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"A Trade like Any Other"

"A Trade like Any Other"
Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt

The lives of female performers and the reasons why work they regard as "a trade like any other" is considered disreputable in Egyptian society.

September 1995
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240 pages | 6 x 9 | 18 b&w photos |

In Egypt, singing and dancing are considered essential on happy occasions. Professional entertainers often perform at weddings and other celebrations, and a host family's prestige rises with the number, expense, and fame of the entertainers they hire. Paradoxically, however, the entertainers themselves are often viewed as disreputable people and are accorded little prestige in Egyptian society.

This paradox forms the starting point of Karin van Nieuwkerk's look at the Egyptian entertainment trade. She explores the lives of female performers and the reasons why work they regard as "a trade like any other" is considered disreputable in Egyptian society. In particular, she demonstrates that while male entertainers are often viewed as simply "making a living," female performers are almost always considered bad, seductive women engaged in dishonorable conduct. She traces this perception to the social definition of the female body as always and only sexual and enticing—a perception that stigmatizes women entertainers even as it simultaneously offers them a means of livelihood.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Transcription
  • One. Introduction
  • Two. Female Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century Egypt
  • Three. Female Entertainment in The Twentieth Century
  • Four. Life Stories of Female Entertainers
  • Five. Marginality
  • Six. Honor and Shame
  • Seven. Gender
  • Eight. Female Entertainers: Feminine and Masculine
  • Nine. Conclusions
  • Appendix: Methodological Notes
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Drawn from extensive fieldwork and enriched with the life stories of entertainers and nightclub performers, this is the first ethnography of female singers and dancers in present-day Egypt. It will be of interest to a wide audience in anthropology, women's studies, and Middle Eastern culture, as well as anyone who enjoys belly dancing.


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Is entertainment a trade like any other? According to Egyptian performers it is. They usually shrug their shoulders and simply comment: "mihna, zayy ayy mihna," "a trade like any other." Like other jobs, entertainment fulfills a function in society and brings in money.

Yet many voices disagree with this opinion of performers. In the eyes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers, female singers and belly dancers were strange and exotic. The travelers were fascinated and shocked by the local dance. A member of the Napoleonic expedition wrote: "Their dance was at first voluptuous, but then it became lewd ... it was no more than the most outrageous and indecent expression of bestial desires" (Denon 1803: 175). Today belly dancers still stand out as a symbol of the "sensual East." Nawâl al-Sa`adâwî, a leading Egyptian feminist and author, once remarked in an interview that the Western image of Arab women is either the oppressed and pitiable woman imprisoned in the harem or the voluptuous and exotic belly dancer.

The topic of this study could thus be taken as a preeminent example of "Orientalism." In this ethnography, though, I intend to "de-exoticize" the entertainment trade. By presenting the lives and views of female singers and dancers themselves, I hope to create more understanding of their livelihood. What bothers female performers most is not an "Orientalist misrepresentation," but the way they are regarded and treated by the middle and higher classes of their own society. By giving insight into their lives and backgrounds, I hope to generate more sympathy for female entertainers on the part of Egyptian as well as Western audiences.

In Egypt, singing and dancing are essentially regarded as expressions of rejoicing, and at many happy occasions people sing and dance. They often treat an honored guest with entertainment as well. In 1983, when, as an undergraduate, I conducted a study concerning the views of female students on education, labor, and motherhood and lived on the campus of Cairo University, the female students often treated me to singing and dancing. In a refugee camp on the West Bank where I visited a family, a young girl was asked to dance by her male relatives. They clearly took pride in their sister's dancing abilities. On another occasion, an Egyptian family wanted to treat me to dancing as well, yet, because nonrelated men were present, the girl was forbidden to dance and her brother danced instead.

Although Egyptians are very fond of singing and dancing, professional performers are regarded with ambivalence. Professional entertainers are central to the most important occasions in people's lives, such as births, engagements, and weddings. A celebration without performers is not a real celebration. Entertainers are necessary because they make people happy (biyifrahu innâs)--they bring out people's happiness. Besides, performers are objects of prestige and competition. The more performers or the more expensive and famous the entertainers, the more prestige the host family gains. Yet, despite their importance, entertainers are generally not honored or accorded much prestige.

When I asked a female singer about her feelings regarding the view of society about her profession, she responded emotionally:

Why do people talk about a woman who works [in this trade]? If they understood our circumstances, they would not talk like that. I support a house with this trade--I spend on my family. Why does society judge us so harshly? Entertainers want to live! But people do not know these things. They must be awakened. Take note of this topic! You must show the people that we work to support a family. You must write in your book that even the government now recognizes our trade and has given us a trade union. Why does society still condemn us so harshly? Words like this will benefit you and will benefit us as well. Even though you are not an Egyptian, you will do something for people like us. May God give you success!

Why does society judge them so harshly? Why does society condemn female singers and dancers? These questions intrigued me. It was unclear to me, nor did the female singer quoted make it any clearer, whether female entertainers are condemned because people talk about a woman who works in this trade or because society generally judges the entertainment trade harshly. I decided to investigate whether the low esteem of female performers is mainly related to the dishonor of the trade or to the prevailing gender ideology. Or, formulated in another way: Is the tainted reputation of female entertainers due to the fact that entertainment is a dishonorable profession or is it due to the fact that the profession is dishonorable for women?

