- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

CAIRO — Egypt’s foreign belly dancers have gotten their marching orders.

The government says it wants to protect homegrown practitioners of the seductive Middle Eastern dance form and no longer will grant work permits to foreign dancers or renew existing ones.

Those affected, who include Europeans and Americans, say the ban on foreign dancers is unfair and illogical. They are backed by one of the Arab world’s most respected dancers, Nagwa Fouad, who is urging the government to reverse the ban.

“There is not enough Egyptian talent, so obviously people need foreigners,” says Palestinian-born Miss Fouad, who retired from dancing in 1997 after a career of four decades.

“There has always been a mix of Egyptian and foreign belly dancers here. Why should this change?”

It’s called belly dancing because of the intricate movements that emanate from between the performer’s chest and hips. Also known as oriental dancing, it has roots throughout the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent dating back thousands of years.

American dancer Caroline, who gave only her first name, is among many performers who say that as Egyptian society grows less liberal about Muslim women dancing in revealing dress, the country is running out of local talent.

“In the places I have worked, there are people always looking for Egyptian dancers, but not many are around,” Caroline, whose stage name is Layla, said after performing at a glitzy wedding party at a five-star Cairo hotel.

“Egyptian women risk their reputation and that of their family if they become belly dancers,” she said.

The government says the crackdown is not about morality, but about saving jobs for Egyptians.

“Belly dancing is an Egyptian thing and is not a hard job,” Nawal al-Naggar of the Ministry of Labor and Immigration said. “It is not hard to find belly dancers from Egypt. There are too many foreign belly dancers in Egypt working at nightclubs.”

She had no specific numbers.

The foreign dancers say they number only about 30 and claim that the government is adding the many women from former Soviet bloc states who perform in cabaret-style shows and aren’t considered classical belly dancers.

Hassan Akef, a leading dancers’ agent, praised the ban. He said 3,000 foreign performers, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, are working here, and “they don’t give the Egyptians any chance.”

Two dancers, one from Russia and one from Australia, are challenging the ban in court on grounds of unfairness.

Foreign performers are said to charge between $250 and $500 for a show, from which they pay their musicians and buy costumes. The elite Egyptian dancers command up to $1,600.

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