I´ve met them daily – banat il balad, daughters of the homeland, Egyptian women who embodied their country´s essence and threw it on strangers face through the sweet, earthy swing of their (all containing) hips. Not that they were my world. Almost a decade of career and life in Egypt was mostly populated by men: musicians, technicians, assistants, composers, one great manager and several asshole “bosses”, some friends and lovers. Men: men: men
Women were a bonus – welcomed interferences in my daily battle ground. You have to understand this: the territory of a professional dancer in Egypt is strange, abominable, unclassified: not masculine but certainly not feminine: no Man or Woman´s land taken to an whole different level. Anything that happens outside of the home belongs to men but that space where I moved day after day, month after month, year after year could not be considered 100% male, although men was all I saw and dealt with.
Those beautiful strangers – lady invaders – passed me by in the street while I was rushing to my shows or heading to a bookshop in order to save myself from clinical madness.They were also cleaning ladies who loved me for no particular reason and audience members who fixed their “hijab” (scarf that covers the head) to kiss and hug me, half shy and half mother.
-Can I take a photo with you?
-Sure you can.
-I wish I could dance like you.
-You can, habibti...you can…
They held me by the waist, squeezed me in the fashion of grandmothers and tried to cool their breath down (unsuccessfully). Sincere, awkward smiles for posterity. Two parallel worlds trying to hold each other and silently clashing: Virgin Mary (them) and Prostitute (me, the dancer/”rakkasah”). In other words, Eve and Lilith – two estranged sisters, separated at birth.
These women were simultaneously critical and envious of my profession. Some pitied me for the “haram” (forbidden by God) life, the hard work and the permanent exposure to mice and snakes; others believed I launched bacchanalia at my home on a daily basis; they imagined my life was filled with glamour, jewelry offered by rich Arab guys and fancy restaurant meals covered in stardust. It could have been like that if I had forgotten who I am – bad luck I have a damn good memory.
All of them believed I was on a mission to steal their husband, even if I had no idea whom their husband was. Ghosts can be scarier than living people, no matter how many times experience proves it otherwise. Yes, the world is crazy; Egypt, in particular.
One of these women became my closest assistant, friend, mother and sister – totally out of the pool of the usual young, plain or desperate girls who work for dancers. The “lapissa” (the one who un-dresses the dancer) is a world in herself.
Her name was (is) Nagle and she was (is; will always be) the ultimate “BINT IL BALAD”.
Imperfect – yes. Like everyone else. Amazing beyond words – no doubt. Unlike everyone else.
She walked as if she was dancing and cried as if she was laughing. A true survivor and a daily explosion of joy, faith and generosity. Her story is long, shocking and amazing – as are most lives of the “banat il balad“. What I´ve learnt from her is way too big for a blog post – you´ll find her in my upcoming book. What I keep rescuing is her STRENGTH, the way she let her wings clean the ground she walked on – a particular kind of humbleness that only makes sense in the heart of a queen.
Every time I dance, teach or choreograph a “baladi” piece, it´s her – and every single woman I met in Egypt – that comes to life. My hips carry and rock them to peace.Their juicy sense of humor; their heavy, smiling & sparkling & slow & swinging & steady & sailing & scorching hips; their warm chest and maternal grip; their desperate – ignored – scream for a freedom they´ve never tasted. Even their naiveté: caged birds who don´t realize they´re imprisoned (aren´t we all, in a way or another?).