Dishonorable Professions

In many countries, and in different historical periods, entertainers have been held in low esteem. They have especially been regarded with suspicion by religious authorities. Since the first centuries of the church, worldly vanity and entertainment have been combatted. In Muslim countries, entertainers have also been outcasts and rejected by the clergy in the past. In more recent times, itinerant entertainers--those, for instance, of Gypsy descent--have ranked low on the social scale as well. Whether they roam around or settle down, they are perceived as outsiders and outcasts. Although this outcast status allows Gypsies mobility in the larger social system, they represent a category that is looked down upon by members of even the lowest class or caste (Berland 1986: 4). Studies on female musicians document their low status as well. Female musicians, singers, and dancers in Algeria, for instance, are marginal women (W. Jansen 1987: 190-200). Although Moroccan female musicians who perform only for women have high status, female entertainers performing for men are held in low esteem, like their Algerian counterparts (Davis 1978: 422, 429).

There is thus ample evidence that entertainers had and still have low status. The question of how to account for this is, interestingly enough, rarely posed. The answer would seem to be self-evident. In general, there is a dearth of theory on the low status of professions. Such theories as those on honor and shame, developed in particular with respect to the Mediterranean (see Chapter 6), focus on the status of social groups--men, women, the young, the old, or individuals--not on the status of occupations. Studies on entertainers and those in similar occupations, such as Dalby 1985 on the Japanese geisha and G. W. Jansen 1987 on showmen in the Netherlands, hardly go into the topic of dishonor. Studies on peripatetic groups mainly focus on mobility and ethnic differentness, rather than on the status of peripatetics as a result of the profession they are engaged in (Berland 1982; Berland & Salo 1986b). My aim, however, is to examine the profession and its influence on the status of its practitioners. The focus is not on professions that are considered dishonorable because they are practiced by certain groups, but is on groups viewed as disreputable because they practice a certain profession (Blok 198 1a: 121).

The only theories dealing with the dishonor of groups on account of their professions are those of the body of literature on "infamous occupations," mainly pertaining to the European Middle Ages. These studies center on why members of numerous trades are considered dishonorable on account of their activities while in their personal way of life they do not differ from other people (Kramer 1971: 855). These studies contain valuable suggestions concerning the nature of infamous occupations, although caution is called for, since they pertain to a different historical period and another cultural setting. Explanations for the dishonor of certain occupations in, for instance, fourteenth-century Christian Germany are hardly applicable to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Muslim Egypt. Yet the general structural characteristics of these professions can serve as a guideline to the study of the possible dishonor of Egyptian entertainers.


Among those considered infamous in fourteenth-century Germany were skinners, executioners, gravediggers, watchmen, jailers, field guards, barbers, surgeons, tooth pullers, lumbermen, foresters, shepherds, millers, latrine cleaners, refuse collectors, chimney sweeps, bath attendants, and prostitutes. Itinerant people such as peddlers, beggars, jugglers, musicians, singers, actors, dancers, acrobats, and magicians were also considered infamous. According to Blok, several categories of people with dishonorable professions can be distinguished. The first consists of people who came in contact with excreta of the human body or with illness, death, human remains, and dirt, such as skinners, chimney sweeps, barbers, and gravediggers. Another category viewed as dishonorable consists of people who publicly exhibited their bodies for profit, such as entertainers and prostitutes. A third category, overlapping the second group, consists of itinerant people, including beggars, peddlers, and roaming scholars. Finally, people who lived outside the towns and villages, such as shepherds and millers, were considered infamous (Blok 1985: 30-35).

In Muslim cities in the Middle Ages, several occupations were also infamous. On religious grounds, the usurers ranked first among the disreputable. Neither were traders of silver, gold, and silk highly regarded. Others who profited from transactions forbidden by Muslim law, such as moneylenders, slave dealers, wine sellers, and pork sellers, were also disapproved of. Professional mourners, too, were frowned upon on religious grounds. Prostitutes, dancers, and other entertainers, such as wrestlers, players, storytellers, and singing women, were suspected of a questionable morality and associated with vice and begging (Lapidus 1967: 82-83). Other despised occupations that were not forbidden (harâm) but that were blameworthy or rejected (makrûh) in Islam were those whose practitioners were defiled by dead animals or animal waste matter, including butchers, tanners, hunters, and waste scavengers. Camel and donkey drivers, shepherds, bath attendants, veterinarians, watchmen, and stablemen were considered to have low occupations and were looked down upon as well (Lapidus 1967: 82-83; Brunschvig 1962: 56).

These diverse professions exhibit common structural characteristics. First, members of dishonorable professions generally had strained relations with the religious authorities. In the eyes of religious authorities, entertainers were outside the community of believers. They were regarded as leading dissolute lives, unrestrained by religious and moral sensibilities. The casual and lighthearted nature of amusement was viewed as an impediment to serious devotion to God. For that reason, the clergy was strictly forbidden to associate with entertainers. Spending money on amusement was deemed to be a vice.

A second characteristic concerns the relations that members of dishonorable professions all had with the worldly authorities. Especially the lack of a permanent residence and a presumed lack of morality prompted the governors to undertake actions against entertainers. In the case of Dutch showmen, not only their itinerancy, by means of which they evaded control of the government, but also the popular recreation they provided at fairs were felt to be disorderly and unpredictable (G. W. Jansen 1987). Fairs and festivals were generally feared, owing to the frequent occurrence of drinking and fighting at them. The atmosphere of relaxation and freedom occasionally exploded into riots and rebellions (Burke 1978: 178-204). Attempts were made to reform or abolish fairs and festivals. Studies on prostitution in France also reveal the ways in which the government tried to control this infamous occupation. Several strategies were used, ranging from regulation and institutionalization to downright repression (Corbin 1978; Otis 1985).

