Conversations in Cairo

Conversation in Cairo:

Firm Fact or Frivolous Fiction

By Shareen El Safy

Cairo is different than my home town of Santa Barbara, California. Egypt is a paradoxical land where the water goes down the drain in the opposite direction. The Nile, the longest river in the world, flows north from southern “Upper Egypt;” written Arabic sentences run from right to left; and the soft sounding “La!” means “No!”.

Social customs and interactions are also different. The Egyptian people themselves are very gregarious, hospitable and charming. Their intelligent, humorous commentary on current events is often clever and engaging. However, “fact” may exist only in law books, and “truth” is often a community consensus rather than a black and white, clear-cut statement. Traffic accidents are usually settled on the spot with all onlookers and passerbys throwing in their version of what they saw, while the main players try to reach a cash settlement.

Dina and Fatme Serhan. Photo: Laura Le Pere

Rumor, report, hearsay, scuttlebutt, skinny, buzz or just shameless gossip — intrique is at the hub of the rumor mills which make Cairo’s entertainment world go round and round. Even though rumor is plentiful, it is often difficult to find a reliable source for confirmation and clarification. Searching after facts is not easy because, after all, what is so entertaining about facts? Intricately elaborated versions of fact have a superior entertainment value and may be far more revealing of human nature. All of the possible shadings of a subject filtered through creative permutations may contain more food for thought, more instruction on day to day living, and more poetry — not for the feeble-minded on a sterile search for facts. Hence one must carefully weigh the tidbits of rumor that come one’s way in Cairo. Is the speaker trying to inform, impress, entertain, or all of the above? Is the source the nightclub Maitre ‘D or limousine driver, a competitive rival, a government official, or a personal friend who speaks confidentially? Sometimes the same source may tell you two different things, and the selection process becomes even more complicated.

Suffice it to say that gossip runs the gamut from the most innocuous to the most horrific. The intrigue surrounding separate incidents with the famous singers Ahmed Adawiya and Sherihann, for example, exposed a world of violence and drugs, jealousy and revenge, with results too graphic to print here. But as always, there are at least several versions, and one needs to separate out the truth from fiction. The task is never-ending.

The language barrier also poses problems of its own. English phrases and gestures are sometimes misconstrued. Arabic accents can also reshape English words. I once argued for several days over my newly-signed contract with the owner of Parisianna, insisting that he had agreed to pay for my taxis. This, I thought, was a good stipulation, as it was my nightly mode of transportation. However, after much to and fro, I realized that what the owner had said was “taxes,” which sounded to me exactly like “taxis.”

Dina. Photo: Laura Le Pere

A year or so ago, a colleague called me late one night to say she had just heard from a reliable source that Fifi Abdou had been killed by extremists. My first thought was of Fifi’s often-repeated tongue-in-cheek gesture of picking up a nightclub patron’s prayer beads and depositing them in her bra! A quick call to another colleague in Cairo, who then called Fifi directly, soon assured me that she was fine and in feisty form. Apparently, Fifi had requested a visa from Saudi Arabia to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. This started the rumor mill grinding, and accusations were made regarding her chosen profession, dance, and that she should stop dancing and cover her head. She allegedly retorted that she would dance, and do pilgrimage, and wouldn’t return to Egypt and “cover up.” She commented that she doesn’t ignore criticism, but feels that she doesn’t do anything wrong. “I am good for Egypt. A lot of people come to see my show…I employ a lot of people…I pay a lot of taxes!” (Egyptian dancers, I am told, are now paying taxes on a par with the foreign dancers, 48%!!)

Egypt in general, and the entertainment industry as a whole, have taken a hard hit. Economic hardships have been caused by the Gulf war through the rising cost of living, and the return of tens of thousands of jobless expatriates from Kuwait. Terrorist attacks on tourists visiting Egypt, have taken huge bites out of their largest source of income, tourism. Most nightclubs closed following the war, but many have since reopened, struggling back to near-capacity crowds during the summer holidays. But things just aren’t the same!

Returning to Cairo this past summer, I immediately missed the presence of the two super-stars which had most influenced my growth as an Oriental dancer, namely Nagwa Fouad and Sohair Zeki. Economic realities have impacted these two great dancers with the unfortunate result that neither of them are performing in nightclubs. Each has somewhat different circumstances, but in both cases, economics have dealt a fateful hand.

Three years ago, Nagwa’s show was the most expensive to produce, and her contract commanded top dollar. Her show was consistently innovative, with original music and choreography, expensive costuming, and story-line tableaux. The audience was guaranteed splashy entertainment and at least a modicum of art, elegance and good taste. Many would argue that she was too old to be a top drawer star. When she once asked me rhetorically, “Do you see anything wrong with my body?” I had to admit that Nagwa’s smooth olive skin, strong, lyrical limbs and striking face were beautiful. But the market seemed to be drifting towards less expensive and younger performers. “Everywhere they like YOUNG!” she said, philosophically.

