Gilded Serpent presents...

Veiling in the Desert

Moving to Egypt to Study Bedouin Dance, Culture, and Language
…and Maybe to Buy a Camel!

Shema performs for the Bedouin

by Shema
written February 8th, 2012
posted February21, 2012

I was a little nervous about dancing in front of the Bedouin musicians. Although I had been itching to get up and dance all evening, a fear of causing offense or of behaving inappropriately in some way had stopped me from asking. Finally though, it was too much and at the first hint that they were happy to play for me, I leapt up and flung my scarf around my hips. Internally at least…in reality, I slowly rose to my feet with slightly shaky legs and took as long as possible to tie my scarf whilst I tried to remind my body to breathe and dealt with the fact that all of a sudden I could only remember 2 moves.

Even after 12 years of dancing, the nerves never fail to make an appearance! It was an incredible night though: dancing on hand-woven carpets under a Bedouin tent by the edge of the Red Sea;  a myriad of stars glittering above; clapping from the audience of Bedouin and European tourists, the tea flowing freely; the smoke from the fire drifting into my eyes when I danced on the left-hand side; my head brushing the woollen roof every time I stood up straight; my toes getting caught in the rugs when I attempted to turn…ah yes, the glamorous life of a dancer! 

As the night wound down and people drifted off to bed, I stayed and quietly danced to myself in a corner, wrapped in my Moroccan Jellabah (it gets cold in the desert in November!), gently exploring the music without an audience. Or so I thought. After a while, I was called over to the fire by one of my students who had been talking to a young Tarabin Bedouin who has grown up in the camp with Europeans, speaking five languages fluently and switching seamlessly between two very different cultures. He asked me “What are you dancing?”, “Bedouin dance” said I. “No, no, no! That’s not Bedouin dance” said the boy with a laugh, “that is bellydance;  Egyptian dance”. I confess to feeling a moment of complete panic. So what exactly had I been learning in the UK? We spoke a little more as, although feeling naturally defensive, I was more intrigued to find out where the divergence in information or style had occurred. We eventually came to the conclusion that the style I had learned was probably from the North, around Cairo, where the young women are more heavily influenced by Egyptian dances; although he himself had never witnessed it. 

“I will take you to my sister; she will show you what real Bedouin dance is”. Now, how can a dancer ever refuse an offer like that?! I waited a few days until the rest of the group had trundled off on camels into the depths of the Sinai desert and finally arranged the long-awaited visit.

‘Long-awaited’ because it was not my first contact with the Bedouin culture and dance: this was the second of two trips taken with Chas Whitaker and Maren Lueg – initially as a guest in 2009, when we also visited Cairo, and then this second trip as they had invited me to teach on their music, drum and dance holiday at Rocksea Camp in Nuweiba.  Looking back at my journals from that first trip, I have found a comment from my last day: ‘I love the idea of basing myself there […] dancing, studying the Bedouin culture, playing music and learning Arabic’. I haven’t looked at those journals since they were written, so there must be something very special in the Sinai for it to keep drawing me back, even after years have passed. It is also comforting that after everything which has occurred over the last few years, I still have the same essential goals for my dance career! During my past two trips to Nuweiba, I have spent many hours in various houses across the village: drinking tea and trying to speak Bedu Arabic with the women and girls; looking at wedding photos; feeding the goats; and eventually- once the men were out of the way and the doors and windows locked- being pulled up and draped with an Abaya (a rectangular piece of black fabric, often decorated with sequins in the shape of palm trees, hearts, or fish) to dance a new and strange dance which bears little resemblance to any Egyptian style I have learned over my years of research.

Inevitably though, there is more to this than just a whim to learn Bedouin dance.  The economy in the UK, like in so many places, has plummeted and inevitably, the public is less willing to spend on anything which they consider to be a luxury; including dance classes, workshops, and performances at weddings or parties. I have spent the past three years since returning from living in Toronto, fighting to rebuild my business in the UK, but if I am totally honest, I no longer have the energy to compete with ‘wiggle and giggle’ classes,  or the myriad of so-called professionals who will happily perform for £20 a night (approx. $30).

After spending more than a decade developing my knowledge and my skill base, I am not willing to devalue myself and the art form, for such a ridiculous and shameful fee. The chance to live in a place where I can learn to connect with the culture, develop my language skills, and perform for fees which at the very least reflect the cost of living around me, is, I believe, an opportunity which I just cannot ignore.  And I need to perform. This is not an idle need for adulation but the tug of the stage for an artist, the neglecting of which frankly makes me miserable and depressed. I prefer to risk everything on the chance of progress than to sit here and wait for things to improve. Bakra the Camel

After all, the most exciting art and writing comes out of times of intense stress or even social unrest. For once in my life, I want to be at the cutting edge, to push myself as a dancer, artist, musician and writer.

Therefore, I will return to Nuweiba at the end of March- just before it starts to get too hot- and will settle myself into a Bedouin house which I have rented. It is built out of concrete, with wooden doors and windows. There is no flooring, no furniture or lock on the door, the water is not connected and the toilet is a hole-in-the-ground (I confess, this is first on my list to change!). There is, however, electricity, a satellite TV and even a twin-tub washing machine. Oh yes, and a yard big enough to house a camel and a goat! I will continue to study the Tarabin dance with the local women and will spend time with them in our houses, learning the language and in return teaching them English (whilst the men are often fluent, the women generally stay at home and so do not have the same contact with tourists in order to learn or practice other languages). I am in discussion with hotels and other local dancers for cabaret shows (although sadly in Sinai there are few opportunities to work with live music, something which I intend to challenge), I will offer private tuition in my dance studio in the house and also workshops for tourists, in the desert with the Bedouin musicians. Of course, there will be regular trips to Cairo to meet with dancers, take classes and buy costumes. I also intend to travel across the Middle East extensively, to learn about the culture, music and dance in places such as Israel and Jordan, Alexandria, the North coast of Egypt and Sinai, Luxor and, well, anywhere else I am invited!

It is a dramatic change and although I am extremely excited, I am also realistic about the situation, constantly watching the news and speaking to my friends in the area. I am also scared!

This is going to challenge me physically, emotionally, professionally, and culturally. But if I am totally honest, as an Egyptian dancer, this is going to be a dream-come-true. A dream which will no doubt be filled with doubt, heat-stroke, stomach upsets, loneliness, language difficulties and perhaps with a small risk of abduction, but, it is my dream, so I will take the rough with the smooth.

Almost as soon as I announced my plans, I was bombarded with demands for regular updates, so I have set up a daily blog which is initially about the process of leaving my home and entering a new culture, and, once in situ, will contain observations on my dance experiences as well as a separate page for Bedouin culture, and life. It will be a great way to document and remember this journey, so I am grateful to those of you who have pushed me into writing it!

Gilded Serpent has, as part of this, kindly agreed to publish regular articles where I will delve into those elements which deserve more attention and detail than a blog can provide, bringing together all of my experiences in the Sinai on a deeper level. I look forward to this entire experience with a mixture of trepidation and exuberance, and with only a few weeks left until I leave, no small amount of panic at how much I still have left to do!

My House in Tarrabiin
My House in Tarrabiin

More soon!

 

Resources:
Chas Whitaker (www.arabicdrum.co.uk)
Maren Lueg (www.arabicmusicband.com)
Rocksea Camp (www.rocksea.net)

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