A 70-year-old apartment sits sandwiched between its peers in the Sayyeda Eisha neighbourhood in Cairo, low-key, unassuming. Within the nooks and crannies of a married couple’s home, a mere 20-metre wide ramshackle workshop sets the stage. Sequins, beads, embroidery and threads fill the shelves surrounding an endearingly old sewing machine. Across it, a mannequin stands tall, donning an authentic, handmade belly dancing dress. With neither skill nor knowledge nor talent to burst into that scene, the couple only had sheer willpower; and it made for some interesting storytelling.
“It all started when an acquaintance offered me a job packing embroidery beads. I kept at it for months until she popped in with ready-made dancing dresses; telling me they only need some embroidery.” It was here that Om Aya’s bedazzled tale began. She has now been in the business for 15 years, and is telling her tale at 53 years of age.
“I remember being good with a needle when I was young, so I decided to give it a go. She liked the first dress I did, so she capitalised on my talent; bringing in several dresses each week. She’d give me a dress, I'd do my thing, hand it back to her to sell and get my earnings.”
I’m not embarrassed of my work because not just anybody can do it; it’s a craft that takes skill and dedication, not just manual labour.
After about a year, Om Aya’s associate offered her a design position; making her own dresses from scratch and splitting revenue 50-50. With her associate supplying all the necessary material, and Om Aya pouring her talent over a workstation, they started hitting their stride in business. However, it wasn’t long until Om Aya felt used. “She’d proven to me how untrustworthy she was; not giving me my pay was a frequent issue for example. It didn’t take too long for the merchants themselves to come into direct contact with me; one of them did, and we’ve been working together fair and square ever since.”
A Simple Hobby Becomes an Empire
With time doing what it does best, Om Aya’s deft hands became constant in their motion, and demand continued to overwhelm supply. Realising that she couldn’t keep up on her own, she opened a humble workshop along with hiring craftspeople to work under her. “A tailor sits on his machine, and a craftsman assists with finishing up a dress. That’s how it went for the first 8 months, but then I found myself at a deficit; the workers were sloppy, and had a knack for procrastination. So naturally, my dresses started dwindling in terms of quality, and I felt like depending on craftspeople rather than I alone was more of a loss than a strategic decision – one that should have been logical.”
We became the craftspeople we needed, and we’d do everything properly from A to Z
Om Aya had to think something up to stem the flow of lost revenue, and how to keep her workers in line. “My husband started supervising them after he’d return from his job. He’d stay up until 2 AM until they sorted everything out with the dresses. But then I wondered why they needed supervision when they were getting paid to do what they did? Especially seeing as a tailor earns EGP 1600, while my husband earns EGP 850. I started wondering who truly belonged to work with me.”
850 for a Day Job? Or 1600 for a Handicraft?
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been working as a driver in the private sector, but I had to stick by Om Aya’s side when her business started taking off,” says Mahmoud Ali Hassan – Om Aya’s Husband and associate – as he tells us his side of the story. “I started off just watching over the craftspeople and busting their metaphorical balls for shoddy craft. I was more than just patient with them, all the while learning about what they did and how they did it. I found myself doing what they did better, allowing me to leave my main job, and open my own independent workshop.”
I don't let them take care of a whole dress from start to finish - nor do I let them finish up an outfit. This is so that they don’t start blabbing about my designs to people outside, so I always leave a few things incomplete on their end that only I can do.
“We became the craftspeople we needed, and we’d do everything properly from A to Z,” Om Aya remarks as she takes the reigns of the conversation. “My husband has been working with me for 10 years so far, and he’s outdone himself; taking over the workshop and working on the outfits himself. I‘d take the finished product and sell it out of a showroom I’d opened; it’s far better to deal with your customers personally.”
How is a Dress Made? And How Long Does it Take?
“I take the bottom measurements first, then the waist, then below and above the bust. These are the essential measurements that I need before doing anything. After I get my maths right, I give them to my husband,” remarks Om Aya on her process, with Mahmoud picking up his part of the process right after: “I make the belt out as well as the upper part of the dress - the workers then take it and start embroidering them. A dress starts off with me, and then it passes through multiple people. Others can do my job easily, but there are things that they just can’t endure like I can. Embroidery isn’t something I’m thrilled about for example, but they are, whereas I’m more adept at working with belts, as opposed to them."
From experience, whenever I see a dancer, I know what dress works best for them, in terms of fit and flourish. The way their bodies are structured impacts a lot of variables.
After Mahmoud hands the belt over to Om Aya, she then takes over the detailing and embroidery. She passes it onto one of the girls that work for her so that she can work on it, then when it comes time for fit and finish, Om Aya takes the reigns.
It’s common for many to tell me that my vocation is haram.
Each individual piece has several people work on it. The girls who work with Om Aya – all 15 of them - primarily help her tremendously when it comes to the embroidery process; she gives them the basic outfits and they handle the details. They don’t have a designated workstation to convene in either; each girl works from home. They then give Om Aya the finished product. “I mostly need them for specific jobs, not taking care of a whole dress from start to finish - nor do I let them finish up an outfit. This is so that they don’t start blabbing about my designs to people outside, so I always leave a few things incomplete on their end that only I can do. Not just anybody knows how a dress will turn out.” She pointed at a typical dress of hers adorned with sequins, butterflies and beads as an example; the butterflies, for example, are worked on by one girl, not knowing what Om Aya does after they’re done.
