Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Costume Wash

Yesterday I had a girl come to the house to wash some of my costumes by hand for me. It's a horrible job... and needs a certain I hate doing it myself since I am always afraid I will ruin something! Also, I asked her to do them, because I know she really needs the money and this is a way of helping support her and her family.

One thing I learned from her yesterday is that seemingly it is better for the crystals and colour on the sequins to wash with Fairy/Prill (washing-up liquid for plates) rather than with Persil/Ariel (clothes detergent). It certainly did the job well.....

After she had finished and hung up all the costumes she had done I had a look and I have just realised that I have a bit of a thing for bellydance costumes whicch are either animal print... or very bright colours.... both together is even better!

Aren't they pretty?!!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ya Bint el Baladi.

Sometimes I get a very sharp reminder that here in Cairo, a woman’s expectations for life, are more like those of UK maybe 60/70 years ago. Today, speaking with a friend in distress, was one of those times.

I am not talking about the life of most educated, westernised girls, although certainly laws regarding equality in the workplace etc etc have a long way to go, but of the poorer girls who really don’t have much say in shaping their own lives.
The majority.

This is a summary of a girl’s life taken from real life situations and examples that I know of, from girls themselves.

After she leaves school, at the age of an unmarried girl’s life in Egypt is this;

She wakes up (in a bed that she shares with her mum and/or sister) and goes to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the entire family. Once everyone has eaten she washes all the dishes and tidies everything away before going round the house, making all the beds (not just her own) and cleaning. Then she either prepares lunch, or helps her mum do so, eats and the again washes up everything for the whole family. After lunch there might be a little time to rest in front of the TV, assuming the entire house is clean before preparing dinner. However, she will have to jump up to fetch anything her brothers ask her to go get for them so they can remain in front of the TV. Clothes have to be washed by hand in the bathtub (assuming they have a bathtub... ) which involves bending over scrubbing perhaps up to as many as 8 peoples clothes in cheap detergent which ruins her hands.

This is assuming she doesn’t have to go out to work. If she has a job, she is expected to hand over all her earnings to her mum to put towards the food and rent. If she has brothers/father who work then she usually won’t be allowed to work even if she wants to. If her ‘men folk’ don’t have work, or well paid work, she may well be financially supporting them as well as her mother and sisters.

Families often take in relatives from the countryside to live with them here in Cairo, so often the girls will be cooking, cleaning and running after (and perhaps financially supporting) her cousins in addition to the rest. She may also end up marrying one of these cousins and staying in the family home with her husband, doing all the same work for the rest of her life, if there isn’t the money for their own place. She may have to limit her private, personal life with her husband to times the rest of the family go out... or ‘borrow’ her mums bed for a short while, when the husband decides.

If the girl is still unmarried by the age of 25, everyone, especially her, starts to panic. Everyone is on the lookout for a groom for her, but if she finds one for herself she is treated as if she had started to go to Cairo's "red light district" ,Sharia Harem and sell her body, with everyone in her family questioning her morals and making accusations. If she speaks to any man over the phone her brothers take her phone off her, break it, beat her, and call her all the names you can imagine. Her mother sits and watches it all happen, unable and unwilling to engage in yet more stressful confrontations.

If a groom is found for her, at least the law has been changed in the last 10 years so that she actually has to be present and sign her own name to make the marriage official. Before then the father could sign for her and girls would find themselves wives without ever having given consent or even meeting the man. Only within the last 10 years.

Again, if a potential groom is found, she might find he demands she quits work before they can marry. Not wanting his fiancée to be out in the big bad world, potentially talking to male colleagues or customers. If her work involves her coming home after dark then he assumes the worst and refuses the marriage on grounds that she is therefore probably a prostitute.

If once she is married she is unable to have children, the man has the right to divorce her, and/or take a 2nd wife. Often wife number 2 will live in the same home as them and wife number 1 will have to cook and clean and look after the others children. She can leave... but she will be alone with no man to look after her and the near impossible task of trying to find a man who doesn’t want children. She is an outcast from society without any of the social statuses with come with being 'wife' or 'mother' .

