There are no crosswalks in
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
was stimulating, unnerving and fascinating all at once. In the aftermath of the
2011 ’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 Arab Spring, Egypt 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.
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
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
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
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
View of the front line of the protest from our taxi.
Resolute on avoiding
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
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
View from the top.
All photos by Aaron P.