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4. Sa‘ida Sultan/Danna International

Transgender Pop and the Polysemiotics of Sex, Nation, and Ethnicity on the Israeli-Egyptian Border

Ted Swedenburg

Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

In fall 1994, when I was teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC), one of my Egyptian graduate students handed me a music cassette that she was sure I would want to hear given that, as she explained, it was all the underground rage among Cairene youths. The tape contained two numbers, sung in English, Arabic, and (I thought) Hebrew, by an Israeli artist whose name my student did not know. It was poorly recorded and the lyrics were hard to make out, so I filed it away after listening to it a few times. Over the next months I occasionally heard the two songs from that tape blaring from cars and a cassette player at the AUC snack bar, and I eventually learned, through conversations and various lurid articles in the opposition press here and there, that the singer’s name was Danna International; she was also known in Egypt as Sa‘ida Sultan; she was Mizrahi, a Jew of Arab origin; and “she” was a transsexual.[1]

In August 1995 my interest was reignited by the discovery of a sensationalistic exposé—in Arabic—titled A Scandal Whose Name Is Sa‘ida Sultan: Danna the Israeli Sex Artist, penned by Muhammad al-Ghayti and published by a press that was unknown to any of my friends.[2] The book’s cover features a photo of the American pop star Madonna bending toward the camera in a metallic gold bustier and black net stockings, her cleavage and eyes blacked out, in the style of local scandal magazines. The upper left-hand corner announces “For Adults Only”; the back cover informs us that although the Zionists failed in their efforts to conquer Egypt politically, they have now succeeded, through the agency of Danna International’s sexuality, in invading Egypt’s bedrooms. The book elaborates on many of the issues that both the Egyptian opposition and public-sector media started to raise about Danna/Sa‘ida and her illicit cassette (known locally as Busni ya Susu, or Kiss Me Susu) in December 1994.[3] We find out that Danna International’s given name is Yaron Cohen, that he was born to a Yemeni family that migrated to Israel after 1948, and that, while growing up, he learned traditional Arabic songs of Yemen and the Arabian Gulf from his mother (al-Ghayti 1995b, 18–20).[4] As a teenager, Yaron frequented the “perverts’ clubs” (nawadi al-shawadhdh) of Tel Aviv, where his deviant tendencies were affirmed and developed. Eventually Yaron underwent hormone treatments and a sex-change operation and launched a singing career under the stage name Danna International, with the encouragement of the prominent Israeli-Yemeni singer Ofra Haza and devoted fans in the “perverts’ clubs” of Tel Aviv (F, 21–22, 32–33, 35).[5] Although she aroused controversy among extremist rabbis who considered her sex change contrary to Jewish law, Danna nonetheless enjoyed the backing of the Israeli leadership. It was due to the support of Zionist power brokers, in fact, that her music was able to “penetrate” Egypt via the Sinai peninsula and “master” the ears of twenty million youths (F, 12–13).

Al-Ghayti goes on to inform us that Danna’s inspirations in the world of show business are Elvis, James Dean, Michael Jackson, and, especially, Madonna, all of whom are major stars in Egypt.[6] He describes all of these international icons of popular culture as “deviants” (F, 38) and proceeds to rehearse some of their perverted adventures. We discover that Elvis, late in his career, spent hours indulging in “disgusting” sex at an S&M club, where he died; that James Dean used to bugger young black men in his dressing room; that the “disfigured black pig” Michael Jackson favors the company of children;[7] and that the biggest “deviant” of them all, Madonna, is a prominent supporter of civil rights for “perverts” (F, 40). Moreover, we learn that, according to her gynecologist, Madonna is not a 100 percent biological woman, because she is unable to bear children. “Can you imagine,” the author asks, “Madonna, the global symbol of the naked woman, is not a complete female?” (F, 44).[8] We are informed as well that both Michael Jackson and Madonna are closely tied to and enjoy the strong backing of the Zionist lobby in the United States (F, 42, 46–47). Moving beyond vilification by association, al-Ghayti proceeds to illustrate Danna’s depravity through an examination of her lyrics, sung in what he describes as a “devilish blend” of Arabic (in various regional dialects), English, and Hebrew (F, 58). The themes of her songs, he claims, are all sexual adventures, and their words are so scandalous that on occasion he feels compelled to leave blank spaces and simply describe what they mean. One of Danna’s songs is an “unambiguous call for prostitution and immorality”; another features a sordid encounter bewee a woman and a dog; others are composed chiefly of “scandalous [read: orgasmic] groans” (F, 62). The final number on the cassette, sung in Hebrew and English, is said to exemplify how Danna’s shameless voice and lyrics constitute a deviation from all morality and tradition as well as an attack on all the monotheistic Semitic religions and their principles and laws (F, 64).

According to al-Ghayti, Danna is merely one element of a larger Zionist cultural torrent that includes other Israeli female pop singers such as Ruthie, Nancy, and Suzanna Ma’ariv who have employed “sexual shouts” to win an Egyptian audience and to “penetrate…like a plague” the circles of innocent Arab youths. Several even used the devious tactic of making “corrupted” Hebrew recordings of tunes by revered neoclassicist Arab singers like Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, and Farid al-Atrash and punctuating them with orgasmic moans (F, 66). It should be emphasized that the latter are nationally revered, canonical figures in Egypt for whom there are no comparable examples in U.S. popular culture. (To get a sense of the cultural capital of such singers in Egypt, imagine that when Frank Sinatra passed away millions of weeping fans showed up at his funeral, that he is a central figure in U.S. nationalist mythology, that his music is constantly played on the radio, that his concerts and movies are endlessly aired on television, that video clips of Sinatra singing in concerts or movies are interspersed as fillers between TV programs on a daily basis, and, finally, that all popular music is measured in relation to Sinatra’s standard of excellence. Then imagine that an artist from a vilified country, say, Iran, began to record “versions” of Sinatra’s songs and that these were embraced by American youths.) Although Danna has in fact “stolen” only from the lesser Egyptian “pop” star Hasan al-Asmar, a figure whom the nationalist intelligentsia consider “vulgar,” according to al-Ghayti, these corruptions of beloved Egyptian classics by Israeli singers manage at once to “penetrate” Arab youths and to destroy the Arabs’ deep-rooted musical heritage (F, 66). This sort of theft and perversion of Arab heritage, we are informed, dates back to the days of Jewish presence in Egypt. The author tells, for instance, of Rachel Qattawi, scion of a poor branch of Egyptian Jewry’s leading family, the Qattawi, known for its wealth and its collaboration with British colonialism. During World War II, Rachel worked as a barmaid at Cairo’s Continental Hotel, where she befriended the great (and canonical) singer Asmahan as well as other Egyptian artists and mastered Asmahan’s repertoire, all the while working undercover for Jewish and British intelligence.[9] When she emigrated to Israel, Rachel Qattawi “stole” Asmahan’s legacy (Asmahan died in 1944), and she recorded an album of Asmahan’s songs in 1967 (F, 92–94).[10]

Ultimately, for al-Ghayti, the entire Danna phenomenon boils down to a Masonic-Jewish conspiracy. Danna, who is accused of being a Freemason, advocates the individual’s right to happiness and sensual delight, both of these being prototypical Masonic principles, invented by Zionist Jews, whose purpose was to destroy society (F, 50–52). This philosophy accords, as al-Ghayti argues with reference to such noted authorities as Wagner and Hitler, with the nature of the Jews, a parasitic and rootless people whose eternal aim is to destroy civilization (F, 106, 115–16). Therefore, Danna’s influence must be resisted vigorously in order to defend and protect Egypt’s young people from her poison. Although by the time we reach his conclusion al-Ghayti’s argument has come to resemble the rantings of a neo-Nazi rather than cultural criticism, with the trope of the Jewish-Masonic conspiracy stemming from the notorious Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion and Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda, the reader should be aware that the notion of a Masonic-Zionist plot is commonplace in Egypt, particularly in Islamist versions but also in Marxist and nationalist variants.[11] Several books have been published on the theme and can be purchased in “respectable” bookstores; Freemasonry, moreover, is banned in much of the Middle East.

