A Deep immersion into Egyptian Culture - Interview with Aleya in Cairo

by Isis Zahara

" Port Moresby: Well,terra firma.
Tunner: We're probably the first tourists they've had since the war.
Kit Moresby: Tunner,we're not tourists.We're travelers.
Tunner: Oh. What's the difference?
Port Moresby:A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive,Tunner.
Port Moresby:We as a traveler might not come back at all.” 

The Sheltering Sky Bernardo Bertolucci 1990

Aleya is American belly dancer and performs all year at the Nile Group Festival and Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan wa Sahlan Dance festival in Egypt. She also dances in upper class parties, 5 Stars hotels and on the famous Nile Maxim in Cairo. 
She worked at Adam Basma Dance Company, had her own dance company, Negma Dance still running in Los Angeles, produced a CD "Bellylicious Raks" on the independent Record Store Baby. 
Won titles including of 1st runner up  in Belly Dancer of the Universe and the People's Choice Award and was top three finalist for Belly Dance Superstars Audition. 
With over thirteen years of experience as a performer and instructor in Los Angeles, California and since 2008 is based in Cairo, Egypt. 

In 2011 the Revolution in Egypt changed the form of life of all Egyptian civilians. Many foreign professionals needed to live the country but some of them stayed and became to registered in pictures the face of Egypt during the uprising. There was Aleya, between the people, watching an important moment of Egyptian History. 

In her blog you can find much more interesting stories, buy  wonderful costumes and  her book "18 Days" with amazing pictures all about the days in the Tahrir Square: 

IZ - Before going to Egypt you already had a long and successful career as Belly Dancer in America. What motivated you to go to Egypt?
Aleya - Yes, in America I was very well known in Los Angeles, California and I was always very busy.   I had my own dance company as well which the girls still run while I am gone.  I can’t believe it’s over 3 years now that I left the States.  There were many things that motivated me to come to Cairo. I worked in real estate and I knew the economy was going to sink into a black hole even though the government pretended it wasn’t, and I was very upset about this.  Also, I had felt that I done everything I had wanted to do work wise, but I never danced in the Middle East and this is something I wanted to do.  

I was disappointed with many things in my life and I went to a seminar and they asked a very important question, “If you have all the time, money, and energy to do anything you want, what would that be?” and the only thing I could think of was to dance in the Middle East which was very profound and then the speaker said “this is what you must be doing”. So I set out to make it happen. 

IZ - Did you have an invitation from Randa Kamel? What did she say to you? 
Aleya - Randa Kamel did not invite me to come to Egypt per se. This is the story.  The year before I moved, I came to study for about 4 weeks and we were having private class at her studio.  We got along really well and she told me I was like her sister. Then she said “Aleya!! You should move to Cairo to dance.”  I told her no I was not young and my time was finished.  She then told me that was not true and gave examples of many women working in Cairo that were older than me and she said I would do well because of my Egyptian looks and the way I danced.  Well I put it out of my head and didn’t think too much about it.  When I arrived back in the States my friend Iris Parker had also just moved back from Egypt.  She was singing and teaching here and did very well.  She also told me when I arrived back to States that I should move to Cairo, as well as another friend.  At this point I was not even considering it, but I wondered why everyone was saying that.  It was kind of cosmic.  When the market started falling and I realized what was happening financially I decided maybe it would be a good idea and I liked the idea of having a new adventure.  I was completely stressed out with my mortgage work, friends, boyfriend, dance company and all my responsibilities and I thought, “why not? I might as well try it”.  So I started to make plans to leave.  I asked many, many people that I respected immensely what they thought and without hesitation all of them said do it.  I had a very supportive network of friends and of course my mother did not want me to come but everyone else was excited for me.  

"You must respect people in these communities, 
treat people with respect and they will respect you back, 
above all you must act in a respectable manner.  
If you come home very late on many occasions and look 
like a “lady of the night” this is not going to sit well
 with the neighborhood residents."

3 – Did you have problems in Egypt? I have read (Princess Farhana’s blog) that you were a little bit disappointed with the ways that the business goes there.
Aleya - Well problems in what way? - Laughing -There are many problems here.  Everything is in Cairo Time, which is baad bokra (after tomorrow): 5 minutes means 3 hours, tomorrow means maybe they won’t show up at all.  It’s a place full of broken promises.  I had many people tell me they would surely  get me a job and it never happened. 
 They see me, see my dance, see my costumes and love me but luck in Cairo is being at the right place, at the right time and knowing the right people. You also can’t just come here and dance like I can do in the States.  It’s illegal to dance and they have dance police and you can get into trouble dancing without papers.  Also the paper work process is like treading land mines.  You cannot imagine how many steps you must take and people you must see and things you must do to get papers to work.  It’s a little bit ridiculous but it is what it is.  
Also, it’s a very small community here so you also have to tread those land mines as well and not align yourself with people that are not respected in the community.  

