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Yasmina of Cairo

Yasmina’s Belly Dancers’ B&B



I knew Journey of Desire would be a personal account of life in Cairo as a professional dancer, and there are several excellent tableaux of performances by the wonderful Yasmina of Cairo, but the film’s strength, for me, lies in what it conveys about the culture and music and just what this dance is all about it. On that score I think it’s a must-see for students and teachers alike, especially those who are not so clear – or who are misinformed! – about oriental dance’s cultural context.

Yasmina traces her career in dance, from England’s green and pleasant land of her childhood, to her final destination in the desert-bound heat and chaos of modern Cairo. We are given glimpses of the struggle and the hard road to employment as a dancer – the training, the orchestra, the costumes and costumiers, the negotiations with agents. One of the lighter strands of the film (depending on your perspective, I suppose!) is Australian dancer Caroleen's saga of the long journey through officialdom to full possession of all the relevant legal documents allowing a dancer to shake just one shimmy in public. We see Yasmina training with the inimitable Ibrahim Akef and are introduced to her personal story – her marriage to Safaa Farid and the birth of their son, Azz – alongside the progress of her career.

The previously mentioned tableaux are joyously performed, full of life and verve and giving a tempting glimpses of Cairo life – from rooftop baladi to Giza assaya and – probably my favourite – a humorous, Keystone Cops-like segue of the utter chaos of Cairo traffic leading into a sha’abi number with hunky dancing garage mechanics! The performances show Yasmina’s utter professionalism, ranging through the different styles, and her consummate understanding of the music and culture of her chosen home.

We don’t only get Yasmina’s perspective though – she has also interviewed other world reknowned dancers and teachers like Dina, Shareen el Safy, Raqia Hassan, Beatta and Horacio Cifuentes, and I challenge anyone not to be moved to tears by Morocco of New York’s emotional description of tarab! In fact, the whole subject of this dance that we so enthusiastically embrace and taken to our hearts is treated with such deserved seriousness and joy that I was moved to tears several times during the film.

This is no amateur offering. The production values of the film are totally professional, from expert camerawork and lighting to familiar techniques of interviewing. It could easily be broadcast as it is on any British terrestrial channel and stand alongside the best.

So not only do we have a variety of performances from Yasmina – seriously emotive, light-hearted or just plain fun (check that purple wig!) - we are also given a truly invaluable insight right into the heart of Egyptian culture, both elements providing a much-needed framework for our understanding of this wonderful dance. This is a truly professional, informative, insightful, instructive and, perhaps most importantly, joyful film.

Ali Orr, NADA Magazine UK


Picture the scene: a garage somewhere in the back streets of Cairo, crammed with dusty vintage cars that have seen better days, a film crew, four bemused male dancers in mechanics’ overalls, and a crowd of local onlookers who’ve squeezed in to have a look. The temperature is a scorching 90 degrees, we are dripping sweat, the ground is lumpy gravel on which I’m attempting to dance in high heels wearing a stretch disco outfit and a purple wig. Not for the first time since it all began I’m asking myself, “What exactly am I doing here, and am I actually completely mad?!” Like many a creative project, Journey of Desire: A Foreign Dancer in Cairo evolved over time, and ended up a very different piece of film from its original concept. The title was thought up by the film’s director Sara Farouk (known by some in the UK as Maureen O’Farrell), after reading my script. The “desire” was (and, for some, still is) to dance in Cairo. The “journey” was my personal one. It changed my life completely but, as the film shows, having a relationship with this dance - especially with the added ingredient of Cairo - has affected or changed the lives of other women too. To all intents and purposes the film explores the relationship between Cairo and the many foreign dancers that come here and, having come, have felt compelled to come back again and again, or to live and work here.

In 1999, when I had been dancing in Cairo for four years, the idea of documenting the local scene began to formulate in my mind. At that stage, surrounded by what seemed the disintegration of the dance - most of the great stars hanging up their costumes and night-clubs closing left right and centre - the obvious approach seemed to be to try to capture what was left before it disappeared, and to interview Egyptian dancers. Here was a world that was disappearing before our very eyes and would probably never return. Despite having done a degree in Film and Photography at Central London Polytechnic back in the 1980s, I was by profession a stills photographer, not a film-maker. Details! Determined not to let lack of experience stand in my way, I bought a broadcast-quality camera in London and returned to Cairo full of optimism and purpose. But my initial approaches to dancers and trainers upturned a problem I hadn’t bargained for: each interview looked set to involve substantial sums of money; the idea of being interviewed for purposes of documentation was alien to those I spoke to. Wasn’t I planning to sell the film and get rich (they reasoned)? Then I would have to pay them to talk! As a novice film-maker I was financing the project myself, without any sponsorship or backing, so I backed off, disheartened, and for several years the camera lay gathering dust in my wardrobe.

