She rarely gets out of bed before noon. She sounds on the phone like Jennifer Lopez: nasal voice, sassy tone, Latina accent. She fills her living room every afternoon with foreign women who want to make their bellies roll, their hips vibrate. When Egyptian neighbors ask about her profession—her reason for living in Cairo—she says nothing about dancing, and calls herself a teacher.
Her subject material is ancient. Before there was a single mosque in Cairo, before Muslim invaders had even touched Africa, Egyptians were belly dancing. Traditional as it may be, raqs sharqi, or “oriental dance,” remains scandalous today. Good Muslim women cover their heads and pretty much everything else; belly dancers bare their bellies and a lot else. Mohammed Ali went as far as to banish belly dancers from Cairo in 1834, worried they’d scandalize foreign guests. In the 1950s the dance was banned outright. Nowadays, certain pelvic movements are restricted and belly dancers have to cover their midriff. Some comply with a translucent nylon swatch.
Still, Cairo is the belly-dancing capital of the world. The dance is more or less the same; what’s changed is the nationality of the dancers. Every year, there are fewer Egyptians dancing raqs sharqi. In the cabarets you’ll find belly dancers from Lebanon, belly dancers from Moscow, belly dancers from Rio, and at least three belly dancers who hail from America. The most famous, Leila, grew up on a Native American reservation in Washington State. Another, Diana, supposedly graduated from Harvard. The most recent arrival is a native of Los Angeles, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, a brunette with an hourglass figure named Alegra Pena.
I call Alegra and inquire about her class. I haven’t a clue what belly dancing entails, but decide to find out as an apprentice. I warn Alegra that I’ve never done any Middle Eastern dancing. Fairer warning would be that I lived in Cuba and can’t dance salsa, that I lived in the Dominican Republic and can’t dance meringue, that bouncing around barefoot at an Indian wedding is the closest I’ve come to picking up a foreign dance. She assures me walk-ins are most welcome.
Alegra stands before a wall of mirrors, dressed in skin-tight black plants that flare at the ankle. I stand off to her left and notice some key differences in our reflections. I’m new to Cairo and look it. My t-shirt reaches the base of my neck; my pants are loose and full-length; I have chosen to bare no belly. I’m in the phase one American journalist in Cairo called “the dowdy phase,” sacking my physique under scarves and peasant blouses and shawls as vast as blankets. I doubt Alegra ever went through such a dowdy phase. She seems more comfortable in her body in Cairo than I’ve ever been in America. Her abs, by no means a washboard, are the focal point of this class. We watch them, expecting to learn.
Alegra demonstrates how to puff out our bellies, like kids do, when pretending to be fat. Next, she leads us in a “figure 8,” winding her hips through space, squatting low to the ground and sticking her butt out impossibly far, the whole time watching her reflection, as though agreeing with the Egyptian who once told Alegra she had “the perfect body for Cairo.”
Another friend, a Jordanian, had already planted the seed. They were out at a club in New York City, and Alegra began playfully imitating her friend’s moves on the dance floor. He promised she’d have no trouble mastering belly dancing, with hips and rhythm and confidence like that. At the time, Alegra’s career had nothing to do with dance, nor had she given serious thought to living abroad. She loved to dance, felt instantly happy doing it, but was raised to go after money. Alegra describes her father as a man in perpetual search of the next “get-rich” scheme. She inherited her father’s habit of juggling a dozen ventures at once. She flipped properties, sold used-guitars on ebay, exported electronics to Lebanon—at one point needing fifteen credit cards to manage it all. On the side, Alegra had a pastime she also credits her father with: self-help retreats. Dad was a “seminar junkie.”
“Life Directions” was the name of the retreat that shifted everything for Alegra. She was given a hypothetical question and time alone to answer it: if she had all the money in the world, what would she be doing? Alegra thought hard. She’d been chasing money for many years. Erase that carrot, forget the jackpot on the horizon, and what did she see? Two dreams became clear. The first was to host the Oprah Winfrey show. Ruling this unrealistic, so she moved along to dream two: dancing in Cairo.
First, though, she had to extricate herself from life in America. Alegra owned three properties and two cats. She had a car loan and a blasé relationship. Doubtful they’d ever marry, she doubted they’d ever breakup. Life had gotten so tangled with drama and debts that a close friend theorized she’d done this on purpose—tangled her own web, that is, so that one day she’d yearn to escape. Alegra admits this could be true: that she created prime conditions for her own clean break.
