YOUSSEF NABIL, I Saved My Belly Dancer #XIII (detail), 2015, hand-colored gelatin silver print, from video: 12 min. Courtesy the artist. 

I Saved My Belly Dancer

Youssef Nabil

The Third Line
United Arab Emirates Egypt USA

Youssef Nabil’s recent film I Saved My Belly Dancer (2015) might be described as a “spaghetti Eastern.” The film, which also lends its name to Nabil’s latest solo at Dubai’s The Third Line, is an Egyptian golden age-meets-cowboy rodeo that is pastel-saturated in Nabil’s characteristic style. The New York-based artist is best known for his hand-colored gelatin prints of boldface names—Tracey Emin, Marina Abramović, Catherine Deneuve and Alicia Keys included among them. Here, his preoccupation with celebrity extends to the figure of the belly dancer, the erstwhile grand dames of midcentury Egyptian cinema. Once highly respected, shifting mores have resulted in belly-dancing being disparaged as vulgar, vernacular and low-brow in recent times. The art form is anemic and in danger of dying out. Nabil’s film is a response to such phenomena, with a narrative that features Hollywood actress Salma Hayek as the last belly dancer left in the world.

YOUSSEF NABILI Saved My Belly Dancer #XXIV, 2015, hand-colored gelatin silver print, from video: 12 min. Courtesy the artist. 

At The Third Line, outside a cinema room where Nabil’s film plays on loop, hand-colored stills and studio photographs—showing couples from various segments of 1950s society posing with a belly dancer—are sparely hung in a gargantuan, aggressively lit gallery. Providing ballast on a mezzanine-floored project space is a selection of older portraits of Cairene belly dancers, whom Nabil has been photographing since the 1990s. Despite their spatial discontinuity, these works appear to be there to allay concerns about the casting of the Mexican-American Hayek as the last belly dancer. However, such concerns, along with the authenticity of her dancing, appear insignificant in light of the sheer exuberant wattage Hayek brings to the screen.

The film picks up where Nabil’s earlier film You Never Left (2010), which ended with the protagonist sailing out into the unknown, left off. In I Saved My Belly Dancer the same man weeps in repose on a beach, as a pantheon of Egyptian figures materialize by the water’s edge. They have been summoned forth from the past and amassed as if to witness their own funeral. Soldiers at either end hold the distinctive flag of Farouk’s Kingdom of Egypt. As the film crossfades into a scene wherein all the people are now dead, bodies artfully arranged in rigor mortis, Hayek’s character wipes away tears from the protagonist’s face and begins to dance.

She is dressed in diaphanous red and gold, and her movements, although intended to titillate, remain oddly bloodless. Eyes closed, Hayek seems to dance much more for herself and for her own pleasure than for the protagonist, and this is perhaps why her character is granted little agency. Instead, she exists entirely as a prop. She is there to dance for the man, to caress, console and hold him in an extended pièta and, ultimately, to be saved by him. As the sun sets, he dons a pair of holstered guns, a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat, and they ride off into the sunset on a white horse. They’re now among the reddish monoliths of Monument Valley, a cinematic landscape inextricably associated with the cowboy-Western genre. To save the belly dancer the man has extricated her from Egypt and brought her with him to America, where he now lives.

YOUSSEF NABILI Saved My Belly Dancer #XIII, 2015, hand-colored gelatin silver print, from video: 12 min. Courtesy the artist. 

The film has no dialogue, with a score that lurches towards mawkishness. Nostalgia not so much perfumes as chloroforms the show. In particular, the show bespeaks a broader current in Egypt that yearns for a kinder, more stable, more glamorous—more Western—past of hot-rolled hair, bowties, bikinis and other visual trappings of freedom. That this kind of old lifestyle had been limited to the country’s elite is another matter.

In writing about the diasporic gaze, cultural academic Vijay Mishra writes, “The question of a non-Western diasporic gaze has implicit in it a prior, hegemonic, imperial gaze, or some version of it.” Alongside the fetishization implicit in the male gaze, the diasporic gaze is one that asserts possession even as it is meant to preserve its subjects. Viewed through this diasporic gaze, Hayek’s character is reframed not as “the” or “a” belly dancer, but “my” belly dancer. And indeed such dynamics, as seen particularly in the “expat-savior” narrative that rescues Hayek’s “last belly dancer” and whisks her safely to the protagonist’s American home, are unavoidable in Nabil’s film. Yet for those who have left their native country, whether by choice or force, Nabil’s film also posits the existence of a point of return. No matter how volatile the present might be, memories of this past will always be there for you.

YOUSSEF NABILI Saved My Belly Dancer #XXV, 2015, hand-colored gelatin silver print, from video: 12 min. Courtesy the artist. 

“I Saved My Belly Dancer” is on view at The Third Line, Dubai, until March 5, 2016.