Freedom to Gyrate Violated in Egypt

You thought the failure of the WTO talks in CancĂșn in September was foreboding! Now the rising tide of world protectionism has reached a thousands-year-old cultural practice, reports the NRC Handelsblad (Belly-Dance Under Fire in Egypt, featuring an appealing photo of one sharply-sculpted practitioner in mid-shimmy. Yes, let’s drive traffic to the NRC’s site; first-time visitors will have to register though, in Dutch. E-mail me if you can’t figure it out.) Egypt is set to ban foreign belly-dancers from its territory.

As the article describes the situation, this is a grievous blow to those who are appreciative of such things. Apparently the best belly-dancers these days are foreign. But that’s no surprise, considering that most belly-dancers these days are foreign. Why aren’t more native Egyptians undulating for their daily pita bread, you ask? Mainly because Egyptian society has increasingly made plain that it would prefer that they don’t. This has to do with a swelling wave of what you could even call Victorian-style morality spurred by growing Muslim fundamentalism. Even as far back as the 1950s then-President Nasser told Egyptian dancers that they had to keep their bellies covered to belly-dance. Then in the 1990s Moslem extremists tried to go to court to stop the music entirely, while Egypt’s Grand Mufti (the country’s top Islamic scholar) declared in 1999 that belly-dancers (together with actresses) could only be allowed to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) if they swore to find other work. In the meantime, the Egyptian religious police have stepped up their surveillance and harassment of dancers, so that it has become a profession without much “come hither” for young girls – the NRC reports that there are currently only about 350 Egyptian belly-dancers.

This raises the suspicion that the banning of the foreign-born is actually an attempt to have the practice die out entirely in the country. But don’t think for a moment that foreign dancers are willing to keep still about this: Two such (one from Australia, one from Russia) are themselves going to court in Egypt to have this ruling overturned, while a French dancer has appealed to her own foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, to intervene with Cairo. No word yet whether he even gives a shake.

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