The linoleum floor of Alegra’s apartment is cool beneath my bare feet. She tells us to assume a plie, the starting position of ballet, reaching over to correct my uneven squat. I’ve heard Egyptian belly dancing described as “the anti-ballet.” While the ballerina stands straight—as tall as point-shoes let her stretch—the belly dancer performs barefoot, crouching on the floor and rolling around it, her moves sensual and earthy. Ballerinas look angular, almost porcelain; belly dancers appear fertile and fleshy. Staring at my teacher in the mirror, I notice another key difference: facial expression. Alegra, smiling broadly, could not look any more delighted to dance this dance—even its basic steps, even among beginners.
The only beginner in the wall of mirrors is me. I try to put that out of mind by watching Alegra. I’m a stick figure, imitating a serpent. Alegra’s left arm winds one way, while the right arm takes the reverse course, with gorgeous fluidity. Her hip, meanwhile, lifts to its own sure beat, like a metronome set to slow. This woman has a metronome in her hip and I’m supposed to dance like her. Tick…tick…tick: her hip, without any help from either leg, rises straight up. That lifting—when done right, when neither leg cheats, when the rest of the body remains still—is about as sexy as a single gesture can be.
I wish she weren’t so good a teacher. Alegra nitpicks, corrects my hip tick, continues to push my legs into a plie. I’m looking forward to the point in class when she gives up on me. And she will; it’s just a matter of time. It’d be nice to save her that time, all that teacherly concern and sweat, because there are talented dancers in the room. Behind me is a Norwegian who came to Cairo with a coughing toddler for this chance to dance. I’m thinking hard about quitting—for everyone’s sake, just bowing out and hitting the couch—when Alegra quits correcting and spends the rest of class dancing in silence.
She dances at her own reflection, sultry and admiring, running her fingers through her loose brown hair and lifting it up over her head. I think of the Egyptian man who told me it was fine to wear Western clothes in Cairo, “as long as they’re not seducing,” as I watch this American seduce her own reflection. There are, I’ve learned, many ways a Western woman can respond to all the rules that govern Cairo, all the gazes that enforce them. She can cover up and hurry up. She can cease to read the periphery of her vision. She can toughen and harden.
Alegra, though, does none of the above. Her smile is soft, her appearance feminine, the way she moves through space is nothing if not sensual. She’s made a career for herself out of celebrating her body in a place where showing skin is taboo. As tough as it is to imitate her aura, her moves, her undulations, I do enjoy playing Alegra. We close the weeknight class with a series of hip lifts, advancing in unison towards the mirror, looking coordinated, brassy, unstoppable, hot—the very opposite of how we’ll appear, disbanding down separate streets as night falls in Egypt.
We live in different Cairo’s, Alegra and I. I learn this when I try to make plans with her. “Nothing happens in Cairo before noon!” she practically yells, when I propose meeting in the morning. Alegra blames the city for hibernating half the day, giving her zero reason to get out of bed.
My apartment is next to a mosque. I have no choice but to hear the pre-dawn wailings of the call to prayer. By 5 AM, when the muezzin leaks across the Nile, you can already hear the whirr of taxis and trucks along the Corniche. By a quarter to nine, you can’t board a subway car without pushing.
I don’t mention early-bird Cairo to Alegra and instead just meet her for breakfast at about four o’clock. I order crepes; she orders burritos, helping herself to my crepes, too. The owner, a good friend of Alegra’s, keeps coming over to our table to chat and dote. He calls her Aleya, the easier-to-pronounce, Egypt-friendly version of her name, which she tells everyone, including me, to call her.
Thinking this is my chance to compliment Alegra—Aleya—I ask the restaurant owner whether he’s seen her dance. Right away, I know I’ve done something wrong. Aleya fidgets and answers his questions curtly. She’d never told him what she teaches (that’s not, she later explains, the sort of thing a woman publicizes in Cairo). I feel awful, but Aleya doesn’t seem at all mad. This woman may have skipped the dowdy phase, but she was once as green to Cairo’s codes as I am. Before moving to Egypt, she’d heard that belly dancing was stigmatized, but didn’t know “the extent of it” until she arrived. The extent of it, I’m just beginning to grasp: lying about your profession to make friends.
