Friday, June 21, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part IV

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger.  The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt.  This week's post is Part IV and the finale.  You can also go back and read Part I, Part II, and Part III.
The time spent in Cairo is all a bit fuzzy for me (see previous sections about lack-of-sleep, immense stress, sleeping pills).
We spent time in Khan el Khalili and I got to witness what a true barter looks like.  Ali was a force to be reckoned with.  He had the vendors yelling words, in fits, but always got us a good price.

For lunch we had Koshary, the Egyptian version of Mac n Cheese (without the cheese).  It’s my favorite Egyptian dish.  Pasta and something crunchy with some strange spices.  Whatever it is, it’s yummy and I highly recommend it.

We visited Muhammed Ali Street, once a great place full of famous belly dancers, now run down.  Fortunately Khamis Henkesh’s store still stands, a tiny, closet-sized place filled with the most beautiful drums.  Khamis passed away earlier in the year, but we did get to meet his sons Ahmed and Reda. They drummed for us while we danced.  Amaya and I walked away with a new tabla each and I also bought a riqq that I don’t know how to play.
To be honest, the rest of Cairo is a blur.  I know we ate some more food.  We did some more sightseeing.  We got to see where Ali’s father lives and say hi to him. 

The feeling on Cairo was one of heavy-heartedness.  We did not see many smiles.  There were not many people hanging around and having a good time.  Cafes and restaurants were sparsely occupied.  It all felt very somber.  One of our lunch destinations had the news on.  As soon as it began speaking of the protests and our heads turned to pay attention, the owner turned it off.  People definitely tried to make us feel that Egypt is a wonderful place, and everyone wanted us to invite our friends and family to visit.  They wanted us to ignore the bad; Egypt needs tourism to boost its economy.   Many Egyptian men I spoke to are unhappy with the President and want him removed.  They worry about the Brotherhood taking over and making Egypt even more conservative and oppressive than its current state.  They worry for their children’s futures.  I worry for their children’s futures.

Abu Sir
That night, our last night in Egypt, Amar wanted to take us back to Abu Sir and show us his town and a local belly dancer.  As Ali drove to the hotel that Amar was to pick us up at (on the cusp of Cairo and Abu Sir), he kept saying “Oh this is a dangerous place.  I do not like this place; it’s not safe.”  Ali picked us up in a car that had been in his family for over 20 years.  He kept remarking about Cairo “Oh this is a dangerous place.  I don’t like this place and it is not safe for you.”  City boys versus country boys; I think they are the same anywhere you go.
We first had dinner with Amar and his mama.  We ate until we were full then Mama said “Eat! Eat!” so we ate more.  Then a little more.  I was stuffed but she really makes amazing food so I took a few more bites.  Lots of vegetables, bread, rice, potatoes, and a delicious fresh tomato salad.  After dinner we headed upstairs to meet Amar’s wife and newborn son, both beautiful.

Amar took us to the Internet Café that he owns.  On the way, he let both Amaya and myself try to drive his car.  It is stick-shift and we are on a narrow road next to a ditch.  That made for unique entertainment.
In Abu Sir, the buildings you see are all laid brick-by-brick by the family themselves.  This Internet café had a pool table, a bar, shisha, and a Jolly Roger flag.  It had a lot of personality and I loved it.

Afterwards we set out to find a local club with music and belly dancing.  The first placed we arrived at was really cute but alas, no dancer.  Amar drove along looking for an open place until we see one with stringed Christmas lights out front and a flashing sign.  We enter and head upstairs where we are seated at a table by the stage.  There is one other table with two men drinking a lot of beer.  Up to this point, we have not seen a single person in Egypt drink alcohol.
Amaya and I order a beer and shisha; Amar says his dad will kill him if he drinks.  The waitress brings two boxes of tissue to our table and begins a very intricate routine of cleaning each glass with several pieces of tissue paper.  She folds yet more tissues to lay in front of us, then angles the box of tissues just so.  It was a very meticulous and interesting thing to watch. 

