A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Speaking of Mena House: Fifi Abdou Dances There in 1986

The third installment of my series on the First Cairo Conference will be up later this evening. We talked a bit about Mena House, the grand old hotel near the pyramids, in the first post, since it was the main venue of the summit. While digging a bit on the history of the hotel, I also stumbled on some video that directly addresses another topic this blog occasionally has discussed: decline and fall of the Cairo tradition of raqs sharqi, the "Eastern dance" that Westerners call the belly-dance, in the age of political Islam. The few remaining venues for the art in Cairo are luxury hotels or dinner boats where the clientele is mostly foreign tourists and Gulf Arabs priced beyond the reach of regular Egyptians; more and more performers are American or Eastern European, with fewer and fewer Egyptians. Fifi Abdou, one of the last of the greats, was at her peak in the 1970s and 1980s, dancing at several of the most prominent hotels, and was the regular star at Mena House in the 1980s, before shifting to the Sheraton Al-Gezira in the 1990s. She retired in 2006 though she has also had a career in film and is now about 60. Last year she made the news for arguing that belly-dancers should not be taxed for customer tips, turning a tax case against her into an opportunity to defend the profession.

Already in her day the dance was under fire from Islamists and at one point the Grand Mufti barred her from making the hajj to Mecca. She was reportedly harassed occasionally by police.

These two videos show Fifi Abdou dancing at Mena House in 1986; it is a classic performance that shows why they call it belly-dance; rather than the bump-and-grind sometimes substituted in the West the muscles do the work. This is especially evident in the second of the two videos.

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