The girl feels rather fed up with all of this. She wants to travel to see the world, experience how others live. She cannot travel abroad without a signature of her legal guardian, assuming she could afford the passport and visa for wherever she wishes to go. Even to go on a day trip to Alexandria etc she would have to prove she was travelling with people her family trust... and be home before dark.

If the girl has had enough of being the unpaid slave for her entire family, who treat her with no respect or gratitude for all the work she does at home, and wants to leave home she can’t. To live away from home before marriage is as good as admitting to being a prostitute. Of course, to earn enough money to pay rent anyway for herself would be difficult on the low wages that young girls in work receive. She cannot leave without her reputation being in ruins and this is a society where reputation is everything and 'honour killings' do still exist.

Throughout all of this, somehow she has to gather together her 'bottom drawer' for her wedding. When a couple get married in Egypt the man has to provide the flat and the large furnishings, beds, sofa’s etc. The girl is expected to come into the marital home with enough clothes to last her for years, all the towels, bed linen, curtains, all the kitchen white goods and crockery etc. If her family has money then this is their responsibility. If they only have enough to just get the food on the table and rent paid, then a girl knows with a sickening of her heart that she will have to continue being the unpaid slave, since she will never be able to afford to marry. Often in these cases young girls end up marrying old men, perhaps as the 2nd or 3rd wife, just to be able to leave their life of drudgery.

All of this after she leaves school. Often fathers remove their daughters from school early. Before they get their diplomas or anything if he feels that she will ‘see too much of the world, hear things she shouldn’t hear’ if she stays in school, especially if she should do well at school and go onto college or university. Some don’t see the need to educate daughters, better they stay at home and learn how to cook and clean properly, since this will be their job for the rest of their lives. If a father chooses to remove a daughter from school no one, not the girl, not her mother, not the school or the government can interfere. This is still very common today. Not with the families with money... but the majority of Egyptians don’t have money.

I started writing this to give a little insight into the lives of those girls less fortunate than others. The ones whose voices never get the chance to be heard. The more I write them more I realise I know about this horrifically sad and shackled sector of Egyptian society. I am sure some people will refute what I am saying... not wanting me to air the negative side of life in Egypt, preferring to deny that it exists. It does exist. I know girls personally who have gone though every single example I have set out above, and more that I haven’t written about because I figured a lot of it is so horrific that people just wouldn’t believe me. Including a girl swearing she would marry any ‘Kelb’ (dog) of a man who asked... just so she could get away from her life, as aware as I was when she said it that she would probably only be swopping one hell for another.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than education, education, education.

I know of one girl, whose own brother voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the current presidential elections purely because he said they would clear the women out of the streets and the jobs and leave the jobs open for the men. (whether they would or wouldn’t isn’t the issue here- the fact is that this was THE reason this man gave his own sister as to why he voted as he did, that is what he deemed as a positive step forward for this country)

In UK, the word ‘bint’ is often used as a derogatory term for a girl, brought back from the UK army when they left Egypt.

 In Arabic the word actually means daughter, or girl.

I’m sorry to write such a long, serious, painful blog entry.

These girls give me the dance art form that I love and live by. The least I can do is acknowledge the lives they are forced to live. Please, fellow lovers of belly dance, give the ‘Binet’ (girls) of Egypt a thought from time to time. These girls will grow up to be the mothers of Egypt. 

God Help Egypt.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dancing through the Egyptian presidential elections

So, last night I was on the Golden Pharaoh boat performing to a fabulous, albeit half the size of normal, audience. Seems hardly anyone is going out these days... certainly tourists are staying clear of Cairo in case of ‘problems’ caused by the presidential elections, which so far there hasn’t been, thankfully. In fact, the people who were at my shows last night were so responsive I actually joked to myself... I wonder if these people, who obviously love dance, are making sure they see some dancing before the Muslim brotherhood candidate becomes president and dancing is banned! Not that that is a sure thing... that he will get in, or that he, once in, will ban dance. But considering he (Mursi) is advocating ‘Islamic law’ then it doesn’t seem very optimistic for those of us in my line of work.