Our waitress is the first woman in Abu Sir I have seen that is not covering her hair and she continually hits on Amar throughout the evening.  She is also wearing tight black jeans and a skin-tight Sponge Bob Square Pants shirt.  There are a few other women in the club dressed in similar fashion with lots of make-up and eyes marked by drug use.  They were extremely wonderful hostesses and attended to our every need.  Despite their hospitality I was concerned about being in a Cabaret and kept thinking “my belly dance teacher would not approve!” At one point Leilani excuses herself to the loo, only to come back a few minutes later and inform us that there was a woman in there with a very long silver knife.  I must admit that at this point, I’m a little scared to be there.

Eventually the band arrived and played music for us, and they tried to get us up to dance.  We declined, though looking back now I wish I hadn’t.  Our waitress belly danced for us and she was amazing.  She wasn’t quite beledi and wasn’t quite orientale.  I feel like her style of dance, and perhaps the class of cabaret dancers that she represents, could be a missing link between the two styles I know so well.  Her movements were fluid, internal, and gooey with sharp quick accents.  She danced very flat-footed and without much arm movement.  When she didn’t like what the band did, she’d shoot them a glare and they would change.  She was amazing and inspiring.  I learned more in the 15 minutes watching her dance than the entire 6 hours of training I had paid for.  If I go back to Egypt, I would like to return and dance with her.
Finally we head back to the hotel and say goodbye to our friend Amar.  He and his family are amazing people not soon forgotten.  I hope our paths cross again.

Goodbye Egypt
The next day we pack our things and make our goodbyes to Marissa and Victor, who are staying a few more days to explore.  We say goodbye to Ali and head to the airport.
Leilani and I travel together to Vienna for a one-night stay.  Vienna is such a culture shock.  Everyone is in stilettos, fur, and has perfect hair.  The taxi cabs are brand new Mercedes.  Our 3-star hotel is immaculate and the water is hot.
Though exhausted, we head downtown to the Hotel Sacher for their famous Sacher Torte and a capuccino. The coffee was delicious; the torte disappointing. 

The next day we fly to NY.  You would think my story ended here but not quite.  We are homesick, exhausted, jet-lagged, and still trying to make sense of our ‘retreat.’ As we enter JFK, the room is blasted with news of the Sandyhook shootings.  Welcome to America.
I have a layover and stay with Amaya that night.  The next morning I pack my bags and head to the airport, only to realize I’ve missed my flight.  I have a full-on breakdown, in the middle of the airport, complete with sobbing that involves a lot of snot.  I was a hot mess and I just wanted to see my husband and children.  I cannot express the depth of my emotional distraught.
Because I had booked my Seattle-NY flights on rewards travel, I would have had to wait another two days to get on a flight.  I bit the bullet and bought a new ticket, then headed to the bar.  The waitress gave me a double of Patron on the house.
I landed in Seattle and found my husband and children waiting for me.  Once again, a breakdown ensues.  I had never wanted to see someone so badly.  The smell of my children and the arms of my man were all I needed to feel safe again.  It’s good to be home.
It has been 5 months since that trip.  As of today, I am not inclined to visit Egypt anytime soon.  The political situation is unsteady and the country is hurt.  I saw women walking around town with black eyes, I spoke to several Egyptian men that want the Brotherhood gone, and I felt like the death-culture of Ancient Egypt was all around us.  The infrastructure is non-existent and the people are suffering.
That being said, there were many beautiful things about this trip.  Meeting the farmer in Fayoum, the palace guards dancing Saidi, the local sewing women, breadmaking, and especially the cabaret dancer.  The government may be in turmoil but the culture is fighting to survive.  Though this experience was nothing like what I expected, it has taught me so much and I’m grateful for the lessons.  It was an adventure.
Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part III

