When Egyptian ballerina Amie Sultan decided to go into belly dancing, she raised eyebrows among her friends and fellow professionals. Why switch from an art form that’s highly respected to one that’s often scorned in her home country and the rest of the Arab world?
Six years later, Sultan wants to elevate a dance focused on shaking hips and torsos in low-end cabarets to the theater. It’s just one of the ways Egyptians are trying to establish a contemporary cultural identity in Cairo that taps into their heritage.
relates to How Cairo’s Revival Blends Ancient Egypt With Modern Tastes
The renaissance of traditions spans everything from new museum exhibits to artisans integrating old crafts into modern furniture and designers selling handmade jewelry, bags and shoes online. There’s also the redevelopment of buildings to champion Egyptian identity. For her bit, Sultan says her goal is to preserve, document and revive the performing arts. Egypt is the spiritual home of belly-dancing, which traces its roots back to ancient times.
“There’s a huge overlap in the way that the cultural restoration in Cairo is happening as well as this restoration that I’m working on with the Egyptian dance, simply because every culture has its forms of expression that it’s famous for,” she said.
Safeguarding Egyptian Dance
Perhaps the most striking example of the cultural resurrection was when 22 mummies were transported through central Cairo last April to their latest resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. The multi-million dollar spectacle was broadcast live on state television.
Floats carrying 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies depart from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square during a parade to their new resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.
The main entrance to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, in the Fustat district of Old Cairo.
Then there’s modern art. The group Art d’Egypte has held a series of flashy exhibitions in traditional heritage locations like the pyramids and downtown, seeking to bridge the past and future.
It’s all part of Cairo’s biggest makeover in decades. Ministries and government institutions are relocating to a brand new capital 45 kilometers (28 miles) away starting this year in the hopes of easing traffic congestion in the city of 20 million people.
At the same time, some parts of the sprawling metropolis are being refurbished in an attempt to recapture more of the tourism market, which was battered by the Arab Spring protests in 2011, a counter-revolution two years later, the bombing of a Russian chartered plane in 2015 and then the pandemic.
One of those areas is central Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo in reference to Khedive Ismail, the ruler under whom downtown Cairo was built in the late 19th century. The country’s sovereign wealth fund plans to redevelop the mid-20th century Mogamma building, a hulking government office complex. The project on Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests 11 years ago, will include cultural facilities and cost more than 3.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($223 million).
Private entrepreneurs, like Karim Shafei, 48, have also for years been actively working on restoring that part of town. Shafei, co-founder and chairman of Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, said his company is investing hundreds of millions of pounds to renovate 25 buildings in central Cairo.
The vision that he and his partner, Aladdin Saba, an investment banker, have for downtown is to make it a real city center that reflects Egyptian identity: a meeting point for Cairenes from all walks of life and a platform for innovation and creativity.
“There’s nowhere in Cairo where tourists can go and experience the contemporary Egyptian lifestyle, unlike many other cities such as Beirut, Istanbul, Paris and New York,” said Shafei. “Today, there’s a big portion of tourism that’s intended to experience a country in its modern form. You want to experience the way cuisine is, the way people live, how they dress.”
One thing that Shafei has noticed is a change in the government’s attitude toward restoration. In the past, authorities would just focus on painting a wall or fixing a sidewalk. In the past year, the discussions have become deeper.
Inside one of the newly renovated buildings by Al Ismelia called the Consoleya, which was part of the old French Consulate in downtown Cairo.
A building currently under renovation in downtown Cairo, owned by Al Ismelia properties, overlooking downtown Cairo streets.
Sultan, the dancer, has likewise found a sympathetic ear for her project, which she is doing through her company Tarab Collective. When she has approached government officials with her idea, “there’s some shock, but then as they listen they actually see that this is a serious project,” she said. The answer isn’t an immediate “yes,” but it’s not a “no,” she said.
Belly dancing has been associated with smoky cabarets where alcohol is served, an image reinforced in Egyptian film that invariably includes men leering at a dancer and helping give it the stigma is has today. It’s also informally performed by people at home, at picnics or celebrations.
An Egyptian female teacher got in trouble for dancing with male colleagues on a Nile boat ride recently. She was fired and her husband divorced her after a video went viral. She has since been reinstated in the profession, according to local media.
Sultan, who was born in Singapore (she declined to say when) and spent part of her childhood there, wants to take it into the mainstream. Last year, Tarab Collective produced a tribute to the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the dance’s divas from 1940 to 1960. It featured 12 performers and premiered at the closing of the Gouna Film Festival in October.
Her company is also working on setting up an institute to teach the dance, register it with UNESCO as intangible heritage and change its name from one that comes from the French danse du ventre to Egyptian dance.
“At the end of the day, this dance represents Egypt,” she said. “It’s how we show ourselves to the world, just like we identify Spain with flamenco.”