A third characteristic of infamous occupations is that their practitioners in European as well as in Muslim countries had a weak legal status. Dishonorable persons were authorized neither to hold the position of a judge nor to act as a witness. Quite often they were not compensated for injustices done to them (Spruit 1969: 59-60; Al-Faruqi 1985: 22-23; Sawa 1985: 71-72). European sources document that members of infamous occupations were usually excluded from guild organizations and so were their children. They had no professional associations of their own. In the later Middle Ages, sedentary entertainers organized themselves into professional associations and their status rose considerably. The development of trade organizations with regulations, licenses, and examinations was an important factor in the professionalization of these occupations.

Other characteristics of infamous occupations might be useful to direct attention to the potential dishonor of Egyptian entertainers as well. Members of infamous occupations were often physically segregated as dishonorable persons and could be distinguished by their outward appearance. Usually they were not ethnically different from the respectable citizens, so the otherness of the infamous was created by artificial means--for instance, by prescribed clothes or colors. Chimney sweeps, for example, were usually dressed in either white or black. They were identifiable by their hat, a black cylinder, aptly called a stovepipe hat (Blok 1984: 668). Entertainers were recognizable by their colorful and varied attire. Usually they dressed in the clothes they received as payment (Spruit 1969: 100). Infamous people were also set apart in separate living quarters. Prostitutes are still a clear example of this, but other dishonorable activities were also carried out in special quarters, mostly located at the margins of the city.

It was not simply a matter of respectable people distinguishing themselves from infamous others; more crucial was the marginalization of the dishonorable. Entertainers were marginal to the community as a result of their mobility, which made them strangers and outsiders. They were not only spatially marginal, but socially and usually economically as well. Another aspect of marginality is described by W. Jansen (1987). She focuses on women without men and shows that they are socially, economically, and culturally marginal. Their cultural marginality pertains to the fact that they do not have the habits and qualities considered to be feminine, such as sitting at home, producing children, and avoiding contact with male strangers. These women without men--unmarried women, widows, or married women with disabled or absent men--are foremost among those who engage in livelihoods considered improper or regarded with ambivalence, such as working in a bathhouse, washing dead women, practicing magic, assisting in fertility and birth, and working as a prostitute or an entertainer.

Still two other notions, distilled from studies on infamous occupations, deserve attention. Medieval European entertainers were viewed as persons who sold their honor for money, who prostituted themselves. The expression "die gut für ere nement and rich zu eigen geben" was used in this connection in thirteenth-century Germany. "Sich zu eigen geben" means to exhibit the body in public for money, which was considered disgraceful (Blok 1985: 34). "Gut für ere nement" points to the fact that entertainers received money in order to praise the name and fame of the person who paid them (Spruit 1969: 62; Danckert 1963: 220). In the Muslim world as well, whoever paid was praised (Sawa 1985: 76-77). Because of this, entertainers had the unfavorable image of being dishonest and counterfeit. They were perceived as flatterers and hypocrites (Casagrande and Vecchio 1979: 915)

Entertainers and other dishonorable persons who either were itinerant or worked outside the towns and villages were stigmatized in still another way. They evaded the control of the worldly and religious authorities and were less subject to social control as well. For that reason, they were connected with heretical ideas, rebellion, frivolity, and illegal activities. They were seen as dangerous and receptive to unorthodox ideas (Ginzburg 1980: 120). W. Jansen as well notes that female entertainers in Algeria today are feared because they are perceived as disturbers of the sexual order (W. Jansen 1987: 160-200).


Several explanations are given to account for the infamy of certain occupations. For example, the handling of dirt is noted as reason for the dishonor of skinners, chimney sweeps, and refuse collectors. For other occupations, former bondage or serfdom is suggested (Blok 1985: 30, 31; Brunschvig 1962: 47). With respect to itinerants such as peddlers and entertainers, mobility is given as an explanation. As is the case with millers and shepherds, who worked outside the city walls, the fact that they evaded the control of worldly and religious authorities made them suspect.

A general theory to explain the infamy of all dishonorable occupations has been formulated by Blok (1981a, 1984, 1985), according to whom infamous occupations "bear a strong family resemblance: in one way or another they are involved with margins, thresholds, and boundaries--bridging the differences between clear-cut categories like self and notself, city and countryside, man and animal, culture and nature, civilized and primitive" (1985: 36). Infamous people do not fit into these categories and are seen as "anomalous, ambiguous, liminal, betwixt and between." Because they are professionally involved with margins and mediate these basic oppositions, infamous people are taboo. The expectation of this approach is that stronger infamy occurs among those who mediate several oppositions, such as executioners, who mediate between life and death, illness and health, man and animal, this world and the next, and self and not-self.

