Book Review: A Trade like Any Other
- Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt
Karin van Nieuwkerk

Published in the MEDANZ newsletter, October 2000

I found this book fascinating. The author, Karin van Nieuwkerk, is not a dancer (though she took some lessons to get an appreciation of the form) but a lecturer in Social Anthropology. She was interested in investigating whether 'the tainted reputation of female entertainers [is] due to the fact that entertainment is a dishonorable profession or the profession is dishonorable for women'.

The premise may seem ivory tower - but her 15 months of research was on very much on the ground. She talked (in Arabic) with musicians and dancers and singers. She spoke with, and some time became friends with, entertainers from Muhammad Al Street and those who worked in Nightclubs. She drank tea with them; she attended weddings and saint's day celebrations (mawlid). She spoke to those who had danced in the 1930s; those who had witnessed huge changes in their society and their trade. She spoke with women for whom entertainment is a family trade. Many of these conversations are quoted in the book such as: "I stopped working when the trade became naked. My dresses covered me up to here, nothing was visible. We wore three or four skirts, the belly and breast were covered with spangles and beads." Or another, "Our father died. our mother married someone else, a musician. He took us out of school and taught us acrobatics. He had us work at saint's day celebrations. Then my husband came along. I was fourteen. He taught me how to sing and dance at weddings."

This is not the stuff of fantasy but real women trying to survive.

Backgrounding her fieldwork, Karin examines the Islamic views on music, singing, and dancing. She investigates the history of the dance in Egypt from eighteenth century to the present day from both an academic perspective and from the 'experience near' recollections of the people she spoke with.

Even if you are not academically inclined, don't stop once Karin gets into her thesis. For throughout the second half of the book new gems continue to appear - the secret language, an interesting history on the concept of awld il-balad, a digression into cross cultural gender definitions, the importance of children.

Finally she looks at how the sample of the Egyptian public view the place of dancing as a trade. A female folk dancer is a 'reasonable' trade (below actors, but above garbage collectors). A female dancer at weddings is slightly above a dancer at saint's day celebrations - but both are in the 'bad' category - way below singers (who are 'mediocre'). None as bad as nightclub dancers - 'very bad'. Interesting the only worse things to be are the male assistant of a dancer, a female mourner, a prostitute or a moneylender.

All this with photos of real performers, copious notes, a glossary, and bibliography. Well worth buying.

I have to pass on some of the snippets in the book.

Traditional Islamic Views on Singing and Dancing.

According to some, music from birds and human throats - providing the songs are permissible - is acceptable; music from instruments is not. However, the voice of a woman can seduce a listener - so even listening to the voices of concealed women is forbidden if it evokes tempting images.

Dancing involves movement so is much riskier. Dancing without volition or for praiseworthy pleasure (such as a wedding) is acceptable. However, in looking at women there is always the possibility of temptation - so women should only perform for women.

Further full time performers spend too much time on an activity that distracts them from their devotion to God.

Awlim and ghawz

The problem is the terminology has not been consistent. In the early nineteenth century female entertainers could be grouped as awlim (singular alma) and ghawz (singular ghazya). The awlim were female scholars who wrote poetry, sang, improvised songs, and composed music. They also danced - but only for women. In contrast the ghawz were mainly dancers who performed unveiled in the streets. These were not regarded as decent women - they also smoked and drank - but they were dancers - not prostitutes.

There was also a midway group of lower-class singers and dancers who performed for the poor in the working class quarters.

With the increasing taxes and foreigners the awlim left Cairo. After this period, awlim were increasingly referred to singers and dancers. These may have been a growth of the middle group - or a lowering of standards in the face of necessity. At the same time the ghawz became associated as dancers and prostitutes. The religious authorities had dancers banned from Cairo in 1834. Awlim continued to sing and make music in the harems however. The public dancing was taken over by men - many who could not be distinguished from women.

After twenty years or so the ban was lifted - the women had provided a good source of tax! But the term awlim was no longer used for high-class singers as by now it had become tainted. This word was now used for what was the middle group of lower-class singers and dancers. Ghawz had come to be associated with dancer-prostitutes.

By the end of the nineteenth century, dancing and singing moved from the streets to caf-chantants and later to theatres. By this time alma had also taken on the meaning of dancer-prostitute.

By the mid-twentieth century, dancers who performed for the women at a wedding were called awlim while those who performed for the men were called artistes. These were often the same women - even at the same party.

Nightclub performers were much lower on the ladder. From the 1920s and 1930s they were paid not only to dance in front of men - which was bad enough but also to sit with the customers and encourage them to drink. This practice (fath) was officially banned in 1951.

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