Israeli “Penetration”

Running throughout al-Ghayti’s arguments, in fact, are a number of ideological threads that are frequently articulated by members of Egypt’s nationalist intelligentsia. One theme is the danger posed by Israel. Although the Egyptian government signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1977, most of the intelligentsia has vigorously opposed normalization (tatbi‘) of Israeli-Egyptian relations. As Richard Jacquemond (1997) observes, “The only single issue capable of bringing together Islamists, liberals, Nasserists and Marxists is the rejection of ‘cultural normalisation’ with Israel. That is also the only terrain on which the young literary and artistic avant-garde—otherwise hostile to all ideologies—is willing to express an explicit political engagement.” Egyptian universities, for instance, continue to boycott Israeli scholars, and although Israel established an academic center in Cairo in the early 1980s, it remains unthinkable for an Israeli scholar to deliver a public lecture at any Egyptian university. Indeed, numerous significant issues continue to animate anti-Israeli feelings and receive extensive coverage in the press.[12] However, although there is considerable apprehension regarding Israel’s policies and its interest in dominating Egypt, there is not much coverage of Israel’s considerable economic activities in Egypt. It is hardly known, for instance, that Israeli investors are leasing land and growing commercial agricultural produce in the Egyptian Delta, and it may well be that the government tries to prevent such activities from being publicized. Instead, anxieties about Israel’s aims and power are displaced onto the linked domains of culture and morality, such that the press is constantly churning out inflammatory stories, many of them delusionary, about Israel’s efforts to conquer Egypt and the Arab world culturally and to corrupt their morals.[13]

Typical of such incendiary sensationalism is the report that appeared in the Nasserite newspaper al-‘Arabi in February 1996 discussing an Israeli cigarette sold within the Palestine National Authority and said to be about to appear on the Egyptian market (“Waqaha Isra’iliyya”).[14] The article, which reproduces the emblem on the cigarette package depicting two men driving a chariot, tells us that the men are wearing distinctive American hats, that they are riding in an Egyptian chariot drawn by Arabian horses, and that one holds a whip whose lash hangs so as to form the Arabic word Misr (Egypt). In sum, Uncle Sam is deploying an Egyptian whip to control the Arabs, and the entire scenario is devised by the Israelis. One encounters the same Israeli arrogance and vision, the piece concludes, in the statements of (then) Israeli foreign minister Ehud Barak and in the trademark on an Israeli cigarette package. Although the notice is bizarre and its interpretation of the emblem fanciful, it is symptomatic of deep-seated Egyptian fears (especially as articulated by many in the national intelligentsia) about Israeli official attitudes, policies, and designs. These must be kept in mind to understand both the appeal of and the resistance to Danna International in Egypt.

In a similar vein, al-Ghayti elaborates quite obsessively on another aspect of Israeli aggression: the sexual threat it poses to the Egyptian bedroom. One of the means he uses to convey this “danger” is to misrepresent the sexiness of Danna’s lyrics both through wild exaggeration and strategic mistranslation. The song that al-Ghayti calls an “unambiguous call for prostitution and immorality,” for instance, is in fact a wedding song, sung from the position of the bride. This is made obvious not only by the lyrics—in Arabic Danna sings, “Ana al-‘arusa” (I’m the bride), and in English, “Going to a honeymoon”—but also by the music (which features the ululations typical of Arab wedding celebrations) and by the very name of the song, which—as I learned once I obtained the CD from Israel—is “‘Arusa” (Bride). When Danna sings “Ana al-‘arusa,” al-Ghayti transcribes this as “Ana al-talmiza” (I’m the student), implying that the singer is asking for lessons in sex. When Danna sings “giving me money” in English, referring to the money gifts traditionally offered at Arab wedding ceremonies, al-Ghayti translates this as “wa-taddini al-falus” (you give me money), implying prostitution, or sexual services in return for money. If the song “‘Arusa” is in any way “deviant,” it is because the singer is not “really” a woman, a fact that al-Ghayti seems either to overlook or to ignore. Al-Ghayti’s notion that another song concerns an encounter between a woman and a dog is the product of the fertile imagination of the antipornographer. As for the number that is supposed to represent an attack on all Semitic religions, it is simply a remake of Queen’s inoffensively campy “The Show Must Go On”: the English lyrics Danna sings are “Show must go on / Inside my heart is breaking / My makeup may be flaking / But my smile still stays on.” All this is not to say that Danna’s tape is devoid of sexiness (al-Ghayti is correct to interpret Danna’s screams as orgasmic, but these are much less ubiquitous than he claims) but to underscore the symptomatically hysterical and displaced character of al-Ghayti’s attack.

Curiously, al-Ghayti’s account of the classical homophobic topos of sexual penetration focuses on the aggressive and wanton Western-Israeli female who seduces the innocent young Egyptian male. The theme of the Western male who sexually threatens the Egyptian woman (or man) is mostly absent, in fact, from Egypt’s journalistic, filmic, or literary discourse.[15] But the theme of the Egyptian man victimized by a predatory Western woman is to be found in works of modern Egyptian fiction dating back at least to the 1940s as well as to the first Egyptian film (Layla, 1927).[16] Today’s moral-sexual panic about the voracious and corrupting Western (and now, Israeli) woman, however, is much more virulent and widespread than in the past. AIDS, for instance, is widely represented by Egyptian agencies of public meaning as a disease that Egyptians contract when male nationals are ensnared by loose Western women. A 1992 film called al-Hubb fi Taba (Love in Taba), which, despite its artistic wretchedness, airs frequently on state television, is typical of this official story. It recounts the tale of three naive Egyptian youths who are willingly seduced and entrapped by three young libertine Western women while on holiday in Taba, a small resort in the Sinai peninsula that sits right on the border with Israel. When the foreign women depart for home, each leaves a note informing her lover that he is now infected with AIDS. It is significant that these events occur at Taba, for the Egyptian media frequently depicts the Sinai peninsula as a wild and dangerous frontier zone through which Israeli corruption enters the Nile Valley, and al-Ghayti explicitly names it as the corridor through which Danna’s cassettes have “penetrated.”[17] Meanwhile, the opposition press and word of mouth assert that AIDS is being broadcast in Egypt by prostitutes dispatched there for that purpose by the Israeli government (see “Isra’il tuharib” 1995; AbuKhalil 1993, 34).[18] It is popularly believed in Egypt that if a man has sex with a “foreign,” that is, Western, woman, he is in danger of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and so needs to wear a condom. A public service announcement shown frequently on state television manages simultaneously to provide accurate information about HIV transmission and to suggest, through its visual imagery, that the main danger of infection occurs when Egyptian males go abroad and are stalked by prostitutes. The iconographic image is reinforced by an explicit statement that AIDS is a “foreign” phenomenon, that the Egyptian traveler should beware, and that “abroad they use such things as condoms and other methods to help prevent AIDS, but here there is no fear of such things because the principles which our youths believe in protect them from such evil.” The spot concludes with a verse from the Qur’an.[19]

The announcement’s anxious tone, however, undercuts the confident assertions about Egyptian youths and their deep-seated moral principles. And for al-Ghayti, the “evil” does not just lie in foreign lands or frontier regions but menaces the very heart of the nation. The focal point of the “danger,” however, is strictly heterosexual cross-cultural encounters. Al-Ghayti does not suggest that “perverts” (homosexuals or transsexuals) constitute the true threat to Egypt, for he assumes that such people simply do not exist there.[20] What Danna’s transsexuality and deviance serve to underscore instead is simply the repulsive character of her sexual success in Egypt. In this regard the transgendered Danna is like her hero the international sex symbol Madonna, who is also both very popular and very controversial in Egypt and, although more or less legal,[21] equally loathsome—not least, as al-Ghayti notes, because Madonna herself is not “really” biologically female. Transsexuality and queerness serve here to underscore the fact that the Western/Israeli sexual assault is not merely corrupting but that its very foundations are perverse and deviant. The challenge posed by Western mass culture, as exemplified by Elvis, Michael Jackson, James Dean, Madonna, and Danna, is essentially moral and sexual.

Youth as “Problem”

If al-Ghayti’s diatribe can be read as a catalog of interlinked themes that run through the discourse of Egypt’s nationalist intelligentsia concerning the threatening and corrupting influences posed by Israel, Westernization, sexuality, and Western mass culture, another important and related motif in this nationalist discourse concerns precisely who is at risk. Those said to be most threatened by these dangers are youths, the shabab, and particularly the young men. On August 21, 1995, Ruz al-Yusuf, Egypt’s leading weekly magazine, a sensationalist but well-regarded nationalist public-sector vehicle, published an exposé about advertisements that had appeared in Egyptian magazines, promoting telephone numbers that promised to connect callers with “new friends.” It turned out that such calls were quite expensive and that they connected the consumer to sex professionals in Israel (“Isra’il tuharib” 1995). Under the banner “Normalization by Sex with Israel” the issue’s seductive cover photo of Tina Turner wearing a miniskirt and exposing considerable cleavage was intended to convey the dangers of “phone sex.” In the predictably melodramatic account of the arrival of Israeli phone sex, we learn that once the peace treaty was signed with Egypt in 1978, Israeli intelligence agencies turned away from Egypt’s military secrets and began to study Egypt’s social ills with the aim of exploiting them. What they discovered is that Egyptian youths are afflicted by sexual problems that are traceable to the country’s economic difficulties and make it difficult for them to marry and satisfy their sexual needs. Phone sex along with AIDS, counterfeit money, and heroin are all Israeli exports designed to take advantage of Egyptian youths’ difficulties (“Isra’il tuharib” 1995, 21).

