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Planting Flowers and Dodging Riots:

Dancing in Cairo After the RevolutionLeila Farid dancing at the wedding located at the Grand Hyatt

by Yasmin Henkesh
posted September20, 2012

Beautiful vase at the newly opened Islamic Art  MuseumI left Cairo on September 9th, 2012, after a three-week visit to research the zar. I wrote the following article on my flight home – two days before the Libyan tragedy* and the violence outside Cairo’s US Embassy. As my plane circled the pyramids I had no idea Egypt would once again become the center of world attention. Yet the images broadcast by CNN and others did not correlate to the city I had just lived in. I felt no hatred of Americans, even though I wandered the city every day, alone. On the contrary, people were thrilled I spoke their language and that I loved their country. I wrote this article to encourage people to visit Egypt again – because she is hurting. Even before this latest incident, distorted news coverage had effectively scared away all but the most intrepid travelers. To Egypt’s population this is a tragedy. Before the revolution, tourism generated forty percent of Egypt’s national income. No longer. And with recent events, I imagine tourism will continue to be moribund for months. The country will need a major marketing campaign to bring it back. Just when hope for the future was picking up. Leila Farid, an American who lives and works as a belly dancer in Cairo, eloquently summed up the country’s predicament on Facebook:

September 17 – “I am watching the news in Cairo now as they are planting flowers in Tahrir Square. A far cry from what most people think of when they watch the news these days. Most people think Cairo is alive with anti-foreigner riots. This is not true. The violence that occurred in front of the American Embassy was a legitimate protest that turned into a clash with police. Many factors could have led to this, not only the film*, but the climate of distrust between the people and the Egyptian police. For the last few days the city is completely calm and there have been no incidents, that I know of, of any harassment of foreigners or tourists in Cairo. Egyptians are DISCUSSING the film and how to resolve the situation with respect to Islam – without violence. All Islamic countries cannot be lumped together. Egypt welcomes tourists… and I will drive down to Tahrir today to see the progress on the garden they are building.”

snake bullet

I arrived in Cairo August 18, two days before the end of Ramadan, and the first word I heard was “sawra,” “revolution.” It was on everyone’s lips. The world was either before or after it, the old versus the new, Mubarak compared to Morsi. Egypt was changing, for better or worse, and the uncertainty was palpable.

The new regime’s ambitious plans were the favorite topic during my many cab rides. At first, people were concerned with the rolling black-outs during Ramadan to conserve energy. There was talk of limiting evening shopping hours to 9:00 pm instead of midnight. But when it’s 40 degrees in the shade during the day, it’s hard to force people to shop in the sun.

Other proposed measures concerned women – possible bans on unescorted females (they would need to be accompanied by a father, brother or husband) and women in the workforce. But in an impoverished country where two salaries help make meager ends meet, families would starve to death without their additional incomes. An initial reason for the revolution was an increase in food prices during 2009 – 2010.

Certainly Morsi knows he will not remain in office if people are worse off during his administration than under Mubarak.

Leila and her accordion playerThere was also talk that Morsi’s government did not want foreigners in Egypt. But that would affect Egypt’s tourist income. In truth, the foreign press has already accomplished this goal for the Moslem Brotherhood. During my three-week stay I saw few tourists. Even the biggest attractions such as the Saqqara pyramids were empty (literally; our car was the only one in the parking lot). When I visited the newly refurbished Islamic Art Museum, closed for over five years, I was the only foreigner there. Nor were tourists present during the joyous Eid celebrations in downtown Cairo.Empty parking lot at the Saqqara pyramids

Apparently, Coptic Christians were also on Morsi’s list of undesirables, along with indecent television, music and dance. According to some, in Morsi’s perfect world, there would be no Christians, no foreigners and no women.

Rumors were definitely plentiful – talk is cheap – but how many are true is open for debate. No one knows yet what Morsi will actually do. He has yet to show his true colors. Some say he is moving slowly to avoid scaring the upper classes. Others hope he will follow Turkey’s example and create a moderate Islamic state. They reason that if the Moslem Brotherhood wants a second four year term they can’t afford to chase away tourists or foreign investors.

