Saturday, September 22, 2012

That's entertainment...!

What do I love most about being a Bellydancer in Cairo?

Making people smile.

It sounds corny I know... but it is true!

Yesterday I had 5 shows;

The first two shows were a tourist group (from UK, USA, Australia and all over Europe). I had lots of people shaking their shoulders along with me and everyone smiling. I asked one table where they were from, and they said ‘Scotland’...... you can imagine their surprise when they found out I was too! Seemingly they spent the rest of the sail trying to work out my story- how did a girl from Edinburgh end up being a dancer on the Nile? I ask myself sometimes too! One thing is for sure though... and I figured I’d put it here in writing... no, I did not move to Egypt for ‘a man’. People have no imagination! I came here for the dance, for the music, for the sunshine... isn’t that enough? It is for me!

The next sail was a private charter too... and rather than tourists it was all Egyptians... two engagement parties had hired out the one boat, one group downstairs, one up. I couldn’t work out the connection to the two groups, but they were obviously related or friends or something, since most of the time everyone just piled onto one deck- whether there were seats or not. I am not sure I can explain how lovely and warmly welcoming everyone was. The older ladies especially kept calling me assel (honey) and hugging me. The first ‘bride’, we’ll call her that since Egyptians do despite it only being the engagement rather than the wedding, was very shy at first but then at one point in my show I felt a hand on my hip, it was her... feeling my shimmy!!! I looked surprised, she looked embarrassed (I think she must have done it without thinking!) and then we both, and everyone around us laughed out loud! Then all her girlfriends gathered round her and with their hands tried to make her shimmy too! The love was overwhelming. For the music, for the dance, for the people around and for me.

That is why I dance.

Upstairs the ‘bride and groom’ were younger and more self conscious. However, everyone who had just watched my show downstairs came up to carry on the party, so they soon got everyone up on stage... and let me tell you, that stage is not big at the best of times... so just imagine me trying to dance in the centre with about 40 other people on it with me!!!

At one point they pushed a young boy fwd and begged me to dance with him. He had Down syndrome. The love and care everyone was showing towards him was very sweet. One young man said, ‘he is the greatest of us all’... the boy was beaming with happiness as he performed his fabulous shimmies beside me... but he got just too excited.. and threw up.. all over the already tiny stage. Some guests just led him off and carried on dancing. I had a conversation recently with another dancer who said the worst thing to stand in barefoot was mashed potato. I beg to differ! It was hard to keep my nose from wrinkling up... but the energy and warmth of the people helped me ignore the floor beneath me. And you thought being a bellydancer was glamorous? (Once he had recovered the boy came back onto the stage so he could finish his dance with me and take his bow!)

The, another man was pushed into the centre of the circle beside me. He could certainly dance. One man smilingly challenged- “see, he is better than you”... then a few of them started chanting the man’s name. I didn’t know what to do... but I felt somehow it would be ok. A girl behind me asked me “what is your name?”... I answered, not realising why she was asking, and within seconds the entire engagement party was chanting my name, supporting me! What a rush! Over 100 people chanting my name!!!

The last show of the night was somewhat more subdued (at one point in the engagement I was up on a chair dancing so everyone could see me!!!). There were some ladies there wearing the full niqab.  I could only see their eyes. One lady stood up and walked out with her husband, as soon as I arrived on to the stage. I was sad, but fair enough, if she wasn’t comfortable then it was for the best for her and me.However, I could see other people round the room take note too. Almost as if she had passed a moral judgement on me, and therefore on anyone who stayed to watch. The mood of the room changed, people leant back in their seats instead of forward, the smiles moved away from the eyes. I tried to ignore it and carry on. Then the mood completely changed again to a very positive and relaxed attitude. She was back again... she had obviously just gone to the bathroom!!! I made eye contact and she was smiling and appreciative of the dance.

We had a great night.

.... and all with a new band... but that is a story for another blog entry! 

Friday, September 21, 2012

TGI Friday.....