Despite its propagandistic exaggerations, the Ruz al-Yusuf article does nevertheless point to some of the concrete causes of the “youth crisis.” Youths in Egypt do indeed face a crisis of opportunity, which particularly affects those from the lower and lower-middle classes who manage to get university degrees. An advanced degree is supposed to guarantee a government job, but today the waiting period for actually getting such a position is about ten years. In any case, the pay for such sought-after jobs averages a pitiful £E 100 (U.S.$30) per month, and legions of state employees must moonlight to make ends meet. Opportunities for work in the private sector, especially “respectable” jobs that educated youths will accept, are also limited.[22] Such economic obstacles in turn make getting married a laborious and much-delayed process. Marriage, however, is a requirement for any young person who wishes to become a social adult, to achieve independence within a nuclear family, to move out of his or her parental home, and to gain sexual access.[23] Because marriage requires considerable outlays of money and families of prospective brides demand the whole package (i.e., a furnished apartment, etc.) to ensure that their daughters are well settled, unless a youth comes from a wealthy family, he will frequently not marry until he reaches his early thirties. Many young men migrate to work in the Gulf countries and toil there for as long as five to ten years to save up enough money for marriage. The Central Agency for Statistics estimates that four million Egyptians have “missed the train of marriage” because they are well into their thirties, beyond the accepted marrying age; and some have calculated that the number of marriages registered in the country has declined by nearly 1 percent (Alatraqchi 1996, 21), an astonishing fact for a country with such a young population. As a result, the social category “youth” in Egypt includes large numbers of men (and some women) in their late twenties and early thirties. It is widely recognized that the crisis afflicting them is in part sexual, because sexual outlets outside of marriage are limited, proscribed, and, usually, prohibitively expensive and because “dating” is generally unacceptable unless one is already engaged.[24] Such factors contribute to making “sex” a major topic of discussion and controversy in Egypt today.[25]

Young people are also considered a “problem” in the domain of culture. Nationalist, especially oppositional, intellectuals commonly assert that youths are the victims of a general moral decline in Egypt that is the by-product of infitah, the economic liberalization launched in the 1970s by the late President Anwar al-Sadat, and the consequent advance of materialism and decline of traditional values.[26] The infitah is also regarded as indelibly linked to normalization with Israel and to the consequent Zionist penetration. Youths are seen as especially susceptible to the corruptions of both Western mass culture and “vulgar” indigenous culture (so called because it is regarded as rooted in “low” cultural values), both of which are said to be outcomes of the infitah and the attendant rise of a boorish and unsophisticated nouveau riche and the decline of noble cultural values. “Vulgar” or “fallen” Egyptian culture fails to meet the nationalist cultural ideal of a synthesis of the high, neoclassicist culture (which, in addition to elite Arab traditions, can also include elements of refined Western culture, such as ballet or Beethoven) and the best of folk cultural values (represented by the stereotypical “authentic Egyptian,” the son of the people, or ibn al-balad). With regard to music, the canonical figures who serve to epitomize ideal national values and to represent the musical high points of Egyptian culture’s “golden age” include the late Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab.[27] Cheap Egyptian culture is both “low” (because there is no synthesis with “elevated” culture) and, frequently, contaminated by “cheap” Western mass culture. In their ideological combat against the tidal waves of base culture, the nationalist intelligentsia’s cultural mandarins therefore frequently condemn contemporary musicians who do not conform to canonical values, asserting that they represent the “fall” of Egyptian music from its glory days and describing them as jil al-ghina’ al-habit (the generation of the vulgar song) (al-Najmi 1995). The frequent press attacks on “debased culture” and condemnations of “vulgar” musicians who threaten the authenticity of the Arabic song are responses to the fact that, although many Egyptian youths will publicly assert their admiration for Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Halim, they primarily listen to contemporary, so-called vulgar, Egyptian pop music. Thus the makers of public meaning invoke the shining example of a figure like Umm Kulthum to articulate a critique of the effects of privatization, structural adjustment, and normalization with Israel, and at the same time to put forward a blanket condemnation of contemporary youth culture, which can never equal but can only, at best, imitate past glories. As a result, many of the most popular musicians are consigned to the margins of public space, are never aired on television or radio, and are sometimes forced to resort to underground and illegal releases (see Khalifa 1995, 9; Armbrust 1996) that are marketed in the same cassette kiosks that deal in Danna’s contraband cassettes.[28] This marginalization of a significant component of contemporary musical life in Egypt is yet another symptom of the general absence of autonomous public spaces (whether youth clubs, media, or dance halls) where young people might publicly articulate their desires or demands. The popularity of “vulgar” music, the object of so much thundering from nationalist intellectuals straining to shore up neoclassicist cultural values, can in turn be understood as a sign of a general disaffection on the part of Egyptian youths, of their skepticism concerning the economic and social possibilities awaiting them, and of their lack of interest in the great modernist projects of nationalism and development that were hegemonic until the mid-1970s.[29]

Many members of the nationalist intelligentsia, therefore, are prone to raise the alarm against Egypt’s social fragmentation and the alienation of youths from the once-revered projects of national liberation and development and to cast themselves as youths’ savior. Although intellectuals condemn young people for their cultural predilections, they are occasionally empathetic and assert that young people cannot really be blamed for their cynicism, as the government and the economy offer them so little (see Wahba 1995). Even such sympathetic analyses, however, deny Egyptian youths any agency and depict them as mere victims of government dereliction or dupes of foreign plots. Young people’s own cultural concerns have no role to play in this rescue operation, for it is the national tradition and culture, as understood and articulated by the intelligentsia, that is to be their salvation.

Arab Jews

The final link between al-Ghayti and nationalist discourse has to do with the place of Arab Jews, whether in the Arab countries or inside Israel. In al-Ghayti’s text, as in most nationalist discourse, this subject is essentially an absence. Although al-Ghayti notes Danna International’s Yemeni origins, he pays minimal attention to the question of the Mizrahim in Israel and basically assumes that Arabs and Jews are diametrically opposed categories. He does mention in passing that Jews of Arab background occupy the lower rungs of Israeli society and that singer Ofra Haza faced many difficulties because of her Yemeni origins, but on the whole he manages to depict Israeli-Jewish society as homogeneous and monolithic. The author assumes that Danna sings in Arabic simply because her “target” is Arab youths outside Israel and so never takes account of other possible audiences such as the roughly 16 percent of Israel’s five million citizens who are Palestinian Arabs, the 54 percent of the population who are of non-European and mostly Arabic-speaking origin like Danna herself, or the many Israeli Ashkenazis (Jews of European origin) who are familiar with Arabic and Arabic culture.

Al-Ghayti also treats the Egyptian Jews “within” as national traitors, collaborators with British colonialism, and agents of Zionism. He ignores the rich and varied nature of this now all-but-vanished community, which included rich and poor, communists and Zionists, and a majority of apolitical non-Zionists. Out of a population of 75,000 to 80,000, in fact, only about 14,000 emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1951 after the new Jewish state was created (see Krämer 1989). It was only in the wake of the June 1967 war that this community was finally decimated, but even then only about one-third to one-half of Egyptian Jews emigrated to Israel.[30] (A recent study estimates that only about 70 Egyptian Jews remain in Egypt [“Egypt’s Jewish Community” 1998].) Nor does al-Ghayti discuss any of Egypt’s major cultural figures who were Jewish, such as the singer-actress Layla Murad, a still-revered icon of Egyptian film and music from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, who was raised as a Jew and converted to Islam in 1946 when she married the well-known actor Anwar Wajdi.[31] Also conveniently absent from al-Ghayti’s account is any mention of other well-known Jewish cultural figures such as Layla Murad’s famous musician father, Zaki Murad; the pioneering cinema director and producer Togo Mizrahi (responsible for some of the early landmarks of Egyptian film); the musician Da’ud Husni, remembered as one of the great artists who, along with Sayyid Darwish, revitalized Egyptian music in the early part of the century and who was responsible for Egypt’s first full-length opera, Cleopatra’s Night, in 1919.[32] In al-Ghayti’s account, the Jews in Egypt (not of Egypt), as represented by Rachel Qattawi, are simply thieves of Arab culture and Zionist undercover agents.

Danna’s Egyptian Fans

Just who was actually listening to Danna in Egypt in 1994–96? How can one begin to characterize the massive and heterogeneous social category “youth” whom nationalist intellectuals like al-Ghayti want to “protect” from the dangers of Danna International? The difficulty of such a task is compounded by the fact that, because there is no public space for Egypt’s young people to articulate their perceptions of “vulgar” pop music, there exists no real vocabulary in which to voice favorable views about controversial artifacts of pop culture.[33] There are no magazines or broadcasts that represent alternative views of or by Egyptian youths; youth- and pop culture–oriented magazines tend to be either of the gossip variety or public-sector vehicles through which “responsible” adults address young people. Very little of real concern to young people percolates up the cultural hierarchy from the bottom. Moreover, open discussion is severely constrained by official condemnations that create a sense that listening to Danna signifies immorality, an absence of patriotism, and a lack of respectability. Many thus simply repeat what the press says about Danna: asked if he had ever heard of Danna International, a taxi driver bringing a friend into town from the Cairo airport replied, “You mean the singer that brings AIDS from Israel?”

Although Danna’s tape was sold strictly on the black market and for high prices (four to eight times that of a regular prerecorded cassette), she appeared to enjoy an extensive audience of young people, including students, from among the Westernized upper and upper-middle classes as well as the lower-middle and working classes.[34] One of Danna’s chief appeals was that she was “forbidden,” both as a “sex” artist and as an Israeli, and the press uproar simply served to drive up both the price and the desirability of her cassette.[35] High-priced versions of the cassette were sold under the counter in many of the numerous Cairo kiosks that specialize in prerecorded music tapes as well as contraband cassettes by “vulgar” Egyptian pop singers. In addition, enterprising kids made lesser-quality versions that they hawked in the streets for lower prices, sometimes disguising them, to avoid police harassment, as Qur’anic recitation cassettes. (Police raids on cassette shops increased after it was learned that Danna’s tape had appeared on the market.) Although the buzz on the streets was that Busni ya Susu was a “sex” tape, the fact that Danna is a transsexual was less well known and did not appear to be part of Danna’s attraction or to matter much to consumers. Most of the Egyptian audience is familiar with the Western pop musical sources—such as Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, Donna Summer, Queen, and the Gypsy Kings—that Danna draws on and does “versions” of, as these are international pop stars known and consumed both in Israel and in Egypt. Danna’s practice of blending Western dance beats and textures with Oriental vocalisms and modes is equally familiar in Egypt and in fact is characteristic of a great deal of contemporary Egyptian pop music (as discussed below).[36] But many in this audience did not understand Danna’s English lyrics.