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger! The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt. This week's post is Part III. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
Ancient Egypt
“Get to the bus on time!  It leaves early and we don’t want to wait for anyone!”  We were all on the bus…and waited for Maria.  And waited some more…
We headed out to the Saqqara pyramids with a stop at the Imhotep museum first.  I hated history in high school but I love visiting museums.  It’s a pastime my husband and I share together, taking our time to read each word and really soak in the history of this world.
The museum had several very interesting artifacts, including a mummy (which they said was real and was VERY cool and creepy).  I could have spent a solid hour in the museum.  We were given 20 minutes.  My short-temper may have flared up at this point, especially given that this museum was one of our “optional” activities we had to pay extra for or be left on the bus while everyone else enjoys (it was also an add-on to the original program that I had not budgeted for but very badly wanted to see).  I got an extra 10 minutes.

We then headed to the Pyramids.  These are amazing.  Old, giant, beautiful, mystical.  Knowing they’ve stood for thousands of years and are Egypt’s oldest pyramids, I was in awe.  We headed in, going down, down, down into the depths.  Inside it is very cold and the walls are covered in hieroglyphs, some still containing color.  We were told by the pyramid ‘officials’ that no photography was allowed.  Then of course they said we could take photos for a small fee.  I should have known this would happen.  We asked Maria if tipping 1 Egyptian Pound (EP) would be enough and she informed us it was the equivalent of giving the man a penny.  Since she is our guide we figured she would know the custom, so we gave more.  However, on our way out we met a large group of tourists with a well-experienced Egyptian tour guide.  She told us that tipping more than 1EP per person was WAY too much.  We’d given our guy 25EP each.  I’m beginning to doubt coming on this retreat.
We had lunch at the Bedouin Cafe.  As soon as we parked we were met by two drummers playing wonderful music.  We danced a little then settled in and had a delicious lunch.

Beledi Night
We returned from our trip and I was so exhausted that I slept instead of going to class.  I heard everyone danced with a piece of string.

We went to dinner and were all very excited about the Beledi Band Maria had hired for us.  Originally this was to be a girls’ night with the local village women, where everyone gets dolled up and has a good time.  Of course with the death in the family, we were told the village women would not be able to join us.  That was one of the most disappointing things of the entire trip.  I had looked forward to making new female friends and seeing how the village women danced, what they wore, how they styled their hair and make-up, etc.

As soon as we got back to the guest house, she told us the band was waiting for us and we didn’t have time to change into nice clothes, put on make-up, etc.  Who wants to go to a party in dust-covered clothes and hair all a mess?  We took 10 minutes to freshen up.
We entered the Dome where we saw three musicians waiting for us, cushions laid out in the middle of the Dome for us to sit on and have tea, and…men! Lots of men.  Lots of men we do not know, sitting at the back of the Dome, waiting to watch us dance.  We were not introduced to any of them nor told who they were.  The idea of strange men being invited to our party, without our permission or knowledge, to watch us dance, felt wrong, especially when the local women were not allowed to come.  At least we could sit, sip tea, and listen to the band.

We sat down and enjoyed the music while Maria and one other woman danced.  Eventually she must have learned that the other 14 women were not dancing due to our surprise company.  She asked them to leave and though it was a bit uncomfortable, eventually we had the party to ourselves.  After that, nearly every dancer got up and enjoyed the music.  Leilani got to dance to a live band for the first time, I got to enjoy seeing belly dance from around the world, and we all let loose and have fun.
The band only played for two hours, which was disappointing.  Maria told us that was all we had paid for with our original program fee and the added tip.  Hmm…

We were told to get some sleep and be at the bus at 9am SHARP because it would be a long journey to Fayoum the next day.

That night, my two traveling buddies Leilani and Amaya*, and I have a long discussion about the retreat.  We all feel as though this retreat is not what it had been promoted as.  We also feel very strange regarding Maria and her practices around money (did I mention she was constantly asking either Amar or the retreat attendees for money for lunch, etc.?).

