This is part of an email series originally sent to my immediate family and friends. The format has been left largely intact.
This will probably be my last email. I can’t believe its over already!
Today we will hit the market for presents, come back to pack, and then we plan to stay up all night to catch a very famous Egyptian dancer, Dina, who performs at like 3am. We will head to the airport straight from the performance. I’m going to need a vacation after this vacation.
Yesterday we did a multi-hour, multi-location photoshoot with our hostess Yasmina. I’m sure you’ve all been on several bellydance photoshoots and know exactly how it goes? No?
Honestly, they always make me feel like a pretty, pretty princess and I wish that everyone could experience one. Both of Yasmina’s photoshoot assistants have now requested their own, which is a big deal because one is hijabi and the other niquabi (hijab = hair covering, niquab = full face covering) but they both requested a veil-off shoot. One of the locations for the shoot was a small village outside of Cairo where Yasmina gets her organic veggies. We had a crew of small children following us around to check out the crazy foreigners.
Modeling is also very hard (yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds) because it requires a TON of tension in your body to get cool lines and shapes, but you have to pretend to be relaxed with your face. Plus, we were in and out of costumes and it all moved at a fast clip. It was a big day.
We were so tired after the shoot we had to skip a Zar show we had planned to see. Zar is a ritual dance and music style that predates Islam. People use Zar to enter a trance state, one that supposedly helps drive away the Djinn (loosely “genies” or bad spirits). I’m sad we missed it.
We did catch another bellydance show at a hotel on the Nile. The fancy hotels here are sprawling affairs with many restaurants each- this one had 10- I am not kidding. I was really enchanted with the dancer, Vanessa, who is super athletic and personable and a skilled finger cymbal player- they are increasingly rare here, and worldwide too.
Then we had to skip yet another planned show- we wanted to see a dancer named Aziza but found out she does not go onstage until 4am…! You just can’t do it all.
Since this is my last email, I wanted to address a few things that were interesting to me or that people had questions about, like…
Security: security is really tight here, especially anywhere that there might be tourists. Every hotel, performance, and historical spot had a barricade with guards that looked in trunks, as well as a metal detector and someone checking bags. Some places were more relaxed about the bag checking than others, especially for Rosa and I, since we probably appear non-threatening. Yes mom, I wrote this part for you.
What I wore: I dressed conservatively everyday, with long sleeves and long pants. I did see some tourists (mostly Asian) that chose to be less modest and everything was fine. I didn’t cover my hair.
Money: $5 is about 100 Egyptian pounds. Though some things cost more (like dinner at the fancy places), most things were very inexpensive. For example, an hour+ long Uber ride was often under 100 pounds. Tipping was expected everywhere. Most notably to me, tipping was expected for the bathroom attendant. And nobody was afraid to remind you to tip. It was sometimes an issue getting bills small enough for appropriate tipping. Because of changes Sisi has made to be in accordance with IMF standards, the cost of living has risen dramatically here since last year. Rosa said some prices have doubled.
Unfinished buildings: Here you buy the shell of an apartment and then fill it in with floors, walls and appliances. This means in a lot of the newer areas there are shells of buildings around. It gives some places a bit of a "ghost town" feel.
Speaking Arabic: I basically got by on this trip knowing the bare minimum of Arabic. My most important word was "shukran" or "thanks." Most advertisements and signs were also in English and many people spoke English. I'd definitely like to learn more Arabic. I know mostly dance-related words. I did learn how to give directions in a car- but I often has no idea where we were going so they were pretty useless.
Thanks for reading my email updates! This has been a fun mini project and they may eventually become blog posts for my website.