My chief sources regarding Danna’s reception in Egypt were Westernized upper-middle-class students at AUC who were quite familiar with the Egyptian and Western pop musical traditions Danna draws on, patronized the nightclubs where Danna’s singles were being played (going to discos is almost exclusively an upper- and upper-middle-class practice), and—unlike most of Danna’s audience—were fluent in English. These students dismissed the press attacks on Danna, saying that the nationalist opposition tends to describe everything as Israeli plots. But, reflecting the absence of public spaces for youths to assert positive views about sexuality and gender relations, they were rather defensive about claims that Busni ya Susu was a “sex tape”—it’s not really “bad,” at least most of the songs aren’t, they would say. Their response also resembled the posture of youths interviewed in an exposé published in the public-sector magazine al-Shabab (Youth) about the popularity of Western “sex” pop (Danna, Madonna) and “satanic” (heavy metal) music. Most young people joined the chorus of condemnation; the few who defended their interest in such music claimed that they did not really pay attention to the lyrics and that it was ludicrous to suppose that merely listening to “satanic” rock would turn them into worshipers of Satan (Rahim 1995).


My analysis assumes a listener who understands English, but someone with even a smidgen of English knowledge would “get” some of the lyrics and suggestions. Four of the nine songs on Danna’s contraband cassette are sung mostly in Arabic, usually mixed with some English. “My Name Is Not Sa‘ida” is a stunning remake of Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan”;[37] “Samarmar” is a version of a song originally done by the Egyptian pop artist Hasan al-Asmar; and “‘Arusa” is the “wedding” song discussed above. By far the most popular of the four was “Susu ya Susu” (Susu Oh Susu), a favorite in the dance clubs of Cairo and Sharm al-Shaykh as well as the street during 1995. As the song’s Israeli title, “Danna International,” was unknown in Egypt, the hit was known simply as “Susu,” itself a pet name, a diminutive of Yusuf (Joseph), and a type of nickname employed mainly by the older, educated generation. An Egyptian friend of lower-class background insisted that “Susu” could not be a nickname for a male, but my AUC students said it could be a term of endearment for a man, one who was somewhat “fafi” (effeminate). A closer look at “Susu” will serve to suggest some of the pleasures Danna might offer a young Egyptian consumer.

“Susu ya Susu” opens with a male vocal chorus chanting a phrase with no apparent meaning, “Wa abiba ay wa abiba bomba bum baba.” An Arab drumbeat from a tabla quickly backs up the chanting, which is then joined by a (Western) “house” bass dance beat until finally a “pure” house rhythm together with electronic keyboards override the “Oriental” rhythms, and the Arabic name Susu is chanted above the house beat. The entire song modulates between Arabic, house, and Arabic-house blended rhythms, modes, and textures.[38] The number is equally heterodox from the linguistic angle, constantly shifting between and combining English and Arabic, and occasionally using Mediterranean European languages—but contrary to al-Ghayti’s claims, not Hebrew. Many phrases combine two or more languages, some are nonsensical (but fit the rhythm), some are articulated in such heavily accented English that I did not understand them until I procured the CD from Israel and read the lyric sheet,[39] and many words are ambiguous. In addition, there is considerable bilingual punning.[40]

The opening verse (to house backing) contains the following phrases (in Arabic and English):

Khudni lil Monaco [Take me to Monaco]
Khudni lil Mexico [Take me to Mexico]
Jubli bi taxi [Bring me in a taxi]
I’m feelin’ sexy
Danna International.
The subsequent verse goes
Khudni lil Baree [Take me to Paris]
Kiss me, mon cheri
Fih ‘andi zumzum [I have a zumzum]
Come see my zumzum
Danna International.
Although the word zumzum has no meaning in any of the relevant languages, one guesses from the context what the singer is inviting the addressee to “come see.” The third verse also mixes English and Arabic:
Inta al-milyunayr [You (masculine) are the millionaire]
And I have a golden hair [the grammatical error here seems
I’m feelin’ / givin’ bussy [busi]
Come on and busi
This set of phrases is extremely polysemic, for busi (long u and long i) means “kiss” in Egyptian Arabic—hence the origin of the name by which the song, and entire cassette, is known in Egypt, “Busni ya Susu” (Kiss Me Susu), even though the actual line appears nowhere in the song. In addition, busi is the form of command used to address a female, whereas the previous verse used the masculine form of address (inta). Busi also suggests “pussy,” since the “p” sound is pronounced “b” in Arabic, as in Bibsi (Pepsi) Cola. Because the “English” here is not very clear, I thought Danna was singing “I’m feelin’ busi.” According to the lyric sheet accompanying the Israeli CD Danna International (not available in Egypt), she sings, “I’m giving busi.” For the monolingual Arabic listener, the “pussy” reference will probably not be apparent. (Al-Ghayti, for instance, notices none of this lewd cross-linguistic and polysemic punning.)

The next verse goes

Shtaraytu bil duty free [I bought it in duty free]
Shampoo Mal Givenchy
And expensive pantaloni [trousers, in Italian, here pronounced
Compact disc and telefoni[41]
Next, following the Arabic shout, “Ya lahwi!” (Oh disaster), the rhythm shifts, and the rapid beat of a solo tabla backs up Danna as she chants in near-perfect Egyptian Arabic and an enticing, charmingly feminine lilt punctuated by hiccups, a style that is stereotypical of the cute sexy female of Egyptian cinema: “Susu ya Susu” and “Albi ya Susu” (My heart Susu). The next line, interestingly, Egyptian non–English speakers hear as “Gismi ya Susu” (My body Susu) but English speakers hear as “Kiss me.” The phrase therefore sounds “sexier” to the monolingual speaker of Arabic. The rest of the song more or less repeats these moments, but adds “Yalla [Come on] ya Susu,” “Khudni ya Susu” (Embrace me), and “Touch me ya Susu” during the “Susu” sequence.

Sonic Indigenousness

Contrary to al-Ghayti’s polemical claim that the Danna phenomenon is a case of foreign penetration and corruption, I want to argue that we should view Danna’s Arabic songs as an intervention within the local culture. For it is her very indigenousness—operating on a number of levels—that accounts for much of her appeal in Egypt. This is already manifest in the tone of Danna’s singing. Although the grain of the voice is clearly provocative, the seductiveness is not “foreign” but is recognizable on local terms, recalling as it does the prototypical coy, alluring, and usually blond starlet of the Egyptian movie screen. What is simultaneously shocking and appealing is that this coquettish and “forward” female tone of voice is asserted somewhat more publicly and openly by Danna than it is in the cinema. The “dirty” lyrics of Danna’s songs are not foreign to contemporary Egyptian pop either; salaciousness, in fact, is one of the chief charges that cultural mandarins level against Egypt’s so-called vulgar pop singers. At least in Arabic, Danna’s lyrics suggest nothing more audacious than those of ‘Adawiya’s famous and extremely successful number, “Bint al-Sultan,” or Sahar Hamdi’s “Illi shartit ‘aynuh bitghannin,” or other songs by other “unrefined” singers who are massively popular with lower- and middle-class Egyptian youths.[42] Indeed, the “sexiness” of Danna’s lyrics, I suggest, works mainly by implication: along with the crucial role played by the tone of voice, Danna’s pronunciation and her use of multilingual combinations and nonsensical expressions render her meaning vague and open to multiple readings. In this regard “Susu ya Susu” recalls “Louie, Louie,” the famous Kingsmen hit of 1963, which all adolescents at the time “knew” was a dirty song, even though, or perhaps because, its lyrics were virtually indecipherable. “Louie, Louie” too caused a “moral panic” in the United States.[43]

Although elements in the lyrics hint at Danna’s transgendered status—“Susu ya Susu” vacillates between busi [kiss, feminine form] and inta [you, masculine]—as far as I can determine Susu’s possibly “effeminate” character is not a significant issue for fans, or at least not one that is openly voiced. As in much of the Middle East, discussions of homosexuality are quite circumscribed in Egypt, but as a practice it is hardly rare.[44] Nor is it entirely absent from the public arena, as evidenced, for example, by Yusri Nasrallah’s wacky 1994 film, Mercedes, which, directly inspired by the cinematic campiness of Pedro Almodovar, deals frankly and sympathetically (although not centrally) with homosexual characters.[45] Sex-change operations are not unthinkable in Egypt either. In fact, at the time there was an ongoing controversy regarding a man named Sayyid ‘Abdallah who had a sex-change operation in 1988 and applied as Sali (Sally) for admission to al-Azhar Islamic University. In November 1995 the Shaykh al-Azhar, Jad al-Haqq (the country’s leading religious authority), finally issued a fatwa (religious edict) stating that sex-change operations were permissible,[46] thereby regularizing the status of transgendered individuals in Egypt (Rizq 1995b; Middle East Times, December 31, 1995).[47] The sad footnote to the “Sally” case, however, was that after her sex-change operation was ruled permissible, she was denied admission to the women’s section of al-Azhar for having performed as a belly dancer. Just as with Danna, it was Sally’s overt sexuality that was more offensive to the powers that be than her transgendered status. Thus, for Danna’s Egyptian fans in any case, “Susu ya Susu” was principally a heterosexual “sex song” whose “transgressive” scenario is that of a cosmopolitan, Western or Westernized Arab woman who is traveling, feels sexy, has “a golden hair” (the quintessential sign of feminine beauty in Egypt), and makes advances toward Susu in a mixture of Western languages and impeccable Arabic. Although the singer’s forwardness was rather shocking in the local context, it was appreciated by Egyptian youths, and this response no doubt in part reflected changing gender relations and the increasing role of women in Egyptian public life.