IZ - How has your personal life been affected after you moved to Cairo? Can you tell something about that?
Aleya - My whole life I had a boyfriend and when I came to Cairo I knew what Egyptians think about their girlfriends dancing, if they even have a girlfriend.  Usually they would want to marry right away as is their custom.  I decided to stay single and for two years I didn’t so much as kiss anyone.  One day I decided I need to find  a boyfriend finally and about one week later I had met the guy I’m dating now (just before the revolution) and we have been together ever since.  
We do have a saying in the Middle East that foreign girls who date Arab men always say which is MMID (My Mohamed Is Different) - Laughing - We always want to in fact believe they are but they usually aren’t.
This is their culture and mentality and being Western we can appreciate it, but trust me you will never understand it.  I told my current boyfriend that if he is embarrassed by me and I need to lie to his parents about what I do then I am not ok with that.  I told them the truth when I met them.  I know what they think but I also want to break their stereotype about us as dancers.  As far as I know they are fine with me.
It’s actually easier to be with an Egyptian. He takes care of all my calls with translation, takes me everywhere, and protects me. I thought it would hinder me to find work but the men respect you more when you have a “husband”. I am grateful to have found someone that trusts me and respects what I do and he is a blessing in my life.

Aleya by Denise Marino

IZ – Do you believe after the Dina’s scandal the Egyptian people become more defensive on foreign belly dancers? *
Aleya - No I don’t really think it had an effect on the belly dancers in Egypt.  Anyways, she is still famous and the most popular dancer in Cairo.  Yes people like to talk about her, it’s a love/hate relationship but she is used to this and she doesn’t pay attention.  If she did she would never be a dancer in Egypt.  She is a very strong woman and I admire her for being a dancer in a conservative country.  

Aleya with Dina

IZ - I'm wondering about the bad reputation Belly Dance has in the Eastern countries. Did you have problems with that? Is common to be discriminated for being a belly dancer?
Aleya - This is an interesting question.  It is true we have a bad reputation for being belly dancer’s in Eastern countries.  You must realize the fact that these are Muslim conservative countries and they have veiled women and conservative men, and it’s not proper to show your body in public.  This is just how it is and if you live in these countries you must realize that.  I don’t even wear skirts or tank tops so it’s also included in street dressing.  This view is not only related to dance it’s related to most of the arts.  If you are an actor or actress, musician, photographer, most of these artistic professions which are appreciated in Western countries are not appreciated in the East and are seen as low class professions.  
Unless you are famous, then they love you! - laughing - It’s really very contradictory and confusing.  The other strange thing I have noticed is that when I wear more conservative costumes while performing it’s ok ... but, if I wear something very risqué the audience loves you more and thinks you are amazing. - Laughing - Now this is my personal experience but I find it fascinating and I dance for Egyptian families at upper class 5 star resorts where kids are very common at your show.  

When I meet Egyptians in Cairo I almost never tell them I am a dancer.  I might say I teach dance but I don’t say I’m a performer.  When I moved into my flat I told the owner (a veiled woman who also happens to live in my building) that I was writing a book and was studying Arabic.  Of course just by the way I leave the house (with my cane in a bag and my carry on suitcase for my costumes and full stage make-up minus the lipstick) they all know that I am a dancer.  As a matter of fact one of the girls who once lived with me had a friend who lived in the building across and she didn’t know it.   As she was on the phone with her friend he said to her, “oh did you know there is a belly dancer who lives in that building” and she asked him “how do you know?” not telling him that she lived with me.  He answered that the bowab (doorman) told him and that everyone in the neighborhood knows.  
 It was very funny but also interesting. Everyone in the neighborhood knows I dance and I never have problems.  I believe if you conduct yourself in a presentable manner, don’t have men over at your house all the time (which is not polite anyways) and you respect the neighborhood and the people they will also treat you with respect. 
 I have many friends that are dancers and they live in all neighborhoods and although it’s never said most of the residents know.  You must respect people in these communities, treat people with respect and they will respect you back, above all you must act in a respectable manner.  If you come home very late on many occasions and look like a “lady of the night” this is not going to sit well with the neighborhood residents.  Although I do go out a lot to cabarets and nightclubs I never come home drunk and I always come home by myself, and people know my general character so I don’t have problems at all and I’m grateful for this.   

" I am grateful to have experienced these
 times and to be able to witness change.   
My boyfriend also happens to be a photographer
 and he taught me photography during this time.   
We have some amazing shots of moments from the revolution. 
 I am very proud to have been able to capture this important 
piece of world history on film and these 
are the times of citizen journalism."

