The top five dangers of working as a bellydancer in Cairo.
Note ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED IN THESE BLOGS for what I think are obvious reasons. Also I am not allowed to take photos or videos of me dancing in most Cabaret clubs so all I have is bathroom selfies ... enjoy
“Please - Take care!”
“Is it safe?”
Before I set off to Cairo to be a dancer, this was basically all that was said to me by anyone I told. I’ve also been warned by current and past dancers and have read blogs about how dangerous it is to work as a dancer in Egypt….. sex, drugs, prostitution, exploitation …
So, since I have been here has it been dangerous? Well, I have to admit it’s not been without its hazards but most were not what I first expected. I thought I would be pressured into sex for gigs or something like that, or the guy that I agreed to be my manager would be a tool or not pay me….. But no, none of this has happened at all.
Now don’t get me wrong, there may be more dangers to working in Cairo than I’ve experienced (I’ve only been here a few months AS A DANCER …. I may still be in the honeymoon period.) But in this short time I have worked in a range of places from what can only be described as very, very seedy back street night clubs to five star hotels. These are my top five scariest encounters….
ONE: Dying of second hand smoke.
I’m not joking. This is currently my biggest fear. Anyone who knows me well will know that I occasionally like a smoke of a shisha. But the emphasis is on OCCASIONALLY. Some of the clubs I work in are thick with the smoke of shisha. I am on stage for no less that 30mins sometimes 45mins. This is not easy work. During the breaks between the songs, as the musicians discuss what is next, I try to take casual deep breaths to regain energy, limit sweating and to survive the set. Especially at the beginning when I first moved to Cairo to dance, I found these long sets challenging especially doing so many in one night. I just didn’t have the fitness level.
Luckily, I find it a lot easier now. However, breathing in these smoke filled environments doesn’t help whatsoever. There is a lack of oxygen in the air and there is always the urge to have a coughing fit. In the morning when I wake up my hair is thick with the smell of smoke. It’s actually quite grim.
The irony is when my manager gives me constructive criticism, “Zara you need to relax and breath more when you dance.” BREATH WHAT??! THERE IS TOO LITTLE OXYGEN IN THIS CLUB!!
And the thing is IT DOESN'T STOP ON THE STAGE .. the worst thing is the changing rooms. Most of the venues actually have quite a nice changing room with a lock BUT they are usually a small box room with no ventilation and due to the sheer amount of female acts (singers and dancers) and service girls that work at the place they are rarely empty and they ALL SMOKE.
In one of the places I work the singer after me, Saz (name change), who is lovely, likes to arrive early an sit in the small box room (remember in the evening it is easily 27-30 degrees in Cairo) and smoke a shisha - A SHISHA before her performance. As I get changed I can’t breathe….
TWO: Dying getting from gig to gig!
Driving around Cairo is scary at the best of times. I am actually quite used to it as I have been coming to Cairo since a child. However, since being a bellydancer I have several times thought I was going to die.
On a normal day I have 3-4 gigs a night. On nights like this we (my manager and I) just hop in taxis and travel from gig to gig. If we have a lot of gigs in one night, or gigs far away from central Cairo/Giza I have a car arranged for me. And not just any car. We tried a few drivers and my manager finally settled and took a liking to one. One I can only describe as a boy racer. But if I am honest we do need him. Sometimes there is a real race against the clock to get from gig to gig! If you are late they put another act on in you place – there is NO EGYPTIAN TIME when it comes to the cabaret clubs! They operate on serious 30-45min time slots for all acts and there is a strict order. It’s crazy! In all my life of being in Egypt I have never seen Egyptians operate on such a strict timetable.In some of the clubs if you miss your slot once you are taken off the books – SACKED. I have had this happen. There are plenty of bellydancers in Egypt. They are not interested in the unreliable ones.
Luckily, a lot of this travelling is in the middle of the night for gigs after midnight till 6am. The roads are quieter but it’s still scary weaving in and out of the crazy traffic – beeping madly to communicate that we are coming through. My heart is in my throat. My adrenalin is pumping. There are NO BACK SEAT SEATBELTS. I am always telling them I don’t want to die for a crappy gig! They laugh. We have reached over 70mph on CAIRO ROADS! This is no joke!
