Dance Like An Egyptian? Famed Belly Dancer Fears Ancient Art Is Target Of Egypt's Islamists

The guardian of Egypt’s ancient tradition of belly dancing, Dina Talaat is a fierce defender of her art as it comes under pressure from Islamic fundamentalism.

Egyptian belly dancer (ff137)
Egyptian belly dancer (ff137)
Jean-Gabriel Fredet

PARIS - Forget the stereotypical image of the oriental dancer: the portly build of famed Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum, the aura of lasciviousness. Instead, the last grand dame of Egyptian belly dancing has a toned figure that might tempt an imam. And with her black velvet eyes, sculptured silhouette, wrists adorned with bracelets and index finger sporting a diamond the size of the Ritz, Dina Talaat Sayed Mohammed is a picture of grace, beauty, luxury, serenity and voluptuousness. Sitting in the lounge of the Hotel Raphael, recounting her extraordinary life, she takes your breath away.

A dancer since the age of 15, Dina Talaat is a huge star in the Middle East, part Scheherazade, part queen of the entertainment scene. She has nothing left to prove. But something's worrying her: the fate of her art in her homeland.

"I can't see a future for dancers in Egypt. Abroad, the popularity of oriental dance – of belly dancing – has exploded. But in Cairo, in the school where I try to pass on the soul of the music, I don't have a single pupil with a feel for it in their blood," she says. "The world might admire us, but not our compatriots. The future star of belly dancing has perhaps already been born... but far from the land of the Pharaohs."

Has Egypt really turned its back on this ritual dance dating back to the mists of time? We recognize its ancient provenance, represented a thousand times on the ruins of temple walls: the profile of a dancer, one arm at a right angle, the other out straight, palm upturned as if to ward off an invisible snake.

Dina Talaat practices her art barefoot so as "to better capture the earth's energy." So that her hips and shoulders can move freely, gyrating in such a way that suggests both the pain of child birth and joy of fertility, the dancer has abandoned the traditional garb with its heavy veils and bell-covered belts. Favouring skirts split up to the thigh and assorted bustiers, she has her own orchestra and commissions the best composers to write "made-to-measure scores."

The guardian of an ancient tradition and acclaimed the world over, could this passionate woman, who hails from Cairo's upper classes and has a Masters degree in philosophy, be the final incarnation of the right to dance in Egypt?

She speaks nostalgically of the golden age of the 1960s and 70s when "women wore short-sleeved tops and thought nothing of showing off their legs'.

Dina worries about the anger of the religious sectors of Egyptian society. Certainly, in light of the openness of its people, who have always loved dancing and laughing and been eternally devoted to the cult of music, Islam used to be more of a tradition in Egypt than a mechanism for exclusion.

But as President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian state spanned across more than 30 years, Islam has become a "substitute for an opposition" explains Claude Guibal, the co-author of Talaat's memoires.

Such were societal pressures, that Egypt's 1971 Constitution was amended to make Islamic Sharia law the principal source of legislative law. This move gave the country's oppressive police force an excuse to check up on dancers to ensure they did not contravene dress codes. On top of this, explains Dina Talaat: "Because of the population explosion, Egyptians left to work in the more conservative countries of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, and have returned with a much more rigid form of Islam."

Today in Egypt, 80 percent of women wear the hijab headscarf and 15 percent the full-robed niqab. The regime, playing alternatively the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist cards, has used religion to divide the opposition.

"In a society which loves dance but is also governed by religion, the belly dancers became the scapegoats for these tensions," says Guibal.

Convinced that the Koran has the greatest respect for women, Talaat made a pilgrimage to Mecca after a tape showing her in flagrante with an ex-husband was made public. She doesn't dare speak of fundamentalism with her sister Rita, a former singer who today wears the niqab.

Still, she says she sees the first signs of an opening of spirit in the younger generations – 50 percent of the Egyptian population is under 25 years old -- "brought up on satellite television and the Internet."

But this indignant feminist -- who has made her right to dance a symbol of emancipation, refused arranged marriages, divorced seven times and devoted her body and soul to her art -- is also sensitive to her friends' advice, "Play around, Dina, but stop dancing!" They worry about the trajectory of this liberated and liberating woman. For the time being, she's not listening. She cites the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." But others wonder whether she is dancing on the edge of a volcano.

Photo - (ff137)

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!