An Interview with Luna of Cairo
by Elisabeth Wilhelm
posted August 17, 2013
Editor’s Note: As usual on GS, opinions expressed here are not
necessarily those of GS. Feel free to express yours in the
comments section at the bottom of the page.
No one could ever say that Luna, a belly dancer with flawless Egyptian technique honed by the masters of Egyptian belly dance, with a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University and widely read blogger, is a wallflower.
As fearless as the Cairenes in her adopted home, she takes on the state of the art form and daily trials and tribulations with candidness and humor.
Luna currently teaches workshops across the US and Canada and dances on the Nile Memphis ship when she is in Cairo.
What are three things you wish you had known before you started dancing in Cairo?
I wish I knew that the dance would hijack my life. Had I known that, I probably would have thought twice about coming here in the first place. Though I came here to do research—not to work—that’s exactly what wound up happening, and my life has taken a totally different trajectory than I intended it to.
I wish I knew that speaking Arabic fluently could actually be a disadvantage, in the sense that it makes people forget you’re a foreigner, and gets you wrapped up in drama and gossip you never wanted to be.
I wish I knew how darned dirty the dance business is here. I wish I knew how much it’s about who you do rather than what you do, as well as how much hate is directed towards successful dancers from other dancers. Dancing in Cairo is definitely not for the weak (minded), and I went through some pretty tough times. I’ve emerged stronger and more determined though, so I guess there’s a light even at the end of the darkest of tunnels.
One more thing, if I may… I wish I knew a revolution was on the verge of breaking out. That may have kept me away altogether.
What was your favorite "only in Cairo" belly dance moment?
My favorite “only in Cairo” belly dance moment happened last year at a shaabi wedding in Alexandria. The guests were 99% male and there was a lot of testosterone in the air. I even had two bodyguards making sure none of them jumped on stage and did anything inappropriate. Everything was going great and everyone was enjoying the show—so much so that they started shooting their guns in the air. I freaked and panicked at first, but then calmed down when I realized it was only celebratory gunfire.
You blog about your (mis)adventures is a widely read blog. What made you decide to start a blog?
I decided to start blogging a little more than two years ago when I realized that I kept having all these crazy experiences. It was almost as though I were a drama magnet. Being that a lot of my experiences are typical of dancing in Cairo, and most of the time, are illustrative of particular social ills here, I decided I’d write about them and share them with the world. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People appreciate me sharing my life in an honest, non-politically correct way that everyone can relate to. They also love knowing what it’s really like to dance in Cairo, being that so few of us get to do it.
You are one of a handful of top American dancers in Egypt right now. How much has American belly dance influenced the belly dance scene in Cairo? Or did you completely de-Americanize your dancing when you started performing regularly?
There are currently only two licensed American dancers in Cairo, and I am one of them. Leila Farid is the other. American belly dance hasn’t influenced belly dance in Cairo at all (other than giving them the idea of the two-piece costume). American belly dancing is all about props, which nobody uses or appreciates watching here. The movements in American belly dance also tend to be bigger, more exaggerated, and less subtle than the movements in Egyptian style, and that’s something you just don’t see here. My dance was pretty Americanized, being that I learned in the US. However that changed completely in Egypt. Between taking classes and observing Egyptian dancers, I learned to tweak my style so that it’s now 100% Egyptian.
Where do you see yourself in your dance career five years from now?
Where I’ll be five years from now depends on what happens in Egypt politically. If the country continues to fall down the slope of Islamization (which I think it will unfortunately), then I’m probably going to have to leave Egypt. Islamization means that either the dance will be outlawed, or that tourists will be so disgusted and afraid to come to Egypt that the economy will implode, thereby taking a further toll on the arts. If by some miracle none of that happens, I could very well still be here performing. Either way, however, I hope to be doing more traveling and teaching and sharing everything I’ve learned with others.
You have been dancing for four years now in Egypt. What proverbial mountain will you climb next?
I have indeed had a rare opportunity to do what so many other dancers would love (and tried) to do. I hope to further establish myself as a teacher. But I’m also thinking about branching into film, or, testing out a totally different career. Dancing (especially in Egypt) is a short-lived career. I’ve got quite a few years ahead of me, but I may decide I want a career in journalism or government or something else totally unrelated. As much as I love what I do, I tend to get bored easily, so we’ll see.
What kind of impact has the uncertain economic and political climate had on dancers in Cairo?