The biggest complaint I heard was the need for more security in the streets. The police were present downtown and around tourist attractions but lacking in popular neighborhoods. While I was there, Leila Farid’s accordion player had his accordion stolen in Giza on his way home from work at 3:30 AM. And within the last three months, three well-known dancers have had their cars stolen. It appears that after the police clashes during the revolution, they have decided to keep a low profile.

Nevertheless, contrary to the situation depicted in international news reports, my personal experience was a happy one. I walked the streets at 1:00 – 2:00 am without the slightest incident. If anything, people hassled me LESS this time than in previous years. At first, I thought it was because I was getting older, but younger women I talked to had similar experiences. Either the men chose not to harass foreigners or they were still behaving themselves after Ramadan. I even went into Cairo’s far-flung suburbs and villages to attend zars and wasn’t bothered in the least. If anything, people were friendlier when they found out I was American. They did however, ask me repeatedly why the USA backed Israel unconditionally, even though the Israelis were still stealing land from the Palestinians.

Visiting a zar ritual.
A public hadra in a house in the Sayyida Zeinab district of Cairo behind the Azhar (medieval Cairo), where the possessed commune with their zar spirits through dance.

 

In a nutshell, this is the post-revolutionary climate that belly dancers in Egypt must cope with. For them, the situation is not pretty. There are far fewer places to work and the ones still open pay less.

Asmahan dances on the Nile Maxim

This general statement applies to some places more than others, however. Three star boats that cater to Egyptians, such as the Aquarius or the Memphis, have been less affected than the four star Pharaon or the five star Nile Maxime that cater to tourists. Three star salaries still hover around LE 400 – 500 per show, which includes a dancer’s band. This leaves a take-home pay for the dancer of only LE100 – 200 per show (about $30.00 at the current exchange rate of LE 6 for $1.00). But in all fairness, LE 200 goes five times further in Egypt than $30.00 goes in the USA.

The expensive luxury boats catering to foreigners have been hit the hardest. The Pharaon, once the epitome of stardom, has lost a star and now only pays LE 450 – 650 per show. Before the Sawra it used to pay LE 750 – 1000 (again, including the band). And the Nile Maxime, now considered the top five-star boat, has gone from LE 1200 – 1500 to LE 800 – 1200 after the revolution. The other luxury boat, the Grand Hyatt’s Marquis, cruised only on and off after the revolution, until finally its conservative Arab owner did away with dancing entirely.

Since the prices I’ve quoted include musician salaries, it is important to know how many people this covers and the amount each is paid. The number of musicians a dancer will hire varies with the venue. For a three star boat, two percussionists, an organ player and a singer will do. For the Pharaon or the Nile Maxime, two to three times that number was customary before the Sawra. Now 4-5 for the Pharaon suffices and 10 for the Nile Maxime. Musicians’ salaries vary according to their skill and importance to the ensemble, but on average each earns a little less than LE100 per show.

Perhaps the biggest difference between pre and post revolution boat salaries stems from the change in cruise frequencies.Luna dances on the Memphis When I was there the Nile Maxime sailed once per night, from 8:00 to 10:00 pm. Before the Sawra, however, 2-3 trips per night were customary – each paid at the normal rate. Parties for tour groups were common and the money was good. Now, with fewer tourists, the boats only sail once per day and are half full. Dancers catering to this market are hurting.

Dancers that based their careers performing for Egyptians, however (those working on the Memphis and Aquarius or on the wedding circuit), have not been hit as hard. Egyptians still go out at night (the Memphis, featuring Luna of Cairo, was sold out The Nile Maixm half empty in September 2012when I showed up without a reservation) and they are still getting married. These salaries have remained steady, along with the few upper scale nightclubs (Semiramis, Marriot and the City Stars Restaurant pay LE 1200 – 2500 per show, not including Dina) – at least for now. The Marriot and the Semiramis, however, only have one show per week, if that, and the quality of nightclub customers has gone down.