When did that happen...?

Its Friday.... that equals ‘yippee it's the weekend’ yes....?

It has done all my life. In UK it was ‘last school day’ and then ‘last work day’ before the weekend.

Then, when I came to live in Cairo nearly 7 years ago, it became many things. ‘The pool day’, the ‘travel somewhere far before there will be no traffic day’, and ‘the catch up with friends who have normal working hours day’, 'the don't expect to hear from your Egyptian friends until 3pm day because they will be doing family stuff and/or sleeping day'.

This morning I saw someone had posted one of those cute ‘feel good’ images... this one just read FRIDAY, FRIDAY, FRIDAY, FRIDAY....

I presume it was meant to make you feel good, to know your working week was nearly over, to make you smile. I am happy if it did, if it does. Enjoy... Enjoy it to the max.

It didn’t work on me. It made my stomach tighten. It seems my attitude has changed since January 2011. Now;

Friday = protest day,
Friday = stay away from Tahrir day,
Friday = ‘be prepared for anything day’, but ‘not surprised if it all amounts to nothing day’.

Cairo has fundamentally changed how I view a day in the week! How unexpectedly bizarre it that?
And not just me... I suspect for everyone else living in Egypt and many other countries too!

TGI Friday?

More like TGI   .... another ‘no bad news’ Saturday. (Inshallah!)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Extreme Cairo