We find out the other two Americans on the retreat, Marissa* and Victor*, feel the same way and are planning to leave after the Fayoum trip.  For Victor, activities were to be planned for him to enjoy while the rest of us were in class.  Instead, he’d been stuck in the house every time we dance (10 hours thus far).  Nothing had been planned for him.  As an American business-owner I feel that customers should receive what they’ve paid for and this simply was not happening.

I did not sleep that night.  I called my husband in America and had a long, long talk with him.  Lots of tears.  I was homesick, out of sorts, feeling taken advantage of, and not knowing what to do.  He tells me to stick with Marissa and Victor. 
Marissa and I share a contact in the US who is an amazing drummer and our hero of the trip.  Egyptian-born, he calls out to his family in Cairo.  His cousin is available to get us the day after our Fayoum trip, take us to a hotel, then show us around Cairo for the remaining time of our stay.  A solution we are all excited and relieved for!

After talking with my husband, I stayed on the roof of the Dome to look at the stars and the moon.  In the distance I could hear men yelling and dogs barking.  As the sun came up, the call-to-prayer began and, like a chorus, the local animals awoke and chimed in with their own songs.  Despite the stress and angst I was feeling, the beauty of the moment really took my breath away.

Donkeys and Beledi
9am: everyone is on the bus.  9:45am Maria gets on the bus and we leave.

The bus ride is bumpy and uncomfortable.  I try to catch some ZZZs with little luck.  I eat a ton of ginger to help my tummy.  Ginger drops are essential to travel.

We make one stop at a convenience store for snacks and restrooms.  As we get back on the road, we are confronted by a vehicle full of police.  This happened in Zanzibar to my husband and I; we simply paid the officer some money and he left us alone.  This situation was a bit different.  The police decided they needed to stay with us during the entire trip to Fayyoum.  It made me a bit nervous and the atmosphere on the bus became apprehensive.  I think they just wanted money, but it’s also quite possible they traveled along for our safety or to make sure we didn’t get into trouble.  Eventually we all relaxed and at the end of the trip we were all required to hand over cash for their ‘escort.’ 

As we go along the road, we come upon major congestion.  It turns out that local villagers have blockaded to road with two large tree logs in an effort to get the government’s attention.  Four days prior, their local water plant had broken a pipe and the village was flooded.  They lost their crops, the grazing fields for cattle, and four children were killed.  Four days had passed and their village was still being flooded.  Even writing this my heart is breaking.  The village was devastated.

We detoured and eventually made our way to our destination.  Fayoum is beautiful.  Sunny, clean, flowers everywhere and a fresh feeling in the air.  For once, we are allowed to wander around by ourselves.  We explore the grounds, checking out the local flora, abandoned buildings and just enjoying the sunshine.  Eventually we come upon a field with several water buffalo tethered up and two donkeys at the end.  Of course I must see the donkeys.

Victor and I decide we can reach the donkeys together.  Despite there being a path just on the other side of a small creek, he is determined we can traverse the muddy farm terrain.  I’m in fancy sparkly sandals. 

We start across the field, saying hello to each water buffalo.  As we near the center of the field, one buffalo begins to make an awful noise directed at us.  As we get closer, she clearly gets uneasy.  She goes from sitting to standing in a mere moment and begins to growl at us.  Needless to say, we ran the rest of the way.  I’m now in brown sandals.

While this scene unfolds, there is a local farmer across the creek laughing his butt off.  We reach the donkeys and he comes over to say hello.  We don’t speak Arabic and he doesn’t speak English, yet somehow we connect.  We say hi to the beautiful, sweet donkeys, one of which has hennaed hair that I immediately fell in love with.  In our conversations with the farmer, I mention the words ‘raqs beledi’ and he gets very excited!  He mentions ‘tabla beledi’ and we both know we understand each other. I invite him to come to the café and get some music going.  He does and several waiters come out to play drums.  We all dance and have an amazing time.  THIS is what I had traveled so far to experience.  This was Egypt.