Lacking a real life of my own in Cairo, I’m free to pass in and out of everyone else’s. Staying just one month, I can say yes, yes, yes. People invite me to things and I go. People tell me where they live and I tell the cabbie. A club advertises a meeting and I show up. I tell people I’m open; I make myself an easy bring-a-long. All Cairo asks is that I stay awake, and really: could Cairo make it any easier to? Cairo honks; Cairo never closes; Cairo wails like an old man dying promptly at 5 each morning.
Only after fourteen straight days of rising with the faithful, shadowing the journalists and stalking the Egyptologists does my frenetic study the American expat take a toll. I notice a numbness in my legs. I notice my eyes looking like caves. I notice the empty jar of instant coffee and know who did that. I did that. I’m an engine that runs on Nescafe. And wouldn’t you know: Aleya calls, just as the engine sputters, to invite me out on the town. Her belly dancer friends are getting together at midnight.
“Midnight?” I repeat the hour aloud, hoping she’ll modify it. I was awake and typing before sunrise today, kneeling in a church pew at 8am, making crafts among trailing spouses by noon, dodging trucks and taxis in between, all of which was supposed to draw to a close over a dinner with a tireless foreign correspondent at 10 PM.
“Midnight,” she repeats.
I try dressing up, dolling up, chugging one of my roommate’s Diet Cokes. Still, I want nothing more than to collapse. I’m right on the line. I’m wearing lipstick and leaning back on a bed. I’m clutching a purse and closing my eyes to consider this choice under the heavy lids of heavy eyes that just need time slipping down—
“I’m awake!” I say to the phone on my bed that vibrates. “I’m awake,” I promise again, like it’s Cairo calling, testing my end of the deal. Aleya tells me to get in a cab. It’s midnight and also a miracle: I’m refreshed. Just refreshed enough to make it over the line, past the stroke of midnight, and into the other Cairo.
The show is on stage but everyone’s watching one table. Even the singer, the man holding the microphone is transfixed by a group of Saudi men seated front and center. An Egyptian beside me, looking disgusted but not away, mutters, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a prince at that table.”
If there’s a prince at that table, he must be the one who climbs on stage, unbidden, stomping to the beat then spinning in a circle with arms akimbo, like a kid trying to make himself dizzy. Reaching dizzy, he slows and slows then stomps again, stomps to find and squash that beat.
Princely indeed: the thick-necked one in the black velvet cowboy hat. His court sits below, clapping high over their heads, ready to cheer if he falls right off the stage. When at last the prince snatches the microphone from the singer and lets out a battle cry (AY-YI-YI-YI-YI!), then a WOOF, I know he is, in fact, aware of us: his audience.
My roommate, Sid, was the first person to tell me about Gulf Arabs in Cairo. He pointed out the window at a huge apartment complex, just beyond ours, and told me that’s where the Saudi’s live—not now, but in summer. Egypt, with milder rules and milder weather, has a long tradition as the playground of the region. Arabs who come to play nowadays bring petroleum money to burn. Sid says there are nightclubs in Cairo where Emiratis dropped thousands of dollars in a night.
I’m pretty sure I’m at one of those nightclubs. The prince holds in his hand a wad of cash the size of a brick and flings it high in the air so it sprays like confetti over a 30-man band. A pair of teenage boys appear from nowhere and start gathering the money in quick snatches, keeping low to the ground; they’ve had practice.
Not until I see these Gulf Arabs for myself do I appreciate just how tame, how comparatively reverent, Americans in Egypt are. I’d known I was due to meet an erudite bunch when people suggested I contact Americans through a listserv called “Cairo Scholars.” Consider the Egyptologists, who quietly blow off all my requests to interview. Kent, a Chicagoan who discovered Egypt’s largest tomb, is not surprised to hear he’s the first Egyptologist to grant me face time. We’re “ivory-tower types,” he tells me: here to catalogue and preserve and fill annals—not to talk about it. Cairo’s scholars prefer to have their hands in Egypt’s ancient past. Even Aleya, the rare night owl among Americans, studies an ancient Egyptian art.
The men who bang tambourines watch the princes who twirl in circles near prostitutes who drift onto stage into the view of old men slumped in chairs who smoke water-pipes and gaze stonily at the princes who neither watch money flying nor hookers drifting, nor the thirty-some men who make this music so deafening.
