The Philosophy of the Belly Dancer
On Sex, Performance, and the Private Desires of the Very Rich
Each of us knew that we were experiencing an immensely exotic—because endlessly deferred—erotic experience, the likes of which we could never hope to match in real life. And that was precisely the point: this was sexuality as a public event, brilliantly planned and executed, yet totally unconsummated and unrealizable.
After a couple of months of asking around, I finally got an introduction to a belly dancer. Malak was from Spain but had settled in Cairo ten years earlier, and now she gave private and group belly-dance lessons. She knew about my research project, and after a few weeks of attending her dance classes, she invited me to her downtown apartment for an interview.
Her story started, “I was a dancer, an Oriental dancer, long ago.” She had worked all over Europe, she said, at parties and dance demonstrations and stage performances, sometimes flying to London or Rome for a party, but mostly performing in restaurants. While performing at one Lebanese restaurant in Europe, an agent approached her and asked her if she would like to work in Dubai. She was excited but nervous. It was a scary thing back then for a woman to travel alone to Dubai to dance, she said. This was in 1985, the beginning of the oil boom, and Dubai, long before it gained its reputation as a tourist mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, was known as a conservative Gulf country. Few Europeans ventured there. The agent arranged the visa.
In Dubai she mostly performed at hotels and nightclubs, and only once did she dance at a wedding. That was a surprise for her, because she hadn’t realized that weddings there were sex segregated until she was actually on stage, dancing, and started to look around at the audience. She thought to herself, “There is something strange about this audience,” before eventually realizing that there were no men in it. Like many weddings in the Gulf, it was sex segregated, and she was performing only for other women.
As I wrote furiously in my own invented (and therefore not very effective) shorthand, she lit a cigarette, then said, “In Dubai, I also sometimes performed at private parties.”
I looked up from my notes. “Private parties?”
“These are parties that were very special. Where I was not dancing.” When pressed to explain, she said, “People come from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Their cultures are restrictive, and those who were very, very rich, they would have their own suite of rooms in a hotel, and they would want their own entertainment.” I asked her if she was just speaking about men. “Both men and women would want to be entertained in their hotel suites, but speaking of the men, these people come to Dubai principally to look for alcohol and women. Often they expected to spend the night with me, according to payment.” Sometimes, she said dryly, they would respect the dancer’s desire whether to sleep with them or not. She said that among the dancers, there were plenty of girls who entertained “both on the stage and in the rooms.” Others refused; “they say that they are professionals, performers, and not prostitutes.” Dancers “who are not very classy work as both.”
I asked how she felt about sleeping with these men. She shrugged.
“I have done it from time to time. In principle, I wouldn’t mind if some nice man wanted me to sleep with him and then wanted to give me money for it. The problem,” she continued, laughing, “is that it’s almost never the nice men who want you—it’s always the old, ugly, and disgusting men.”
She described one time when she was asked out by a customer at the nightclub where she performed. They went out to dinner and then returned to his hotel, where they had sex. Afterward, when she had to leave for work, he gave her the equivalent of $3,000, an amount that was even vaster then than it would be now. “I was very confused,” she told me: at once happy to have such a large sum and disgusted by it. She hadn’t gone to his room expecting money. She didn’t consider herself a prostitute. She had gone because she wanted to sleep with the man, and the money made her suddenly rethink the entire experience.“The dancer must be able to deal with every situation: a drunk man, a jealous woman, a veiled woman, an unhappy bride, a child.”
She told another story. Once when she was dancing on stage, a man caught her hand, took the ring off her finger, and didn’t put it back. After her dance, he vanished. She told the manager, “He took my ring!”
The manager calmed her, saying, “Don’t worry, he is a very good customer of ours; I’m sure he will give it back.” He came back five days later, and while she was dancing, he took her hand and replaced the ring that he had taken and then put another ring on her other hand. He had taken the first ring to get the correct ring size. The gold ring he gave her had a one-karat diamond in it. She said the man was very nice and extremely rich. He drove a Rolls-Royce. Not long after that he was shot in the head. She shrugged. “Must have been Mafia.”
She said she had no moral objection to sex work. “The only kind of prostitution I cannot stand,” she declared, “is when you are in competition with other people to perform somewhere, and a dancer sleeps with a guy, the manager or person booking the shows at a nightclub, to get the job.” But, she said, “Personally I don’t like prostitution for myself. I like men too much for that. It is a very strange thing to be obliged to touch and kiss someone and feel absolutely nothing for him—you must either hate men or be incredibly materialistic.” She said she sees two types of “call girls”: those who hate men, and those who are materialistic. Some, she said, are “so sweet and superficial”: they do it because they just want nice clothes. “I think these women have a very strange relationship with their body.”