Blok's structuralist theory contains a general claim, namely, that the structure of infamy of the dishonorable professions consists of their liminality. In entertainment, which can be defined as "publicly exhibiting the body for profit," the body is central. Could it be that the entertainer's body mediates between such binary categories as animal versus man or nature versus culture? Belly dancers, a small part of all entertainers, are associated with sexuality in the West and partly in the East as well. Could it be argued that "exciting the sexual instincts" makes belly dancers liminal and mediators between animal and man? In my opinion, this is a narrow view not only of sexuality, but of belly dancing as well. As I have mentioned, dance is essentially an expression of happiness and only in certain contexts of sexuality. Besides, this argument does not equally apply to female singers and musicians, because they are associated to a lesser extent with sexuality. Moreover, it does not pertain to male entertainers. Thus, in the case of female entertainers, the explanation of their dishonor should probably be looked for in gender rather than in the liminality of the profession itself. This point is also hinted at by W. Jansen in her study Women without Men: Gender and Marginality in an Algerian Town. With regard to the marginality of female bath workers, she argues that though liminal characteristics such as their role as assistants in the transition from pure to impure are important, they do not provide a sufficient explanation in the case of women (W. Jansen 1987: 60).

A more general critique directed against the liminality thesis concerns its basic assumption of universal binary classification. As has been shown in the nature versus culture debate, this is unwarranted as a general assumption (MacCormack 1980; Brown and Jordanova 1981). Also concerning another putative dichotomy--man versus woman--several studies show the diversity, not only in the content of these cultural constructions, but in their presumed binary character as well (Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Wikan 1977; Nanda 1990; see Chapter 7).

Lastly, even if binary classification were demonstrable, this does not clarify the status of mediators. In his essay "Common Sense as a Cultural System," Geertz gives examples of the way three societies view intersexuality. Intersexuality in itself proves again that even biological sex is not a purely dichotomous variable. The point I want to make here is that whereas in American society intersexuals are regarded with horror, the Navaho respect them and regard them with wonder and awe. The East African Pokot are neither horrified nor delighted by intersexuals, but simply see them as mistakes and as useless persons (Geertz 1983: 80-84). Whether people classify in terms of binary oppositions and what this means for the status of mediators should thus be the subject of study, not an unquestioned assumption.

I agree with Geertz that anthropologists should try "to see things from the native's point of view" (1983: 56). He introduces two valuable notions to this end: the "experience-near" and the "experience-distant" concepts. Experience-near concepts are defined as those which one "might... naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, think, imagine, and so on, and which he would readily understand when applied by others." People use them "spontaneously, unselfconsciously, as it were colloquially; they do not, except fleetingly and on occasion, recognize that there are any 'concepts' involved at all." He contrasts this with experience-distant concepts, defined as those which "specialists of one sort or another,... an ethnographer, even a priest or an ideologist, employ to forward their scientific, philosophical or practical aims" (1983: 57-58). These concepts should not be seen as incompatible. Anthropologists need both in order not to be confined to immediacies and vernacular on the one hand, or abstractions and jargon on the other. Yet experience-distant concepts should, in my opinion, be demonstrably founded on experience-near notions, whether distilled from words, sayings, proverbs, jokes, images, or behavior.


Since I propose to take experience-near concepts as a guideline, I cannot begin my explanation by assuming the dishonor of entertainers. Instead, I should begin with a question: Are entertainers considered dishonorable and, in case they are viewed as such, for what reasons? The structural characteristics of infamous occupations should not be taken as assumptions; rather, they should be examined for Egyptian entertainers. In Chapters 2 and 3, I examine the nature of the relation of Egyptian entertainers with religious and worldly authorities. I also describe their legal status and the historical developments in their organization and professionalization during the nineteenth and particularly the twentieth centuries.

In Chapters 4 and 5, the notions of otherness, separateness, and the possibly resulting marginality are considered for Egyptian entertainers. Are Egyptian entertainers a distinct group or merely considered to be so? Are they mobile and, if so, what is the effect of their mobility on their status? Are they marginal either spatially, socially, or economically? Are female entertainers "women without men"?

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the way entertainers are perceived by Egyptian society. Are they regarded as counterfeits and flatterers? Is the way in which they receive payment considered dishonorable and a way of prostituting themselves? Are they perceived as unorthodox, rebellious, or dangerous disturbers? These ideas are particularly examined with regard to female entertainers. In Chapter 8, I go into the self-presentation of female entertainers.

Entertainment, Islam, and Gender

The study of the status of Egyptian entertainers should thus be carefully contextualized. An important element of the Egyptian context is related to Islamic views on music, singing, and dancing.

Although at the birth of Islam there was no animosity toward singing and music, the orthodox caliphs opposed indulging in them. A discussion on the lawfulness of music ensued, which cast doubt on the permissibility not only of the performer, but of the listener as well. Advocates and opponents alike traced the legitimacy of their position back to the Quran and the hadîths, the sayings of the Prophet. Although most law schools decided against the lawfulness of music and singing, this did not prevent the "forbidden pleasures" from flourishing in the palaces.

According to the seventeenth-century Muslim scholar Chelebi, who summarized the religious views on singing and music, three categories of music can be distinguished: music coming from birds, from the human throat, and from instruments. He states that in Islam "the exponents of the sacred law have categorized it as perfectly permissible to listen to the melodies produced by birds, and have allowed those produced by human throats, subject to certain conditions and rules. But... to listen to instruments that are blown or struck is never permissible" (1957: 38). Certain instruments are forbidden because they are supposed to encourage drinking. The kûba, an oblong drum, for instance, is prohibited because of its association with drinking wine, licentious songs, and dissolute people. With respect to the human throat, if it produces songs about wine and debauchery, it is not permissible to listen to it (Chelebi 1957: 39).