These were originally part of a series of emails sent to my immediate family and friends. Their original formatting has been left largely intact
I see that my public shaming worked on many of you. To the rest of you- I still love you, I guess. (no really, I just kinda wanted to hear from people because I do love and miss you all. So thanks)
Yesterday we began the day with a private dance lesson with Ashraf Kodak in Saiidi style. Saiidi is a folkloric style dance that worked its way into the bellydance performance lexicon after it became popular to perform on a stage in the 1950’s, thanks to a very popular Egyptian folkloric troupe called the Reda Troupe. It is a stage-stylized version of man’s Tahtib, which is somewhere between a dance and a fight with sticks, depending on the setting (think: Capoeira). Its done to a specific style of music with a specific set of instrumentation and rhythm. Ashraf’s style is super athletic and masculine and also pretty unique. He was a fantastic teacher, even though I think he spoke the least English of all of our teachers so far. I really wish I understood more of what he was saying, because he seemed to have Opinions about the different styles of Saiidi dance and I like Opinions.
Fun fact: The area where the dance originates, Port Said, is in “lower” Egypt, but this is actually in the North. They think of upper and lower Egypt in relation to the way the Nile flows, which is South to North- very rare for rivers. Guess what else flows from south to North? The French Broad River!
Then I rode a camel.
It was a “baby” camel, as Yasmina put it, but it was still much higher than any horse I have ever been on. It was also well-behaved and photogenic as hell- I’m pretty sure it was posing with me. In contrast, Rosa’s camel kept trying to shove my camel and put its face right by my face. I think it was itchy. We went to stables that fed into the desert outside the Giza pyramids, after you passed the police checkpoint of course. It was a place where Yasmina and her friend Jane own horses and ride regularly. It also seemed to be a playground for wealthier kids- we saw several riding horses around like crazy in the desert. The ride itself was breezy and peaceful and afforded an excellent view of the pyramids.
Now my butt hurts.
We ended the day on a Nile dinner cruise. It had several performers- a cover band (songs included Mambo Number 5 and Hotel California), another Tannoura dancer with LED lights all over his costume (something tells me his dance was less devotional than the ones from before), and a bellydancer, Farah, and her backup dancers (they did a really exciting Saiidi piece). This was a more touristy experience than the hotels we saw Sharazed perform at and Farah was definitely all in the audience, posing with people and embarrassing shy guests by dancing really close to them. She even did a cartwheel!?! Whoah.
I’m beginning to see that playing English-language music here for foreigners is a thing, and its really a very kind impulse. Our Uber driver, after we fibbed that we were Canadian, looked up a Josh Groban and Celine Dion duet on his phone for us. In French. He was very excited to play it for us and I was like… Josh Groban and Celine Dion are Canadian? The driver also asked if we spoke French and I was really afraid he would ask us more things about Canada that I would have no clue about. But then we got him talking about Egyptian music and he introduced us to some good Mahgranat Shaabi and Arabic rap.
I should learn more about Canada.
Today, we are doing a photoshoot with Yasmina!
These were originally part of a series of emails sent to my immediate family and friends. Their original formatting has been left largely in tact.
Let me begin by publically shaming all of you... The only people that have written me back are Dad and Louise. Are y'all getting these emails?
I'm typing this one on my phone during breaks in the morning. I actually slept in today, which is great for my body but bad for these little emails.
We began our day yesterday with a Balady lesson with Yasmina. "Balady" (or beledi, baladi, etc) translates roughly to "country" (think, a polite description for "redneck") It can be a description of a person or place, a style of dance performance, a style of dance performance costume (full beaded gown instead of the two piece costumes you might think of for bellydance), and a style of music. Confused? We were working on the style of song called a beledy progression, which has four distinct parts. First is a "taksim"- a melodic improvisation, often by an accordian. Then there is a call and response between the main melody instrument (let's say it's an accordian again) and the tabla (the drum), followed by two different rhythm sections to close out the song. As a dancer, your job is to act out what's happening with the instruments with your body. I wanted to work on the taksim, or the improvisation at the beginning, and tone down my American tendency to hit every note and over-dance that part.
Then Yasmina, Rosa and I had a really gratifying talk about cultural appropriation. This comes up a lot in bellydance circles and it's a huge and difficult subject, but I enjoyed having the talk with people as knowledgeable as Yasmina and Rosa. This felt important but definitely ate up some of our market time and we ran late the rest of the day.