In terms of their musical style, Danna’s Arabic numbers combine Western and Eastern rhythms, modes, and textures in a manner that is hardly “foreign” to Egypt, as many of the country’s most interesting pop musicians engage in similarly innovative, syncretic, and hybridizing experiments and in the indigenization of foreign pop styles (see Armbrust 1996, 173–84). Two examples, chosen somewhat at random, of similar attempts to articulate an alternative vision of cultural modernity are the 1995 cassette, Rab musik li-al-shabab faqat (Rap Music—For Young People Only), produced by Ashra ‘Abduh (Al-Sharq Records), and Muhammad Munir’s 1995 hit “al-Layla di” (Tonight), from his cassette Mumkin?! (Is It Possible?!, Digitec Records). Rap Music—For Young People Only garnered negative reviews from the mandarins, who saw it as another example of “vulgar” pop, but as usual young people ignored the literati’s admonitions, and the tape was a hit all over Egypt in 1995, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. The songs on the cassette are not really rap music at all but instead a shameless and delightful blending of Egyptian pop vocalizations and melodies with well-known recent U.S. and U.K. house and dance beats and samples. The melody of one tune, “Sikkat al-salama” (The Road of Peace), for instance, is from the 1971 song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” later used in a well-known Coca-Cola advertisement. Muhammad Munir is an Egyptian pop singer with a “respectable” reputation, whose music videos and concerts are routinely broadcast on television, and whose lyrics are often penned by well-known national poets. Munir has been syncretizing Western and Eastern music for years and has recorded with the German rock bands Embryo and Logic Animal. His hit, “al-Layla di,” fetures funk beats, electronic keyboards and electric guitars, “Oriental” rhythms from a drum machine and a tabla, and an Oriental flute. The song’s instrumental “hook” is played in a Western scale, while Munir sings the vocals in an Oriental mode. Because Munir has a reputation as a serious artist and because this song’s lyrics are penned by one of Egypt’s premier “folk” poets, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-‘Abnudi, this sort of musical syncretism is considered acceptable by the cultural establishment. Such hybridizing of Eastern and Western musics, which works through the “indigenization” of Western pop styles, is entirely typical of much popular music, whether it is considered “respectable” or “vulgar,” heard throughout the Arab world. Stylistically, therefore, Danna’s music is far from foreign but rather, like much contemporary Egyptian pop, falls into the category of what mainstream nationalist intellectuals label “vulgar” (habit) or “cheap” music. It combines lower-class or “popular” Egyptian and Arab musical traditions with Western pop motifs, without concern for neoclassicist conventions of synthesizing the “best” in high and low culture (see Armbrust 1996, 181–82). Indeed, some of Danna’s tunes function in such an acoustically indigenous manner that they have even been employed in an advertisement for an Egyptian shampoo called Luna 2![48]

Just as issues of homosexuality do not seem to be a significant factor in the reception of Danna by Egyptian youths, the same can be said about another striking characteristic of her work and her cultural identity—her Arab-Jewishness. Danna is by no means the first and only Israeli Mizrahi artist to enjoy underground success in Egypt. An album recorded in 1984 by Ofra Haza entitled Yemenite Songs—later released in the United States to critical acclaim under the title 50 Gates of Wisdom (Shanachie Records, 1987)—circulated widely in Egypt on contraband cassette in the late 1980s. Ofra Haza first established her reputation in Israel singing mainstream pop, and it was only after she was thoroughly confirmed as a respectable artist there that it was safe for her to return to her Mizrahi roots and record this set of traditional Arab-Jewish Yemeni music. Because the Ofra Haza cassette was understood in Egypt as “folk” music rather than “cheap” or “vulgar,” and because it had no sexual overtones,[49] its underground circulation in Egypt did not provoke the controversies that Danna’s cassette has ignited. The point is that Danna’s music issues from a wider and extremely rich phenomenon of Mizrahi pop music in Israel that is Levantine and Middle Eastern (and as such is marginalized in Israel) and is therefore comprehensible and “local” to Arab audiences in the Eastern Arab world.[50] Mizrahi pop music, for instance, is heavily consumed and appreciated by Palestinian youths in the West Bank and Gaza, a phenomenon little appreciated or noted by observers of Palestinian culture. Moreover, Zehava Ben, an Israeli Jewish singer of Moroccan origin who sings the (canonical) repertoire of Umm Kulthum to the backing of a Palestinian Arab orchestra from Haifa, has played several concerts in the Palestine National Authority (Nablus, Bethlehem, and Jericho) and is massively popular among Palestinians (Tsur 1998; Agassi 1997). Ben’s success among Palestinians suggests the existence of a lively but underground “Levantine” expressive culture that can be shared by Arabs and (Oriental) Jews. Moreover, Egyptian pop music has a tremendous influence on Mizrahi pop music, and the fact that Mizrahi singers like Danna International do “versions” of Egyptian pop songs should be interpreted not as Israeli “theft” of Egyptian music but as a kind of tribute to the tremendous importance and influence of Egypt’s popular music on the “Levantine” music scene in Israel (see Regev 1995). Such a phenomenon of shared culture is incomprehensible if one thinks of the region as starkly divided into the polarities Arab (East) and Jew (West).

It is only when one has grasped the elements of Danna’s sonic indigenousness that one can understand that what makes her cultural interventions in Egypt so effective is that she works within musical and cultural trends that are familiar to Egyptian youths. She pushes at the edges from inside a vibrant and innovating tradition, and this makes her music lively and exciting for many Egyptian young people. This is also precisely what makes her seem so dangerous to many nationalist intellectuals, much more threatening, in fact, than Madonna or Michael Jackson, as she is able to communicate with Egyptian youths in Arabic. Danna’s liminality, the fact that she is at once Arab and Jew, is precisely what makes her dialogue with Egyptian youths possible and is also what is so offensive to mainstream nationalists of all stripes, whose ideology presupposes an essential difference between Arab and Jew. A nationalism that conceives of Egyptian society as homogeneous, unitary, and self-identical has no room for a border figure like Danna.

“That Mutant”

Danna’s significance and positioning in Israel during 1994–96 was quite different than in Egypt.[51] She was popular and highly successful, at least among certain, but mainly marginalized, segments of the population, but she was also highly controversial and looked on with disfavor by the cultural elite. One sense of the associated baggage attached to her name is conveyed by Yigal Amir who, just before he assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, is said to have remarked to a nearby policeman, “Today, they give us the spectacle of Aviv Gefen; next time, they’ll make us listen to that mutant, Diana [sic] International” (Schattner 1995). Amir was stalking Rabin at a Peace Now rally, at which Rabin spoke and during which he joined featured singer Aviv Gefen for a singalong on stage. Gefen, a major new Israeli rock singer whose long dyed-orange hair, heavy makeup, and androgynous clothing project a “radical” image, performs songs whose lyrics express “existential meaninglessness” and criticize the military establishment. But Gefen is also the offspring of elite circles, a close relative of Moshe Dayan, and his onstage gender ambiguity is entirely nonthreatening. His “rebelliousness,” in short, is firmly located within the national tradition and represents the “respectable” face of dissent.[52] It would have been simply unthinkable, however, for Yitzhak Rabin to have appeared onstage singing together with a “trashy” gender and culture subversive like Danna International. But Yigal Amir’s remark does underscore one of the major issues in Israel with regard to Danna. When I asked an Israeli correspondent whether Danna’s Arab-Jewish identity was of any concern in Israel, she replied that the mainstream media there focused almost exclusively on the issue of Danna’s “sexuality, sexuality, and sexuality,” and in particular, her transsexuality. After Danna was chosen as a contestant in the competition to represent Israel in the 1995 Eurovision pop song contest, Ya’ir Nitsani, one of Israel’s leading comedians, proclaimed that Danna should not represent Israel in this major international event because her transsexuality was a “shame.” This sentiment appears to be widely shared, and to have played a role in Danna’s failure to take first place in the competition (she placed second). When Danna appeared on one of Israel’s major talk shows, hosted by Dudu Topaz (Israel’s Phil Donahue cum Oprah Winfrey), Topaz interrogated her about her orgasms—“They’re my orgasms,” she replied—and asked (with a look of horror on his face) if she had really had “it” cut off during the sex change operation. The Israeli media has speculated that Danna did not really undergo a sex-change operation (although her breasts, an important part of her image, cannot be denied) and that rumors to this effect had inspired Danna to drop her lesbian girlfriend and take up with a boyfriend, an officer in the Israeli navy, to prove her femaleness. But, the story continued, this new relationship was a sham, really a gay relationship and not a heterosexual one (Yael Ben-zvi, pers. com.; Smadar Lavie, pers. com.).[53]

