Where Have Egypt's Belly Dancers Gone?

How the Saudi influence is transforming Egyptian society.


CAIRO, Egypt, June 20, 2008 — -- It was almost midnight at the five-star-hotel overlooking the Nile, but it was far from bedtime.

The lobby was loud; there was a wedding party. The bride was veiled and so were most of the female guests, a sign that it was a conservative family celebration.

Then a tall, attractive woman in her mid-40s, wearing a black thigh-high dress — and revealing more than it covered — walked into the lobby, stealing everyone's attention.

It was Dina, Egypt's top belly dancer and possibly the last Egyptian in the business.

"I dress this way to remind myself that I can still be a woman," said Dina in a fluent American-tinged accent. "At some point I too used to wear more covering clothes, [but] Egyptian society changed."

Dina, who was recently under fierce criticism by Muslim Brotherhood parliament members for dancing in front of students at a high school prom, explained that there is a love-hate relationship between Egyptian society and belly dancing.

"They all love it but do not want to be associated with belly dancers, that's why today you cannot find Egyptian belly dancers other than myself."

Most of the songs played at the wedding were produced by Saudi Arabian production companies, contradicting the conservative and religious image of the rich Gulf Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters and singing is considered a sin, yet the three biggest entertainment channels in the Arab world are Saudi owned. They are mostly Saudi royal family investments.

The entertainment TV network & record company, Rotana, is owned by Prince Walid Bin Talal, and produces songs for Egypt's and the Arab world's top singers.

In fact, Saudi companies bought the rights to thousands of Egyptian films. The Saudi presence in Egyptian media outlets is unmissable.

"Some Saudi production companies commit genocide against Egyptian artists, while others enrich Egyptian media," Dina said. "In the past all songs were in the Egyptian dialect; today it is a must to sing in the Gulfy accent to make these companies happy."

Khaled Montasser, who wrote several articles in the Egyptian independent newspaper Sawt El Ummah criticizing the Saudi influence in Egyptian films, explains it as "an attempt to Saudinize the Egyptian soul and society."

Montasser says Saudi Arabia and the rich Gulf states are trying to impose their norms and values on Egyptian culture by producing what's known as "the clean cinema."

This cinema demands that no actor should be alone with an actress in any scene — something that is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, and could lead to the man and woman being lashed in public.

Film director Mohamed Mostafa told ABC News that Saudi backed and funded production companies tend to produce films that slam Egypt.

"The movie 'Yakoubian Building' [from 2006] was all about showing the bad side of the 1952 revolution, making us feel that Egypt is a mess," Mostafa said. "Yes, there are serious social problems, but Egypt is still the leading Arab country, something the Wahabi Saudi Arabia is not happy with."

Wahabism is a very strict school of Islam that was founded by Mohamed Abdel Wahab of Saudi Arabia. It is the prevailing form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

While some in the film industry say that Saudi Arabian companies have their own hidden social and religious agendas, others like film critic Samir Farid believe that "it is purely business."

According to Farid, Egyptian society became more fundamentalist and "ready for the Saudinization" long before Saudi investment in the media.

"I know of an Egyptian pilot who proposed to a girl's a family, but insisted she wouldn't drive nor talk on the cell phone," said Farid. He contrasts this rise in conservatism in Egypt with recent calls in Saudi Arabia to lift the ban on women driving.

Millions of Egyptians work and live in Saudi Arabia, a large percentage of whom have adopted the Saudi way of living, socially and religiously, when they return to Egypt.

Women in Neqab, a full veil covering their faces, is a normal scene in the streets of Cairo. That was not the case 15 years ago.

"There is a belief among Egyptians that Saudi Arabia is rich because it is a religious country," Montasser said.

The strictly conservative Kingdom turns its eyes away from any sinful acts by its citizens, he said, as long as they are done outside their holy land.

"The Saudis pack the house in my show," Dina said, before adding, but "there are no more Egyptian belly dancers because the word dancer has become a taboo."

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