According to the ethnomusicologist Al-Farugi, religious opinion creates a hierarchy of music and singing that is expressed as forbidden, unfavored, indifferent, recommended, and commendable forms. The recitation of the Quran stands at the peak of the hierarchy, immediately followed by the call to prayer and religious chants. Also legitimate are various types of song connected to family celebrations, caravan chants, work songs, and the music of military bands. At the bottom of the hierarchy, we find "sensuous music that is performed in association with condemned activities, or that is thought to incite such prohibited practices as consumption of drugs and alcohol, lust, prostitution, etc." (al-Faruqi 1985: 12). This genre is clearly forbidden, harâm. Most forms of music and singing, though, do not fit into these clear categories. Depending on the time, place, and person who is judging them, vocal and instrumental improvisations, accompanied songs, and instrumental music can be regarded as permissible, indifferent, or rejectable (al-Faruqi 1985: 1-13).

The approval or disapproval of performers is related not only to the genre but also to the context of the performance. Regarding the permissibility of the context, three elements are deemed important by the eleventh-century Muslim scholar Imâm al-Ghazâlî, namely, time, place, and associates. A performance is not acceptable if too much time is devoted to it, so that it interferes with higher Islamic goals and distracts believers' attention from their devotion to God. Full-time professional performers are accordingly less acceptable than nonprofessional amateurs. The acceptability of the place and occasion of the performance is also an important factor in judging the legitimacy of the entertainers and their public. Lastly, the type of people present during the performance affects the permissibility of the performers and their audience. A certain genre of music can thus be permissible in one context while it is rejected in another circumstance. Playing the tambourine is, for instance, acceptable if it is done by women at a wedding but forbidden if it is done by men in the context of homosexuality or prostitution (al-Farugi 1985: 17-20; al-Ghazâlî 1902: 1).

The discussions on dancing are less detailed and mainly restricted to ecstasy. According to al-Ghazâlî, proper conduct during ecstasy and trance is also bound by the rules of time, place, and company. However, if ecstasy overcomes a person and makes the person move without volition, it is excusable. Yet when volition returns, stillness and restraint are preferred. The general rule is that "if the pleasure which causes dancing is praiseworthy, and the dancing increases and strengthens it, then the dancing is praiseworthy.... Yet it is true that the practice of dancing does not befit the station of notable people who set an example, because most of the time, it springs from play and sport" (al-Ghazâlî 1902: 9). In general, the suitability of dancing thus depends on the circumstances and the dancer. We should keep in mind, though, that al-Ghazâlî discusses the ecstasy of males dancing in a religious setting. Nothing is said about secular dancing by women. Maybe we can extrapolate that if female dancers are performing in front of a female audience and the pleasure which causes the dancing is praiseworthy--for instance, at a wedding--dancing is permissible. Yet we must first look into the different rules for male and female performers.

Although the impact of gender on the acceptability of performers has hardly received attention, it is a crucial factor. A well-known hadîth often cited to discredit female singers is "sawt al-mar'a `awra," "the voice of a woman is a shameful thing." Imam al-Ghazâlî explains this as follows: Music is allowed unless it is feared that the music might act as a temptation. The voice of women could seduce the listener. Looking at female performers is always unlawful. Listening to the voices of concealed female performers is still forbidden if it evokes tempting images. Al-Ghazâlî continues by stating that looking at a beardless boy is only forbidden if there is a danger of temptation. He then likens the lawfulness of listening to a concealed female singer to that of looking at a beardless young boy. Avoiding temptation is the rule which ought to be followed, and only if temptation is feared is music unlawful (al-Ghazâlî 1901: 235-237).

Women are thus generally perceived as more enticing than men, and the excitement aroused by looking is considered more powerful than the excitement aroused by listening. These observations have consequences for the lawfulness of the different forms of male and female performances. Female performances are more controversial, and their acceptability depends on whether they cause males to experience arousal. The fact that excitement is most strongly aroused by the eye rather than by the ear also affects the various categories of female performers. Female musicians are mainly listened to; female singers are both listened to and, at least at present, observed; while female dancers are solely eye-catchers. Female dancing is accordingly considered the most shameful form of entertainment. Yet if female dancing is performed in front of a female audience and no temptation is feared and the performance is in keeping with the limits of proper time, place, and company, it is probably permissible.

Many forms and contexts of entertainment are thus either controversial or forbidden, particularly for women. Yet we cannot solely rely on the opinion of Muslim scholars of the eleventh or the seventeenth century, but should also look at more recent views. According to the late Sheikh al-Azhar Shaltût, who wrote a fatwa--a formal ruling or opinion--on the issue in 1960, music is permissible under certain conditions. He argues that God is not against pleasure and that Islam seeks the Golden Mean. Yet pleasure should not take place under immoral circumstances or with dissolute companions (al-Faruqi 1985: 25-26). The Muslim scholar al-Qaradâwî states that music in itself is permissible, but also places several restrictions on it. The content of a song should not be against the morals and teachings of Islam or be accompanied by other things forbidden in Islam. Exaggeration is never desirable, and is especially undesirable in entertainment; thus a person who knows that entertainment easily excites him or her should keep away from it. According to al-Qaradâwî, Islam does not permit any kind of profession which might excite the instincts, whether through licentious songs, sexual dance, or other acts leading to the corruption of morals (al-Qaradâwî 1985: 139, 289). During my research, the leading television preacher, Sheikh Mitwalli al-Sha'arâwî, stated that all female dancing is bad and that only music which does not "tickle the nerves" is permissible (Economist 21-5-1988). Recent religious views thus show similar arguments and points of divergence in the debate on the permissibility of music and entertainment.

