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A Review of

A Trade Like Any Other

by Karin van Nieuwkerk

 

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Summary

This book contains a Ph.D. dissertation that explores the social status that dancers hold in society in Egypt, along with the reasons behind that status. Although there is information about modern-day Egypt, most of the book covers the historical perspective. A Trade Like Any Other

 

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Fact Sheet

Title

A Trade Like Any Other

Author

Karin van Nieuwkerk

ISBN

0292787200

Publisher

University Of Texas Press

Category

Nonfiction: Dance History

Rating

StarStarStarStar

Number of Pages

226

Published In

1994

 

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Description

This book seeks to answer the question of why women who sing and dance professionally in Egypt have such a low status in Egyptian society. It consists of field research conducted by the author in Egypt, including many interviews with entertainers as well as other locals in other walks of life.

For those of us in Western society, where celebrities (particularly entertainers) have been respected and adored in our cultures for several decades, it can be difficult to grasp the idea that singers and Oriental dance artists are seen as low status in the dance's home in Egypt. The Egyptian-made movies that made dancers like Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal famous, combined with the fame of more recent stars like Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zeki can deceive us into believing that female entertainers in Egypt are as highly respected there as a famous movie star or recording artist would be here. But that is not the case, and A Trade Like Any Other explores why.

The book opens with a history of the entertainment profession in Egypt from the 19th century into modern times, particularly focused on the profession of raqissa (dancer). The focus is on the 20th century, and centers around the Awalim (wise women) of Cairo. It traces the evolution of the dance from the performers at weddings and moulids (saint's day festivals) through the rise of the nightclub industry. It describes how the transition from performances for local Egyptians in weddings and festivals to the performances for strangers in nightclubs changed the character of the dance.

After establishing this historical foundation, the book then goes into depth on the status of dancers in society today.

 

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Is It Right for You?

 

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You're looking for accurate information on the history of Oriental dance (belly dance).
  • You're interested in information about Egyptian culture, as specially as it relates to Oriental dance.
  • You're planning a trip to Egypt and you'd like some insight into why your tour leader advised you to not mention your interest in belly dancing while there.
  • You enjoyed reading the article "An Hour for God and an Hour for the Heart", which was written by the same author as A Trade Like Any Other.

 

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You would be intimidated by a book that is somewhat difficult to read.
  • You're not interested in historical or cultural information related to the dance.

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

 

What I Liked:

  • Because this book explores in great depth the topic of how Egyptian society views its entertainers, it's very enlightening about the very different cultural context of women in Egypt, and entertainers in particular. Before reading it, I knew that dancers are held in low esteem there, but didn't fully grasp why.
  • The historical perspective provided by this book is very helpful in seeing the roots of the low opinion society holds of dancers. For example, it used to be common for Egyptian nightclubs to require their dancers to converse and have drinks with the customers, which would be considered very shameful behavior in Egypt. In a society where the religious traditions pressure "decent" women to wear veils, the notion of a woman sitting and drinking with strangers would be seen as very low-class.
  • The interviews that the writer conducts with dancers and other people give a very human face to the subculture of entertainers, sharing the stories of real-life people and their relationship to their society.
  • Van Nieuwkerk has interviewed enough different people to provide multiple perspectives and balance the bias that any one interviewee would be likely to bring into the picture.
  • The book contains 18 black-and-white photographs showing dancers in the context of their day-to-day lives, which makes these people much more real for me.
  • Although the book also quotes published research that was done by other people, it is the interviews and photographs that really bring the whole issue to life for me.
  • More than once, while reading this book, I felt the pain of these women who live a very hard life. Reading this deepened my respect and appreciation for their efforts to keep the dance tradition alive despite the societal pressures against them.
  • This book is solidly researched. Unlike other books on the history of Oriental dance which include a great deal of speculation by the author, this one is based on the author's field research in Egypt, in which she tested her theories through a carefully-prepared interview process that she could quantify.
  • This book covers both anecdotal research (quotes from interviews with people) and empirical research, which makes it very credible. Serious scholars will appreciate her methodology.

 

What I Didn't Like:

  • Van Nieuwkerk's writing style is very academic in nature, and despite the fact that I have a Master's degree myself, I find this book to be slow going. In a number of places, the "academese" way of expressing her ideas is painful to wade through.
  • The research on which this book is based was conducted in the 1980's and it describes Egyptian society of that time. It's important to realize that society has changed much since then. For example, it was still common practice to have female dancers at weddings when this book was researched, but today it's increasingly common to feature DJ's who play music for social dancing, with no performing dancer.
  • The book refers to incidents of rioting by soldiers on Pyramid Street as if they were triggered by the low standing of nightclubs in Egyptian society. However, according to Sharif Afifi, a former major in the Egyptian police force, the riots were triggered by unrelated issues such as pay, and the nightclubs were targeted only because they were located near the soldier's barracks.

 

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Conclusion

I highly respect the work this author has done to research the position of dancers in both history and society, and this is one of my favorite books about Oriental dance. It is the first book I suggest to people who ask me for suggestions on where to start in learning about the history of belly dancing.

I would suggest that you first read an article on the Internet also written by this author, "An Hour for God and an Hour for the Heart." It offers an introduction to some of the information that is explored in the book in more depth. If you find the article interesting and would like to read more depth on the subject, then A Trade Like Any Other is the logical next step.

Readers from the academic community will probably find this book reasonably easy to read. However, for those of us who don't read academic research for a living, this book is much more difficult to read than most mainstream non-fiction.

 

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Disclosures

There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anyone associated with this book.

 

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