Nagwa owns two production companies and is usually working on a movie or two of her own, besides appearing in independent films. This past year she has performed at the Lido in Paris and at private parties in Bahrain. She is currently featured in “The Red Eye,” a musical comedy playing at the Housafina Theatre. The plot of the five-hour production revolves around a den of thieves who live underground and surface through manholes. Nagwa uses her charms to distract while her cohorts pickpocket their victims. Much of the cast are well-known, well-loved actors of film and television. Nagwa dances and sings throughout, wearing many glamorous costumes. My favorite was a Madame Abla royal blue sleeveless jumpsuit with midriff net and short shorts, with legs created by a lattice work of rhinestones to the ankle. A large, brimmed, white straw hat and blue platform heels completed the ensemble. I asked Nagwa when she would return to the clubs. She answered, “Now is not my time,” despite several offers from the most prestigious hotels.

Sohair Zeki is another Egyptian favorite who is no longer performing. We worked in the same nightclub, The Sunset, in 1990 and 1991, and I had witnessed a heartbreaking time when her stepfather, “Baba” died suddenly after a two day illness. He had been her escort and driver everynight for many years. They were very close and she was deeply affected by his passing. To make matters worse, the government was insisting that Sohair owed three million Egyptian pounds in back taxes (about one million US$). These pressures and lack of tourism combined to bring about her retirement. Rumor had it that she had accepted the veil of Islam, the hegab, and was secluded in her home; but this rumor turned out to be unfounded. Sohair frequently attends social functions dressed smartly, sometimes in her preferred businesswoman’s suit, with hair pulled back (sans head scarf) looking youthful and vibrant. Her spirits have improved, and she and her family are currently living at the Forte Grande Hotel while their flat in the multi-storied apartment building which she owns on Pyramid Street is being remodeled.

Is the Islamic fundamentalist movement putting pressure on dancers and singers to stop entertaining in Egypt? There seems to be a full range of experience and the details are different with each individual, but the fundamentalist movement is definitely making itself felt within the entertainment industry. An Associated Press writer in Cairo, Zina Hemady, reports that several well-known film stars, Shahira, Shams el Baroudi and Madiha Kamel, have “renounced their sinful careers and put on the veil…” Cairo, the movie capital of the Arab world, has been feeling religious pressure to censor its products. According to Ms. Hemady, “Until the 1970’s, movies showed women in bathing suits, low-cut strapless dresses, even miniskirts. The sexes were depicted together drinking alcohol, dancing and kissing. Such movies, made in what is considered Egypt’s Golden Age of Cinema, are shown at odd hours in the afternoon, when few people watch. Films of the 1980’s show little flesh, unless the female character is a prostitute. Drinking and kissing have disappeared….”

Mohammed Khalil (former director of Egypt’s National Folkloric Troupe and long time choreographer for Nagwa Fouad) spoke in a recent conversation about the heavy censorship of imported Egyptian television and videos in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. There is no Oriental dance allowed, and no on-screen mixed-gender relationships that show them touching. I recall one Ramadan several years ago when Nagwa Fouad had prepared her annual special program for Egyptian TV. It was cancelled by the censors at the last moment. When we last met, she chillingly predicted that within one year there would be no more Oriental dancing on television.

Is it true that well-known dancers have retired because of Islam? This is a tricky question, and one that is answerable only on an individual basis. There has been a rumor that dancers will take the veil, promising to end their dance careers if they are paid (ostensibly by another Middle Eastern country’s fundamentalist organization) the amount they would make if they were dancing as usual. Some, it is said, use this money to pay their outstanding back taxes, and return to dance later.

For others, I am sure, theirs is a genuine religious provocation to stop dancing and take the veil. The dancer who bequeathed to me my stage name, Hala El Safy, was motivated by a deeply personal experience to stop dancing, go on pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca, and return home to pray on a concentrated daily schedule. She has parlayed an earlier investment into a successful business. She owns and directs two large kindergarten-level Children’s Home schools with her husband.

Sahar Hamdi is another who recently stopped dancing in the name of Islam. However, it has been hinted at by several sources that she is a very intelligent woman who saw a graceful and lucrative way out of a career that was no longer working. Her bouts with alcohol coupled with onstage leud remarks and gestures made her a target for the police, and contracts were getting harder to come by. I have since seen her on video dancing in a club in street clothes — a full-on Western outfit with cowboy boots.

