Sorry it’s been a few days since I last wrote. I shall make up for this in typical style, by writing a bunch of entries in quick succession. Starting with a trip to the belly dance costume shops of Cairo!
Yesterday I met my friend Lorna and a group of British belly dancers who are staying with her for a few days. They wanted to visit some costume shops while here in Cairo, and they kindly let me tag along (for research purposes, of course, not just so I could try on all the shiny things…or at least this is what I keep telling my supervisor!) There were seven of us: myself, Lorna and her close friend, then a group of four women traveling together: a belly dance teacher from Newcastle with her nine-year-old daughter and two women from Durham county.
We piled in some taxis, Lorna bravely entrusting three of her guests to my Arabic skills in case anything went wrong, and we made our way to Khan el Khalili. The first place we stopped was set back from one of the larger roads, tucked away behind bright stalls selling leather wallets. Though to be honest I was trying so hard to keep up with Lorna that I’m not entirely sure what they were selling. I never would have found it on my own, like most of the good things in Khan el Khalili.
When we stepped inside, though, there were three full floors of hip scarves, veils, zills, harem pants, bra-and-belt sets, dresses, necklaces, rings, headbands… It was like stepping into Mata Hari’s dream house! Everything was piled higgledy piggledy on large tables or hanging on large jumbled racks. There were wooden cupboards with glass doors flanking the walls of the rooms, the floors were made of marble and in the stairwells the windows gave a dim glow through stained glass. Walking up the stairs with the lush marble and low lighting from the stained glass made me think of Harrod’s. There weren’t any doormen, though. And I could actually afford some of this stuff, unlike Harrod’s!
We walked around ooh-ing and aah-ing, but in the end we were so overwhelmed by choice that we all huddled into a corner and nobody bought anything. Deciding that we were unable to make such important decisions while famished, we retired to Feshawi’s cafe for a spot of lunch and some beverages. Lorna went for fuul and falafel sandwiches while we ordered karkady (a drink made of hibiscus flowers), coffee and juice cocktails, which this time of year are full of mango, banana and whole pomegranate seeds. Yum!
After our break we went to a much smaller costume shop close to Feshawi’s. This one had a narrow aisle between shelves stacked with scarves in both Oriental and Bedouin styles (’Oriental’ being the glittery and often jingly kind, Bedouin being black with bright embroidery around the edges). A thin set of steps led up to a second level which I could barely stand upright in, but this is where they kept the costume sets. It had a beautifully painted ceiling in geometric patterns and a window covered with a classical wooden screen. It was also full to overflowing with fantastical costumes in all colors, shapes and sizes. Lorna pointed out that these were mostly knock-off designs from Eman’s, the costumier we were going to see later that afternoon. Even so they were better matched and on the whole a better quality than most of what we had seen in the larger costume house. Amazing as that stuff was, it was more the sheer quantity than the quality. It seems like a lot of people buy their ‘good’ pieces from this smaller place, or shell out for something really nice from Eman’s, then for the kinds of things you might buy in bulk – tulle underskirts, veils (by which I mean large swathes of fabric that dancers swish around during performance), harem pants or hip scarves – the large costume house we’d seen first is the place to go.
Negotiating prices is always a slow process for me, because even though I can do it in Arabic my tongue is slow with the numbers and of course my internal currency calculater isn’t as fast as some, so deciding whether I’m being offered a fair price takes me a long time. I did buy two nice Bedouin scarves which weren’t a steal or anything but I was proud for sticking firmly to the price I chose. I also looked at something that I never caught the name for, but basically it was a huge square dress with sleeves that almost touched the ground, a thing that a lot of dancers wear over their costumes between sets. It was LE400 (about $80) and though I probably could’ve talked him down I decided it was out of my range. In this shop the costume sets ranged anyhere between about LE800 and LE2000 ($160-$350). This is a lot of money but for a working dancer, costumes of this quality would be maybe one and a half to two times that much in the States.
We wandered around a little more in the Khan so the ladies could pick up souvineers to take home. Unfortunately a lot of the things there are actually made in China, so you’re not really supporting the Egyptian economy by buying that stuff. Some of it is – textiles and pottery are usually Egyptian, and T-shirts have a fairly good chance of being made here in Egypt. But the plastic stuff sells, which I find really sad because there are so many beautiful local handicrafts from Egypt that are relatively unknown and actually you have to look pretty hard to find it in the Khan.
Eventually we left for Eman’s, a costume shop in Doqqi that is in an apartment building. They do have a website, though: Eman Zaki’s Golden Lotus. This is where the best costumes come from. They are handmade, custom fit and built to LAST. I should’ve taken some close-ups of the construction of these things, but I wans’t thinking. Suffice to say the bras seriously felt like rocks with straps on them. You wouldn’t need anything to put in them, they will undoubtedly retain their firm shape! These costumes run anywhere from $300-$1000 range for something off the rack, and they will make you the same design in different colors for the same price. To design your own costume, something not off the rack, would of course be an additional fee. Again, looks like a lot of money but for most dancers this is a professional investment (though you wouldn’t think it from the way they gush about the fabrics while shopping) and it’s extremely difficult to find costumes of this quality outside Egypt. If you do, you’d almost certainly pay double or triple the Egyptian price.
Not everyone bought something at Eman’s – it’s hard to justify that kind of expense if you’re just looking for something to wear to class, or if you aren’t earning it back somehow. But one of the women there pointed out that value isn’t just about a financial investment, personal confidence and satisfaction with a costume have a lot to do with it also. (She didn’t buy anything either, though!)
While we were at Eman’s we had a brief conversation with one of the women salesgirls who helps display the costumes and pin prospective customers into place while they try costumes on. Lorna noticed she was wearing an engagement ring, and she and the salesgirl explained to the visiting dancers that in Egypt an engagement ring goes on the right hand and moves to the left when a woman gets married. I missed the specifics of the next part, but Lorna said something about it being fashionable just now for women to wear two rings on the same finger. The young lady explained, tracing imaginary examples with her hands where she wasn’t wearing the real things, that rings, earrings, and long necklaces are all popular just now. “Bas!” she finished, innocently. Lorna made fun of her: “Bas? Bas? Eeh Bas?!” ”Bas” can mean “enough” or “that’s all,” so this translates roughly as, “That’s it? That’s it? What do you mean, that’s it?” After this Lorna gave her a high five to indicate her approval.
During this conversation I forgot my manners and complimented the young lady on her ring. If you’re not familiar with Arab culture you may find that an unusual thing to say. Compliments are a dangerous thing in Egypt, however, because the receiver is obliged to offer you whatever article you have remarked upon, which this girl promptly did upon hearing my remark (”Da hilwa ‘awee” : “That’s very beautiful/sweet”).
“T’fadtal!” (you’re welcome/please help yourself) the girl replied, wiggling the ring under my nose. I wasn’t sure what the what the politest reply to this was, plus I was internally smacking myself for being so thoughtless, so I said nothing. It was instantly clear from her wide grin that the girl understood my non-acquisitional intentions and she was just beaming at the compliment. I hope her marriage keeps her as happy and in as good humor as she was yesterday. Bas!