I have always called Cairo, lovingly ‘Crazy Cairo’.
It is still crazy... but now it does seem to be crazy in some negative ways that we didn’t see before.
With the ‘embassy riots’ around the Arab world I have had quite a few people writing concerned about my safety.
Thank you. I am totally fine, and staying safe and aware.
My plea- Please, beware of media projections of the situations... Things did become violent both here and in other countries, and my heart goes out to the families of those killed. Please note that the people who were protesting are a tiny proportion of the population. Both in Egypt and also in all the countries where tempers were raised. The majority of ’normal’ people in Cairo were opposed to what was going on by the embassy, calling these people idiots and thugs.
This violent behaviour does not demonstrate the teaching of the Quran, nor does it demonstrate the religious beliefs of almost all Muslims.
What we are seeing is the behaviour of a few fanatical nutters who are spoiling things for the rest... and bored youth who have nothing to do, and are easily led who are jumping on the band wagon.
I am not turning a blind eye to problems, nor am I painting a rosy glow over what is happening. I keep myself well up to date on what is going on where, and if there are times I feel there may be risk, i.e. like downtown last Thursday, then I just avoid that area.
Most Egyptian people with any sort of education, would  not even have given an offensive film the time of day, never mind set fire to an Embassy building, let alone an American school (as happened in Libya) just because one person who happened to be in America made a film about something that offended them. Never.
This is not considered admirable or acceptable in the eyes of the VAST majority here.
 In fact, the opposite; Most Egyptians I know were embarrassed and disgusted by the behaviours of those ‘people’ who are reacting violently in recent days.
I have been saddened by the negative comments and cartoons I have seen on facebook of late directed towards Islam. Come on people. We are supposed to be intelligent, tolerant and open minded, yet we refuse to believe that the fault lies only with certain people, the extremists, not with the vast majority of people who believe in Islam.
A Muslim is not the same as an Islamist or extremist! There may well be other ways to describe the difference, but, an ‘Islamist’ (or Islamic activists or militants) follows the words in the Quran as a political guide, not just as a religious one. For instance, Islamists believe that sharia law should be the law of the land. A person who believes in the Islamic faith, i.e. a Muslim, does not necessarily believe that the country should be governed by sharia.
We have to be very careful not to tar all Muslims with the same brush. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and the vast majority of them are ‘normal’ people who just want to life their life without hurting anyone.
Do condemn the violence done- but make sure you know who it is that is guilty. Do not blame the majority for the fault of the minority. Do not exhibit the prejudice you hate when directed at you.
Why am I arguing ‘their’ side?  I am not Muslim, nor Egyptian, yet I am arguing in their defence? Yes, because I live here in Cairo and I see how it affects the people around me. I see how angry my Muslims friends when they are grouped in with the Islamists, the fundamentalist, the extremists- whatever you choose to call them. If you get punished for someone else’s misdemeanours you obviously become very defensive against those making the accusations. People who were non fanatical can become fanatical....
I have had my share of run-ins because of narrow-minded and extreme views. I recently lost my home because I am a dancer and that was deemed an unsuitable occupation for anyone living in that apartment block. However, I know that the people who hold these prejudiced views are often uneducated and easily swayed by public opinion.
 People in Egypt have lived in fear for a long time; If they speak out against the government they were/are imprisoned. If they speak out against religion, likewise (see the current case of Alber Saber )
People are frustrated and angry and they have been silenced for a long time. The revolution in Egypt January 2011, has shown people that their voices can be raised. Of course... there are a lot of people whose voices we wish would not be raised, extremists included (in my view) However- this is supposed to be democracy. So if we want everyone to have a voice, the nutters get that too, unfortunately they often have the effect of shouting their views rather than discussing... however it’s a long road to progress!
I agree there is a line that should be drawn between exercising your rights to personal expression and offending people. But where does that start and finish? One person’s morals are not that of another’s. What offends me might seem perfectly normal to you. What I do (bellydance), I see as art. Some see it as offensive to their beliefs. I avoid those people, and appreciate it when they avoid me. They don’t have to change their attitude, as long as they leave me alone. And vice versa.
Offending someone’s beliefs is NOT the same as attacking people... I never support violence, verbal nor physical!
The big argument is whether the recent unrest has been really to do with the film, or if that was the catalyst for something bigger. Certainly a lot of people object strongly to American international policy. They talk about it quite openly. Just because someone is against this policy (there are many Americans who are too) does not make them a terrorist or an Islamist. I personally believe the film was just the match which lit the fire that has been built over very many years.
The future for Cairo is unknown. I personally hope for a balance... where education and tolerance can increase and people can be allowed to believe as they want, without pressure from others. It is a bit of a pipe dream I know.
My fear, and that of all the Copts, Liberals and many moderate Muslims too, is that the extremists might get their way, since it often, unfortunately, does work that people who shout loudest get what they want. Negatively reacting to Egypt, or to ‘Muslims’ as a whole does not communicate a message of tolerance and peace. Countries that are torn politically and economically as well as religiously need time and patience, not something else to fight against.
I hope for a more peaceful Egypt... and for more love, for all, not dependant on what nationality or religion you follow. I am not optimistic it is true, but I can only hope.
... and yes.. I am watching and waiting... and keeping safe!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A normal night's work...

So, I am at home today, unable to meet friends, or organise work stuff because I have totally lost my voice. Therefore I am staying home to rest and try to recover! What to do... yes I could sit on facebook all day (and have done for some hours now...) but there must be something more productive to do... that doesn’t expend any energy- I know I’ll write a blog.

Hmm- but I have nothing to write about.

Wait. I performed 3 shows on the Nile Pharaoh boat last night and I have nothing to write about? Really? I do the job that dancers all over the world dream about, but having nothing to say about it? There is no way that could be true!

Here goes, last night’s work:

Of course, I only found out yesterday that I was working last night... so my labisa (dresser) wasn’t answering her phone, for a change so I had to go alone. At least this time I knew I would be alone so I was able to pack costumes that I knew I could get into without help! However- then the lift didn’t work... and I live on the 11th floor... so I had to walk down with heavy costume case. Not a great start to the night.

When I am waiting to go onstage... the band kept playing the beginning of my new Mergance over and over- but without my introduction. Seems the new singer didn’t know, or couldn’t pronounce my name. I was pleased with my dancing, in the very first Mergance- I was using some new moves and trying out some different styling techniques after a day spent watching YouTube and getting some inspiration! Was trying out a more dramatic style after watching Randa and Aziza, and also rounding of softer moves like Soheir Zaki. It was fun.