Yet in order to understand the status of present-day performers in Egyptian society, we must go beyond religious opinion. The impact of Islamic laws and views on the thinking of present-day Egyptians cannot be assumed but must be investigated. Especially if we propose to use an experience-near approach, it is important to investigate people's own views, religious and nonreligious, on entertainment. During my research, it appeared that the form and context of entertainment and the sex of the performer were important criteria outside the religious framework as well. Literature on ethnomusicology in the Middle East has also shown that the musical aesthetics of different genres and contexts of performances and the competence of artists are important factors influencing the performer's status (Racy 1981, 1982). In order to examine the status of performers, it is thus useful to distinguish several forms and contexts within the trade and to compare their relative status in the eyes of the public.

The three main contexts of Egyptian entertainment are, first, the circuit of weddings and saint's day celebrations; second, the nightclub circuit; and, finally, the performing arts circuit, the performances in concert halls and theaters, on radio and television, etc. We should be careful, though, not to equate the Egyptian situation with the Western art scene. The clear-cut Western division into a highly esteemed classical tradition and a popular tradition with low esteem does not apply to the Arab world (al-Faruqi 1979; Racy 1981, 1982). Although there is a distinction in contexts--that is, the most talented performers working in a theater have more esteem than those performing at a saint's day celebration or in a nightclub--the genre of songs and music might well be the same in all three contexts. The same famous songs of Umm Kalthûm or Muhammad `Abd al-Wahhâb can be heard on the radio, at weddings, in nightclubs, and in concert halls.

The different forms of entertainment I studied are instrumental music, singing, and dancing (belly dancing and folk dancing). For women, singing and dancing are the most important activities. As will be described in Chapter 3, women have largely been pushed out of the domain of instrumental music. I often use the term "female entertainer" or "female performer" because most women in the past were, and to a lesser extent still are, singers and dancers at the same time. A good performer was supposed to be complete (shamla)--that is, competent in singing and dancing.

The sex of performers can also be a factor influencing their status as entertainers. Gender has only recently been introduced into the field of ethnomusicology (Koskoff 1989; Sugarman 1989). The main issues that have been investigated are the degree to which gender ideology affects musical thought and practice and how music reflects and affects intergender relations. I will deal with a more specifically anthropological issue: the relation between the social and cultural construction of gender and the status of performers.

In order to examine the experience-near views and evaluations of the Egyptian public, I interviewed many Egyptians of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In Chapter 6, I present their views on the various forms and contexts of entertainment for male and female entertainers. In Chapter 7, I specifically deal with the cultural construction of gender and the female body in entertainment. The main focus throughout the ethnography, however, is the views and experiences of the female performers I spoke with during my fieldwork.

Fieldwork in Egypt

From September 1988 to April 1989 and from August 1989 to February 1990 I conducted fieldwork among female singers and dancers in Egypt. In order to develop a better understanding of Egyptian dance and music, I participated in a belly-dancing course in Amsterdam. Muhammad Tolba, an Egyptian choreographer, gave me the address of a music shop on Muhammad `Alî Street, the Cairene entertainment street. Soon after I settled in Cairo, on a hot morning in September I took a cab to this music shop. It had just opened, and a man who repaired instruments was present. He indicated that the time was highly unsuitable for paying visits to entertainers and that I should return at 6:00 P.M., so I did. The oldest brother of the family that owned the shop, Sayyid, a small, resolute man in his late thirties, was waiting for me. He directed me inside the shop, where the rest of the family--his mother and younger brothers--and some curious neighbors crowded. I was asked the reason for my visit, and in broken Arabic I explained about my research. Sayyid said it was a great honor to his family that I came all the way from Holland straight to his shop. Since there were a number of similar shops along the street, my visit indicated the good reputation of his family. I was told that I was lucky to have chosen his shop, because not all families were as trustworthy as his. He was willing to make appointments with performers and to protect me as his sister. But, since I was under his aegis, I would have to inform him and consult with him before visiting other performers. To make sure I had understood everything, I had to repeat his conditions. Although I was a bit hesitant about the conditions, which could restrain my freedom, I decided to say what they wanted to hear. They nodded in agreement.

Sayyid then took me to the relatively quiet office of a friend. He introduced himself a bit more and told me that his family was well known in the entertainment trade. His late father had been an accordion player and in great demand at popular weddings. At the age of fourteen, Sayyid had started working with him, playing the accordion. Three brothers played the drum, while the fourth repaired instruments. Sayyid became the head of a music band and arranged weddings of the lower-middle class. He occasionally worked in nightclubs with a dancer, and for the past few years had also been employed by the orchestra of the national folkdancing troupe.

Sayyid began to write down the topics I should pay attention to, the people I needed to meet, and the order in which we would proceed with the research. I was struck by the fact that although I had only given him a general outline of my research, he had very well understood what I wanted. He would first introduce me to performers of the older generation, so that I could collect historical material. In addition, he would take me to weddings. I was lucky, for he had a wedding and a private birthday party that week. Finally, he would arrange interviews with the female performers I saw at work.