Tricks of the Trade
There are many, many factors that go into designing a good belly dancing dress. “From experience, whenever I see a dancer, I know what dress works best for them, in terms of fit and flourish. The way their bodies are structured impacts a lot of variables; like height, bust size, and waistline.” Om Aya has a lot of haute wisdom to share it seems. “It’s not just the physique that matters, it’s the tone of skin as well; it defines what colours are going to go into the dress. If I’m dealing with somebody much more fair skinned than average, darker colours and shades would fit perfectly, accentuating her overall appeal. Orange, however, does not work at all with lighter skin ones; it only works on darker tones so that there’s contrast between the dancer and the dress. Colours can do wonders for the complexion.”
Local or Bust
In a report by the New York Times released not too long ago, it was revealed that belly dancing in Egypt is at risk of being dominated by foreign performers, as opposed to local talents. The most exemplary local dancer there is – according to the report – would have to be Dina, and it was a sentiment that Om Aya echoed. She believes that sure, foreign dancers are good, but they’re not artists: “You can find a dancer that does more than just dance; she engrosses you in her performance, showing off the intricacies of a mesmerising act, as opposed to just flaunting her stuff. If I could turn back time, though, I’ll always prefer Naeema Akef and Samia Gamal over anybody else.”
The belly dancing costume design industry is one of continuous development, with newer trends popping up every day. “Dresses from back in the day were all beads and bedazzling for the most part, but now you have multi-coloured stones, shiny crystals and a lot more bits and baubles in the scene. Today’s dancers don’t wear simple, vintage outfits anymore, and for what it’s worth, my two cents in the development process were using stones, crystals, and other shiny odds and ends on the sequins and beads themselves. I also made a belt entirely out of coloured diamonds. I try to come up with new ideas as much as I can, and I haven’t made a habit of settling on one design. An outfit is an outfit no matter what, the difference is the detailing, and the material you use on the belt especially, that’s the major difference.”
I’ve never been ashamed of what I do, and when anybody asks me what I do for a living, I’m completely honest about it. I design belly dancing outfits.
Om Aya takes a stroll around town to do some research of her own; scouting storefronts and shops for the latest and greatest in new models. She takes what she needs from today’s designs and works in some of her own magic for a fresh spin. “Sometimes I find these newer models lacking, so I fill in the gaps with what I have in mind at the time. It goes without saying in any business endeavour that keeping with the times becomes a necessity, because you can’t just depend on your opinions alone.”
Where Stands Religion?
Since time immemorial, there has been no mention of dancing being expressly haram in Islam. However, it’s frowned upon by most scholars, especially when accompanied by similarly-stigmatised items. Belly dancing outfits typically don’t have much in the way of subtlety; exposing vast swathes of skin for all to see. Perhaps a glance at a relevant Fatwa might prove to be useful.
At the same time, there hasn’t been a single fatwa expressly shunning belly dancing outfits, which prompted us to ask Om Aya about the kind of comments she gets from those more pious. “It’s common for many to tell me that my vocation is haram. But in my eyes, I base whether or not it’s sinful according to where it goes. For example; if I were to deliver it to a girl working at a cabaret after fitting her and everything, that wouldn’t be OK with me. That’s why I work with the market as a whole; folks buy my items for whatever purpose they have, and I have nothing to do with it past bagging and tagging it. Whether it’s for spicing up the bedroom, dancing at a casino, it’s not my concern as a creator. People regard belly dancers with the same respect as artists, and honestly, I don’t know how I’d feel if one of them came to me personally for a fitting. I know what I’m doing isn’t exactly encouraged, but it’s what I have.”
In Egypt, so long as something has even the vaguest connotation of sin, people will tend to rally against it in a violent fervour. To say that Om Aya and Mahmoud haven’t had their fair share of heat and accusations would be a gross understatement. Thankfully, they’re always prepared, according to Mahmoud anyway. “I’ve never been ashamed of what I do, and when anybody asks me what I do for a living, I’m completely honest about it. I design belly dancing outfits. People would come up to me to browse what we had on my phone, others would come to ask for dresses for their wives, so I send them to Om Aya to hash things out.”
Om Aya is on the same page as her husband, never shying away from talking about her profession, not once seeing it as something shameful regardless of how people often view her. “I’m not embarrassed of my work because not just anybody can do it; it’s a craft that takes skill and dedication, not just manual labour. My line of work has some serious innovators and visionaries, and at the same time, a sea of imitators, and neither aren’t guaranteed to make. The ones that do pull through know how to breathe life into a dress, and I feel it safe to say that I have that talent, and I love my work. You’re always bound to get a negative comment or two in any line of work.”
Through 30 years of marriage – including 15 years of tireless craft – Mahmoud and Om Aya have never had any work-related qualms or quarrels, because everybody knows their place in the grand scheme of things. They’ve had customers of all calibres and backgrounds depend on their wares; from big name dress merchants to bazar owners, fun-loving brides to schools where belly dancing performances are popular, and even foreigners who export the outfits. They’re still brimming with hopes and dreams of settling down in their craft, and of this period of tepid stagnation passing. Perhaps even that their little apartment workshop will transform into a massive production line, with many job opportunities to follow.
This article was originally published on our sister site ElFasla.
Translated by Ahmed Ikram
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Photography by Ashraf Hamed