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.

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