Again, the irony as my manger then gives me advice before I go on, “Make sure you relax on stage.” RELAX !! - I JUST NEARLY DIED!
And this doesn’t just stop at cars. Some of the gigs are on posh /private cruise ships. We have to get off the boats and back to land for our other gigs before the cruise ends so mini speed boats have to pick us up. The rushed jump from the main boat to the speed boat, in heels, always feels to me a bit like Russian roulette!
THREE: Get kidnapped
Yes, I nearly got kidnapped – ironically I was mostly oblivious to it all.
One of the gigs I sometimes do is on a stationary boat night club. It’s at 8pm, straight after the call for prayer. As soon as the call ends, the night’s entertainment begins. As this is the first gig of the night I usually meet my manager there. For the rest of the gigs until I go home my manager is by my side ensuring my safety, organising our rides and our timetable.
Anyway, one day I jump into a taxi and tell the driver to take me to “Owel KitKat, fey Cornish,” the beginning of the area of KitKat along the Nile. I’m running a bit late and getting worried. I had been late the day before and my manager had a MASSIVE go at me. It was one of the biggest arguments we had had to date. He was in the right. As I said before, these clubs run on a tight slot system.I didn’t want to be late again. I was stressed.
The taxi driver drives to the end of the road gets out and buys cigarettes. Whilst buying cigarettes, he’s on the phone. I think nothing of it. He comes back into the car and is nice to me. He offers me a can of drink. I say, “No,” and stress how late I am and he needs to get me to KitKat FAST!!
“Ok, ok!” he assures me. “Do you have any specific route you want to go?”
“I don’t care just get me there fast. I am late!”
“ Ok, ok! I know a good route. We will be there soon.” He takes a turn in the opposite direction to what taxi drivers usually take and I ask him where he is going. He reassures me it is a fast route. Also his phone rings and he talks quite loudly to one of his friends. “Hey .. yer I am on my way to KitKat. I will meet you after.”
As time goes by I get more and more angry and start worrying about where we are as we should be there by now. I am going to be late. My manager starts calling me, “Where are you? Where are you?”
I am getting more and more annoyed. I assume he has just taken a long route to run the meter high. I shout at him, “COME ON! I AM LATE FOR WORK.” My manager demands to talk to him on the phone and the driver assures him we are five minutes away. Thank goodness - five minutes and we’ll be there. Five minutes pass and we are not there. The meter has gone up to 35Le. The trip I usually take is no more than 18Le. I get really angry, “Don’t you realise I have work? They are going to kill me!” All I can think about is work. My phone constantly rings… my manager is on my back – I tell him the taxi driver is a joke. We go deeper and deeper into little back streets. I don’t recognise anything. I can’t see any main streets. I don’t recognise where we are. My manager talks to the cab driver again and the driver says we are at the beginning of Ahmed Oraby Street. This is a street and area I know really well. I had taken Arabic classes in the area and walked around it in my breaks. I knew we were not in this area at ALL! I shout at him again but he just reassures me we are only five minutes away.We continue to wind down little back streets into more and more shaabi areas.
Then he breaks down. The car stalls!! “OMG! I AM GOING TO DEFINITELY MISS MY GIG. Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t.” is all I can think. I get out of the car, “This is a JOKE!” I shout at him. Everyone in the street is looking. “YOU’VE MADE ME LATE!!” All this time my phone is ringing. It’s my manager. I’m stressed. I jump in a passing tuk-tuk. Not to escape the driver because I am scared about my safety but I want to escape from him because I refuse to pay the meter of nearly 40Le for an 18Le trip! In the tuk-tuk I talk to my manager. He talks to the tuk-tuk driver to find out where I am. The tuk-tuk driver takes me to a street where I can get another cab. My manager stays on the phone to me this whole time. His voice has changed. He’s not angry for me being late and tells me not to worry.
I get into another Taxi and my manager talks to the driver and then he talks to me. “Zara this taxi is going to drive you to us. Don’t worry, you won’t dance. I have told the organiser what has happened and they aren’t angry. You are over 40 minutes away from us so just relax and get here.”