Cabarets, such as the Sunset or the Andalous, have also declined in quality. Populated by men from the Arabian Peninsula and the women who cater to them, customers now throw the equivalent of dollar bills instead of the $20s or $100s of days gone by – and the house gives them a deal on their stacks (the house takes a large share of the tips). Cabarets are the only venues where tipping occurs. For these establishments a dancer will bring 12-20 musicians. When I went to the Sunset, currently considered the best of Cairo’s cabarets, the performer, Karima, did a five minute mergence followed by twenty minutes of khaleegi songs. No costume changes, no folklore tableaus, no props – just wandering from table to table, playing Kuwaitis off against Saudis to see who would throw the most money. She was certainly an expert flirt though! On a side note, the only way we kept the “flies” away from our table was to tell our waiter we were from the American Embassy. Otherwise we would have been harassed to consume more and our bill would have been padded with extras, like fruit and bottled water.

Leila dancing at a wedding
Leila dancing at a wedding with the Bride and Groom

Weddings are, of course, the Holy Grail of the belly dance market in Egypt. To be considered a star and make a good living, a dancer needs to be on the circuit within three to four years of working in Cairo. Fees vary according to the performer and the venue. An unknown in a military club will be paid much less than a well-known star at the Grand Hyatt. The number of musicians needed also varies according to the venue. A smaller ballroom requires fewer bodies than a main hall. Usually, a dancer will bring around 17 people, but the head count can go past 30 for a big show with folkloric dancers and special instruments.Grand Hyatt buffet. Dancers have to tip everyone!

The above numbers do NOT include all the hidden people that make a show run smoothly, like chauffeurs, sound technicians, dressers, bag handlers, impresarios and the ever present naqaba, or musicians union. These people are also paid out of the dancer’s pocket.

Their salaries vary according to the fame of the performer and the venue. A dresser or chauffeur for a dancer on a three star boat will earn much less than the same employee working for a five-star performer at a wedding. Everyone expects to reap the benefits of the long slog to stardom. These numbers also do not include all the baksheesh, or tips, a dancer will hand out (if she’s smart) to everyone from the banquet hall manager to the parking attendants after her show is over.

So how long does it take a foreigner to become a star in Egypt? In the past, if she was lucky and talented, about 10 years; ten years of working seven days a week, two to four shows per night and putting up with the inequalities heaped on dancers and females in general. Getting kicked out of rented apartments has always been par for the course. So has being harassed and treated like a prostitute. After all, performers show their skin and hair on stage. Today, Egyptian society is far more conservative than it was even ten years ago, much less than in the early 1980s when I worked in Cairo. Dealing with this requires persistence and nerves of steel, as well as talent, luck and an engaging personality. Ultimately, what makes or breaks a performer is her ability to please Egyptians. Only the select few with an Egyptian soul will be hired for weddings and large media events. Without it, foreigners can work for years and never amount to much. They may teach workshops all over the world and make good money, but they will never be considered belly dance superstars in Egypt.

Today, belly dance in Egypt is at a crossroads. The old guard (Dina, Lucy, Asmahan, Soraya and Katia) are close to retirement age. The new blood taking their place (Leila Farid and recently Sophia) will be working under vastly different circumstances (a Moslem Brotherhood government). It is almost certain that foreign performers not married to Egyptians will not have their work permits renewed. Egyptians will have far fewer places to practice and learn their craft. So if you want to see belly dance in Egypt, I suggest you go soon. Weddings will be around for a while, but how many of you know an Egyptian family well enough to invite yourself to the party?

Seriously, go to Egypt. It’s a buyers market. The festivals are no longer crowded, the class sizes are small and prices are down.

The same goes for the tourist attractions. What small unrest there has been (after the Sawra) happened in Sinai or now near the US Embassy. The rest of Cairo, Hurgada, Luxor and Aswan are calm, without incident. I felt safe walking the streets (but I wasn’t wearing cut-off shorts, tank tops or showing cleavage). People were friendly. The taxis now actually use their meters. And there were traffic lights. The transition of power, while bumpy, is happening. The end of a dictatorship is always difficult. It is natural to have glitches with electricity, water and trash pick up. But the powers that be are working things out. Most people I saw were young, under thirty. They have never known Egypt without Mubarak. But they are smart and well educated. They will figure it out with time. They are also hungry, without work and lacking affordable housing. Young men are bored and looking for an excuse to clash with police. Even so, the Egypt portrayed by news media flashes recently was distorted and far from reality. Egypt, Mother of the World, needs tourists to survive and her people await them with a smile and open arms.

