La Dolce Dina

Dina doesn’t give a damn. Because this is her art. And she is prepared to “suffer for it”. Cliché? Yes, of course. But Dina is not sensitive to clichés; perhaps a symptom of a life lived dangerously close to parody. She is the archetypal modern-day belly dancer, worshiped on stage, disparaged off it; a star in the spotlight, an object of suspicion beyond it. Because which decent Arab woman belly dances? Long gone is the golden age of dance; those heady decades in the first half of the 20th century when the likes of Tahia Carioca captivated millions. She hypnotised with her hips, intoxicated with her beauty and above all, demanded respect… for her talent, for the dance. Those were the days when belly dancers were brought out and shown off to the world during pivotal moments of pomp and circumstance. To perform for Carter and Kissinger, Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. And even to dance, as Hikmat Fahmy once did, for Mussolini and Hitler. Those women were Orientalist fantasies made reality; heralded, adored, admired.

But that was before the religious right drew their lines in the desert sand, demarking good from bad and leaving little room for a dancer to be just… a dancer. Or to borrow Dina’s much-used (and justifiable) word, an artist. Long before conservatives dubbed the fortunes amassed by the likes of Dina as a sign of the corruption of our times; before Mubarak memorably, and somewhat ironically, fumed against Islamic radicals stating they were “all sons of tabla players and belly dancers”; before a bestselling book was released entitled Zaman Fifi Abdo (The Era of Fifi Abdo) attacking Egypt’s top belly dancers as a symbol of all that is wrong with Egypt. In a country that seeks to control the agenda of high culture, belly dancing is no longer on the roster. That is what Dina must contend with, each and every day, in her self-confessed pursuit of happiness through dance.

So when you’re already dancing on your back foot, guilty before proven innocent, the last thing you need is to turn up in your own sex video. Circa 2002, her co-star was, of course, automotive tycoon, Hossam Aboul Fotouh. And even if you claim he was your husband from a secret marriage born out of your desire for privacy, you are simply playing into the public’s preconceptions. Because… which decent Arab woman marries in secret? Indeed who gets hitched so many times? The rota includes a disastrous marriage (public) at the tender age of 17, followed by one in 1998 to a high society figure who infamously demanded she wear a hijab (she lasted three months). Then in 1999 she wed Sameh El-Baghoury, with whom she had her only son shortly before his death in 2001. And there’s a fifth marriage in there somewhere, but, hey, that was also a secret.

So is Dina, with her seemingly outrageous behaviour, solely responsible for the demise of the “art”? Or has the woman simply become a scapegoat for society’s ills – a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of salaciousness? Is she just a victim of 21st century media and it’s obsession with celebrity and scandal? With all that cleavage and her stomach on show, she’s an easy target, but chances are she’s no better or worse than countless Arab celebrities. The only difference is, they were chasing her, and she got caught.

As Mae West once famously said, “There are no good girls gone wrong; just bad girls found out.” Dina was born on the wrong side of the East/West divide. This isn’t Hollywood. Scandal, intrigue and a sex tape don’t make you, they break you. For a brief moment, it seemed like she was indeed broken. And we all got a front row seat to the hysteria. She appeared on Hala Sarhan’s top-rated talk show sobbing uncontrollably. “He was my husband; I didn’t know he was filming us. He betrayed me, what was I supposed to do, search my marital bedroom for cameras? He was my husband!” She kept repeating herself, over and over, pleading for a little understanding. As the camera zoomed in on the audience, there was a woman in a hijab snickering. And at that moment, you had to feel bad. Because really, who cares?

Beyond society’s fickle associations and hypocritical preconceptions, what has any of this really got to do with that fact that she’s a dancer? And not just any dancer. The best one we’ve got; the last of a dying breed in a slowly suffocating art. Well, at some point between then and now, Dina must have come to that same conclusion. Because sitting here with me, in our photographer’s studio, late on a Sunday evening in early January 2009, Dina no longer gives a damn.

“You know what, Amy?” she starts, leaning back into the softness of the couch, “I’m confident in myself. I’m confident of what I do. There are so many professions our society is quick to scorn; even air hostesses are viewed with suspicion. People don’t always understand things the way you want them to. And it’s easy to throw your life away trying to convince everyone of your particular point of view. I have no intention of battling negativity all my life. Life is too short. If this society wants to invest time in dwelling on things they ought not to, that’s their issue, not mine. I’m moving forward with my life, with my ambitions, and am giving little thought to what people say.”