On speaking with the musicians it seems the elections have caused some marital issues with some wives voting for Islamic candidates, without realising that effect that could have on their husband’s job. Of course, there is the chance that they do know what that could mean and are actually voting for their husbands to stay home each night rather than working down Sharia Haram (the street with lots of cabarets on it) with bellydancers!!

At work, there seems to be a split between everyone saying either ‘they (meaning the brotherhood) won’t get in’ because the army are still the ruling power and therefore even if people vote for Mursi, somehow it’ll swing towards Shafiq who is the ‘Mubarak man’. The rest just seems really worried that they might not have jobs for long. No- one knows. But we will by Tuesday seemingly when official result will be announced. That is to say, we will know who is the president... but not what actual effect (rather than fear based speculations) that will have on daily life for those of us in tourism and entertainment industries across Egypt.

It is a great thing that Egyptians are for the first time in 7000 years actually getting the opportunity to choose who they want to lead their country. However, it will take many years to fully educate a population about politics and how it works and so show a real representation of what Egyptians want their country to be. These results are only the first step towards creating a ‘new’ Egypt!

 I've been asked if i will leave Egypt if The Brotherhood gets into power. The answer is , I will leave if i can't keep working. I really really hope it does not come to that though! Let’s hope the new Egypt will still be one with Bellydance in it!

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Oriental Party night in Cairo

It was a strange night to try and put together... an Oriental theme party for the British club here in Cairo. I mean, these people live in Cairo, they know that all the images of orientalism that they had in their minds before they lived here, are only a small piece in the massive jigsaw.  That people do not actually look like they do in ‘I dream of Jeannie’, ‘Aladdin’ or go around in ‘Tommy Cooper hats’  (fez !)

If I had put this party on in the first 6months of coming to Cairo I think it would have been easier. As it was, after 6 years, my imagination was clouded by reality! I encouraged everyone to dress up... but it is strange asking people to wear ‘Arab outfits’ or galabeyas when they see this as the ‘uniform’ of either the rich Saudi’s etc who flock to Cairo each summer, and who seldom have very little love or respect for Egyptian people or culture... or dress as the bowab (the caretaker of each building), which is one of the lowest class jobs.

The foreigners who hadn’t lived here so long took to it very well. Some Egyptians refused to do it saying I am already dressed as an Egyptian (jeans, t-shirt)... I see their point. However many did dress up too and take it all in the fun way it was all meant. Some even arrived in a taxi dressed in the galabeyas and one girl said she was going on to the Jazz club afterwards still dressed in her baladi dress. I can only imagine how the people there would respond!

The evening started off with Said el Amar, the fabulous tannoura from the Pharaoh boat wowing everyone with his ‘smiling whilst spinning’ skills.

Stuart is a drummer from Scotland who is here in Cairo for a year studying Egyptian Tabla and he came along and performed his 1st ever Tabla solo for us. Impressive.  Watch out for this one dancers back home!!!

Stuart really was our saviour on the night because we had a power cut... so people switched on the torches on their iphones and lit up the stage, he drummed for us and we all danced!!! In fact, I think it really helped the overall atmosphere of the night with everyone much more relaxed with each other afterwards. It is lovely how people pull together when things go pear-shaped! Hmm.... I wonder if that could be staged for future events?!!!

I danced 3 times throughout the night... in various lovely costumes (all by Amira el Kattan, of Pharonix). It was a very appreciative audience and I felt very relaxed and my friend Ellie said it was possibly my best dancing ever (and she has seen me dance a lot since moving to Cairo a year ago). The saaidi dance certainly had lots of moves in it that I know I hadn’t performed before. Now the trick will be to try and remember them so I can do it again!