Then the problems began. The singer suggested Lissa fakir- which is one of my favourites so I agreed and lived to regret it. His voice was shaabi shaabi and he was trying to turn the Om Kalsoum song into a shaabi number. That and he kept messing up the words and the timings.... it was horrific. I tried to pretend all was well and keep a smile on my face- but it was no good... everytime a wrong note was hit my face twinged with pain. I almost wish I was back I the time when live music was wonderful just because it was live. Now I am unfortunately very aware of what makes a good and a bad musician. I should have known when he didn’t know maly willa maly. One of the most famous Warda songs- and one popular with dancers. But yes- I asked him to sing Warda's 'aktib alaik'. He did. As well as he could. I was of course using actions to describe the lyrics and well, his lyrics did not meet my actions! I was singing along... and very soon the audience was singing with me... all of us knowing the words better than he did.

It made me feel strange. That here was I , Lorna from Scotland, understanding and knowing the music better than someone who has lived all his life here and is a ‘professional’ singer (I use the term loosely). The audience saw me singing along and were commenting on how I knew the words... It was both embarrassing (since I hire the band) and also lovely to be appreciated. I felt I had found my place in the world, and I was being accepted. It gave me confidence.

During the night I had one man who kept shouting out encouraging remarks... and who I eventually got up to dance. He was nuts, dancing his heart out, badly but enthusiastically. As if he was in a low class cabaret! However, he knew his place and didn’t try to touch or anything like that.

Another man wanted to get up during my baladi number... which at first disappointed me, since I live that time in my set especially. It is like the calm before the storm of the drum solo. But then I gave him the stick, and he started to dance, and well- let’s just say- this man knew how to dance! But he was dancing with me- not trying to upstage me or anything... just loving the music and the interaction and the dance. How it should be. I almost wished I was in the audience watching that particular 5 minutes!!! I wish I had a camera with me at all times- so when these gems of moments occur I can just shout ‘record’ and then have it on film. I hope my memory retains these times!

Oh- and the Tabal. At the moment I am working with a Tabal who just always wants to do his own thing. He is the band leader- and spends most of his time on stage listening to what the others are doing and directing them, so much so that he forgets to watch me... therefore missing 80% of my accents. It turns me into a lazy dancer, I mean- what’s the point if you are accenting something which isn’t there? I would get rid of him, except for the fact that he is the band leader- so it is impossible to get rid of him without getting rid of the entire band! He is a lovely man, and a good chief... but he could do with giving more attention to his own performance and less to theirs! Anyway- last night he did himself proud. The accents were there maybe 40% of the time, instead of the usual 20%. The drum solos however were MUCH better than they have been before... as if he was actually watching and following me, maybe 80% of the time. We still have a long way to go before I will feel happy with the show, but he was on his way. Maybe of course that was to make up for the fact that he had supplied such a bad singer for me!

At the end of the night, when I was leaving. One family, who had been smiling through the show, but not said anything in particular- asked to speak to me and congratulate me on my fabulous dancing and could their son (a lovely well mannered lad of about 14) please shake my hand. I did of course and his ear to ear appreciative smile melted my heart. Unfortunately, as a foreign woman in Cairo these days, Teenage boys just fill me with dread and fear and loathing. I have to be honest. They don’t exactly show respect, quite the opposite in fact. So to have here a young boy, with his family, being lovely and soft spoken and respectful... it renewed my faith in humanity!

Overall it was a good night. Challenging, but good. Every day I learn. A move here, a look there, a time to pause, a time to relax.

... And then I had to climb all these stairs with that big heavy bag. Damn those lifts!

So- that was my blog entry where I had nothing to say...........Somewhat longer than expected! Hope it made an interesting read anyway!

