"Egypt is the central nervous system of the dance," says Liza Laziza, my instructor. She is Iranian and has lived in Cairo for seven years, led by an overwhelming passion for belly dancing that first struck her in London, when she was a young legal assistant.
It’s not unusual to find a foreigner keeping this art form alive: A growing cultural conservatism has led many Egyptian belly dancers to retire. Meanwhile, Liza says, in the rest of the world, interest has grown. She counts Japanese, Dutch, and South African women among her pupils; she also hosts a weekly show devoted to the dance on an Egyptian subscription cable channel.
A beginner must start out simply. The first thing I learn is that my shimmy is coming from the wrong place.
"It’s with the knees, not with the hips," Liza says, demonstrating how a quick pulling back of the right knee sends her right hip bone into a movement of punctuation.
She stands behind me and makes a tuk-tuk noise to remind me to move my knees, not my hips. She ties a scarf festooned with coins around my hips, the jingling sound tracking my steps. She traces the moves for me, adding to my dance vocabulary — the figure eight, the shoulder shimmy, the hip drop. An hour later, I’m still trying to roll my hips in a figure eight when my lower back adds its own accent move. Ping! I can feel the muscles snapping, a familiar twinge that has invaded my workouts before, and with that my lesson is over.
I wonder how Liza has managed these moves for so long. She gives her age as 40 and says, "As I grow older, the dance in me gets better and better. I feel like I’m in my element."
The Timeless Tourist
A day or so later, the element I’m most worried about is fire, specifically the belching flames that are powering the hot-air balloon carrying a dozen of us over Luxor, what was the site of ancient Thebes.
We are 2,000 feet in the dawn air and climbing. Every now and then, a loud whoosh from the bellows signals the advent of a blast of air so hot that we cower on the floor. But then the wind picks up, our flight straightens out, and we cautiously put our heads back up.
The sun is a yellow disc rising in a red and pink sky, and we float over a vista that I imagine looks much as it must have millennia ago. The land closest to the Nile is checkered green and yellow, dotted with clusters of palm trees. Boys chase sheep and goats across a field.
And then, with a breathtaking abruptness, the desert reclaims its hold on the landscape, the green suddenly replaced by ocher; another kind of beauty emerges: fissures and patterns etched in the sand by the wind. In the distance rise the broad beige strokes of the Theban mountains. We pass over a portion of the ruins of the Ramesseum, the temple erected by Ramses II. It is this colossus that inspired the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write "Ozymandias," his sonnet to power long forgotten.
Shelley wasn’t the only 19th-century notable to follow the same itinerary I have. Mark Twain, Florence Nightingale, and Gustave Flaubert were among the travelers who flocked to see the wonders that were being unearthed in Egypt in their time. It’s easy to seamlessly slip into a daydream in which I am one of their troupe. Like many of those people, I have now climbed down into the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, crisscrossed the souks of Cairo and Aswan, and walked through the temples of Luxor and Karnak. And like them, I find myself increasingly inured to the constant demands for baksheesh, the small tip for any service, and the hectoring cries of men desperate to sell the scarves, the scarabs, the papyrus goods in their arms.
Both Nightingale and Twain complained about the never-ceasing crowds of souvenir hawkers. I think of them both when I make my pilgrimage to the Sphinx one morning, struck by the familiarity of the image — who hasn’t seen a picture of the Sphinx? — and the piercing cry of the vendor nearest me, pushing his bottles of soft drinks: "Ice! Ice! Ice! Cold Fanta! Cold Fanta!"
It is like standing in front of the Mona Lisa and discovering a baseball-game peanut seller at your elbow. But nothing, really, can dim the serene beauty of the Sphinx; I feel both recognition and a sense of peace.
"Oh," I say, "there you are."