This sexual undecidability (does she have a lesbian girlfriend? a gay boyfriend? a heterosexual boyfriend? what kind of sex and what kind of anatomy does she have?) seems to have contributed to making Danna wildly popular among gay Ashkenazi men, who saw her as a “heroic” role model.[54] Danna started out in show business performing in drag shows in 1988. In the early 1990s, she participated in a Tel Aviv drag show version of “pre-Eurovision,” the Israeli contest to pick the Eurovision entry. Her manager, Ofer Nissim, concocted a scenario in which Whitney Houston sang in Arabic in a concert in Saudi Arabia. Danna did an Arab-camp version of Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan,” called “Sa‘ida Sultan,” in which she screams, “My name is not Sa‘ida!” This was her first cult hit on the drag circuit (Ben n.d.; Ben-zvi 1998, 27). For Ashkenazi gay fans, however, Danna’s Arab identity was merely “exotic” and did not, apparently, lead this audience very far in raising questions about Israel’s Eurocentric racial hierarchies. However, Danna also enjoyed a substantial audience among the Mizrahim. According to correspondents, it was mainly the “disco youths” who were Danna’s fans, and the majority of Israeli-Jewish youths are Mizrahim.[55] And in the youth press, Danna tends to be treated as a “normal” star rather than as a freak (Geir Skogseth, pers. com.). Dance music in Israel, however, occupied a rather low position in the Israeli cultural ranking system. As in Egypt, the Israeli cultural elite promotes “quality” music (in Hebrew, eikhoot), which is what the educated Ashkenazim (like the Egyptian elite) listen to.[56] That Danna sings in Arabic doubly disqualifies her from the category “quality,” for Arabic music is severely ghettoized in Israel, consigned to the lowest rungs of the country’s Eurocentric cultural hierarchy, much lower than dance music (see Regev 1995, 1996; Horowitz and Namdar 1997). This is compounded by Danna’s Mizrahiness, which further positions her at the bottom of the prestige system.[57] It is precisely the fact that Mizrahi singers like Danna enjoy Egyptian pop and do versions of Egyptian songs that puts them at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy. Again, and contrary to al-Ghayti, such singers’ relation to Arab music is one of tribute, not theft; a tribute, moreover, that leads the Ashkenazi elite to view their culture as “trash.”

An otherwise favorable review of Danna’s 1995 release, E.P. Tampa, in the daily Ma’ariv exemplifies the entirely commonplace stigma attached to Israeli Jews of Arab background (Assif 1995). The reviewer labeled Danna’s music frehiyoot-bivim, from frehiyoot, a derogatory term that Ashkenazim frequently use to denote young Mizrahi women, meaning “slut,” and bivim, meaning “gutter.”[58] The Mizrahi community, however, is relatively unaffected by such Ashkenazi Eurosnobbism, and Danna has a more mainstream appeal among Mizrahim as a successful ethnic insider. For instance, a friend of mine took her son to see Danna perform a concert of children’s songs for kids in Holon, a poor Mizrahi town near Tel Aviv.

With the exception of “My Name Is Not Sa‘ida,” it is her songs in Hebrew that are chiefly responsible for her fame in Israel. Among these are heterosexual love ballads that function as parodies in light of her sexuality, as well as covers that, from queer and Mizrahi positions, poke fun at canonical Israeli popular music from the fifties and sixties, including “songs of the beautiful Israel” and “military songs.”[59] According to Smadar Lavie (pers. com.), when you hear a macho Israeli soldier song like “Yeshnan Banot” coming from the mouth of a “black” Mizrahi woman rather than from a muscular, blond, square-jawed Ashkenazi, the effect is hilarious. Moreover, that such songs emanate from a “trashy”-looking Mizrahi who appears hyperfeminine but whose very femininity is ambiguous adds another dimension to their uproariousness.

Danna’s song, “Qu’est-ce que c’est” (on Umpatamba, 1994) is a hilarious riposte to racist Ashkenazi parodies of North African Jews’ pronunciation of French. Such parodies were a constant theme of comedic radio and stage skits of the 1950s and 1960s, which exaggerated Mizrahi “mispronunciation” of “qu’est que c’est?” and made a play on words with “cous-cou-sou,” referring to the North African food, couscous, as well as the similarity of “qu’est que c’est / cous-cou-sou” to the Arabic word qus (cunt). Modern Israeli Hebrew has borrowed most of its curse words and epithets from Arabic, so the word qus is, of course, widely used. “Qus ummak” (literally, the cunt of your mother; i.e., fuck your mother), is a curse shared by speakers of colloquial Hebrew and Arabic.

There is also an Israeli dimension to Danna’s song “Susu ya Susu” that highlights the country’s disavowed but complicated and intimate connections to Arab culture. When Israel started broadcast television in the early 1960s, it had more programming in Arabic than in Hebrew, and one of the programs developed in the Arabic section[60] was a children’s show called “Sami and Susu,” a kind of Arabic cross between “Mr. Rogers” and “Sesame Street.” At the same time there were no good children’s shows in Hebrew, so in the late 1960s “Sami and Susu” was given Hebrew subtitles, and it rapidly gained great favor with Israeli Jewish kids. According to Lavie (pers. com.), the name “Susu” therefore “evokes cuddly memories” among the generation of Israelis who grew up watching “Sami and Susu.” The Sami character was played by the young actor George Ibrahim, a Palestinian leftist who eventually lost his job during the intifada when he started to express his political views openly. Sami used to tell Susu, “Khudni ya Susu” (Take me Susu), a phrase that reappears in the lyrics of Danna’s song, and the two characters were then transported to a new site as an “airport/spaceship” sound track played, a musical theme that is also evoked in Danna’s “Susu ya Susu.”

Local Transnationalism

One typical Egyptian newspaper article described what was at stake in Danna’s “sexual invasion” as follows: “Thus Israel tries to destroy us by any means. Will she succeed, or will our youths establish that they are really Egyptian?” (“al-Jins” 1995). Such alarmist rhetoric from the intellectual elite as well as the state’s banning of her cassettes indicate the presence of resistance among Egyptian youths—resistance that is underground, inchoate, indirect, and mostly unselfconscious. Alberto Melucci (1985) suggests that in the realm of such submerged and everyday cultural practices, in the domain of what he calls “movement networks,” alternative frameworks of meaning are produced. He claims that the hidden, quotidian practices characteristic of “movement networks” constitute the normal state of affairs for contemporary social movements and that overt social movements as such only emerge episodically and for limited durations. Perhaps, then, potential spaces for the emergence of movements and autonomous activity are being created through the consumption of Danna.

Danna’s popularity is certainly indicative of widespread youth skepticism regarding the version of modernity being offered up by the Egyptian state and nationalist ideologues. Walter Armbrust (1996, 217–18), in his analysis of contemporary Egyptian popular culture, labels such attitudes antimodernist. But perhaps Danna’s circulation in Egypt also suggests young people’s desire for an alternative modernity (Appadurai 1991, 192), one that would offer greater possibilities regarding gender roles and the articulation of pleasure. Such desires do not seem especially focused on female or queer issues, but Danna’s reception does suggest an openness in this regard on the part of Egyptian youths.

Danna-in-Egypt also indicates visions of a modernity that participates, without a sense of inferiority, in global popular cultural trends, a modernity that does not passively consume the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson but actively reworks and rearticulates transnational cultural forms, assimilating or domesticating such forms within indigenous culture. But this case involves much more than transnational flows from West to East, the subject of most of the academic work on global culture. This is rather an instance of what I want to call local transnationalism. The cultural transactions here are not, in the main, vertical flows (North/South, dominant/subordinate) or the products of global capitalist forces but lateral flows, products of underground exchanges and affinities that traverse the borders of neighboring but hostile countries. Danna—at least in 1994–96—was not a “world music” or a “dance” artist with substantial audiences in the West, and unlike, say, Rai star Khaled or Madonna, she did not arrive in Egypt via established circuits of advanced capitalism. She was, rather, a local star, whose product was recorded and distributed by local Israeli companies (IMP Dance and Helicon/Big Foot) and not by the branch of a multinational firm and whose popularity was based chiefly on “local” tastes. Moreover, it was not Danna or her Israeli record company who reaped financial gain from the sale of a reported half million of her cassettes in Egypt; instead, the profits were shared among countless Egyptian bootleggers, black marketeers, and street peddlers.