Fifi Abdou

Still pursuing the question of whether the fundamentalist movement was impacting Fifi Abdou’s career, I made an appointment for an interview. I was eager to discover the “truth” about rumors circulating that Fifi had hired eight bodyguards, and sure enough, when I approached her suite at the Ghezira Shereton, I was stopped by four men on the night shift who took their job seriously. When I asked Fifi about their presence, she replied that they were just there to deal with the fans who trailed her after her shows. As I accompanied her to the theatre in a brand new black Mercedes sedan, we were followed by these same bodyquards in an identical car. When we arrived at the theatre the street was jammed with cars and crowds of people, as her production is currently the most talked about event in Cairo. The driver was having difficulty maneuvering the car to the backstage entrance, so Fifi got out and blithely walked the rest of the distance amid cries and shouts of admiration from the crowd. If she was afraid, she certainly didn’t show it.

Inside, the large theatre was packed with a mostly Egyptian, Saudi and Kuwaiti audience who had paid up to 150 EL’s a ticket. The production, “Hazimneh a ya Baba,” loosely translated “Father, I want to tie the knot of the dancer’s hip scarf,” stars Fifi as a young dancer who makes her way to the top. The musical ran about five hours with long production numbers and a chorus of male Egyptian and female Russian dancers, the latter often in very short shorts and tights. The cast boasted many well-known actors, including Sherif Mounir, and singer Medhat Salleh, and the crowd would respond enthusiastically as they entered the stage.

The sets were creative, but Fifi’s outfits stole the show. The final ten minutes was a continuous finale culminating in a half-dozen costume changes. She would enter in haute couture fashions, right out of the Lebanese fashion magazine, Snob, with heavily beaded and sequined bodices, taffetta and chiffon skirts, some very short in front with a long bouffant train. Her stunning wardrobe had all the opulence of a fifties movie, but with very up-to-date looks. Too bad she no longer allows photos to be taken! Of course, she danced and sang her way through the whole show, and what she lacked in acting range, she made up for with her personal magnetism and signature favorites like “Chocolate” and her Malima act with a shisha (waterpipe), pointedly blowing smoke, first out of one nostril, and then the other. She was outrageous, bawdy and powerful, and looking better than ever.

She has the unofficial title of “General Fifi,” because what she says goes. She is enjoying top status and setting the mark for all others to follow, or at least to try to keep up with. All of Cairo is talking about her stamina, which allows her to do a five hour show, run off to the Ghezira for another two hour show, and be wife to a wealthy Palestinian merchant and mother to her five-year-old daughter. A former manager for the Marriott’s Empress nightclub had earlier commented to me that Fifi is like a thoroughbred race horse: “She takes off at the gate and just keeps going until the race is over.” Her physical strength has some whispering that there must be some kind of magic at work. She is known to wear magic charms with incantations around her neck (as does Dina), and the walls of her dressing room are covered with blue Eye of Horus amulets, warding off the “evil eye.” Not to leave anything to chance, Fifi has recently had her legs insured for two million Egyptian pounds, according to the weekly “Kalaam An-Nas.”

Lucy. Photo: Shareen El Safy

Another top super-star, Lucy, is also very busy. Besides her fully-booked shows at the Nile Hilton and appearances at her husband’s nightclub, Sultana (formerly Parisianna) on Pyramid St., she has been filming “Sarek el Farrah.” She was admitted to the hospital September first, suffering from exhaustion and low blood pressure, and was released later that day. She had just finished dancing for a wedding at the Mena House, followed by her show at Sultana’s and collapsed there due to her twenty-hour-day work schedule the past month.

The Egyptian entertainers are well known for their hectic schedules, especially during the summer months when nightclub audiences swell with Middle Eastern tourists and the season is filled with wedding parties. “When it rains, it pours” may be an inappropriate saying for the desert, but when it comes to work, the summertime months are often the busiest. You can always count on seeing the top dancers during this time of year, which is why I‘ve booked my dance/study tours for the summer months. When we went to see Dina at the Mena House this summer on our last night in Cairo, she barely made her show because of her packed schedule: she arrived straight from the airport, having just returned from a weekend appearance in Beruit.

It’s great to see Cairo humming with shows and productions again, but as I mentioned, things have definitely changed! I felt, and others agreed, that the previously high level of art is missing from the shows. While it’s true that composers are still being commissioned for original music, and choroeographers are designing opening numbers, the sense of delightful and dignified celebration is tangibly missing. Yes, the classic favorites are still being played: “Lessah Fakir” is a staple in most shows, and the dancers are holding onto their signature pieces with well-known singers. But I sense a harshness in the environment, as if some essential component has slipped to a lower common denominator.