We took an hour and a half long taxi ride to Khan El Khalili Market after class- Cairo is huge and traffic is bad- and hit the streets for some shopping. Of course, street vendors called to us in English repeatedly and we got some stares, but I was more comfortable here than I have been in other streets. For one, it's taboo for men and women to touch, so there is a good amount of personal space given, even in a crowd. As someone who struggles occasionally with the hug-happy Asheville cuture, I was grateful for that. Also, as it is a more conservative society, the cat calls tend not to be as vulgar as you might hear in the US. Bargaining is expected and goods are plentiful.
We found an oasis of calm in a 3 story bellydance costume and accessory shop. I was so overjoyed with the prices that I was trying to scheme on how to bring back drums, shamadams (giant candleabras that go on your head), and all sorts of things that would not actually fit in my suitcase.
Post-shopping, carrying giant bags, we headed to see the Tannoura show close to the market. Tannoura is the Sufi ritual spinning dance with the large skirts that flare out, making gorgeous patterns. I was really struck by the devotional nature of it. Even though it was a performance it was clearly meaningful to the dancers. They were accompanied by a live band of probably about 10 men and a singer, plus 6 backup dancers who played hand drums, and a finger cymbal player who totally stole the show with his dramatic and funny faces.
Today we have a Saiidi lesson, the Textile museum (we didn't have time yesterday) and more shopping (I didn't have to time get y'all stuff!). Maybe another dance show after that! Orrrrr... We might ride camels?! Today is still developing.
These were originally part of a series of emails sent to my immediate family and friends. Their original formatting has been left largely in tact.
Yesterday felt like a short day, after being out all night and sleeping until noon. Worth it. We began our day on the rooftop terrace at Yasmina’s, having breakfast with a view of the pyramids to our right. Her cat was lounging in the sun next to us and I found myself feeling sorry for the cat for not understanding what a view it had. I don't think the cat cared about my opinion.
Next we headed to Hallah Moustafa’s, which is relatively close to Yasmina’s. Hallah is actually an American but she has been here for over 20 years making beautiful costuming. The inside of her workshop was filled with women and men beading and pinning fabric on mannequins. She and her assistant brought us back to her office, fed us sweets and tea, and brought a variety of high end costumes to try on. I’m including a picture of what I was able to try- but please don’t share it as I didn’t purchase any of them (yet). The only one that was fully finished is the one in the top right corner, the rest would have more bling and alteration done before they were stage-worthy. I’m sure its hard for non-bellydancers to appreciate the full difference between a cheap Chinese costume and this kind of artistry, but trust me when I say her stuff is pretty incredible. We ran down the clock trying things on, headed back to Yasmina’s for a dance lesson in her home studio, and dropped Hallah and her assistant off on the way.
I made a request to Yasmina to hook us up with a Mahgranat Shaabi teacher during our time here and she really picked a great person- her son’s half-sister! Heba is in her early twenties and adorable and speaks limited English (it was still pretty good though). She is an amazing dancer and is part of two Shaabi performance groups. She is also a singer. Shaabi dance is super energetic and often involves using a tough persona- not my forte. Heba got her brother to translate the song we worked on word-for-word. I wish I could share the video but she requested that we not- Rosa mentioned that Heba recently deleted many of her non-hijabi pictures from social media, so she might be trying to portray a more conservative or religious style on the internet.
Shaabi style of music and dance has been around for awhile- Shaabi refers to a certain type of neighborhood and style that you find in Cairo. But Mahgranat Shaabi is a relatively new style of music that arose after the 2008 revolution. Its seen as kind of low class here, and even Yasmina’s son was cracking jokes about the quality of song writing. It’s main themes are usually drinking and smoking, flirting and women, and politics. I would really like to dance to one but I have to be careful about doing something inappropriate- say, being an American and dancing to a super political song. It is also difficult because Egyptian songs are usually not overt in their themes. There are a lot of double entendres, for example, talking about a woman’s beautiful melons or something. So its dicey waters. It was so great to take a lesson with a native Arabic speaker. Many of the dance moves referenced what was actually happening in the lyrics. The song Heba picked was about flirting and the many problems there are with women and men.
