Sa'ida Sultan/Danna International
Transgender Pop and the Polysemiotics of Sex, Nation,
and Ethnicity on the Israeli-Egyptian Border
Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
GAYLE RUBIN, “THINKING SEX”
In fall 1994, when I was teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC), one of my Egyptian graduate students handed me a music cassette that she was sure I would want to hear given that, as she explained, it was all the underground rage among Cairene youths. The tape contained two numbers, sung in English, Arabic, and (I thought) Hebrew, by an Israeli artist whose name my student did not know. It was poorly recorded and the lyrics were hard to make out, so I filed it away after listening to it a few times. Over the next months I occasionally heard the two songs from that tape blaring from cars and a cassette player at the AUC snack bar, and I eventually learned, through conversations and various lurid articles in the opposition press here and there, that the singer's name was Danna International; she was also known in Egypt as Sa'ida Sultan; she was Mizrahi, a Jew of Arab origin; and “she” was a transsexual. 1
In August 1995 my interest was reignited by the discovery of a sensationalistic exposé—in Arabic—titled A Scandal Whose Name Is Sa'ida Sultan: Danna the Israeli Sex Artist. penned by Muhammad al-Ghayti and published by a press that was unknown to any of my friends. 2 The book's cover features a photo of the American pop star Madonna bending toward the camera in a metallic gold bustier and black net stockings, her cleavage and eyes blacked out, in the style of local scandal magazines. The upper left-hand corner announces “For Adults Only”; the back cover informs us that although the Zionists failed in their efforts to conquer Egypt politically, they have now succeeded, through the agency of Danna International's sexuality, in invading Egypt's bedrooms. The book elaborates on many of the is