I missed seeing many well-known Middle Eastern personalities in the audiences, and the creme of the intelligencia — artists and writers, jet-setters and cosmopolitan Egyptian business owners — that had been the mainstay patrons several years ago. Instead, the audiences were primarily made up of Middle Eastern tourists and Egyptian couples and families who were there to celebrate a special occasion or holiday outing.

The music seemed louder, harder-driving. Orchestras are smaller now, numbering around twenty musicians and topped only by Fifi’s forty or so. Drum solos are currently passé, and the only one I saw this visit was Dina’s half-minute segue into an Oriental finale. I was shocked to see some movements performed on Cairo’s stages that were previously relegated to a stripper’s vocabulary. For example, Hendaiya, currently performing at the Marriott on alternating nights with Nani, separated her legs and did deep knee squats! Another bothersome trend is the dancer chatting up the audience, sometimes breaking that delicate boundary in a husky-voiced low-class parody, a style which should belong to a specific entertainer and not to all dancers in general. Subtelty, finesse, and nuance are slipping out the back door!

Dina. Photo: Laura Le Pere

A dancer’s visual presentation is more important than ever, and several of the top stars are sporting new facelifts. Woven hair extensions are all the rage. I asked Raqia Hassan why it seemed that all the dancers had this full, long-haired, “natural” look. She commented, “if a dancer sees something that works, she’d be stupid not to use it also.” I am reminded of an earlier Raqia jewel: “To be a star, you have to offer something new.” What’s new are the show-stopping creations of designer Hafez Ismail. Almost all of the dancers have at least one Hafez hanging in the closet. These are one-of-a-kind costumes that fetch up to fifteen thousand Egyptian pounds apiece. His signature look involves large cut out sections covered with flesh-tone net, edged in gold, silver, rhinestone and beaded trim. Mona Sa’id wore one of his creations in brilliant coral chiffon that had cutouts around her hips and buttocks, effectively covered with sheer net. Surprisingly, also popular are pastel chiffon full skirts and short-fringed girdles. Dina still leads the pack with her daring originals. Sometimes one can glimpse a flash of panties under her mini-dresses and sheer skirts. One black number had a revealing slit up the front, held together by large gold safety pins!

Mona Sa’id is currently performing at Le Meredian, Cairo. (Incidentally, the Meredian hotels have been recently sold to the British company, Forte Grande.) Powerful and passioniate, her show is a “must see.” She also owns and operates a health club in Mohandesein, where she leads Egyptian women through an exercise program that includes some Oriental dance, “just for fun and to have a good time.” It seems that qualified dance teachers and choreographers are hesitant to hang up a shingle advertising dance classes, not just because teaching usually signals retirement, but also because there is subtle public pressure against Oriental dance and they may be fearful of retaliation.

Despite all we’ve heard about how difficult it is to perform in Cairo, there are a number of foreigners employed there. We know of two US citizens, Sahra and Sakti Rinek and the Swedish dancer, Samesen. I also met Oriental dancers from Russia, New Zealand, Germany and Spain who were working. But, as Samasen emphasized in a phone conversation, no foreigner is now dancing in the major hotel nightclubs. Those prime venues are generally open only to Egyptian dancers. Samesen, who has worked at the Nile Hilton and Sheraton Heliopolis, is currently dancing at the five star club, The Sunset. Needless to say, there is much competition for gigs, and some Egyptian dancers begrudge the working foreigner. Some expatriate dancers are mumbling about how things have changed — fewer jobs with less pay, and are looking for options elsewhere.

Mona El Sa'id. Photo: Shareen El Safy

As with all information that comes one’s way in Cairo, everything must be taken with a grain of salt. More than likely, some aspect of the story has been modifed before it reaches one’s ears, or will be permutated at a later date. Even the simplest communications can become easily distorted. A recent conversation with Sahra, illustrated this point. Asking about her showtime at the Baracuda club at Le Meridian, Heliopolis, she said it had recently changed. And to what time? “Well,” she answered, broaching the subject with a chuckle, “back to the ‘First 12 o’clock.’” It seems that when she first began working, show time had been midnight, but in actuality, was closer to 12:30 a.m. She was later given another time, known as the “Second 12 o’clock,” which was really around 1 a.m. You can see the confusion, when she was told that now the new time will be the “First 12 o’clock.”

Time simply doesn’t exist in Cairo in any form familiar to most Westerners. This flexible time sense is typical of the often humorous twisting of even the most concrete of facts which can occur. I can’t imagine Dragnet’s Detective Joe Friday having any success in Cairo when he dryly intones, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

I am reminded of a comment by one of my band members, trying to reason with me Egyptian-style.

“You know, Shareen,” he said, obviously annoyed by my rigid Western mind, “Your problem is that you think that one plus one equals two!”

And he is a daytime accountant!

Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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