Since I had the feeling that my Arabic was not yet sufficient to do interviews alone, Sayyid introduced me to a friend who spoke English and could act as an interpreter. A few days later, the interpreter, a curator of the Islamic museum, and I went to see Rayyis Bira, an old singer and composer who was well informed about the trade. Unfortunately, he did not want his anecdotes to be taped and, since I had an interpreter with me, he spoke full-speed in Arabic. I could only write down some tidbits of translated information interspersed with my interpreter's own views, such as: "He's telling about one of his meaningless songs." I was not particularly happy about these first interviews with the composer and asked Sayyid to become my assistant. He agreed. Although he did not speak English, Sayyid was able to speak simple Arabic which I could follow quite well. He quickly grasped my vocabulary and translated difficult Arabic into easy Arabic or creatively acted out new words.

The next week, we met in Sayyid's regular coffeehouse on Muhammad `Alî Street. It was a strange place for a woman to go, but after going there several times I became an accepted visitor, at least for the short time I had to wait for Sayyid to arrive or to finish playing backgammon. When I showed Sayyid an extensive questionnaire I had prepared in Arabic, to my annoyance he casually thumbed through the pages and then told me that he already knew what I needed. We went to two older female performers, and during the interviews I realized that he was right. I had neither the vocabulary nor the knowledge about the intricacies of the trade to pose meaningful questions.

The first interviews resembled a pleasant tête-à-tête between colleagues. I looked after the tape recorder and the batteries while Sayyid did the talking. Although it was not what I had anticipated a "real anthropologist" would do in the field, I found it very instructive. I sensed that it was the best way not only to learn the relevant vocabulary related to the trade, but also to gain insight into the subjects that performers themselves found important. I was more or less able to follow the discussions because Sayyid "translated" and explained at the same time, which could also be corrected and elaborated upon by the female performer we talked with.

Although Sayyid is a man, we had no problem visiting women at home. They were usually surprised but pleased to see him. To the older generation, Sayyid was like a son. They had known him from his childhood, when they worked with his father and Sayyid visited them to pay them in advance. To his own generation, he was like a brother. As children they had played together, and now they performed together. For the younger generation, Sayyid was a respectable head of a band who could provide them with work. Most of them liked to talk about their former glory or present fame and to recall common experiences. Sayyid's presence often brought back old memories, such as "Do you remember that as a child you fell asleep on my lap?" or "Do you remember that wedding when you did not give me my rightful share of the tips?" Their shared pleasant and unpleasant experiences at work were very fruitful and interesting to hear.

After some time, I felt confident enough to interview and to raise relevant topics myself. We developed a pattern in which the introductory interviews were mainly done by Sayyid. I had a good rapport with several women and I made appointments to visit them alone for further information. I visited a number of them regularly, just to chat, to drink tea, or to watch television. I also accompanied them to their work. Eventually I got to know other performers through the female singers and dancers with whom I had visited and become friends. Most of the female performers I was acquainted with were from Cairo, but later I also met performers from the Delta and witnessed weddings outside the capital. In summer, I went to Alexandria, like many Cairenes do. Sayyid and his family were present as well. They introduced me to performers from Alexandria, and Sayyid's wife joined me in visiting the many weddings in the "casinos" along the beach. I combined a holiday in Luxor with visiting the local dancers. I also visited a family who toured the saint's day celebrations of the Delta with a variety theater, in Helwan, Tantâ, and Dessûq, and I stayed with performers in Mansûra and Tantâ. Although I increasingly went my own way, Sayyid remained a "key informant" until the very end of my stay.

Making contact with nightclub performers was more difficult. People who worked the popular circuit mostly live in the Muhammad `Alî Street area. If someone was not at home, we just visited a neighbor to talk or we would find the woman at the house of a nearby relative. Nightclub performers live throughout Cairo. I thus had to visit nightclubs and try to make contacts during the entertainers' work time. I suspected that sitting alone in a nightclub would be a bothersome experience, so I looked for someone to accompany me in my nightlife. I was lucky to meet a young man, Târiq, who was a member of an association to aid tourists and eager to provide foreigners with a pleasant stay in Egypt. Because of his "respectable" upper-class background, he had never visited a nightclub before. Neither was he particularly interested in them, but he found it an amusing adventure to accompany and protect me in these "dangerous places." He even made several contacts for me through friends and friends of friends. We spent many pleasant evenings in all kinds of nightclubs, watching high-level and cheap programs and arranging appointments after the show. In addition to Târiq's assistance, Sayyid brought me into contact with the manager of a five-star nightclub, who introduced me to the female singers and dancers working there. Eventually I could go there alone, the waiters being instructed to ward off curious men.

Initially, I intended to include performers from the performing arts circuit of theaters, radio, and television as well. However, the information and studies available were mainly about famous singers like Umm Kalthûm, well-known actresses, and a few star dancers. The common performers in nightclubs and the circuit of weddings and saint's day celebrations had not been studied at all, so they were more interesting to me. Besides, I did not have time enough to study the performing arts circuit extensively.

Although I met many nightclub performers, my contacts with them were less extensive than with entertainers working at weddings and saint's day celebrations. I spoke with thirty-eight female and ten male popular performers, and with fourteen female and five male nightclub entertainers. In the second fieldwork period, I decided to focus mainly on the female singers and dancers of Muhammad `Alî Street, not only because I had more and better contacts with them, but also because I was fascinated by the history of this branch of the trade and by their personal life stories. Many of them had started at an early age, around fifteen, and had worked for more than twenty years in the trade. Entertainment was thus central to their lives. Besides, the older generation, which had worked from the 1940s onward, was easily traceable and I could thus collect oral history that extended over at least fifty years. Moreover, this group formed a kind of community with shared codes and customs, which highly appealed to my interests as an anthropologist.