After an amazing lunch of fish and vegetables, we get on the bus and head over to the Qaroun Palace, a Ptolemaic temple.  It is huge and very square with an interesting layout.  We explore, head to the top and take lots of photos.  We get on the bus to head home but of course I need to use the restroom.  So we stop at the guard station on our way out and learn that every woman on the bus also has the same need.

As we wait, the bus driver puts on saidi music.  I ask him to turn it up and Amar and I start dancing on the bus.  The palace guards then start dancing around and eventually find sticks and begin to dance with them.  Then, of course, everyone starts dancing in the middle of the desert on a spontaneous whim.  That is the beauty of good music.
It’s been an amazing day.  Freedom, sunshine, beledi. 

That night, Leilani, Amaya and I tell Maria we are leaving the next day.  It was a difficult and sad conversation.  We expressed all we were unhappy with but she did not hear us.  We asked for a partial refund and she said she would think about it.   After the trip, she refunded each of us $40.

When Maria left our room, Amar took Amaya and I into the desert to talk about the events and make peace.  We wanted to ensure he knew we were very happy with his family and their hospitality.  They were amazing and so kind to us. We joined him that night at his ‘boys club,’ a gathering of some local guys for after-work tea and hash.  It was really fun to see how different yet very similar Egyptian men are to American men.  We enjoyed the tea with them then headed to bed.
The next morning we were not allowed to say goodbye to the rest of the dancers, nor did Maria say a word to us.  Thankfully the host family saw us off.  It was very sad to say goodbye to them.  Every American at the retreat left.

The aforementioned cousin, Ali*, picked us up and took us to the Novotel, a 5-star hotel.  There was rotten food in the fridge and roaches on the wall.  Ah Cairo!
We toured around Cairo and were all giggles and laughs.  I had taken a sleeping pill offered by Victor the night before to help me rest.  I was high the entire day.  Note to self, don’t take strange pills from handsome, homegrown American men that give off a hippy-conspiracy-theorist vibe.  Like I said, lots of giggles.

That evening, Ali told us to stay in the hotel due to protests on the streets and we are quickly reminded that Egypt is in a revolution.  We opened a bottle of wine in our hotel room and we all toasted to living in America and to good times ahead. 
Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part II

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger! The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt. This week's post is Part II. You can read Part I here.

After the long, cold night ended, I awoke to the beautiful sun shining outside our window and I took in the view.  We could see part of the Saqqara pyramids from the home, just on the other side of the village trash heap.  Each morning I awoke, I would sit and watch various villagers bring their trash to this heap and burn it.  I would also witness other people, several children, and many dogs go through this trash looking for what treasures and food they could find.  Though occasionally the wind would blow the wrong way and fill the house with a unique aroma, it was a humbling experience to see every morning.  Morning prayers rang out from a van that traveled through town.

We dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.  Each morning it was held on the second floor around the Dome at 8am.  The Dome is a breathtakingly beautiful room built by the host family.  Perfectly round, painted a calming bright blue, gorgeous wood floors, two alcoves for holding items, and a roof vent that extends above the Dome and is inlaid with lights, this space is truly unique and special. The acoustics alone are amazing.  The shape of the room causes voices to be tossed around, bouncing off walls and floor.  I could not hear the person standing two feet from me speak, yet I could hear someone whisper from the other side of the room.  There is no secrecy in this room.

For breakfast we sat on cushions lined up along the wall and ate from giant silver tables, engraved with many markings.  We had fresh fruit, cheese, bread, and, most importantly, homemade falafel!  According to what I’ve eaten in American restaurants, I don’t like falafel.  This, however, was amazing!  The men of the house made it fresh every morning; I could have eaten a bucket of it.  Perfectly crisped, salted and seasoned just right, it really brightened my morning and I looked forward to it each day.