The impact the economic difficulties Egypt is going through cannot be underestimated. Most importantly, we are all suffering from a loss of work. Because of the decline in tourism, Nile cruises sail less frequently than they used to, which means fewer shows for us. Nightclubs in five star hotels are struggling, and a couple have cancelled their belly dance shows altogether. Some big cabarets on Pyramid Street have closed down. This results in more dancers than gigs, and an even more competitive work environment.
Psychologically speaking, some dancers are struggling with depression. I’ve been a little luckier than most because I have an entire boat all to myself and also perform at weddings. As many as four dancers have to share other venues, which results in each one performing much less than she’d like. Some dancers, finding themselves out of work, or not thinking it was worth staying in Egypt after the revolution, have gone home.
You mentioned on your Facebook page that you may have reached your "last straw" with dealing with the day-to-day challenges of living and working in a city that is increasingly polarized and dangerous. How has that affected your plans for the immediate future?
It’s getting more dangerous in Egypt by the day, and that’s something that people like me who live there (rather than tourists), recognize and suffer from. Now it’s gotten a whole lot worse, with people killing each other every day, and fanatics terrorizing not only the army, but fellow citizens. How has this affected my plans for the immediate future? Well, I realize that I may have to pack up and leave Egypt, if not permanently, then at least until the army is able to arrest and kill off most of the terrorists. That might take a while. The issue isn’t only my safety, though of course that’s of paramount importance, but the lack of work. None of the boats have had any work for the past month, and it’s not because of Ramadan. During previous Ramadans, my boat and all the others had nightly sails. There are zero tourists in Egypt right now, and that will continue to be the case so long as there are terrorists roaming around the streets of Egypt. So I may have to take an "extended vacation" and keep myself busy with workshops and traveling.
How have political tensions and Morsi losing his grip on the presidency affected the Cairo belly dance community?
Political tensions after the fall of Morsi have resulted in a complete political, social, economic and security meltdown that has understandably scared off tourists and Egyptians, which means that we have absolutely no work! (Though I’m in the United States right now touring).
What are you worried about? Hopeful about?
I’m hopeful that the army will act with resolve and commitment in both arresting and "doing away with" as many terrorists as possible. I’m worried that this might be a very difficult task, that it might take a very long time, that innocent Egyptians will suffer in the process, and that the country could potentially wind up like Syria*. I’m worried that the Egyptian army might pander to US and international pressure to treat the Muslim Slaughterhood nicely and reinstate Morsi as president. Honestly I don’t see that happening, but the army could cave under international pressure to respect their "human rights." That would be a disaster. Islamists
are a menace to human civilization in the same way that the Nazis* were. As such, we should be more concerned about the human rights of innocent peace-loving people than those of the terrorists. The Egyptian army and people realize this, but I’m afraid much of the Western world still has its head up its metaphorical butt about this.
The new Minister of Culture nominee, a woman named Inas Abdel Dayem, was to take office and some American dancers believe that this is a good thing for Egyptian belly dance. What’s your take?
Inas Abdel Dayem declined the position of minister of culture because she received a multitude of death threats from Islamist Nazis*.
You have been traveling teaching workshops across the US. What has that experience been like for you?
Traveling across North America teaching workshops has been an amazing experience for me. I just love passing this art on to passionate, dedicated dancers, and I love making new friends all over the place. I really hope to do more of this, and this is ultimately what I’ll be focusing on if I can’t stay in Egypt. Though nothing beats the thrill I get from performing on a daily basis for the best audience in the world.
Luna’s clarifications regarding "Nazis and Syria": Nazis, I really do mean that, and I never hurl that epithet at politicians or groups I don’t agree with. I don’t use the word lightly. In all actually, Brotherhood ideology draws from the Quran and Mein Keimpf. And by the way, there’s much more to Nazism than calling for genocide, which initially, it didn’t. It sort of "evolved" into that as the war got underway. What Islamist ideology has in common with Nazism is supremacy. And it’s that supremacy that eventually leads to genocide. Just like the Nazis, Islamists rank the world’s populations in a hierarchy according to degree of affiliation with and commitment to their view of Islam. Islamists are at the pinnacle. All other Sunni Muslims who don’t agree with them are infidels, as are secular Sunnis, religious and secular Shias, Chrisitians, Jews, pagans, and all others. Their policy for dealing with the world’s undesirables is to kill them off if they can’t be brought into the fold of Islam. They also have meglomaniacal ambitions, just like the Nazis did. They want to pick up where the Muslims conquerors left off, taking back Spain, making their way into Europe, and eventually ruling the world (they get that idea from classical Islam, which does call for the eventual Islamification of the whole world, if only at the "end of days"). These are sick and scary people. So I stand by my calling them Nazis.