The only act I didn’t feel was appreciated as much as it should have been was my fabulous friend Hisham. He is an amazing dancer, very good technique with a fun cheeky manner too, and he performed a mergance for us (just in normal clothes- no costume or anything, he is not a professional dancer- just someone who loves it). But many of the men in the audience just could not handle it at all. They made certain assumptions about the man, just because he can dance very well, and judged him negatively for it.  I won’t repeat the comments but I was struck by how narrow minded almost all of these, supposedly westernised Egyptian men could be. Egypt has a long long journey ahead of it. Luckily, lots of people did recognise and appreciate the skill involved in his dance and I was very happy that he was there.

Ellie also sang some fitting songs for us to dance to. Well, it seemed only fair, since I go along to almost all her singing gigs and I asked her to sing at my dance gig! Shakira’s waka waka song starts off with a chant of my name ‘Lorna Lorna’. Listen to it! Also ‘walk like an Egyptian’ created some interesting dance floor moves. I couldn’t count how many Egyptian guys just walked (normally) across the floor ‘I’m Egyptian and this is how we walk’ being the joke...!

All in all it was a massively successful night. It was lovely to see some of the other dancers who live in Cairo come along to support me too. Thanks Ladies!

Before people ask- yes there will be photos. We had 2 professional photographers (thanks Kim and Sherif!) there and since they took so many shots of the night, it is taking them a while to sending all through to me- so there will be another blog entry with just photos on it soon!!!

Now, when and where will I hold my next Oriental Party Night.................. I had FUN !

Saturday, May 12, 2012

More about my Chinese houseguests!

This was one response to my last blog entry about the Chinese bellydancers who are staying with me in Hotel BellyLorna just now.
“Fascinating story. But how, given their MUST culture, do they come to take up belly dance and arrange a group trip to Cairo?! Who told or allowed them to do it?”
The writer has a point. To break away from your own culture to study something unusual and different is rebelling enough. But all of us wherever we are in the world have experienced this.
I recently started a hashtag on twitter #10QuestionsAwaysAskedOfABellydancer and it was interesting that all over the world people ask the same, stereotyped questions regarding the dance. What do your parents think? What does your husband think? Do you do ‘private’ dances? ... They all showed off the common thinking that what we do is something questionable morally.
It is not. Not in my mind anyway.
This dance is an art form and it can be as beautiful or as ugly as the personality performing it!
If you do not respect what you do, of course it is difficult for others who watch you to respect you!
If you love what you do, then people will love you when you do it.

But I digress. Seemingly this group of girls, who didn’t know each other at all before coming to Cairo together, had linked up via bellydance on a social network system called QQ in China. One girl who had stayed with me last year said I want to go, but I don’t want to go alone... who is with me? Simple.
One of the girls captured a few lovely shots while they were here that i think show the fun we had!
Me and a couple of the girls at the end of a private class in my studio.
Out partying the last night away at Khamseena in Mohandiseen. A lovely cafe where they have fabulous live bands- but be careful - they put an extra 30le per person on our bill at the end of the evening saying it was 'for the band'. In addition to the entertainment tax which had already been included. I dont mind giving the musicians money, but I dont think that money will actually go to them.If you go there- make sure there are no hidden costs! I wasnt impressed since I go there often and this was the first time they had done this to me!

Everyone did have a wonderful time though.............!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Chinese in Cairo

It’s been a busy and fun time in Hotel BellyLorna, with 6 Chinese Bellydancers staying with us!

I guess part of what I love about renting out my spare rooms in this manner to visiting dancers is meeting women from all over the world and seeing this culture, country and dance through their eyes. I learn so much about my assumptions and expectations from seeing how they differ from others.

The Chinese have a great respect for both age and for teachers, so it is interesting to see how they react to each other within their own group and to others they meet in Cairo. I, for instance, have been renamed ‘mummy’ for instance (due to my looking after them, and being the teacher - not due to my age I hasten to add!!) and often get a little bow from them if we pass each other in the house. It is very sweet and very strange!