Let’s Dance?
After breakfast we prepared for our first day of training.  Everyone met in the Dome and there were light introductions with names and where each person was from.  We began warming up by singing.   Those of you who know me know very darn well I’m not a singer, unless of course margaritas and karaoke are involved (Lady Marmalade anyone?).  I thought it an odd thing for a dance retreat, but what the heck, let’s try.  Everyone gathered into a circle, joined hands and began singing.  What, you may ask, did we sing?  Whatever sound moved you.  No chanting.  No song.  Just voices.  It was a neat experience, though not really my thing.  It lasted for what felt like 20 minutes and would be repeated throughout the dance retreat.  I was ready to dance.

Dancing had to wait.  After singing, we were then taught a routine that would happen before each class and at the end of each class.  One by one we went around the circle chanting to each other and mimicking moves that each person created on the spot.  There are 15 people.  It took a long time.

Finally, we get to dance!  I can’t wait to hear some heavy beledi, get into my hips and let loose!  Only, it wasn’t quite time for dancing.  Instead we were taught about the skeleton and we moved according to each part of the spine (cervical, thoraci, lumbar, sacrum).  As a former Biologist, I’m very familiar with the spine (heck, I’ve seen the darn thing first-hand).  I really appreciate when people take the time to educate dancers about the body and how to use safe technique.  This was becoming a bit much though.  The lessons lasted at least a full hour, maybe longer.  I came to belly dance.  Let’s dance already.

Several more activities occurred in the Dome throughout the day, and we did have a break for lunch and bread making (more on that later).  Finally, we got to the Beledi.  We trained for 6 hours and only the last hour was dedicated to what I’d traveled thousands of miles and paid thousands of dollars to learn.  Though I was sorely disappointed with the lack of beledi dance, I was not disappointed when it was taught.  Maria is a very good beledi dancer.  Earthy, grounded, really in the hips.  It was wonderful.  We danced and then ended with our long circle chant/mimic routine.

“Optional” Sightseeing
Before coming to the retreat, each attendee was given a breakdown of activities, what is included in cost, what is not, what to expect, etc.  We knew our fee paid for accommodation, training, some of the meals, the Saqqara pyramids, and to hire a Beledi Band and a Sufi Group (which we learned on arrival was canceled).  We knew if we wanted to do the extra group activities we would need to pay for them.  What we did not know was that we would not be allowed to leave the house.  Once again, this information would have been useful BEFORE we arrived in Egypt. 

Why could we not leave?  That was never fully explained.  A few times Leilani and I stepped just outside the front door to wait for the group, but we were quickly pushed back inside either by Maria or our guide.  Whether this was for our safety or some other reason, we still do not know.
In our PDF it was stated “there are a number of things you can do [in Abu Sir]; horse riding around the Abu Sir pyramids, going into the Abu sir Pyramids, they are closed to the general public, but the care taker will take you in for a price.”  I love horseback riding and would have gladly done this.  However, we were not allowed to even walk through the village on our own.  I had really looked forward to meeting the villagers, wondering through the streets, shopping, seeing daily life, taking everything in at my own pace.  I feel these outings are when people really take in culture and meet new friends.  Instead, we had to stick to what the main group wanted to do or be stuck in the house.  Leilani decided to opt out of one of the forced-optional activities; she was tracked down by Maria and told she HAD to pay.

So, we paid for all the ‘optional’ activities up front, something I later learned one should never do. 
Bread-Making with Mama and Sewing

Weirdness aside for now, during our lunch break we got to see how the local women make bread every day.  We traveled as a group through part of the village to a small structure with a giant oven inside.  There we met Amar’s mama (Amar* is the eldest son of our host family and our guide throughout the trip).  She had dough prepared and showed us the way they roll it with their hands then slide it to the back of the giant oven.  Of course we all devoured the bread afterwards.

One of the highlights of this mini excursion was meeting the family donkey!  She was right next to the small bread-making building, grazing on greens.  Apparently she’s a bit cranky, so we didn’t get too close, but she was a beauty!