After our lesson, we took an Uber to a Nile boat restaurant to meet my friend Khaled who lives in Dubai, but is from Egypt and was here visiting and getting some paperwork in order. As you can imagine, Uber is a godsend for non-native speakers. You put in your destination (so you don’t have to explain it) and Uber calculates the cost (so you don’t have to worry about getting ripped off). Also Uber drivers tend to be a little less insane in their driving than taxi cabs, although we did take those with Shahrzad and it was pretty exhilarating to whip through traffic.
It was great to meet Khaled in person. He has a really interesting perspective on Egypt, and life in general, being that he has lived in Dubai for so long and is very Western. The restaurant itself was really random. It was a very fancy atmosphere and they served Western food (it was a new place and Yasmina had suggested we check it out- otherwise I would not have picked it) and played Western music… kind of. They were playing really beautiful jazz-lounge covers of American songs- but really silly ones. Like YMCA and Welcome to the Jungle. We all got a pretty good kick out of it, but I probably shouldn’t be so judgmental. A big part of this trip and my dance education in general is to clue myself in to these cultural mishmashes that may not seem “wrong” to me as an non-native, but to Middle Eastern folks seem just as weird as playing a jazzy version of YMCA in a fancy restaurant. I already know I’ve made mistakes like this. In the Arabic hookah lounge that I danced in in Knoxville I once used what I thought was a really beautiful song to perform to, only to have the manager Omar look at me afterwards and ask “why are you dancing to a song that you’re supposed to sit down and cry to?”
Today we have another private lesson in the morning, then we are hitting up the Textile Museum, the famous market Khan el Khalili, and a Tanourra show- another kind of song and dance performed in the Middle East.
These were originally a series of emails sent to my immediate family and friends. Their ormatting has been left largely intact.
Hey Fam! (and random friends that I have convinced to receive these emails)
It is practically noon here and I just woke up. We were out until 4am last night watching dancing and music and smoking hookah. Cairo by night is a whole other scene and I love it.
We started the day yesterday with a tour of Coptic Cairo with Nibal and our driver. We saw the Cavern Church (famous for housing baby Jesus and Mary when they came to Egypt), the Church of St. George (who defeated a dragon and had a tragic death involving chains and dragging. You were allowed to take a selfie with the chains that he supposedly died in around your neck. I declined), a beautiful synagogue, and the Hanging Church (named for being built above ground) where there was an active service happening during our visit and where I had to have a little cry in the back row because it was all so moving.
We grabbed street falafels on the way to our next destination, the fortress of Salahdin. Built above the city to protect it, it was the city center for many hundreds of years and from it we could see the Giza pyramids in the distance.
There was a beautiful mosque there, built a little later then the fortress, the Muhammad Ali Mosque. We had to have shoe coverings to go inside. There were quite a few active solo or family worshipers there with us, probably all fellow tourists. We got a passionate lecture from Nibal about Islam and how many misconceptions there are about how they treat women and what they believe about violence. Although it is well known what a divide there is between regular Islamic practitioners and extremists who twist its meaning for evil, it was still pretty heartbreaking to hear how much Nibal was affected personally by it.
We finished out our day with Nibal at the Egyptian Museum. I was really glad we had her around because the sheer volume of artifacts was overwhelming. The crown jewel of the museum is the King Tutankhamen collection, which is over 5,000 pieces of gold, wood, and stone work on items that might be used in everyday ancient Egyptian life. I can’t quite explain how amazing it was in detail, size (both huge and teeny tiny work), and especially in opulence. Of course, King Tut was actually a minor ruler of not much clout- he only led for 10 years. His importance in history is really more that his tomb was the least disturbed (read: robbed) from the Valley of the Kings. Can you imagine what the tomb of a ruler of many years might look like?