Leila dances at the Henkesh wedding. Author Yasmin is visible on left in green dress.

Henkesh wedding – Karim Henkesh, son of Sands of Time Music’s Sayed Henkesh and his bride, the daughter of Reda Henkesh,
watch Leila Farid at their wedding on August 25 2012. Yasmin Henkesh is to the left in the green dress.
Author will write more on this and surrounding events in another article soon.

 

If traveling alone is not your thing, there are many upcoming dance festivals organized by experienced tour leaders:

Dance Venues and Who is Performing (Quick list, far from all inclusive):

  • Aquarius: A Variety
  • Anoun: Dalia, Nagwan
  • Blue Nile: until recently Aziza
  • City Stars Lebanese Restaurant: Soroya
  • Marriot Cairo: A Variety
  • Memphis: Luna
  • Nabila: Outa, Nicole Fire (Russian)
  • Nile Maxime: Asmahan, Leila Farid, Randa (occasionally)
  • Nile Pharoan: Sophie, Magda MontiI, Lorna Gow, Outi (Finland)
  • Semiramis: Dina
  • Sunset: Karima, until recently Sophia and Aziza

[Editor’s note: Gilded Serpent’s Cairo Clubs list (outdated now but you can see how many venues there were before the revolution)]

Resources:

  • Author’s bio page
  • The film or movie –  A 15 minute trailer of an amateur film called the Innocence of Muslims released on Youtube in July 2012. The producer, Sam Bacile, turned out to be an Egyptian Copt living in the USA with a criminal record.

    ABC News: " The murky account of a man who says he is responsible for a film that ridiculed Prophet Mohammed is raising questions about everything from his identity to the production. In telephone calls with news agencies, a man identifying himself as Sam Bacile said he was the filmmaker behind the movie that roiled the Islamic world. In Egypt and Libya, mobs targeted U.S. missions and blamed America for the film. In the end, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi were dead, though it is not clear whether the attack was solely incited by the film. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the man identified himself as a 52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer from California. Bacile characterized the 14-minute movie, "Innocence of Muslims," as "a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam," the newspaper reported." This later turned out to be completely false.
    Read more: http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/world/innocence-of-muslims-trailer-youtube-video-80-crew-cast-members-involved-in-mohammed-film#ixzz272J7BPuR

Luna poses with author Yasmin on the Memphis boat in September 2012
Yasmin and Leila at Asmahan's show on the Nile Maxim in September 2012

 

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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Sofia Balogh

    Sep 21, 2012 - 12:09:44

    Dear Yasmin and Readers,

    the article is great and gives a good insight of the situation of the daners and how it changed during the years.
    I would just like to comment on the “Egypt is friendly and safe” part.
    I am happy that nothing happened to Yasmin during her stay but I’d like everyone to be aware that street harassment, sexual harassment has risen since the revolution and there is complete lawlessness on the streets now. It affects locals as much as foreigners, please be aware of it and take care when and where you go, especially at night and in downtown or in Haram street if you plan to visit a cabaret (and generally anywhere in the city).
    Things got out of hand here and if you are not familiar with the place, think twice how you move around and have a local with you if possible.
    I’m not fear-mongering, I lived in Egypt before and after the revolution (still here) and I was attacked several times even with male friends around. Just take care!
    Sofia 

  2. No Gravatar
    Edwina Nearing

    Jun 10, 2013 - 10:06:28

    Very behind in my reading, I just found this article — it’s the most honest, informative, analytical and comprehensive thing I’ve read on the dance scene in Cairo, pre- or post-“revolution.”  If more people in the past had written about oriental dance with such attention to detail and accuracy, we would know much, much more about the subject than we do.  I have immense respect and appreciation for the amount of work that went into obtaining the information that went into this article.  Good luck and best wishes, Yasmin!

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