But that’s not to say I didn’t film anything - indeed, I continued making “home movies” of life in Cairo with my camcorder, some of which were to come in useful later on. When I had my son Azzedine and finally decided to retire officially from the Cairo stage in 2003, I withdrew from the dancers’ “circuit” and concentrated on teaching and on the journalism that was beginning to link me with other artistic and creative circles in Cairo. But in the back of my mind the idea of making a film never went away, and I became more and more convinced that it was still a good idea. Over the years I could not fail to notice the considerable international interest generated by the idea of foreign dancers working in Cairo, and this emerged as a starting point. “Why not tell my own story?” I finally realised. Occasionally I came into contact with other people attempting to make documentaries about the dance in Cairo (one such film, in which I had participated, had been shown in Germany back in 1996, and I still hear dancers commenting about it today). Such film-makers work under difficult conditions, not least because officially they must declare their intentions to the Egyptian Ministry of Information and are closely monitored as a result. Also, a visiting film-maker with time constraints is bound to come up against the logistical nightmare of trying to work to a tight timetable in a city which invariably thwarts any attempts at organisation! How much better and easier would it be, I reasoned, to actually be living here and have the luxury of unlimited time and inside knowledge to achieve the end result? Unfortunately what I didn’t have was the luxury of a decent budget, but I began the project bit by bit, using money I was earning to complete different segments whenever I could. Once the project was underway, Farida Dance also gave me an injection of funds as an incentive to carry on, just when I was feeling particularly daunted by the financial outlay.

The dance sequences that are now incorporated into the film began as a completely separate idea. I had toyed with the concept of producing a teaching video to include choreographies, each ending with a “performance” shot on location, to add a bit of fun and colour. As the documentary idea began to take shape in my mind, however, I saw how these sequences could be given a context and used to illustrate different aspects not only of the dance but also of my feelings about Cairo. The location of each dance reflects for me something about the spirit of that piece of music. Sometimes the result ended up almost exactly as I’d planned, and sometimes it didn’t at all but, as is the way in Cairo, it often worked out fine anyway. Like the time we arrived at the carefully arranged location with expensive film crew in tow and a time limit (the sun was setting) only to discover the owner of the place had not bothered to check what was happening there that day, and a construction company had literally just dumped a ton of bricks at the exact spot I’d chosen to dance on. (After hastily regrouping, we moved to a different spot and cut it later with another location - and the result was even better). When we shot the baladi rooftop sequence, the obvious props we needed were chickens (every baladi rooftop in Cairo has them!). Who could have predicted the bird flu epidemic, during which every last chicken in the city was slaughtered or removed from view, and couldn’t be found for love or money?!

About filming in front of the pyramids I have only this to say: if asked by the Ministry of Antiquities where I got permission, the official response has to be “No no - can’t you see it’s a studio backdrop with clever lighting?”

For anyone who has been to Egypt, and has an imagination, Sara and I need not spell out the difficulties of working with a cut-price extra-low budget film crew. If we didn’t both have a sense of humour I doubt we could have gone the distance. Lights toppling over, buzzing microphones and cables being tripped over on a regular basis weren’t the half of it. Some of the time it was film-making by trial and error, and we never knew quite which type of lighting would turn up on each interview, so some poor interviewees got full-on unflattering tungsten, while others had soft filters and reflectors. (Superstar Dina, being a pro at the game, took no chances and cannily insisted we come and film her at her friend’s photographic studio, where she seated herself between three large soft-boxes. Smart.)

Filming on the streets of Cairo poses its own hazards and difficulties and, for obvious reasons, we usually got the Egyptian cameraman to go off and do these shots on his own. It is a much lamented issue among documentary film-makers that the Egyptian authorities place strict restrictions about what one can and can’t film in public places, with the emphasis being on presenting everything in the country in a flattering light. Plenty of foreign film crews have been chastised for (sometimes inadvertently) filming a pile of rubbish, or children begging. In a recent Egyptian movie, heartthrob actor Hany Salama played the role of a documentary maker shooting a film about street children. While filming through the car window a shot of a vagrant kid sniffing glue, he is hauled bodily out of the car by passers by and dragged off to the police station to explain himself. Our own cameraman Medo also ended up in the police station on one occasion after filming in the street, and kept the film running so we got to see the inside of the station and the officer filing his report, unaware the record button was still running.