Nightclub entertainment is a separate branch and, for women, there is hardly any overlap between the circuit of weddings and saint's celebrations and the nightclub circuit. The performers of the two circuits have different socioeconomic backgrounds. Whereas many nightclub entertainers are from the middle class, most popular performers have a loweror lower-middle-class background. Moreover, their customers and the style of their work also differ. Most nightclub singers and dancers work for a relatively short period. They start at around twenty, make money, marry, and after a few years disappear from the stages. Thereafter they are difficult to trace. The relatively short duration of their career ensures that they are less tied to their trade.

There were also more substantial reasons to concentrate on entertainers working at weddings and saint's day celebrations. They are not only the largest group of performers, but they also play a more central role in the lives of most Egyptians. Nightclubs, with the exception of the very cheap ones, are visited only by a small segment of society, the well-to-do Egyptians, whereas Egyptians of most classes have entertainers of Muhammad `Alî Street at their weddings. Although members of the upper class usually reserve a five-star nightclub or hotel and celebrate with famous nightclub performers, most people of the middle and lower classes engage the cheaper performers from Muhammad `Alî Street. Moreover, the circuit of weddings more closely reflects the fundamental meaning of singing and dancing in Egypt--that is, joy and happiness. With some reservations, it could be argued that whereas the circuit of weddings and saint's day celebrations represents the context of rejoicing, nightclubs are the domain of sexual excitement.

Although I mainly focused on the circuit of weddings and saint's day celebrations, nightclub performers were an interesting group for comparison. Despite the higher class background of nightclub performers, and that of their audience, they were more stigmatized than were entertainers of Muhammad `Alî Street. In order to gain insight into the relation between dishonor and entertainment, it was thus illuminating to compare the two circuits.

Since I wanted to know the view of Egyptian society on the various forms and contexts of entertainment for male and female performers, I talked with fifty Egyptians of different socioeconomic backgrounds about these matters. Since my own network of acquaintances was small, I was happy to meet Shamiyya, an Egyptian woman with an extensive network of relatives and friends, ranging from chicken farmers and porters to housewives, government employees, physicians, and engineers. I had prepared a set of thirty-two cards, each with a different profession, among which, of course, were various forms and contexts of entertainment. I asked my informants to order the cards and to explain the order they chose. They usually found it an amusing game. In addition, we discussed their views on other topics pertaining to the entertainment trade and their own wedding celebrations. Our conversations were usually short and pleasant, although in the long run they became slightly boring to Shamiyya and to me as well. But Shamiyya liked to go out visiting friends and relatives, and the small sum of money she received for assisting me was always welcome.

Presenting gifts to informants was another amusing and instructive anthropological experience. For most, I had brought a typical Dutch present, a silver bracelet with a small charm, a pair of clogs, attached to it. My informants were genuinely happy with the bracelet, and it was sweet to meet them afterward at weddings wearing the bracelet. Another present I had brought, a brooch of delft blue, was not appropriate, as I was immediately instructed by Sayyid. He felt a bit embarrassed about the gift because it was too small. I was slightly surprised, since it had the same value and was bigger than the clogs. But Sayyid explained that the brooch could not always be worn and therefore its show-off value was less. This incident made me aware that with regard to money and presents, Sayyid's reputation was at stake. Since I was not part of the community, I had no reputation to keep or to lose. Accordingly, Sayyid indicated the form and amount of each gift to informants. Most people of his own or the younger generation were awarded a bracelet. People of the older generation usually received money. I totally agreed with this policy, not only because I had to give primary consideration to Sayyid's reputation, but also because some older performers were fairly impoverished. It would have been embarrassing to give someone two clogs if their value in money could have meant eating better food. How many pounds were given was dependent on the status of the people involved. The poorest were usually given less, rather than more. The former great performers who had worked above Sayyid and his father had to be accorded relatively more prestige. It was always interesting to see what and how much was given to whom. Usually Sayyid presented the money and I the bracelets. He gave the money in a casual way, and if the female performer politely protested, he sometimes jokingly tucked it into her dress "as a tip."

After the intense and interesting fieldwork period, sitting behind the computer was such a big change that it initially seemed boring in comparison. While reading and rereading the entertainers' life stories in Amsterdam, I was mentally still in Egypt. Yet as I worked, it increasingly became a challenge and another type of adventure to present as accurately as possible the history of the trade, the status of female singers and dancers in the eyes of society, and, last but not least, the life stories of the entertainers and their own views of their trade.



“This fascinating ethnography of professional female entertainers in Egypt brings together issues and ideas relevant to dance, anthropology, ethnomusicology, gender studies, and area studies.... By providing new insight into historical, political, economic, religious, and cultural forces, van Nieuwkerk accounts for the ambivalent attitudes towards female professional performers in Egyptian society as well as the way they cope with their status.”

“Van Nieuwkerk's book is unique because it transcends formulaic suppositions and provides intelligent analysis of a world which has been overlooked for too long. She has partaken in the life of humble entertainers and has tried to understand and explain what their daily and professional lives are like, how they perceive their profession and themselves and how they are perceived by others. In doing so she has written a highly readable and enjoyable ethnography.”
Middle Eastern Studies


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