IZ - Do the Belly Dancers need a mentor or an agent to produce their shows in Egypt? What can happen if you try to work without one?
Aleya - Yes you really need an agent or mentor.  They will get your band, get you work, make sure the band shows up.  It’s not imperative to have one but just like the boyfriend it helps a lot for someone to do all your speaking and coordinating and it’s prestigious to have an agent.  In this way you are free just to focus on your dance and not all the other little things that need to be taken care of.  

photo Elan Rafaat

IZ - It’s impressive to read your own experience during the Egyptian revolution and than watch the pictures you took. I’ve heard that you tried to promote yourself on your blog? Is that true? 
Aleya - I did not try to promote myself on my blog although that’s what some people have wanted to say.  I have  read things blatantly insinuating that I should not have been there taking pictures as we are not “journalists and it’s not our job”.   I guess maybe they were upset that they weren’t there with me shooting photos, but shall I not go because no one else wanted to or was afraid?   I was fascinated by the revolution. 
As an American we are so far removed from war and strife and revolutions.  It was an amazing time, and my friends and I all miss it very much.  There was a sense of “Egyptians are great and we can accomplish anything”. All the men protected their own neighborhoods sitting outside on night watches and men in the streets volunteered to direct traffic.  Everyone in Tahrir Square volunteered their time and people were once again proud of Egypt. 
 I am grateful to have experienced these times and to be able to witness change.   My boyfriend also happens to be a photographer and he taught me photography during this time.   We have some amazing shots of moments from the revolution.  I am very proud to have been able to capture this important piece of world history on film and these are the times of citizen journalism.  I  am also lucky in that I look Egyptian, so while all foreigners were told to stay out of Tahrir Square I could go there unbothered as long as I didn’t speak too much,  no one suspected that I was foreign and I never had the problems that lots of foreigners encountered.  If you were foreign and especially holding a professional looking camera you were subject to suspicion as being a “foreign agent”. 

IZ – You are teaching and performing in the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival in Egypt. How is to be in the most important Belly dance Festival in the world?  Can you anticipate something special for this year?
Aleya - I am honored that Raqia Hassan asked me last year to teach in the summer festival this year for 2012 and I'ms also in her most recent DVD for 2012 performing two of her choreographies and assisting her in the instructional portion of the DVD.  Ahlan wa Sahlan is the oldest festival running in Cairo and the biggest.  All the stars of Cairo teach here and many foreign teachers also participate.  She is working on something special but I can’t reveal what it is. 
Raqia Hassan is also an amazing teacher and a brilliant choreographer and if you never had the chance to take classes by her I highly recommend attending the festival.  In addition, with the elections looming and the fate of Egypt close to becoming a very conservative country, they may not have belly dancing in the future so I would highly suggest anyone wanting to attend to do so now! 

IZ - What do you believe is the future of Egyptian belly dance in the coming years?
Aleya - We don’t know what the future holds. In this Muslim based conservative society,belly dance is not seen as something spiritual, artistic or good for the soul.  The costumes especially go against all that is religious and maintaining your beauty for your husband only.  I hope that they don’t ban belly dance in Cairo but it is a possibility that it can happen. 

IZ - How do you see your future as a belly dance star in Egypt?
Aleya - Well to be considered a STAR takes many years of hard work in Egypt.  I was once told by my impresario - “Aleya! You should have come 10 years ago”.  Ten years ago it was still possible, but with the revolution and work being as slow as it is, and people not having money for entertainment I don’t have high hopes that this is possible.  I am happy to work in Cairo and do what I do.  I have my audience that appreciates me, and my managers that I work with that also appreciate me, and I’m  grateful  that I am able to fulfill  part of a dream that I had long ago.  We never know what the future holds but one thing I am certain of is that I have lived a dream and I feel good about that.   I love Cairo, I always have and I always will.  There is something magical and mystical about Egypt that you must see to believe and experience for yourself.  I hope every dancer has the opportunity to do it once in their lifetime.   


* Dina secretly married Hossam Abol Fotouh. Several sex videos he had filmed of them were leaked by Egyptian police who had discovered them while searching his home. After the scandal caused by the sex tapes, it was rumored that she would retire, but she returned to her career. In 2011, she released an autobiography entitled Huriati Fi Al Raqa (My Freedom in Dancing). (Wikipedia)


Aleya is my favourite danceri like this article very much...

Looks interesting, ill be sure to check it out. Property in Egypt

"We always want to in fact believe they are but they usually aren’t.
This is their culture and mentality and being Western we can appreciate it, but trust me you will never understand it. "

Such sweeping generalizations have been and will always be the groundwork for racist Orientalism.

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