Sara and I were also careful not to show any footage that deliberately incorporates a mosque or the call to prayer. It was a shame, as Egyptian people enfold their religion into the fabric of their daily lives in a very real way. It seemed, in fact, strange to us to be excluding an aspect of life that is intrinsically part of Cairo, and very audio-visually present. But I took the advice given to me by Egyptian friends, and acknowledge that especially in the current climate it might be controversial to mix Islam with belly-dancing in any form whatever. We interviewed over thirty people in the course of making Journey of Desire - and almost all of them make an appearance. The list grew and grew as I thought of more and more things I wanted to say! One could point out that this is an unorthodox approach to film-making but, then again, most film-makers don’t necessarily have the option of doing it this way. To some extent I was limited, especially in terms of international dancers, by who came to Cairo during the period in which we were shooting - but the more “inclusive” the film became, I sometimes missed opportunities which I later wished I hadn’t. On the other hand Sara, more aware than I of the hard realities of editing, had to constrain me on numerous occasions and simply say to me, as I reached for my phone to order the camera crew for yet another interview: “WE DON’T NEED IT.” “Er, ok then.” All those years back, when I prepared to make that other film about what was happening to the dance, I did manage to interview one visiting “name” in the dance world: Shareen el Safy, who was then owner and editor of Habibi magazine. I took the interview down from its shelf, dusted it off and, watching it, realised that most of what she said is still very relevant today. I am glad that the other dancers who participated in this film did so with grace and enthusiasm, wanting to share their experiences, not least because there is often seen to be a sense of rivalry, competitiveness and hostility among dancers in Cairo (as the Russian dancer Noor told me unequivocally during her interview: since we are all women, such an atmosphere of hostility had come as no surprise to her).

There were other dancers whose experiences in Cairo I would have loved to include. Among them two special and talented performers, Samasem of Sweden (who was there before me and stopped almost when I did) and Sahra Saeeda of California, who preceded me at the Meridien Heliopolis and was a hard act to follow. Both these dancers were inspirational to me and a part of what one night-club manager referred to as “the golden age of the foreign dancer” in the 1990s. Neither were in Cairo at any time whilst I was doing the interviews for the film, so unfortunately I never got a chance to invite them to take part. I also wanted to interview the Brazilian dancer Soraya but, though she was willing on the phone, we never could actually pin her down to a time or place. Many people contributed in different ways to the making of the film, lending their time, effort and expertise freely, because they supported the idea. I would like to mention in particular Hallah Moustafa, the designer, who proved herself to be far more than just a brilliant costumier. Also Safaa Farid, Abou Azz, who helped with co-ordinating the dance sequences, among other things. As is appropriate for Egypt, the film sometimes became a family affair, both off screen and on - as those of you who know us will recognise!

Making Journey of Desire was a fascinating experience for both Sara and I in terms of what emerged from the many people we spoke to on the subject of the dancer’s role in Middle Eastern society. For me it confirmed what I had been aware of for many years as a performer here: that in Egypt attitudes towards the oriental dancer and all she represents are complex and sadly often overwhelmingly negative. Hardly anyone seemed truly able to speak freely on the subject, even those who initially said they would. And when I approached a contact in the world of modern dance (who has had numerous problems herself in becoming accepted as an artist in her own right) to comment - from the point of view of an Egyptian woman in the field of “legitimate” dance - she became instantly cagey. To even speak openly about “bellydance” would, it seemed, be so problematic that she wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. When it came to comments about the way the dance remains officially unrecognised and unsupported by the powers that be, many people would only speak “off the record”. Ah, what an interesting documentary those off-the-record conversations could make.

I hope that people will truly get a glimpse into what it is like inside the world of a working foreigner in Egypt. It is very much a joint effort, and I could never have made it without Sara’s knowledge, support and expertise. This is what she herself has to say about the film: “Directing Journey of Desire has been a truly rewarding experience from a visual, intellectual and emotional point of view. I have learnt so much from listening to and observing the contributors as well as from the problems and joys related to the process. Of course it is a film, first and foremost, about Egypt and its dance, but it is also an investigation into attitudes regarding a special kind of woman - a woman who is strong enough to own her own sexuality, to really know herself, her art and her place, and exhibit that strength publicly - to perform alone. For both participants and audience the film is exactly what the title says it is - a journey of desire – a journey that means something different to each individual.”

For myself it has at times been a difficult thing to produce because it has involved a certain amount of raw self-exposure. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster but, in the end, whether people enjoy it or not, I can vouch that it comes from my love of Cairo, my love for the dance, and it comes from the heart.


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