WHAT 40mins away?
When I finally get to the boat my manager is waiting for me. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I’m late. It isn’t my fault. I’m so sorry the taxi guy was just an idiot.”
“Zara, don’t you realise what happened?” My manager is looking at me. “Zara, he was trying to kidnap you. This gig doesn’t matter. Your safety is what matters.”
“Kidnap me? What!”
I was so distracted by the fear of not getting to my gig on time and assuming that he was just trying to run the meter up that I hadn’t realised what was happening. The taxi driver had taken me really far into a rough area called Kirdasah, renowned for being dangerous. He had obviously contacted other people on the phone when buying cigarettes.
“You are lucky that car broke down and you are smart that you got out and got away or you would have been kidnapped!!”
“Lucky yes – smart no! It was pure luck. I didn’t suspect a thing. Kidnapped?”
“Either to rape you or there have even been cases, in that area, of people being kidnapped and their organs harvested ...or both. God was looking after you. He made that car break down.”
I truly believe that God saved me.
My manager tells me that I am not to get into cabs by myself and to only take Uber Cabs (a pre booked cab system). This annoys me. I feel like a baby. The next day I follow his instructions and get in an Uber. The Uber driver and I have an argument as to where the pick up location should have been. He’s not paying attention to the road and we drive straight into a tuk-tuk. The side panel of the car has been ripped off. I get out of the Uber and straight into a taxi.
I call my manager.
“I’m gonna be late. My Uber has crashed.”
From that day on my manager picks me up from my home everyday and takes me to my gigs.
Apparently, I am a baby who can’t get herself from A to B in Cairo! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
PLEASE NOTE: GETTING IN A CAB CAN BE DANGEROUS IN ANY COUNTRY not just Egypt! This could and DOES happen in any country. I have learnt the hard way but ALWAYS be alert when getting into a cab (booked or not). If you have GPS on your phone have it on so you know you are going the right way, show confidence in the route to your destination!! Down load apps such as UBER and Careem and LOOK AFTER YOURSELF.
FOUR: Get eaten by rats
So, when I made the choice to come to Egypt to dance I knew I couldn’t tell the Egyptian side of my family which meant I needed to arrange somewhere to live. I find, what I think is, a nice 2 bedroom flat for a great price, just 2 minutes from Pyramid Street, which is where a lot of the night clubs I work in are situated.
On my viewing of the flat I noticed nothing wrong and agreed to move in. The small, open plan kitchen didn’t have a light bulb so I didn’t get a good look at it but it seemed ok.
I spend very little time at home. It is just somewhere to rest between gigs and put make up on. It wasn’t till about the third day of living in the place that I had time to finally get a light bulb for the kitchen and spend time in the flat. When the kitchen is finally lit I notice some animal droppings around and a not very nice smell. At first the animal droppings didn’t really bother me. I had my suspicions as to what they were, but the flat hadn’t been lived in for a while. My assumption was the animals that had left this were well gone and the kitchen just needed cleaning. I start to clean but the smell doesn’t go away so I decide to open the very small window in the kitchen to let in air and get rid of the smell.
As I open the window I am hit by this awful smell but about 100 times worse. Between the glass of the window and the wooden shutter behind it was a mass of wood chippings and LOADS of droppings/poo. Whatever animal this was it had gnawed a hole through the wooden shutter and was then getting in through the window via a broken fan. The fan is in the corner of the window. I noticed that the fan was stuffed with material – obviously the last residents’ attempts to block the hole.
I call my manager and he comes round with bottles and bottles of Dettol. In Cairo people believe in the power of Dettol. We spend the day (mostly me) Dettol-ing down the kitchen Removing all the droppings and wood chippings and cleaning the kitchen. HERE I AM SUPPOSED TO BE A GLAMOROUS BELLYDANCER IN CAIRO BUT NO, I AM CLEANING UP POO! Finally the kitchen is shining and the smell has gone. I shut the window and shutter, as I said I assumed these animals had long gone. My mind is relaxed.