Next we rested for a few hours at an American dancer named Shahrzad’s flat in Zamalek, a wealthy neighborhood with a lot of expats. Shahrzad has been living here for two years with her boyfriend and has managed to build herself an amazing career dancing at weddings and hotels with her band. She also teaches worldwide and is recording a CD of original dance music with musicians here because she is a music nerd. Basically, she is the coolest. We tagged along with her to two gigs, each at a different hotel across town. She made a joke that the dressing rooms are the same everywhere- hers was a store room- however, she had an assistant at each place to serve her coffee and wheel her suitcase around. This is something I’ve never gotten at a gig…! She also performed with a six man band and singers at both places. Her shows were roughly an hour long, with breaks for costumes changes, all things you don’t often find at gigs in the US. She performed to many classic sing-alongs and had audience members clapping and dancing in their seats. Lots of Um Kalthoum, who is a singer with no real Western counterpart to compare to. Maybe most close to Elvis, but with a much more enduring and worshipful fandom. Her funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners to the streets in 1975.
I really want to nerd out on you all more about music and dance in Egypt but I have to get going on our planned day! We are going shopping at a fancy costume atelier, have a private lesson in Mahgranat Shaabi (a street style dance to accompany a style of music here that mostly closely resembles rap), and dinner with a life coach friend of mine who was born here but usually lives in the UAE.
These blog posts were originally sent as emails to my immediate family and friends. Their format has been left mostly intact.
At the Unas pyramid- only recently opened to the public- we were able to see an incredibly well preserved tomb with reliefs and hieroglyphs surrounding it on all four walls, AND (this is hard to describe so bear with me) there was another layer of relief carved on top of the other carvings of a very large man. It wasn’t apparent until they turned out the lights (spooky!) and shone the flashlight parallel to the wall. It was an incredible feeling to stand inside something built over 4,000 years ago and imagine how similar it was to when it was first created.
My favorite factoid was that carving the reliefs was (likely- understanding of it evolves as we gather more info) a multi-step process involving many professionals. The first step was that painters would come in and paint the scene. Then carvers would make the paintings three-dimensional, then the painters would come back in again and add color. You could see this process in one of the tombs that was only partially completed. There was a lot to look at in the carvings- Nile crocodiles fighting Nile hippos, hair stylists, butchering of livestock, lots of lotus flowers and papyrus, and a fair few penises too. The carvings were supposed to be everything the royalty might need in the afterlife so there were lots of scenes of servants and food.
The highlight of the trip was the Red Pyramid, built during the 4th dynasty. It was a 64 meter drop into the tomb, which you had to descend while bent almost halfway over. Now that I’m retelling it, I’m not sure exactly why this was the highlight except that it was so physically strenuous and cramped that it made us giddy.
Our lunch consisted of a cocktail of carbohydrates in hefty servings. The dish had (at least) three different kinds of noodles in it, lentils, chick peas, a few other unidentifiable grains, and a topping of fried onions. (I found out later that this is called Koshari and is a popular Egyptian dish.) After touring the pyramids, it was much needed.
We ended the day at the Giza Plateau, which was awe-inspiring but much more crowded than the other sites. It offered some great photo ops. We also stopped by a papyrus museum (I got MJ a scroll with the hieroglyphic alphabet and her name!), and a fancy essential oil shop.
Other “I’m definitely in another country” moments included; women balancing massive pots, boxes, and bags on their heads, watching one car weave between two other cars on a two-lane road, and waking at 5am to the call to prayer played on loudspeakers citywide.
Tomorrow, more touring, napping in town (the B&B is far from the city center) at an American dancer’s flat, then heading out for a double bellydance show! Performances usually happen no earlier than 12am, but luckily this aligns well with my internal EST clock.
Oh! And last but not least… Today I tried to flush a toilet using a random knob in the wall. I heard the rushing noise of water and figured I’d gotten it right. But then I felt water hitting my knees…? And my shoes. And basically my entire body from mid-thigh down. Turns out, it was the knob to turn on the bidet.