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Yasmina of Cairo

Yasmina’s Belly Dancers’ B&B

 



THE GUARDIAN, 24th JUNE 1999

NAVEL WARFARE
Their clubs have been torched, their shows have been banned and they’ve even had to cover their gyrating midriffs. As Egypt prepares itself for a weeklong celebration of belly dancing, DAVID SHARROCK finds that the ancient art is falling foul of fundamentalists.

The tourists may be drifting back to Egypt but the war of the Cairene belly has been lost by the locals. The land of the Pharaohs’ most emblematic art form is dying for want of official and popular encouragement. The belly dance is an endangered species and its most fervent defenders are increasingly blonde-haired, professionally trained ballerinas from Russia, northern Europe and even South America.

Invaders are nothing new in a city as ancient and large as Cairo. Besides, Russians are everywhere in the Middle East nowadays. But times are especially hard now for the native exponents of the belly dance whose place in society has always been precarious. Regularly condemned by Egypt’s Islamic militants as licentious, and looked down upon by polite society as disreputable, the dancers suffer from a variety of official prejudices which is accelerating their demise.

Belly dancing has been banned from TV for years as part of the strategy of President Hosni Mubarak to take the wind out of the sails of the fundamentalists by absorbing the codes of Islam. Last year, for instance, the American University in Cairo was banned from importing 89 books, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Dance has always been a central part of western fascination for Egypt. But in 1977 and again in 1986, many clubs were attacked and torched by fundamentalists. To be called a “son of a dancer” is a very serious insult.

To enforce a strict code of conduct, every dancer must be registered with the ‘morals police’ who regularly turn up unannounced at performances to check on costumes and deportment. To preserve modesty, the dancers are obliged to cover their midriffs with fabric. In practice, they generally wear a skin-coloured net. In March, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric,

Grand Mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wasel, issued a fatwa forbidding belly dancers and actresses from participating in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca unless they pledged to quit showbusiness.

“They should give up these sins and return to God,” Wasel decreed. “The Haj of the belly dancers and actresses is invalid if they do not repent.”

Now comes the big test of acceptability. Tomorrow Egypt is to stage its first ever international festival of Oriental dance, with workshops and masterclasses given by divas such as Nagua Fouad and trainers to the stars such as Raqia Hassan and Ibrahim Akef. The organizers fear that the media will ignore the week-long event. “We have been organizing this festival for five years,” says Magdi Abdel Ghaffar, “and it has not been easy.” Magdi’s fears are even shared among the foreigners, whose love of belly dancing has brought them to Cairo to imbue the true spirit and make a living out of its practice.

Yasmina performs with her ten piece orchestra at the five-star Meridien Heliopolis. Yasmina’s real name is Francesca Sullivan, she is 37 and from London. Off duty she wouldn’t look out of place at a home counties gymkhana, but when she appears barefoot in her tassled and diaphanous costume, aficionados say she succeeds in presenting the genuine feel of the dance.

It was perhaps an indication of the state of the home-grown product that, upstairs at the same hotel, the Argentinian dancer Asmahan was entertaining revellers at a society wedding for around $2,000. But even the lucrative wedding party market is under threat because of the rising conservatism of Cairene society.

“More and more weddings are cutting the traditional belly dancing out of the programme as they’re afraid they will offend somebody,” says Yasmina. “We once had to bring one to a halt after ten minutes. The bride’s brother had booked us as a surprise present. On one side of the room, the family were all clapping. On the other, the groom’s were just exuding terrible disapproval. There’s this strange attitude towards dancers – the big weddings want to have the top performers, but they wouldn’t dream of inviting you home for dinner.”

Yasmina looks back with nostalgia to the boom days of the 1980’s, when Gulf money was splashing around London and the Omar Khayam nightclub in Regent Street was the place. When she moved to Cairo to study dance further, she fell in love with the city and cannot leave. She keeps a horse near the pyramids and rides most days before work.

Yasmina looks back with nostalgia to the boom days of the 1980’s, when Gulf money was splashing around London and the Omar Khayam nightclub in Regent Street was the place. When she moved to Cairo to study dance further, she fell in love with the city and cannot leave. She keeps a horse near the pyramids and rides most days before work.

“Because I’m a foreigner, I’m more acceptable as a dancer,” she says. “But even so, many people would still be embarrassed to introduce me to their friends. I feel sorry for the Russians because they do not deserve the reputation they have. There was an article in an Egyptian magazine lately called The Great Foreign Conspiracy which accused us, and especially them, of destroying belly dancing. The Russians are cheaper and there’s so little work that everyone is undercutting everyone else. It’s become a horrible war and the real victim is the quality.”

Yasmina and her orchestra have lost one prize contract to a Russian showgirl band, and while four years ago she may have been rushing across Cairo to give five performances in one night, today she’s content if she has one booking: “It’s the dance that keeps me here, it really gets into your blood. But I don’t know how much longer it can last. The dance I fell in love with belongs to a particular point in history which may probably never be revived. Unless Egyptians can learn to love belly dancing again, and accept it the same way that the Spanish have embraced and promoted flamenco, the future is bleak.”
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