Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Crossing the Street in Cairo

            There are no crosswalks in Cairo. Picture the scene: I have just arrived with Aaron and Rhea. Our cab has dropped us off across the street from the El Hussein Hotel. With a nonchalant demeanor, Rhea steps into the street. Aaron and I observe her from one bank of the surging tide of cars. Horns blast. Buses, taxis and mopeds are carried along by undercurrents of diesel and post-industrial pollution. She has planned her course with perfect timing, calculating the velocity of the vehicles and accounting for possible jams. The Egyptian pedestrians around her are doing the same. Efficiently, she arrives at the far bank. Aaron and I prepare to get our feet wet and follow.

Street Scene in Cairo

            The pace of life in the streets of Cairo was stimulating, unnerving and fascinating all at once. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt’s political climate is unstable – a reality that caused Aaron and I to think hard about our decision to go. We did not want to get caught in a politically motivated riot. Part of our apprehension came from the government’s suspicion of Americans in the country. Nervously, we followed the news coverage of the American activists who were imprisoned by the government earlier in the year and accused of spying. Weighing in favor of the trip was the fact that I could not find any recent accounts of Americans being harmed. The activists made it out of the country safely. In addition to researching the news publications, I consulted a friend who is living in Cairo. She told us that day to day, she feels safe. Egypt has mostly escaped the extremism that exists in its neighboring countries. Aaron made the point that if we wanted to see the Pyramids and experience Egypt, this might be our last chance to do so. Who knows what the political climate will be like in a few years. Additionally, we had the added security of traveling with Rhea, who is familiar with the culture and knows how to navigate the country.
Just as the protagonists of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights use their wit to oust evil genies, Rhea has outsmarted danger in her previous travels. In 1984, she was hired to do a series of special shows in Khartoum.  Her routine performance schedule was interrupted when a group of 6 armed men in militant garb broke down the door of her room, demanding money and alcohol. To feign incompetence, she repeated their words instead of responding:
 “We want money and alcohol”
“Yes! We want money and alcohol!”
“No! WE want money and alcohol!”
“Yes! Yes! We WANT money and alcohol!”
            Finally she switched to pleading: I have nothing to give you – I am not a wealthy patron of the hotel, I am just a dancer here. She performed a few head slides. Believing her, the leader took a flask out of his pocket and gave her a sip. The group left. Rhea laughs when she tells this story because in the end, she was the one who got alcohol from the militants. Reflecting further, she says she does not know why she was not killed, or why her instinct was to resist their demands. She acted based on the feeling that the aggressors were like kids who had just tried on their uniforms. They did not appear to be hardened killers. Her proven ability to assess situations quickly made Aaron and I feel confident in traveling with her.
For me, crossing the street in Cairo has become allegorical of the trip as a whole. I activated my faculties and set out into the oncoming traffic with the same sense of purpose that helps me perform aerial arts with Melina and Sacha. Is it dangerous? It could be if one does not take responsibility for oneself. Is it worth it? Yes! Rhea’s confidence in my ability to cross safely reflects the risk-taking attitude she and Melina have always shared with students: you must not allow psychological spooks or unfounded hang-ups to prevent you from living a life uncommon.

Belly Dance Costumes for Sale in the Market.

            Rhea visits Cairo several times a year to shop. The 700 year old marketplace in Old Cairo is her destination for swords, costumes, and healthful oils. Her hotel of choice is located across from the El Hussein Mosque. At 20 Euros a night, it agreed with my performers’ budget. It was also noisy. 5 times a day, beginning at 5 AM, the call to prayer sounded from the minarets. All night, the street bellow boomed with music from a nearby hookah lounge. After Aaron repaired the light in our bathroom by wiring it to the hot water switch, we were ready to make ourselves at home. At night, we ventured out to absorb the sights. There was a buzz and an energy on the streets that is uniquely North African. Almost all of the women were wearing the hijab. The variety in the rest of their dress ranged from full face veils to loose fitting tunic dresses to jeans. Many women wore long-sleeved shirts under tank tops – a fashion that was both modest and contemporary. 
While we were out, I saw beaded skirts and jewelry for sale everywhere! It was the Raks Sharki world capital! When we finally returned to our room at 2:00 AM, I could not contain my belly dancer’s high. Picking up the rhythm of an Egyptian ensemble playing somewhere outside, I dug a hip scarf out of my luggage and danced wildly between the closet and the night stand.

