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

By Shay, Anthony | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

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


Shay, Anthony, The Middle East Journal


"A Trade Like Any Other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, by Karin Van Nieuwkerk. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. v + 185 pages. Append. to p. 192. Notes to p. 206. Gloss. to p. 209. Bibl. to p. 219. Index to p. 226. $35 cloth; $15.95 paper.

The field of dance research in the Middle East, particularly that of belly dancing, is awash with Orientalist articles and books written primarily by belly-dance enthusiasts who subscribe to a "mysterious East." Thus, Van Nieuwkerk's splendid, well-researched new work on Egyptian female singers and dancers is a highly welcome addition to the literature of dance. She states that "the topic of this study could thus be taken as a preeminent example of 'Orientalism' ... though I intend to `de-exoticize' the entertainment trade" (p. 1). Her study considers the basic questions she pursues throughout the work: Is the entertainment industry dishonorable? And "why does society condemn female singers and dancers?" (p. 2). In her quest for answers, following a historical background, she investigates the concepts of marginality, gender, honor and shame, and "feminine and masculine" behavior.

Van Nieuwkerk is wise to focus on a particular group of female singers and dancers: those from lower- and lower-middle-class backgrounds. For comparison, she contrasts their experiences and contexts with performers in the arts and in nightclubs. One of the strongest points of this book is that we hear their voices throughout. In addition, Van Nieuwkerk highlights the contrasts in the perceptions of entertainers held by different classes in Egyptian society.

A surprising omission in Van Nieuwkerk's citations is Magda Saleh's exhaustive survey of Egyptian dance forms.' This omission may account for a weak point in this study: the question of terminology of the 'awalim and ghawazi, both terms referring to professional public entertainers. …

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