The end of the week arrives. It is a bank holiday weekend and work is even busier. The next day I come home in the middle of the night/morning and instantly recognise that the smell is back. I go into the kitchen and the small amount of bread I have is half gone and the rest has been dragged out of the bag onto the floor. There is also a trail of poo on the side board.
AHHHHHHHHH! I finally do it. I look up the type of poo on the internet. My biggest fear is confirmed. RATS!Eeewwwwwww the thought that a rat has been in my flat!! CRINGE, CRINGE, CRINGE. And the size of the rats in Cairo? Huge!
I throw away all my food and re-Dettol the kitchen in the middle of the night then I go to sleep tightly closing the door of my bedroom.
The next few days pass and I am crazy busy with gigs. It is the weekend. There are the boats during the day and night clubs till 4am or even later. It is an extra busy time. I am hardly in my flat but when I am, I can’t sleep. I am scared of the pesky rats. Exhaustion starts to set in. I get niggly and frustrated at work, snapping, being hard to work with.
Then it finally all pops. My manager confronts me in the car (we are with the boy racer driver) “Why are you being so difficult to work with? What is wrong with you? Is there a problem? People are complaining.”
We start arguing really badly. The driver tries to diffuse the situation and gets snapped at by both of us for his trouble.
Finally I scream (in a mixture of Arabic and English): “HOW THE F**K DO YOU EXPECT ME TO WORK? I CAN’T F**KING SLEEP!! I’M SCARED THE RATS ARE GONNA EAT ME ALIVE!!”
My manger’s tone changes, “So this is all because of the rats?”
“There is no other issue?”
Because it is bank holiday nowhere is open to get in touch with any pest controllers.
I tell my manager that I don’t need someone special, I just need his help to close up the window where they are getting in. Someone on Facebook also gave me the advice to close up the hole with wire wool – luckily this is very easy to buy In Cairo.
We finish work. “Fine, I am going to sort it out now.” He turns to the driver, “Wait here and if I am not back down in an hour call an ambulance!”
He comes up to my flat. He removes the window with the broken fan and replaces it with some tiles which were on the balcony. Between the wooden shutter and the tiles he stuffs it full of wire wool. FINALLY THE PROBLEM IS RESOLVED!
I leave out bread for several days as a test and I am happy to report that the poo, smell and rats have never returned.
Now, I am quite settled in my flat and love it.
FIVE: Get taken by police
Ok, so I have always known that there are strict rules to belly dancing in Egypt: that you need a licence and that apparently foreign dancers can be deported without a contract or if Egyptian put in prison. But I suppose in a rather naive way I thought it to be a bit of an exaggeration.
But the law became all too real one day when the dancer who always dances in the slot before me at one of my regular gigs, Chain (name change), didn’t turn up. I think nothing of it; maybe she has other work or something. However, the next day the same thing happens. Over time I have become REALLY close with her technician. A technician helps her dancer change and carries her bags. I call her to find out what has happened and were they both ok? It turns out Chain is in prison. She was arrested at the venue she dances at after the club we both work in.
Chain has been working as a dancer for over 13 years and apparently in this time she has built a reputation with the bellydance police. She likes to wear very revealing costumes. I have to say some of them have taken me aback but I love them. She has the body for them and TRUST ME they are top quality designer costumes. I know the designer and they are not cheap. She looks classy to me. And as she works in the same places at the same time every day she is an easy target for the bellydance police – they harass her.
Reality hits in. The bellydance police are for real.
I find out from her technician that the police turned up and pulled Chain off the stage saying she isn’t complying with her licence. As a belly dancer in Egypt you must wear a belly cover and wear shorts underneath your costume and your costume has to be decent, whatever that means. They didn’t let her put her coat on and they dragged her on to the street in her costume.
Chain was kept in prison for 3 days. Her technician stayed at the station with her every day for support. When she was let out she returned to work.I am happy to say her costumes are as sexy as ever. Her court trial is in a month’s time.
I am happy to say that I am a fully licensed belly dancer in Egypt. But, still as Chain proved, it doesn’t mean that you’re safe. At any point you can be subject to the bellydance police just wanting to flex their muscles and power.
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