It is this nonsanctioned commerce between Egypt and Israel that I find most hopeful, and most significant. What Egyptian journalists and the cultural mandarins cannot seem to comprehend is that Egyptian young people who consumed Danna’s music were not identifying with “Israel,” not “captured” by Zionist ideology. My elite AUC students who enjoyed Danna, in fact, were angered by ongoing repressive Israeli actions against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel’s ferocious bombing of Lebanon in April 1996. They felt ashamed, moreover, at their government’s kowtowing to the American and Israeli governments (what is known in the United States as “moderation”). Similarly, thousands of Egyptian youths are able to simultaneously consume the music of Madonna and Michael Jackson and to articulate strong criticism of the U.S. government’s unwavering support for Israel and its harsh policies toward Iraq. If there is any “identification” with Israel on the part of Egyptian youths, it is an inchoate and mostly unwitting empathy with the culture of the Mizrahim, the Israeli Jews who originate from the Arab countries. Even in a context in which the Jewish strains of national culture have been so heavily suppressed and officially forgotten, connections continue to exist between Arab Jews inside Israel and Arabs across the border. Danna International’s success, both in Israel and in the Arab world, is testament to the lively, vital, complex cultural reality of Israel’s Mizrahi culture, which has been documented by scholars such as Ella Shohat, Smadar Lavie, Shlomo Swirski, and Ammiel Alcalay. Despite the Mizrahim’s marginalization by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite, their “Eastern” culture, fifty years after the founding of the state of Israel, continues to thrive and to produce sympathetic echoes in the Arab world. The phenomenon of Danna International in Egypt therefore should not be regarded a the pahological effect of Israeli and Western cultural imperialism or as the corruption of Arab culture but as potentially highly subversive. But this potential will remain merely latent, underground, and proscribed, in the absence of other political and social developments in Egypt and Israel that are congenial to the complicated but open national, ethnic, and sexual politics that Danna International portends.

Update: Diva!

A number of significant developments have occurred in the Danna story since I left Cairo in May 1996. First, the Egyptian press has continued to turn out discoveries of new Zionist plots against Egypt. In June 1997, for example, al-‘Arabi ran Fatma al-Nimr’s story about a plot to “Judaize the Arab eye” by plastering Egypt with the Star of David. Al-Nimr claimed to find the Star of David not only in the logos for the popular detergent Ariel and the sandwich chain Mu’min but also in food strainers, house decorations, and traditional lanterns used during Ramadan (Radi 1997; Engel 1997). That same summer, reports emerged that college girls in the city of Mansura were throwing themselves at boys, after chewing Israeli bubble gum spiked with progesterone, smuggled into Egypt through Gaza (Jehl 1996). Such accounts are frequently reported on by Western journalists, usually in such a manner as to render ridiculous virtually any Egyptian fears or criticism of Israel and to divert attention away from real Egyptian grievances or problems.

Western journalists focused less attention on reports that about 7,500 Egyptian young people who entered Israel on tourist visas between 1993 and 1996 had stayed on to take illegal jobs. Twenty-five hundred of these were reportedly recruited for noncombatant jobs in the Israeli army, especially in Israel’s “security zone” in South Lebanon, and were issued identity cards with Jewish names. At least one Egyptian has been convicted of spying for Israel who was reportedly recruited by Mossad when visiting Israel (“Egyptian Workers” 1996; “2500 Misri” 1996). Also, little notice was paid to the revelation that Israeli military officers were involved in smuggling tons of hashish from Lebanon via Israel into Egypt, for sale to dealers who supplied Egypt’s conscript army. The scheme was hatched in response to security fears before the June 1967 war with Egypt, and the army-sponsored smuggling continued until the late 1980s. Egyptian military sources claimed that hashish consumption in the army rose by 50 percent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when almost two out of three soldiers were regularly using it (“Egyptians Were Stoned” 1996).[61]

Danna’s perceived threat to Egypt was also highlighted again in fall 1996, after she visited Egypt for a fashion shoot, to model a new line of dresses for Israel’s biggest mainstream department store, Hamashbir. Ruz al-Yusuf ran a story describing the trip as a propaganda coup for Israel and reported that Israeli press accounts of Danna’s visit depicted Egyptians as bribe takers (Danna’s party reportedly paid off a policeman so that they could continue shooting at the Pyramids) and pervert-lovers (several Egyptian men professed that Danna is pretty and her music enjoyable). The magazine also reprinted several fashion photos of an alluring Danna, dressed in slinky outfits and posing variously with Egyptian policemen, inside the Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s tourist bazaar, and with a boatman beside the River Nile. The captions—such as “This Pervert Exploits Us”—attempted to ensure that the Egyptian reader was not enticed by what appeared to be a beautiful woman but was really an Israeli sexual deviant (“al-Misriyyun” 1996).

In summer 1996 Danna issued a new CD, entitled Maganona, whose title track (meaning “crazy” [majnuna] in Arabic) is a response to Danna’s underground success in the Arab countries, a brilliantly wacky dance number that Danna sings aggressively in Egyptian dialect. Danna defends herself with lines like “Who do you think my husband is? / I’m a respectable woman [sitt muhtarma],” and, “You all think I’m crazy / I’m not crazy [ana mish magnuna].” The last line of the song goes, “ana mish magnuna / ana magnuna [I’m not crazy / I’m crazy].” Although the new CD was banned in Egypt, it was a black market best-seller (Bhatia 1997). Danna claims to appreciate her success with Arab youths, asserting, “I like to sing in Arabic. I like the language. I like the music. I like the instruments” (Grynberg 1996, 35).

But the most important development is Danna’s Eurovision success. In November 1997 she was selected to represent Israel in the May 1998 Eurovision contest in Birmingham. Her selection raised a furor among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Typical of the reaction was the assertion of Rabbi Shlomo Ben Izri, health minister and Shas party representative: “Dana is an abomination. Even in Sodom there was nothing like it” (La Guardia 1997). Thanks to Danna’s impassioned denunciations of the ultra-Orthodox, she has become a kind of heroine for secular Israelis (Sharrock 1997). But despite her embrace by the liberal Israeli establishment, she seems determined to continue her subtle mocking of Zionism, as evidenced by her statement to Sky News after she was selected to represent Israel at Eurovision: “As far as I’m concerned, I was elected to represent Israel’s citizens, not the Jewish state. Which means that I’ll go to the Eurovision as the representative of the Christians and Muslims who live in Israel as well.”[62] In May 1998 Danna, at age twenty-six, took first place in the Eurovision contest, singing her song “Diva” before an estimated global television audience of 100 million. Thousands of fans celebrated her win by dancing all night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, chanting “Danna, Queen of Israel.”

After her highly publicized Eurovision victory, Danna seems poised to become an international star. She is recording and making frequent appearances in Europe, her photo is featured in an Amnesty-U.K. poster with the caption, “Gay rights are human rights,” and she is starting to be noticed by the U.S. media.[63] The danger is that, as she moves into a different political context, her multidimensional subversiveness will be reduced to the single issue of queerness and transsexuality and that it will be difficult for audiences in the West to sympathize, much less make sense, of her Arabness and her oblique lampooning of Eurocentric Zionism. An article on Danna in the November 1998 Details (Keeps 1998) suggests how the mainstreaming of Danna might proceed: it never once mentions Danna’s Yemeni-Arab background.


I would like to thank, first of all, Saba Mahmood for urging me to take up this project. Mona Mursi first alerted me to Danna International and gave me a tape with two of Danna’s songs. Nirvana Said and Dina Girgis provided complete versions of the clandestine Busni ya Susu and information about Danna’s reception in Egypt. Bob Vitalis brought me Danna’s CDs from Israel, and has been a source of inspiration, timely anecdotes, and sources. I am grateful to Joel Beinin, Clarissa Bencomo, Sandra Campbell, Elliott Colla, Smadar Lavie, Don Moore, Martina Rieker, Muhammad El-Roubi, and Geir Skogseth for their comments on earlier versions of the chapter; to Elliott Colla and Hosam Aboul-Ela for their help on the theme of the predatory Western woman in Egyptian literature; to David McMurray for calling my attention to the Yigal Amir connection; to Motti Regev for sending his articles; to Bruce Dunne for passing along AbuKhalil’s and his own article; to Tom Levin for encouragement and sparkling editorial suggestions; and to Walter Armbrust, Joel Gordon, Geoff Hartmann, Joan Mandell, Samia Mehrez, Jeff Olson, Alan Sipress, and Salim Tamari for forwarding various news items. Yael Ben-zvi and Smadar Lavie served as invaluable resources on Danna’s place in Israel. Special thanks are due to Clarissa Bencomo and Gamal ‘Abd al-‘Aziz for passing along relevant articles, assistance in transcribing and translating lyrics, and helping me to contextualize Danna in Egypt.