Those are big words, ballsy, brazen words, yet they’re delivered calmly, quietly. This is not a call to arms; it’s simply the way things are, made all the more potent by the figure delivering them. Today, we’re not dealing with the stage Dina, brash and colourful; and it’s certainly not the Dina of Enigma’s photo shoot, all burlesque sexiness. This is a surprisingly petite woman, who, devoid of makeup and dressed in a cute knee-length black dress and woollen cardigan, looks far younger, far more innocent, than her spotlight persona. And yet, at the first whiff of tabloid scandal, she’s always the first to jump into the fray, appearing on every big show across the region to explain herself. Surely it would be far easier to lay low for a while, play the dignity-in-silence card and let it all just blow over. Besides, whatever happened to not caring?

“I understand what you’re saying,” she says. “And you have a point, but at the same time, it’s just not in my nature to hide my head in the sand. I like to face the music. To own up to the situation and take responsibility for my actions, especially when I’m 100 percent in the right. The truth will always come out, no matter how hard you try to hide it. So you might as well come out and say it like it is from the start. And when you have the truth on your side, it gives you a lot of strength. And before you ask; yes, if the same situations happened to me again, I’d do exactly the same thing, all of it. And I’d react exactly the same way.”

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Even the crying on TV… in front of millions? Surely you went home and kicked yourself for that one?

“No, not at all. I was true to myself. When I needed to laugh, I laughed and when I had to cry, I cried. I have never put on a façade. That’s not me. I was not built that way. And I think people respected that. They could tell I was being genuine. Arabs are very emotional people. We think with our hearts, not our minds, and we go with our gut. And that’s always worked to my advantage. Because no matter what gossip the media might spread, when I go out there and tell my side of the story, the public feels in their hearts that I’m being genuine.”

What about your loved ones? Surely it couldn’t have been easy on them…

“Of course, it’s devastating when we all wake to find these awful things written in the papers. And whenever the media mention my name, it’s always some big scandal; it’s never anything small or easy to digest. And I never know about it before it happens. So we’re all shocked together. I need to prepare myself before I face the media; to work out how I’m supposed to tell the truth without hurting my family in the process. But my mother is incredibly supportive, and my best friend. She is a psychologist and really helps get me through the tough times. When I’m at my lowest point, she knows how to calm me and put me back on track. Without those sorts of people in my life, things would be much harder.”

Have you ever bumped into one of those journalists that have written so negatively about you?

“First of all, when bad stuff starts to get written about me, I stop reading the papers. I file the articles away in my office but never actually read them.”

But what if you had the chance to retaliate directly, what would you say?

“Look, at the end of the day, media and celebrity are entirely interdependent. In this day and age, you can’t have one without the other. I’d be nothing without them, and vice versa. They need to understand that. So here’s what I’d say to them: If you finally succeed in breaking me, if I disappear, you’ll be waiting a very long time, perhaps forever, before anyone remotely like me comes along. So you need to support stars like me.”

Stars like her? Well, yes actually. Because while the Arab media was busy applauding Nancy Ajram for her first appearance at the World Music Awards; Haifa for hanging onto the coattails of some C-list celebrity at some obscure Hollywood red-carpet event; Elissa for an absurd one-time duet with Chris de Burgh, Dina has been steadily building up quite the international following. Out there, in the big wide world, they certainly don’t care about the workings of her personal life. Instead they are enthralled by this woman who intoxicates with her exotic moves. When W magazine came to Cairo last September, eager to showcase the best of Egypt through their powerful imagery, Dina was their only port of call, appearing in all her uninhibited glory in their incredible fashion spread. The following month, Newsweek dubbed Dina a national treasure in an article aptly entitled The Last Egyptian Belly Dancer. And every year, hundreds across the world gather to learn from the master. These belly dancing “conferences”, created for and centred on Dina, have taken place everywhere from Finland to Texas.

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“Dina is just amazing and it was a dream come true to finally meet her,” enthused one Canadian participant on her blog, following a workshop with Dina in Minneapolis. “Do the media even pay attention to any of that?” says Dina, with a sigh of resignation as she lights up her first cigarette of night. “Not a single journalist has ever mentioned any of it. They just search for problems. Outside of Egypt, it is so different. I could show you the awards in my office, from Los Angeles, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and Chicago. But the Arab media are prepared to give other stars more importance than they actually deserve.”