She came to Cairo because succeeding as an “Oriental dancer” in Egypt, where the dance originated, was “consecration” for Western dancers. She settled in Cairo, where she danced for a year. After that, “the market was very bad,” and after so many years of life on stage every day, three or four performances a night, she was tired and wanted to stop, so she decided to teach dancing. Now she performs only occasionally, at private parties.
She stood and wandered to a bookshelf, where she rifled through folders of papers, finding and passing to me a flyer announcing a dance seminar she gave. At first I didn’t recognize the picture on the cover as Malak. She was wearing garish stage makeup that made her eyes look long and flat, pharaonically elongated, rather than beautifully deep set and round as they actually were. The dark lipsticked smile in the picture was not the subtle, hinting smile that she usually wore.
She couldn’t find some other paper she was looking for, so she returned to the couch. She was wearing a net-like short-sleeved shirt and leopard-print pants that suited her wild hair, and her small belly bulged when she sat down. “When you dance on the stage,” she continued, “everyone is looking at you, and not just at your body, also at your face. For the Oriental dancer, the face is very important. You must know the words to every song and pay close attention to the relationship between the words and the expression on your face. Some foreign dancers have no understanding of the words to the song they are performing to. They are absurd. They will put a ridiculous grin on their face while dancing to some mournful line like ‘I have cried so much for you.’ If you don’t understand the music, you cannot communicate with people at all.
“Communication is a critical part of the performance. The Oriental dancer is famous for talking to her clients while on stage and making jokes with them. The dancer must have a great sense of humor and know how to joke around. But,” she continued, “Westerners often imagine the dancer as the fatal woman. But the dancer is not a fatal women. She is a mother.”
“Fatal woman?” We looked at each other uncertainly, and suddenly I realized what she meant. “Do you mean femme fatale? In English, we don’t translate this, we say it in French.”
“Yes, femme fatale. She is not a femme fatale. She is a big Mother.” I could actually hear the capital M when she said that, I thought, as I quickly scribbled my notes.
“The dancer must be able to deal with every situation: a drunk man, a jealous woman, a veiled woman, an unhappy bride, a child. Both men and women are watching the dancer. Some might imagine that it’s mostly the men, but in fact the women are looking at her just as much as the men, maybe more.” Malak thought this all went back to the idea of the mother. “There is a French psychoanalyst, a Moroccan Jew, a Lacanian. Daniel Sibony.” She went to the bookshelf again and pulled out a book entitled Le corps et sa danse. She handed it to me. “He has written about the symbolization of the Oriental dancer. Sibony is the one who says the dancer is the mother. He says that all men, when watching the dancer, feel that she is both umm and umma, mother and motherland. The two main parts of the body of the dancer, the breasts and the hips, these symbolize motherhood.
“I don’t entirely agree,” she continued. “There is a dimension Sibony has forgotten, although perhaps this is included in the concept of mother too. When the dancer makes jokes, there is always sexual connotation in the jokes and songs.” Then she raised her eyebrows and cocked her head, as the smoke trickled up from her joint. “But again, maybe this is part of the mother.”
She took the book from me and flipped through the heavily underlined pages. “Here,” she said, “I will translate. ‘The dance is a ceremony in which emotion goes to the breasts and hips of a woman, symbolizing the mother. This belly is her belly and the belly of the Other, and the Common Belly.’” She pointed to a line in the book. “Here, copy in French.” I wrote, fumbling to get all the accent marks right, “Ce ventre est á la fois le sien et celui de l’Autres ventre commun aussi de la oumma—de la Matrie—jouissant d’elle-même.” While I copied, she stubbed out the rest of her joint.
I handed back the book. “The idea that is most important,” she continued, “is that the dancer is enjoying the movement of her body itself. She takes sensual pleasure in the movement. All the men are brothers, the mother feeds them from her body, like the Arabic language carries and cradles those who use it.” She flipped through the book and handed it to me again. “Copy this.” I hunched over my notebook and wrote, “Elle vibre et chante dans leur corps. Que réveille danseuse dans ces corps d’hommes? L’image—mère assoupie qui se dresse en même temps qu’elle?”
She asked if I had read the work of Karin van Nieuwkerk, a Dutch anthropologist who wrote an ethnography of dancers and singers in Egypt. “According to Van Nieuwkerk, the Oriental dancer is transgressing social rules, since as an entertainer, she is using her body to make money. But in Egypt,” Malak continued, “some dancers are married; they have children. They do the job to make money. Maybe they don’t even really like the job. It’s not such a flashy, showy life as people imagine. It’s just a job that the dancer leaves at the end of the day to come home to her family.”
Excerpted from Love, Sex, and Desire in Modern Egypt by L.L. Wynn, © 2018, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.