            Purchasing a costume was one of my biggest priorities. In popular culture, belly dance attire is understood simply for its sexiness. Revealing the midriff and covered with sequins, the costumes are indeed sexy. They are also extremely expensive. For me, their costliness and their elaborate adornments elevate the female dancer and celebrate the work she has put into her art. She communicates her creativity and quick-thinking through the dance combinations she performs, allowing her audience to appreciate her mind. Intelligence and skill are associated with the gorgeous costume, and they become sexy, too.
On another level, having a striking costume that catches the light is a critical aspect of a dancer’s showmanship. Just as I would go to a music concert to enjoy a form of art that I respect, but have not invested in learning, audiences watch me perform so that they can experience belly dance without putting in the years it takes to become a professional. They want to see an extravagant costume because it is not something they have in their closets. The gems and sequins take the dance out of the quotidian realm and make it special.
            That having been said, finding a costume in the United States is not easy. Belly dance stores are few and far between. I used to drive an hour and a half to shop in Rhode Island until I began commissioning costumes from designers who create them especially for me. Ready-made costumes can be purchased on eBay or from friends in the belly dance community. The problem with these methods is that the selection is never very great. It can take months of searching to find something nice. Once one purchases a costume, it needs to be tailored. Many of the costumes one acquires this way originally come from Egypt, where they are created. Dancers like Rhea travel to Cairo and fill their suitcases with items to sell to their students. By going to Egypt, I was able to browse the surplus myself.
            In the Khan El-Khalili market, I saw more costumes than I have ever seen assembled at one time. They drape from manikins in shop windows. They hang outdoors in sparkling, colorful rows. Veils, cymbals, and other props are sold in glittering heaps.  After perusing the outdoor vendors, I made an appointment with the internationally famous dealer, Mr. Mahmoud Abd El Ghaffar. His shop is like a belly dance department store. The quality he offers is the best in the market, and he does not barter. The costume I decided to get for myself (a present from Aaron) is a bright purple color will shine onstage. Dripping beads and crystals will emphasize all of my movements. Happily, we paid about a third of what it would cost in the U.S. In the last days of our trip, I found three more costumes which I will resell to pay for my plane ticket. 

Celia poses with Mr. Ghaffar in his store.

            While we were in Egypt, Aaron and I experienced political tension first hand. On our third day, there was a protest in Tahrir Square. Without English newspapers in the area and a long walk to the internet café, we fell into the habit of getting news updates from Mr. Khaled at the concierge. The day of the protest was a Friday, and we had decided not to go downtown. In Egypt, there is no work on Friday. For that reason, it is the day of the week when political agitation usually manifests itself—either before or after the heat of the day. In our morning news briefing, Mr. Khaled told us that one of the candidates for president (Hazem Abu Ismail) was being eliminated because his mother had American citizenship. “People are very angry”, he said. “They are in an uproar against him”.  The ever-present shade of wariness that colored our trip suddenly got darker. The event suggested a pervasive anti-American feeling. We feared what would happen if it were directed against us.

View of the front line of the protest from our taxi.

            Resolute on avoiding Tahrir Square, Aaron, Rhea, and I set out in a taxi to meet up with some Greek friends. The cab was following its course through Cairo when we saw the road before us closing down. A crowd of protestors was approaching, numbering over 100,000 and carrying Egyptian flags. The cab made a U-turn and reversed its course, driving parallel to the protestors and allowing us a long view of the march. The driver came to the road on which he had intended to turn and found it was already closed. He made another U-turn and sped straight through the heart of Tahrir square, attempting to outrun the protestors. Aaron and I found ourselves in exactly the kind of situation that had made us hesitate to come to Egypt: a large crowd that had rallied around an anti-American issue. From the front of the taxi, Rhea shouted “Yunan! It means you are Greek! If we are stopped we will say Yunan!” Police carrying road blockers waived our taxi through a florescent gate. We were the last vehicle to pass before they shut down the square. Beyond the crowd, the highway took us by the burned-out headquarters of President Mubarak’s government: the aftermath of Revolutionary riots.

President Mubarak's former headquarters.

            When we finally found an English newspaper, the front page had a large color photo of the march. Reading the article, I learned that the protestors were actually Ismail’s supporters. The language barrier that separated us and Mr. Khaled had created a miscommunication. People were outraged that their candidate was going to be disqualified, not that his mother had an American passport. Suddenly, the anti-American feeling we had sensed seemed like a false perception. Reading up on Ismail, however, I learned that his ultra-conservative policies would have included building an Egyptian state similar to Iran in its opposition to the U.S. Two weeks after we departed, a subsequent protest left over 20 people dead. In this light, layers of real and imagined dangers present themselves. Going to Egypt was definitely a risk, but it was one that we thought out thoroughly. There is a huge difference between the peaceful protest that occurred while we were in the country and the one that happened on May 2, which was closer to the elections. In the end, we were able to experience Egypt and go home.

Celia climbs the final 15 feet of the Bab Zuwayla Tower.

            The day following the protest, Aaron and I met up with a pair of Australians who suggested we visit the Bab Zuwayla Tower. Built in 1092, the structure is one of the highest points in the city. A narrow, tenth-century passageway led us up the stone. The steps were steep, causing our thighs to burn as we climbed. Intermittently spaced windows allowed us glimpses of the increasing distance to the ground. Near the top of the tower, the stone stairway stopped and left us to contend with fifteen feet of thin iron rungs. We suppressed our fear of the height and ascended. Reaching the pinnacle of the tower, a panoramic view of Cairo rewarded us. The rushing wind caused us to squint and tossed my hair in my face. Just then, the call to prayer sounded from all around the city. In that experience of height, peace, and sound, I reflected on the phonetics of the word “Allah”. It is like a sigh – to utter the word is to give an expression of awe and reverence in the face of creation.  

View from the top.

All photos by Aaron P.

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