We also stop by a local woman’s house who has agreed to make custom galebeyas for those of us that brought fabric.  She measures the fabric using the line from her nose to her hand.  She sews on an old hand-crank machine.  It’s amazing to see and it only took a few days to have the dresses finished.
Khan el Khalili

After lunch, a little more touchy-feely with Maria, and the one hour of beledi, a small group of us traveled into Cairo for the market.  Maria did not want us to go, but go we did.  It was after sundown and several shops were closed, but several were open.

I enjoy bargaining when I travel and shop.  Occasionally I bargain in the US.  I think it’s fun and creates a great repartee between seller and buyer.  I very much enjoyed Cairo’s world-famous bazaar and picked up some great items.  Lots of sights and smells, a giant mosque, pushy Egyptian men trying to sell you junk for triple the price.  It was awesome!
We also stopped into a local café for a cup of coffee and shisha.  Egyptians love their Nescafe and their sugar.  Every time I asked for tea or coffee with no sugar, I got strange looks. 
We made our way back home, showered (this time it was hot!) and slid into bed.  Goodnight Egypt.

Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part I

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger!  The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt. Without further adieu, the introduction and Part I.
I traveled to Egypt early in December 2012.  I have been asked to write about my experiences, which I’ve largely debated doing.  Though there were some good experiences, there were many, many bad ones.  I don’t always like to share the bad.  I don’t like to discourage anyone from travel.  I certainly have not wanted to discourage travel to Egypt.  I believe we dancers often view Egypt as our ‘mecca;’ the birthplace of our dance; the nirvana of cultural study.  I certainly did and had anticipated this trip with hope, excitement, and a little apprehension due to the current political climate.
It’s been nearly five months since that trip.  This entire time I have gone back and forth with myself; do I share everything?  Do I share only good?  What to do? 
I’ve decided to candidly express myself, my experiences, and my opinions in a multi-part article.  There were many people on this trip; what I write is only one woman’s viewpoint raw and honest.
*Most names have been changed.

The Preparation
I began belly dancing at the age of 20 and right from the start I’ve been drawn to the traditional dances of Egypt. From the fellaheen to the ghawazee, iskandaria to assaya and beyond.  I’ve always loved them.  Though I’ve studied in most of these dances, I decided to specialize in beledi, assaya and shamadan. 
Like most dancers, I dreamed of one day going to Egypt to really ‘experience’ dance and put it into cultural context.  Unlike most dancers, I did not dream of seeing Dina on stage or Lucy in a 5 star hotel.  I dreamt of visiting villages, going to weddings, seeing what real people dance like and how they live.  What do they eat?  How do they dress?  What is their typical day like?
Imagine my excitement when I learned of a dance retreat that was a cultural intensive on Bedouin life and dance.  “Return To the Source” it was called.  The promotional materials emphasized the unique opportunity to live in a Bedouin home, to interact and eat with a local family, have the ‘inside scoop’ to the community, to learn their style of beledi dance.  THIS is what I had been waiting all these years for!  We were even going to hire a beledi band and have a women’s party with the local ladies!  “Return To the Source” was exactly what I needed.  A return to what started this whole belly dance thing; beledi. I had to go.

The months leading up to the retreat brought on a lot of apprehension and worry for my friends, my family, and at times myself.  The political climate in the Middle East was changing and unstable.  The Egyptian Revolution was in full force, and although they had elected a President, there were several accounts of demonstrations on the streets of Cairo.  I was reading stories of foreign women being gang-raped in Tahrir Square; of dancers being discovered and evicted from their homes; of violent protests happening on the streets of several major cities.  I admit I was bit scared.  Even Dee Dee Asad (an Egyptian!) warned me to be careful and not to tell anyone I was a dancer. But I assured everyone I knew that we would be fine, and besides, we were not staying in Cairo.  We were to stay in Abu Sir, a Bedouin village just south of the capital.

The Arrival
I encouraged one of my students (whom I will call Leilani*) to go with me, as well as two colleagues (whom I will call Amaya* and Marissa*) I had met during a teacher training intensive.  Marissa also brought her husband, Victor*.  I packed, told my family I loved them, and before I knew it I was on a plane to Cairo.  I had a layover in New York.  I had another stop in Zurich.