Every time I look up I catch at least one band member staring down at our table, watching tonight’s show in the mirror of the nearest eyes. The same skinny harpist tries to read my gaze as I wonder what makes some prostitutes look so enthralling and others so repugnant and what it will take for a prince and a prostitute to look right at each other? Why is everything about eye contact in Cairo? Why do I always feel like power rests in the right to look? Because I lost that right?
Not even the belly dancer gets to look. Aleya climbs up on stage, looking just as mirthful as she did in her private class—same wide grin—but she might as well be dancing alone in her bedroom, the only mirror in her mind’s eye. I watch, mesmerized by Aleya, nervous for Aleya, smiling with Aleya. I can’t watch her dance without a grin, without wondering, too, how the attention of this cabaret feels. If she’s affected, she doesn’t let on. Raqs sharqi is danced as though alone; belly dancers occupy a false vacuum, a snow globe no one can see in, blurred by squalls of cash. Everyone who climbs on stage—even the show-offs, even the women for sale—succeeds in making it look like a dance for themselves alone, leaving us free to stare through the flying money at bare flesh.
Money falls in our laps, on our heads, in the folds of our clothes. More often, it scatters under our chairs and tables. I see now why the money-collectors are boys; they climb under our tables like monkeys, reaching and snatching without a peep, without a bump. Only late in morning, when the fruit platters and nut bowls on our table have all been buried at least twice in cash (and I have to remind myself that snacking on guava slices and cashews is sort of like licking ten pound notes by now, so how about we stop) am I more or less accustomed to it.
Outside the cabaret, in the gray light of a new day that we’ll go home to sleep through, an Egyptian looks down and sees a ten pound note in the lip of her boot. There it is: proof. That flutter in the dark, that mess on the floor was not an illusion after all. Those were bills; those were princes; this is Cairo—a land not endowed with fields of oil but positioned by history and geography to host the barons, the overnight princes, men with throw-away wealth. Cairo throws the party. Cairo cleans up. Cairo has staff enough to collect, to count, to turn confetti back into bricks.
The Egyptian who finds oil money in her boot gives it back to a doorman who nods appreciatively and runs it back inside. People keep telling me that Cairo is not as chaotic as it first appears. “There are patterns for things that seem pattern-less,” Leila, the most famous American belly dancer, tells me. In the back rooms of these cabarets, the detritus of another late night goes back into currency, back into the hands of people who use pounds to buy bread and ride cabs and pay rents.
I pay a few hundred dollars rent for a room with a tiny glimpse of the Nile River. My sliver view from the 11th floor will never look the same to me. Now, rather than see river—that car-and-a-half’s-length of glimmer—I notice instead the concrete building blocking the way, where lights never come on, where Saudis only summer. I imagine my way into all those empty flats, stealing a glimpse of their full-river view.
The city has been called to prayer by the time I get home from the cabaret. If I thought I could sneak back into my apartment, dart unnoticed between Cairo’s night and Cairo’s day, I was mistaken. Already, the shopkeepers on Nawal Street are unlocking gates; hulking men sit outside the Agouza police station. As my cab slows, a familiar dread rises: I don’t want to get out.
I’m dressed modestly enough—in the same giant shawl I wrapped around me like a cocoon all night—but clearly, I’ve been out. There’s indecency in the hour of my arrival, and perhaps my company too. Sitting in shotgun is a gay man in a trench coat who designs costumes for belly dancers: sweet, soft-spoken Mamdou. I owe him my thanks for getting me home, and want to express it sincerely. I reach into the front seat and give his shoulder a squeeze. Who sees this squeeze? What does it mean? What does it mean to her? Are the men who watch the same every day? How will I know if I never look? How can you discern without the right to look?
Women I meet in Cairo seem to be telling me—in their own stories, in self-styled advice—that my life here will get immeasurably easier as soon as I stop seeing Cairo see me. I’ve listened, all the while doubting I’d ever fog over the mirror in my mind. But I do feel like I’ve passed some sort of line tonight, followed Aleya past beyond a boundary I won’t step back behind. I’m going to bed and won’t open my eyes until 2 in the afternoon. I’ll start the new day in cowboy boots and skinny jeans and some shirt whose neckline I don’t stare at hard in the mirror. I’ll walk through this same parking lot of quiet stares, with a laser gaze of my own—fixed, distant, hot, asking zero permission and begging no pardon.