Yet Dina may just be the most parodied star in the Middle East. Nearly every comic actor has taken a shot at her. Indeed, actress and singer Mais Hamdan’s very career was built on just such an impression. Mais was, after all, a virtual nobody before the media picked up on her Dina routines and turned them into a sort of Sarah Palin/Tina Fey scenario for the Arab world. And is imitation not the sincerest form of flattery? “When people impersonate my dancing, I think it’s hilarious,” starts Dina, when I ask how she feels watching Mais et al. make fun of her. “It’s brilliant and I love it, but there is a point when funny becomes offensive. There’s a big, red line and Mais crosses it when she attacks my personal life. She overstepped the mark when she made fun of me crying on live television. She was turning my traumatic experience into a joke, and that is not acceptable.”

Despite it all, Dina’s still here, still dancing and still speaking her mind. “I insist on seeing the glass half full,” she says. And spending time with her is a whole load of fun. She’s a natural performer, a one-woman show unto herself; all hilariously risqué asides, side-splitting anecdotes and witty commentary. She’ a smart woman and that’s a rare thing in the world of belly dancing. Her father was a journalist, and she herself has a degree in philosophy. Maybe that’s why she grates so many? Because she could so easily have been “one of us” and yet she chose to dance, she chose this controversial career because she loves it, she’s passionate about it. Even the media relishes this idea of her as the ‘educated’ belly dancer, but it’s always noted with irony; as if her dancing negates her intelligence. Spend five minutes with her, and you quickly realise that’s far from the case. She’s a big reader, and is currently obsessed with Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.

“I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘power’ and the ways you can attain it,” she says. She surveys the world around her with a deeply analytical mind and the friends she keeps are a testament to her mentality. Contrary to popular assumption, her’s is not the seedy world of Egyptian cabaret and its requisite players, rather the regional cognoscenti and movers n’ shakers you’d be thrilled to have on your guest list. She’s a lover of high fashion, travelling to Milan, Paris and Beirut to stock up. Roberto Cavalli and vintage Thierry Mugler are her favourites. “They really understand a woman’s body,” she says. Christian Louboutin is a fan and a friend, and she brings along countless red-soled pairs of heels to our shoot, most of them gifts from the man himself. So there is plenty of love in her life, but what of romance, the source of so much of her public pain? How can she tell if a man is after the dancer, the sexual icon or the real woman? Dina sighs. She pauses. She shakes her head. She takes a sip of her cooling coffee, and then finally, “You can’t tell, at least not at first. You open the door to love and take the risk and it’s only way down the line you discover that all along, he just wanted Dina, the dancer, and your heart breaks. And let me tell you, I can survive most things. I can be struck down with the highest fever, and I’ll still go out and dance. But when I’ve had my heart broken, I can no longer function. Yet when you find real love, it’s amazing, it lights up your whole life.”

So when someone breaks her heart or betrays her, can she forgive them? It’s a loaded question, and we both know it. She gathers her thoughts. “I can forget, I can forget,” she says, repeatedly, a sort of mantra. “But I can never forgive.” Forgiving, forgetting and scandal aside, it’s only fair we end with the dancing. The Last Egyptian Belly Dancer. Where does Dina go from here?

She knows the answer, but hesitates, not sure if she should share. “I want to change the way people perceive belly dancing,” she says finally. “I want to have my own show in Las Vegas, in my name, with a big group of dancers.” It’s the ultimate dream. Her name in lights. It may sound outlandish. But why not?

In a world where Shakira’s hips sell records, Beyoncé’s booty wins awards, and America’s biggest hip hop stars urge you ‘shake it like a belly dancer’, this might be her perfect moment. Besides, they’re all just pretenders to the throne. Dina is the real deal; 100 percent authentic and 100 percent made in Egypt. She knows the secrets of this mystical, magical and intoxicating dance. Even if she’s not telling. “You can have the talent, you can have technique, you can even have the charisma,” she says, “But that won’t make you a great belly dancer. There’s something else, something you just can’t explain, and it comes from God. Before you walk out on stage, people might be gossiping about you. But once you’re out there, in the spotlight, and you’re dancing, they’re transfixed; almost hypnotised. They forget everything else. All that’s left is an audience and a belly dancer.”

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