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Tummy Trouble in Cairo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 1:30 in the morning at the packed Al Rashid nightclub, and the scene is “Arabian Nights” crossed with Studio 54.

A private nurse wearing an Islamic veil attends to a heavyset Saudi man in robe and kaffiyeh, giving him an injection at his stage-side table. Some women in the audience are in full hejab, covered in black scarves, veils and robes. Others drip diamonds from their ears and necks. Notwithstanding the hour, there are giddy children and a few Westerners who have wandered in to see the show.

And then, with a sudden throb of the tabla--an hourglass-shaped Arab drum that seems to sing with its own voice--a 20-piece orchestra swings into high gear and a barefoot female figure swirls in from the side.

Dina. She is a household name in Egypt, connoting glamour, grace and forbidden pleasures. And this season, she is Cairo’s reigning belly dancer. Lithe and mesmerizing, in a costume that is G-rated yet reveals a body sculpted by years of practice and performance, the Egyptian dancer holds her watchers in thrall for an hour.

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Dina represents the pinnacle of Oriental dance--belly dance, in everyday parlance--an art form that has a long pedigree in Egypt and manages to live on in the hearts of many Egyptians.

But its performers and aficionados are worried for its future in the country where it began. During the past 20 years, the rise of political Islam in the Middle East has led to more puritanical attitudes on morality in general, creating a backlash against belly dance. Fewer hotels, clubs and Nile River boats are offering the live performances, and more and more Egyptian women are shunning the dance because of Islamic disapproval.

As a consequence, more of the dancers performing professionally in Cairo are outsiders--from Japan, South America and the countries of the former Soviet Union. They are from almost everywhere, in fact, except Egypt.

“I am here to make my name,” says Souraya Lukasova, a doctor from Uzbekistan who prefers gyrating at Cairo’s Shepherds Hotel to grappling with diseases in Tashkent. A bevy of young women like her has gravitated to Cairo from cities all over the world--hoping to find fame and big money through belly dancing.

Cairo is the heart of the entertainment industry for the Arabic-speaking world, and dancers who make it here can write their own tickets in the belly-dancing circuits of Europe, the United States, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. (The top dancers get $3,000 or more for a 45-minute show.)

And for all the drawbacks of the biggest city in the Middle East and Africa, there is still something magical about its balmy nights and the swaying palms and bright neon lights that line the Nile. The whiff of the apple-scented hookah and the jangle of the bells on the tourist carriages hang in the air as pursuers of belly dance make their way down the gangplank to one of the several big nightclub boats.

The foreign influx arouses disdain among some purists. “We will drive these foreigners out,” vows Ronda Gamal, an Egyptian dancer on a boat where the other two regular dancers are Russian and British. But even her manager concedes that the foreigners show great love for the dance, often take tradition more seriously than the Egyptians and, on the whole, are willing to work for less money.

But how do they match up against Egyptians as interpreters of Arab music? Not very well, in the opinion of Dina, who explains it culturally.

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“In Brazil, you find that the dancers there dance very well. If I was to appear and try to dance as a Brazilian girl, [the result] would be very different, because I hear the music differently,” she says. “The Brazilian has heard that music all her life. I think her feeling is different, and because of this her step is different.”

Among people in the business, there is a feeling that the market for Egyptian belly dance is not what it used to be, in part because of societal changes.

“Seven or eight years ago, the Arabs used to come here, sit with a bottle of whiskey in front of them and stay up all night watching a show,” says one club manager, Samy Saad. “Now the younger generation of Arabs goes to Europe or the United States during the holidays. They don’t go to the nightclubs. . . . They prefer to dance themselves in a disco. They want to move their bodies.”

Even for posh weddings, the long-standing tradition of hiring a belly dancer is waning, he says. “Classy people today want to have only a deejay.”

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‘Something Not to Be Spoke Of’

The accounts of early European visitors to the Middle East give an idea of the first arresting impression made by the belly dance: “Nothing could be more artful or proper to raise certain Ideas, the tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing,” wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an envoy’s wife and famously observant letter writer, in 1717.

“I am very positive that even the most cold and rigid Prude upon Earth could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be Spoke of,” she added, as quoted by Karin van Nieuwkerk in her 1995 study of female entertainers in Egypt, “A Trade Like Any Other.”

According to Van Nieuwkerk’s research, belly dancing as it exists today owes much to the intermingling of Western and Eastern cultures. Dances traditionally were performed in Egypt by two classes of women--the awalim--educated chanteuses and poets who performed for other women in the privacy of the harem--and the ghawazi--low-status street performers and sometimes prostitutes who appeared unveiled in front of male audiences.

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When Europeans began coming to Egypt in large numbers at the start of the 19th century, they imagined the East, with its sumptuous tastes, sights and smells, to be an erotically charged place and to some extent projected their beliefs on both the awalim and ghawazi.

Over the scandalized objections of Islamic clerics, women were pressured to perform before mixed-sex audiences of foreigners and in costumes that were far more revealing than the traditional long, wide skirts and blouses they had worn.

The economic power of the Europeans was being pitted against the generally conservative mores of Egyptian society: The French author Gustave Flaubert, for example, wrote of persuading two dancers to take off all their clothing; they agreed only on the condition that the musicians be blindfolded.

The traditional belly dancer’s costume--the “I Dream of Jeannie” get-up--also probably owes its provenance more to Hollywood than to anything in the Middle East.