I have been super impressed by how much care they take over their skin in particular. Face masks nearly every night.  Foot baths in ‘Chinese medicine’. No wonder they are all as beautiful as they are! As for clothes washing... they insist on doing it all by hand, in detergent they brought with them from china. Despite me having a washing machine which does work (a rare thing often in flats in Cairo!). I wonder if this is to protect their clothes or their skin from ‘strange’ detergents? I wish the language barrier was less so I could understand more. I am trying, but my 3 words of Chinese doesn’t get me very far!

What has been really lovely is seeing how fairly they split up all the jobs they do and watching them work to prepare their lunch every day.
The girls brought possibly a couple of suitcases worth of food stuffs with them. From sauces and sweets to freeze packed duck! I presume because they prefer the food that is familiar to them and also i guess price wise it is probably a lot cheaper to buy there than here! Every day they buy fresh vegetables from the market stall round the corner.

Food is usually a feast of many colours and they eat together as one family, even though some of them hadn’t even met each other before this trip. It’s lovely and very different from my usual guests who are usually from more independent, individuality based cultures. In so many ways they really fit with the Egyptian culture. If one is sick they all rally round and take care of her, although unlike Egyptian culture, they don’t feel compelled to sit with her the whole time or crowd by her bedside!

In other ways they are very different. For instance, if they don’t understand something someone says (since some of the girls don't speak English) they just giggle wildly and run away! It is very endearing... but I can only imagine how that reaction would be viewed by Egyptian men where laughing is seen often as a ‘yes I am interested’!

It has been fun also trying to educate them about what is ok to wear when walking in the street and what isn’t. They understand the covering up... but often it has been with brightly coloured, off the shoulder dresses that cling to their body and expose their shoulder and bra strap. When I point it out, they don’t understand why it should be a problem. They have a point. It shouldn’t be. Unfortunately in Cairo the men in the street often haven’t learned to control their base instincts yet which is why we women need to protect ourselves by trying to second guess what will switch them on. This is not a Chinese in Cairo issue, but a women in Cairo issue.

Another interesting thing I have noticed is that, perhaps due to limited English or perhaps due to a cultural difference, there seems to be in their minds a Right and a Wrong way to do everything, seldom with grey areas in between. Whether in dance, or in cooking, or in anything the phrase ‘you MUST do this, Not this’ is used. With those words strongly stressed and appropriate facial expressions used. I don’t know if it’s my nature, or just having lived here so long now, I am a much more 'well you have all these options... and you CAN do any of them, but these are the consequences of each and you can chose which you prefer' type of person.

Even with dance, my attitude is these are the steps, these are examples of how to put them together, now play with it. This unsettles them since they are used to choreography and being told this is the right way to do the move and this wrong. Unfortunately in Egyptian dance even between two Egyptian dancers they will both disagree as to what is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to do a move therefore the Chinese girls get confused when they have so many teachers (who all must be ‘right’- after all, they are ‘teachers’) but who contradict one another. I can almost see these girl’s brains getting tied in knots trying to work out what they should do!

This black or white attitude does seem to fit with Egyptian culture too where people are always telling other you Mustn’t wear this/that, Do this/that, Say this/that. It’s something that drives me nuts to tell the truth! I prefer to be responsible for my own actions than to be controlled in this way.  On this note I wonder if the strength of belief in telling people they ‘must’ comes from the way the countries are governed? In dictatorships, it is never encouraged that people should think for themselves, that they should veer from the path allocated to them. It’s just a thought. I am by no means an expert in world politics or on Chinese philosophy! It is all good to open the mind though!

Anyway... I’m off to the studio now to investigate the clattering of sticks. Ahmed Refaat is here teaching the girls some fancy saaidi stick twirling moves.... they like the martial arts style of stick swinging (another cultural link?)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Lorna's Oriental party night in Cairo!

I am organising a Hafla, in Cairo.

I never thought I would do this... but it has been requested by the British club here... so why not? This way I get to dance with and for all my Cairo friends!

I am going to be performing, and I have a few surprise acts thoughout the night too.

If you are going to be in Cairo on thursday 10th May and fancy a dance (or just a drink and to watch some dance!) then come along to the BCA Mohandiseen, in your sequined Galabeya, and party!