It is amazing how many of the ‘special’ things about my lifestyle and work I now often take for granted, forgetting that they are not ‘normal’ for most people. The list is so long it deserves another blog entry- but I will save that for another time!

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Egypt’s Lady

The woman of many names (and many spellings of her name!) The Lady. The star of the east. Umm Kalthum. Om Kalsoum.

The 1st Thursday of every month, Om Kalsoum, the fabulous 1st lady of Egyptian music used to put on a huge live concert in Cairo. These concerts would clear the streets as people would rush home to listen in on the radio and they often went on for up to 4 hours. Each song seldom lasted less than an hour!

In today’s Cairo this tradition is being continued by the Om kalsoum puppet show held at Sawy cultural centre, Zamalek.

Every month they choose different songs and put on a 2 hour show which involves a stage of puppets, the Lady herself and her musicians, ‘playing’ along to recording of the great singers work. On Thursday it was Al-Atlal and Hob e eh?

The concept is mind- blowing to begin with ... but what is more amazing is the way in which people were responding to it. Everyone settles into the music, sings along, filming it on their mobiles, bringing their friends and family along to join in the atmosphere. They even clap at the relevent moments within the music as if it really was the singer herself in front of them pausing for breath!!

I was amazed at young dad’s sitting alone with their young children, teaching them when to clap along. I saw young couples bringing in their new born for their 1st Om kalsoum concert. Older couples were sitting with their grown children and their spouses. It is the monthly family outing.

I asked one woman in front of me why she came to this every month, she said they came for the atmosphere. Sitting with other people to listen to this wonderful music. If you listen at home you are always distracted by jobs to be done around the house... here it was just the companionship, darkness and the music.  Her eyes gleamed when she talked about having the chance to ‘just sit and be with the music’. Her husband wanted to know if I understood the music. I said not all of it. The Arabic language Om Kalsoum used in her songs was very different from the ‘ammeya’ street Egyptian used today that I use. He said no no no, not that, the Music- do you understand the Music (i.e. not the words, the music itself). I replied of course I feel it- who couldn’t help but feel it? The music of Om Kalsoum was truely great. He was very satisfied with my answer. I was touched by his passion for it; a man in his 50’s talking in a way that you might expect a teenager to talk about their favourite band.

 The puppets are skilfully worked and provide just enough eye ‘bubblegum’ to provide a visual focus and distract the younger children in the audience. They give you permission to get lost in the music. No fancy light show or gimmick. No fast changing video images to occupy your mind. ‘Just’ the music.

The young girl sitting next to me had come along with her family too. I was keen to know how and why she had attended. Whether it entertained her as it did the older family in front. Her sister had been the month before to Sawy, loved it and persuaded all the family to join. She thought it was a fun way to bring such fabulous music alive again. Despite being born long after the singer died in 1975, this teenage girl beside me knew all the words and was singing along too. She said she would definitely come again.

The shared experience was really very moving.

 I wanted to interview every single person there and find out what it was that brought them to a puppet show...  I had all sorts of stories playing out in my head and was desperate to know if they were based in any sort of reality. What was it exactly that brought people here?  People who were dreaming about the ‘old days’ where one artist could bring people, and indeed a country, together despite difficult times? People who just needed to get some culture in their lives and Sawy centre provided an affordable, family friendly, space in which to do so? People who were friend and family of the puppeteers? People who wanted some ‘clean healthy acceptable fun’ on a Thursday night- somewhere their parents couldn’t complain about? I even imagined that there might be someone in the audience who had actually attended those original famous monthly concerts and were soaking in the nostalgia however the man in front of me assured me that this probably wasn’t the case, no one was ‘that’ old! (Although since these concerts continued into the 60’s, it would be quite possible age wise!) It would make a fantastic documentary I think... modern reactions to the music which once inspired a nation.

For me the atmosphere felt like an emotional wave we were all riding together... whatever our reasons for being there, Whatever our personal or cultural link with the music, Despite the fact that the musicians in front of us were being moved by strings. The music was still so powerful that you could feel when everyone in the room took a breath at the same time! The experience both made me feel much closer to Egyptian culture and people, and at the same time, much more removed. I felt an ache to hear and feel this phenomenal music as they do.