Finally, after 18 hours of flight-time, I arrived in Cairo!  I could not WAIT to get to the house, take a shower, unpack, and get ready to meet the family.  I was also excited to meet the woman who organized this whole retreat and would be teaching us Alexander technique in conjunction with beledi, Maria Sangiorgi.  She was an Australian woman living in Italy that had connections to this family in Abu Sir.  She promoted herself as a beledi expert.  Right up my alley!
When we landed, I contacted Maria.  She met us outside the airport with a “Finally you’re here.  We’ve been waiting.”  Not so much as a “hi how are you?”  This would be telling of her attitude and character throughout the trip. Once on the bus, we quickly discovered that we were not, in fact, going to the house.  We were heading straight into Cairo for a desert camel ride.  Though I wanted to do this, the idea of sitting on an uncomfortable camel for an hour after sitting on a plane for 18 hours was not appealing.  But ride we did. 

We went through a very seedy part of Cairo.  As this was my first time to Egypt, I assumed all of Cairo was like this (which I later discovered was not true).  Rather than go to the main entrance of the pyramids and the sphinx, we went through dark streets full of trash (normal for Egypt), feces, and several horses and camels.  More than once I witnessed these animals being beaten by their owners.  Several had open wounds and other injuries.  I am by no means a vegetarian but I do believe in treating all beings with kindness and compassion.  My first impression of Egypt was so far disheartening and depressing.
We were led onto a dune outside of the pyramids to watch the sunset.  Then the men attending us made a fire and we enjoyed tea and sweets.  We had some music to which several of us got up and danced.  Maria reminded us that the longer we stayed, the more we would have to pay.  Did I mention most of the ‘optional’ activities cost extra?  Before the trip we were given a breakdown of activities and their approximate cost, which were not included in the overall retreat price.  We were also told these activities would be optional.  More on that later…

Finally we made it back into Cairo, had a cup of tea, then headed to Abu Sir.  Now I REALLY couldn’t wait to take a shower.  On top of smelling like airplane, I smelled like camel.  I love them but they stink.  A lot.  Only we didn’t get to take a shower, or unpack, or change clothes.  We headed straight to dinner with our host family!  Perhaps it is an American thing, but I like to be clean and presentable before meeting people that welcome me into their home.  I consider it polite.
As it turns out, it was not an issue because the family did not dine with us.  In fact, we were informed at dinner that there had been a recent death in the family.  The grandfather, patriarch and head of the family, had passed away a month or so ago and according to custom, the family would not be able to eat with us, dance with us, go out with us, or anything!  Why were we not told of this before our arrival?  It would surely have altered my decision about this trip, since a large draw was interacting with the family, especially the women. To add insult to injury, although Maria marketed this retreat as staying ‘with a Bedouin family,’ we were, in fact, staying in their Guest House across town.  It was a large, very beautiful home, but it was not what I had wanted nor was promised.

After dinner, we headed to the Guest House.  Exhausted, smelly, and out-of-sorts, I headed to my room.  We had been told there would be 2-3 people in a room.  My room had 4.  Ready to shower and get into bed, we were then called for a house meeting.  It was 10pm.  I’d just traveled for 18 hours, rode a camel into the desert, took a bumpy bus ride to the village, sat on the hard floor to eat dinner, traveled across town to the Guest House, and finally set my things down.  Can’t a gal just take a shower!? 
After the house meeting I finally got that shower, only to learn that the water heater was not working.  My shower was freezing.  Then I had to go to bed.  Speaking of bed, we were in the middle of the desert, which gets very cold at night, with only a thin sheet over a mattress and one thick blanket to keep us warm.  Really?  More than once throughout this trip, I seriously considered climbing into bed with my travel companion for the sole purpose of not freezing to death.

Day one was finally over.  I was completely and utterly disenchanted with Egypt.  There would be better times ahead.  There would also be worse.
Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington.  Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates.  Malia is married with two children.