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After a Syrian dancer under the name “Little Egypt” wowed the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, her dance became a much-copied (and vulgarized) hoochie-koochie act that eventually found its way into early American movies. The costume used by the movie makers--the mask over the face, the sequined bra and chiffon pantaloons--was taken up by dancers in Cairo nightspots near the Ezbekiyya Gardens, where British soldiers congregated and caroused after Britain took control of Egypt’s monarchy in 1882.

There is something about performing the belly dance that appeals to many women and some men. Undoubtedly it uses all the muscles of the body. A good dancer has the ability to stir deep emotions in her audience. Egyptian superstar Fifi Abdou, for instance, has been said to bring audiences to tears with her dancing.

Yet in Egypt, it is an insult to be called the “son of a dancer.” Van Nieuwkerk, a Dutch social anthropologist, argues that in Egyptian culture, all women are regarded as potentially threatening sexual beings. Dancers are viewed as particularly shameful because, unlike “decent women,” they “use their bodies to make a living, instead of hiding them as much as possible,” she says.

Dina Overcame Family Disapproval

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In the past, female entertainers would pass on their skills to their daughters, leading to fresh generations of performers. Now that source seems to be drying up. Even some big-name artists such as Dina had to battle family disapproval. (Dina’s father insisted that she finish college. She studied by day while dancing at night, eventually earning a master’s degree in philosophy before he finally gave in to her career choice.)

According to the Egyptian Arts Authority, 5,000 professional belly dancers were registered in 1957, compared with only 372 today. Mindful of the increasing preponderance of outsiders, the Egyptian Dance Group recently called on the authorities to stop licensing so many foreigners, Cairo’s Egyptian Gazette reported.

By law, dancers cannot perform on television in Egypt. Police monitor nightclubs to ensure that dancers’ costumes are sufficiently modest, with slitted skirts that start below the knee. The navel is always supposed to be covered, if only by transparent material.

And yet, ask an Egyptian, and he or she will tell you that every Egyptian woman can belly dance. “It is in our blood,” Dina says.

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One of the many foreigners plying the trade is Liza Laziza, a Briton who says her chance discovery of an innate belly-dancing talent some years back was like a “call from God.” It is difficult for foreigners to master belly dance, she agrees, but not impossible.

Liza (it’s the custom for dancers to use first names as their stage names) performs four or five times a week on the Nile Maxim, one of the fancier dinner-cruise ships that sail twice nightly. The early cruise leaves at 8 p.m. and is patronized largely by Western tourists. The second leaves at 11:30, an hour more suited to Egyptians and visitors from the Persian Gulf countries, who in summertime adopt an extremely nocturnal existence.

If Cairo--in Liza’s words--is the “central nervous center” of belly dance worldwide, Mohammed Ali Street near the Abdeen Palace was once the cortex. It was a neighborhood for entertainers and musicians, where instrumentalists, vocalists and dancers lived and loitered in the coffee shops, available to be hired for weddings, private parties and nightclubs.

Not so many live there now, but agents and costume makers still keep offices in the area.

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One of the chief costume makers, Ahmed Diaa Din, says he is amazed at how, in addition to local trade, orders for belly-dancing costumes pour into his fax machine from all over the world.

“Now everyone wants the tight dresses and short skirts and pants. This has nothing to do with traditional Oriental style,” he complains. “But I do what the customer wants.”

Foreign Performers Value Authenticity

The customers more apt to go for something traditional are the foreigners, who seek to be as authentic as possible, he says. Meanwhile, Egyptians increasingly patronize foreign dancers “because they are different.”

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“In Germany and Holland, there are belly-dancing schools starting from kindergarten all the way to secondary school,” Diaa Din says. “I wish it was the same in Egypt.”

Diaa Din discerns a possible trend in Egypt toward more intimate venues than the stage: Lately, Egyptian brides have been buying dancing togs for their trousseaux.

In the world of Egyptian belly dance, there is a clear line between the top-shelf “five-star” dancers and the women who perform in the cheap clubs and honky-tonks scattered throughout downtown Cairo and along the old nightclub district on Pyramids Road in Giza.

The women of the latter places, known pejoratively as “cabarets,” are expected to show less artistry in their movements and more skill in eliciting tips. These women can pick out the big spender in a room and may devote much of their night to dancing directly in front of that person, who responds by throwing out wads of Egyptian 10-pound notes (about $3 apiece) that float down like butterflies over the dancer. A club employee is at hand to scoop up the currency almost as soon as it touches the floor.

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Watch Out for the $10 Peanuts

These sorts of clubs--which only get going between midnight and 6 a.m.--are also famous for soaking anyone seeking their tawdry thrills. As soon as a customer sits down, bottles of beer are opened and plates holding a few peanuts and sunflower seeds are set out, unsolicited, on the table. Woe to the guest foolish enough to actually eat the nuts, which may cost $10. A bottle of whiskey might run into the hundreds of dollars.

On a recent evening at the Palmyra Club in downtown Cairo, a drunk kept trying to dance in front of the belly dancer, and finally managed to stuff some cash into her brassiere, giving a triumphant look to his companions, who howled approval. Such goings-on are illegal, of course; no one is supposed to touch the belly dancer. At the same time, no one involved seemed all that upset.

With such scenes in mind, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that belly dancing will somehow survive here, the artistic and naughty alike, weathering foreign invaders and the current moralistic fervor of some Egyptians.

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“It’s like eating beans for breakfast,” Essam Mounir, a musician and the agent for Ronda Gamal, says with a smile. “Anyone will tell you it’s not good for you, but all Egyptians do it.”


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