 As a dancer I do believe that non-Egyptians can be amazing dancers. I have to believe that or else it would be pointless me being here and working towards my dream in the way I have over the past 7 years. For instance I don’t believe in the phrase-‘it’s in their blood’. Being Egyptian in itself doesn’t make you a better dancer; I have seen a lot of Egyptians who cannot dance at all. However, the thing which we will always be at a disadvantage, as foreigners, is this combined cultural history with the music. I certainly did not hear my first Om Kalsoum until I was in my twenties. There were babies in the audience on Thursday who were not even 20 weeks old yet. I imagine it would be automatic to express emotions in the music if you have seen your parents and grandparents singing along to it all your life. Even if you didn’t understand all the words, you would know, almost instinctively the music.

 It’s one of the reasons I always say that just being in Cairo makes someone a better dancer... even if they never take a dance lesson while they are here... that soaking up of the way people are with each other, how they express emotion and move, how they listen to music. It has certainly changed dramatically how I dance.

I would now add, bizarrely enough, going along to a puppet show now onto the ‘must do’ list for any dancer coming to Cairo. The Lorna tip-  watch the audience rather than the puppets!

Here’s a clip of the puppet show that someone else has posted online for you- enjoy;

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Achieving greatness

I had 2 shows last night.

I had been dreading them, since my head (possibly for the first time ever) was not exactly in a happy place from which to dance. It's been a hard couple of weeks since I returned to Cairo.

I never choreograph my shows. I love the freedom and excitment that comes with improvising. Sometimes however, having a piece choreographed for just such occasions might be a good idea. I say that, but since this is the first time I have thought it in the 16 years I have been a professional dancer, maybe this is an exception rather than rule kind of time!

My mentor, Sara Farouk, said that if you choreograph, then you can always give a good performance, no matter what. If you improvise you run the risk of giving a less than perfect performance if your mood just isn't there- however you also have the freedom to attain an exceptional performance. I always prefer taking that risk to achieve greatness. Last night I have to admit I was worried i wouldn't live up to my usual standard, never mind achieve greatness!

How to get into the zone when your mind is full of lifes troubles?

-Look at the audience. Remember that to you this might be 'just another show' but to them it is a completely new experince and the power is in your hands to make sure they leave with a smile on their faces. How they view dance even will be influenced by how you perform. Rather than giving me 'performance pressure' to do well, this makes it almost like my 'duty' to show what it is about this dance form which has made me choose it as my lifes work.

-Reminding myself that no matter what things are going wrong in my life, dance has always been a constant- the one thing that can always make me happy, no matter what. If I am lucky enough to be on stage, in Cairo, with my own band (even if the keyboard hasn't shown up and there is a stand in who doesn't exactly know the music) , then I should honour my situation and give the dance, and the people who have come to see me, all I had.

So, for the audience, for myself, and for the sake of the art, last night I danced my all, and I danced well.

I had so much fun. The audiences were lovely and very appreciative. I felt slightly out of shape since I haven't been performing over ramadan as much as I normally would have, but I think it actually helped add a stillness into my dance which improved it! I gave up trying to get the tabal who refuses to (or isn't able to)  follow me to follow and instead concentrated on making the most out of what he was giving me.

I felt alive. I felt appreciated. I felt strong again.

Whether I 'achieved greatness' or not is not for me to say, but I felt great!

Someone recently asked me... with all the hardships and heartaches I have faced over the last 7 years in Cairo, Has it been worth it? If I had the choice, would I do it all again?

Yes. Yes I would.

No it has not been financially worth it, quite the opposite.... my life savings are gone. But what is that compared to how rich I feel being able to change not just my mood, but that of everyone's in a room, by getting up there and doing something that feels so good to do?

Thank God for dance.