Re Syria. Syria has deteriorated into a full-fledged civil war, and is awash with Islamist militias that are fighting the regimes and engaging in a brutal campaign of terror against the civilian population. I really am concerned that if the Egyptian army can’t nip their Islamist problem in the bud within the next month, the situation there could become just like Syria. I’m afraid that not only will Egypt’s terrorists continue to blow things up and kill people, but that Egypt will become a meeting point for other Islamists around the world who would love nothing more than a chance to fight the "godless secular military."
Luna also designs costumes at www.cairocloset.com.
Read Luna’s blog: www.kissesfromkairo.blogspot.com
. The keyboardist is Magid Yusef. The drummer, the last guy sitting down on the left with the black hair is Tamer Douglass.
The guy sitting in the middle with greyish hair is Hafez (don’t know his last name), and the baldin dark-skinned dude sitting on the right is Sherif Douglas.
Ready for more?
I 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.
Sometimes the dirty facts of dancing in Cairo can be more interesting than the pristine Oriental fantasy… at least, it is when you tell the story later! PHOTOS!
- 4-11-11 As the Music Fades, Egypt’s January 25 Revolution’s Impact on the Muscians and Dancers
We can’t attain what they had in the past because we are not free. Our minds are full of work and what we should and shouldn’t do. There’s no time for good art. Politics mixed with religion does not make for an atmosphere where the arts can flourish.
- 2-3-11 Getting Home, Report from Cairo
As a new Egyptian national, I am proud that people are demanding their basic human rights, and at the same time, sorry for the economic hard times that have already begun here.
That new minister decided to try to ban ballet because it was “too naked for public viewing”. This sparked a round-the-clock sit-in by many artists who took turns performing their art each evening to show their defiance.
As long as I can remember, the origins of the bedlah (the two piece costume of Middle Eastern dancers) has been widely controversial and debated among the artists of Raqs Sharqi (belly dance). The dance itself, along with the costume, has gone through many centuries of changes and name identifications in accord with period fashion as well as contact with outside influences.
- 1-10-13 From Café Chantant to Casino Opera, Evolution of Theatrical Performance Space for Belly Dance,
Most students of Egyptian belly dance are aware of Badia Masabni and her famous nightclubs, and many believe Badia’s clubs to be the birthplace of theatrical belly dance, or raqs sharqi. However, fewer are aware that Badia’s clubs were neither the first nor the only venues of their kind.
The name “El Dorado” conjures up images of a fruitless quest for an unattainable, even mythical, goal. The El Dorado in this discussion, however, is neither myth nor fantasy. El Dorado was a sala or café chantant, an entertainment hall, located in the heart of Cairo’s Ezbekiyah entertainment district.
- 6-10-13 At the Crossroads, Discovering Professional Belly Dance at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,
The transition from awalem and ghawazee dance styles to theatrical raqs sharqi began during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth in Egypt. Unfortunately, scant film footage exists of dancers from that period to reveal exactly what professional belly dance looked like during that critical moment in Egyptian dance history. However, still photos and travelers’ descriptions from the time do allow a few conclusions to be drawn about the nature of belly dance in Egypt at this important transition.
- 8-11-13 Alive and Well in Corvallis! Retired Drummer, Robaire
Robaire Bozeman, a.k.a. Robaire Nakashian, is a well-known and greatly loved dumbek and tabla musician who is known primarily on the west coast of the US. Robaire’s love for music and dance started when he was a young boy at the age of three. He began attending his family’s Armenian Summer Kef Time Festivities in Fresno, California, annually.
- 8-8-13 The Fez All-star Fundraising Show, Supporting Roxxanne’s Documentary
Located on Sunset Boulevard in legendary Hollywood, The Fez was the first Arabic night club in Los Angeles. During its heyday, The Fez was a popular haunt of celebrities. Jayne Mansfield, Richard Boone, Danny Thomas were just a few who enjoyed the exotic ambience, and most of all, the beautiful belly dancers accompanied by Arabic music.