Belly Dancers in Egypt Worry About Possible Islamist Takeover

Fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt aren't limited to moderates, secularists and leftists, writes Kamel Saleh. Belly dancers and other artists are also worried. Some Islamists have threatened to ban belly dancing and to cut displays of kissing and dancing out of movies. Saleh writes that no group is entitled to rob the country of its artistic heritage.

al-monitor Katya, a belly dancer, performs at an oriental dance festival in Cairo June 27, 2006. Photo by REUTERS/Tara Todras-Whitehill.

Topics covered

islamists, elections, censorship

May 23, 2012

Fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt are not only limited to the secularists, leftists and moderates. They have now extended to a large segment of intellectuals and artists, notably dancers.

There are clear indications that some are terrified at the prospect of a rise of Islamist fundamentalists to power. One Egyptian dancer called Sophia expresses her concerns, saying it would not only affect her, but the tradition of belly-dancing as a whole.

Another dancer named Sama al-Masri discusses the issue more equivocally. She defends the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that the Brotherhood will support her art career. She says she “knows a group of Salafists and Brothers personally, and they treat her with utmost kindness, tenderness and humanitarian compassion without displaying any worldly desires,” as she put it.

The contradictory positions of Sofia and Sama are reflective of the concerns of large segments of Egyptians. Some have grown worried as the Islamists and Salafists have made their positions increasingly clear through a number of actions, including the prosecution of actor Adel Imam for some of his movies. Some of them have also demanded that dance and kissing scenes be cut out of all Egyptian films.

This has resulted in some ambiguity surrounding the future of arts in Egypt should the Muslim Brotherhood take the presidency. One observer raises the question: “How can a revolution be on the right track if women are prevented from dancing?”

Some link dancing to the concept of ​Eve’s ​seduction of Adam in paradise. Others liken it to the old game of snake charming, where a magician plays the flute and a snake emerges out of his basket, swaying. Others refer to the original snake, which sowed the seed of disobedience against the divine directive forbidding the picking of fruit from the tree of life.

Dance — which, according to mythology and cultural heritage, has played a dynamic role in  human societies — took on divine characteristics through its exercise in rituals at temples and holy places to please the gods. However, in our present era, dance has become an art in and of itself, with diverse schools and special garments. Let us not forget the dancer that seduced Enkidu in the myth of Gilgamesh, and the high price paid by John the Baptist after Salome asked Herod, King of the Jews, to behead him after having danced for him. Here in particular, it cannot be said that “a dancer has never won over a Prophet.”

Thus, along this path, dance gradually moved from being a sacred ritual to a human ritual. It is to a large extent similar to what happened to the art of poetry, which broke away from the literature of priests and the sacred texts to take a separate, human path.

Is it possible to separate the tenets of utilitarian philosophy — which dictates that humans are constantly seeking pleasure and the avoidance of  pain — from that  pleasure brought about by dance? The female body must sway to a rhythm, which leads to pleasure — including the pleasures of sight, hearing, smell and, sometimes, touch.

The Islamists have no right to ban the arts produced by humanity. They also have no right to empty religion from worldly aesthetics. Like other arts, there are both sublime and lowly forms of dance. It is the same with religions, which, throughout history, have entailed interpretations, readings and behaviors that were sublime and served higher purposes, while at other times serving as justification for lowliness, bawdiness and murders for despicable purposes.

Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that dance is an original human act. It is a legacy of the civilizations that have accompanied man in all times and places, especially in Egypt, whose forefathers, the Pharaohs, were as keen to draw dancers on the walls of temples as the gods and kings.

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