CAIRO: When meeting a belly dance costume maker, it’s only natural that the conversation turns into one about heritage and art. Such was the case when I met Ahmed Diaa, one of a handful of world renowned belly dance costume makers.
Despite his creative flair there’s an air of solemnity and matter-of-factness about Diaa.
His workshop is a small, second floor flat in an old building located on Mohamed Ali Street, a locality that has been known throughout history as the residence of oriental musical bands, belly dancers and singers.
Diaa’s fame and reputation have made the rounds of European and American oriental dancing schools, but he refuses to leave the area to set up in a plusher neighborhood.
“How can I? asked Diaa. “Mohamed Ali Street is the home of oriental dance and the location of the earliest costume workshops. Somewhere else would be insignificant. All the famous belly dancers – like Shafiqa El Ebtiya, Bamba Kashar, Badiaa Masabni and Safia Hemly – as well as the generations that followed had their costumes made by specialists who lived on this [same] street, added Diaa.
With four decades of experience in the business, Diaa knows the ins and outs of the business, and he knows what makes a flashy belly dancing suit. Recent years have seen a decline in business, he said, especially in the local market. There are only about two or three expert custom makers still in Egypt.
Ironically, these costume makers mostly cater to the needs of foreign clientele – both professionals and amateurs – more so than their local counterparts.
“I was the first to start making the costumes for foreigners when many of them began to be seriously interested in belly dancing as a kind of art, for physiotherapy or [as a type of] physical training, Diaa said.
“Today, the bulk of our production is exported to countries like England, France, Russia and Germany, added the specialist as he arranged piles of costumes on the racks of his workshops’ wooden cupboards.
“There is no dearth of business for people like us. Besides belly dancing costumes, our services are in demand in the showbiz world, he said, pointing to pictures of scenes from musicals for which he had designed costumes.
“I am just saddened that the art of belly dancing that has been practiced since the times of the Pharaohs is eroding for a number of reasons, added Diaa.
“Some cite respectability and decency as justifications for placing restrictions on belly dancers. What about the scores of satellite television channels that go unchecked, broadcasting all kinds of indecent, repulsive scenes – showing women in revealing clothes?
“They just ignore them [the television programs] and fine a belly dancer, claiming she has flouted the costume rules. Tell me honestly, how many youngsters see a belly dancer at the cabaret compared to the millions who watch these satellite channels? These contradictions seem to show a conspiracy against our dancing heritage.
Ninety percent of the belly dance costumes, according to Diaa, consist of a top, a skirt, a belt and transparent shawl that are embroidered. His father dealt in handmade embroidered bags.
The kind and amount of beads and shiny materials used in the embroidery determines the price of the costume. Some can go for LE 500 while more extravagantly designed costumes can reach LE 2,000. “It doesn’t matter if the costume is shiny or tight, there is an element of seduction in every woman that makes her appealing to the other sex. The belly dance costume only enhances that, said the expert.
“Many married women – including veiled ones – call upon belly dance costume makers to create the perfect suit for them.
“Why do people ignore that reality? Many wives are aware of men’s attraction to that element of seduction in other women, especially movie stars and belly dancers. So these wives offer it to their man before he goes in search for it elsewhere.
“The outlets in Khan El Khalili deal in different shapes, styles and types of costumes. However, due to the low quality, they prefer to visit costume makers so they can create the exact color and size, Diaa explained.
In Khan El Khalili, the shop owners said that married women from all walks of life buy belly dance costumes and embroidered, tight-fitting galabeyas that enhance their best physical qualities.
Hassan Khaled, a shop assistant in Al Azhar, said, “Visitors assume that only professionals and foreigners are interested in buying belly dance costumes. However, wives also buy them, and sometimes at the request of their husbands. Don’t underestimate the ways in which a seductive wife can save her marriage if her husband is a womanizer.
Elaborating, Diaa said, “All this is between a man and his wife. My part is to make and sell the costume.