help?

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