1. I have employed the spelling of her name that is used on her first four Israeli CDs. Her latest CD, Diva, uses the spelling “Dana.” A wealth of information on Danna International—including pictures and links—is available at Geir Skogseth’s webpage ( Danna 1.html). Danna’s CD discography includes Danna International (IMP Dance, Tel Aviv, 1993), Umpatamba (IMP Music, Tel Aviv, 1994), E.P. Tampa (IMP Dance, Tel Aviv, 1995), Maganona (Helicon/Big Foot Records, Tel Aviv, 1996), and Diva (IMP Dance, 1998). Her recordings, difficult to find in the United States, are available from Hatiklit, an Israeli import company in Los Angeles ( [BACK]

2. I was never able to locate the publisher. Books with unknown or no publisher seem to be a commonplace in the street stalls of Cairo; see Abu-Lughod 1995a, 54. [BACK]

3. The earliest report I was able to find was Majdi 1994. The campaign continued throughout 1995; see Rizq 1995a; Ruz al-Yusuf, October 16, 1995, p. 27; al-Jumhur al-Misri, February 18, 1995, p. 12; al-Hayat al-Misri, December 31, 1995. The New York Times even reported on the campaign in October 1995, (mis)identifying the Israeli singer on the banned tape as Sa‘ida Sultan (Jehl 1995). [BACK]

4. Hereafter, al-Ghayti’s book is referred to in the text as F. [BACK]

5. The author uses terms like “perversion” and “deviance” (shudhudh) throughout to describe gays and lesbians. According to AbuKhalil (1993, 34), this terminology is the product of the importation of Western homophobic ideologies and modern nation-states. He also argues that the term was not used in Arab/Islamic history, which demonstrated great openness with regard to homosexuality. [BACK]

6. The upscale McDonald’s in Ma‘adi, the upscale Cairo neighborhood where I lived, featured posters of Madonna, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. According to al-Ghayti (F, 40), Marilyn Monroe was both an inspiration for Danna and a “deviant” (see below). [BACK]

7. Ironically, since the publication of al-Ghayti’s book, Michael Jackson has set up an entertainment company to promote “family values” with Saudi Arabian billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud (Electronic Urban Report, March 20, 1996 []). [BACK]

8. Al-Ghayti’s claim is that Madonna is not “complete” because she is unable to bear children. As the entire world knows, Madonna gave birth to a baby girl, Lourdes, in late 1996. [BACK]

9. Although I have been able to find no information to corroborate this story, apparently Asmahan was involved in intelligence operations. According to Nasser Eddin Nashashibi (1990, 82–83), in 1941 the British High Command paid Asmahan a tidy sum to convince her former husband, Shaykh Hasan al-Atrash, governor of Jabal Druze, to permit the Allies to enter Syria from Transjordan and “liberate” it from Vichy rule. [BACK]

10. The year 1967 is clearly meant to resonate as the year of the Six-Day War and Israel’s overwhelming defeat of the Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian armies. But given the very low status of Arabic music in Israel, especially as recorded by Mizrahim, Rachel Qattawi’s recording must have been a very marginal phenomenon and not, as al-Ghayti implies, an Israeli “theft” of a valuable treasure. I have been unable to track down an Israeli who has heard of her. [BACK]

11. It should be recalled that anti-Masonic/Semitic conspiracy theories also thrive in right-wing circles in the United States. Televangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, believes there is a Jewish-Marxist-Masonic plot to destroy the American way of life. [BACK]

12. These issues included the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace,” which many regard as tantamount to Palestinian surrender and as a complete sham, Israel’s refusal to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, and the Israeli government’s failure to bring to trial the military officers responsible for carrying out the massacres of forty-nine Egyptian POWs near al-‘Arish during the war of 1956 and of more than one thousand Egyptian POWs during the 1967 war. Public anger in Egypt was also aroused by Israel’s April 1996 attacks on Lebanon, the Israeli army’s targeting of the UN Qana base and the resulting death of more than one hundred civilians, and what was seen as the successful application of U.S. pressure to torpedo any censuring of Israeli actions. Needless to say, Israel’s policies and actions appeared very different from the vantage point of Egypt than they do from inside the United States. A sense of that different perspective can be gained in the United States from the various writings of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. On the Qana affair, see Robert Fisk’s reporting in the Independent, for example, Fisk 1996; for my own views on the question of Palestine, see Swedenburg 1995, especially chapters 1 and 2. [BACK]

13. For instance, see articles in Ruz al-Yusuf exposing Israeli efforts to steal and destroy Egyptian music (Abu Jalala 1995) and cinema (Khafaji 1994). [BACK]

14. The claim, in fact, is rather ludicrous, as virtually no Israeli products are sold on the Egyptian market, and there are no compelling reasons why Egyptians might harbor desires for expensive Israeli cigarettes. As of this writing, I am unaware of any appearance of this item in Egypt. [BACK]

15. The threat of sexual seduction posed to Egyptian women instead comes from Westernized and culturally hybridized Egyptian men (Walter Armbrust, pers. com. October 20, 1995). A good example would be the Ibrahim Faraj character in Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel Midaq Alley. [BACK]

16. Novelistic examples include Yahya Haqqi’s The Saint’s Lamp (1973), Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Bird of the East (1966), and Sulayman Fayyad’s Voices (1993). The film Layla features a Brazilian woman who seduces Layla’s love interest (see al-Bandari et al. 1994, 305). Thanks to Walter Armbrust for calling this film to my attention. [BACK]

17. The press reports frequently on army campaigns against heroin and hashish production in the Sinai. The peninsula’s Aqaba Gulf beaches, moreover, are known as freewheeling resort areas: Sharm al-Shaykh (site of the 1995 antiterror summit) caters to upscale Western tourists and the Westernized Egyptian bourgeoisie; Dhahab and Nuwayba‘ are the meccas for scantily clad, drug-seeking Euro-hippies and Israelis. For descriptions of South Sinai’s even wilder days under Israeli occupation, see Lavie 1990. [BACK]

18. A report in the public-sector magazine Ruz al-Yusuf of August 24, 1998, titled “Senior Arab League Official Tells Us: The Story of the Israeli Blood Tainted with AIDS,” claimed that blood units being sold to Arab states by an Austrian firm were being “treated” in Israel with “the AIDS virus, hepatitis B and bilharzia” before being shipped abroad (“Official Egyptian Newspaper” 1998). [BACK]

19. One could read the closing scene of this TV announcement—the opening of the Pan-African Games held in Cairo in 1991—as an implication that the AIDS threat also emanates from sub-Saharan Africa. [BACK]

20. It is significant that the “deviant” Western pop stars al-Ghayti discusses (Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Madonna) are depicted as sexual predators on men. Although al-Ghayti does not make a specific claim that Elvis preyed on males, the fact that he is said to have indulged in sadomasochism could be taken as implying this. [BACK]

21. A number of books on Madonna in Arabic have appeared for sale at Cairo newsstands, such as Madonna’s Diet Book and Confessions of Madonna. [BACK]

22. Since the mid-1980s Egypt’s most prestigious professional syndicates (doctors, engineers, lawyers) have been lobbying for the government to place limits on the numbers accepted into their professions’ university programs in an effort to combat growing unemployment. The engineers’ syndicate even attempted to block the government from opening new university programs and technical institutes. Thanks to Clarissa Bencomo for this point. [BACK]

23. Before a young man can marry, he must, at the minimum, own an apartment, furnish it, purchase an acceptable amount of gold jewelry for his fiancée as an engagement gift (the shabka, which is the bride’s property and serves as a form of insurance for her), and be able to finance a decent wedding party. A significant wedding party expense is the firqa, or music group, and wedding gigs constitute one of the major sources of income for Egyptian popular musicians and are often much more lucrative than recording. Thus, paradoxically, the same weddings that are a major source of support for the music that youths love also function—by virtue of their great expense—to oppress that same generation. [BACK]

24. Still, young people’s sexual adventures before marriage are more frequent than one would imagine from official representations. A survey of one hundred high school and college girls in Cairo reported that 8 percent had had full sexual intercourse, 20 percent had held their lovers’ hands, 23 percent had kissed, and 37 percent had experienced sex without intercourse (Khalifa 1995, 7). [BACK]

25. It is also often claimed that the youth crisis is a significant factor in the rise of Islamist movements. Government-style propaganda, such as the famous 1994 film al-Irhabi (The Terrorist), which stars Egypt’s leading comedian, ‘Adil Imam, asserts that innocent youths are attracted to Islamic militant groups because their perfidious leaders provide women to marry, at no cost (see Armbrust 1995). Although such propaganda is simplistic, it is indeed the case that youths, so heavily affected by the crisis of opportunities, constitute the main adherents of Islamist movements. Whereas in the late 1970s and early 1980s the militant Islamist groups that employed violent means mainly attracted university-educated youths (Ibrahim 1982), by the 1990s such groups were also gaining lower-class youth adherents. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist organization and a mass movement that, although technically illegal, attempts to mobilize through legal channels and above-ground, successfully recruits university-educated youths. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has not “solved” the wedding crisis, the fact that it enjoins simple wedding ceremonies, where music groups and dancing are not permitted, ensures that what it calls “Islamic weddings” are much cheaper than wedding ceremonies that are the norm for the rest of the population. [BACK]

26. This paragraph draws heavily on the arguments of Armbrust 1996. [BACK]

27. On Umm Kulthum, see Danielson 1997. [BACK]

28. The censorship and banning from radio of songs by “respectable” artists is also routine (see Hasan 1993). [BACK]

29. Although class divisions within Egyptian society are gaping and getting wider, and although upper-class youths who are the direct beneficiaries of infitah do not face the same problems as lower-middle and lower-class ones regarding employment and marriage, the former are also alienated from the classical nationalist project and are negatively affected by the absence of public space for youths. One should, of course, make some distinctions. Some middle- and lower-class youths want to bring back the “golden age” of culture and politics represented by the Nasser era, while others would wish for the return of the public-sector safety net through halting or slowing down the pace of privatization and structural adjustment and for an expansion of the possibilities of working in the Gulf. Upper-class youths, meanwhile, are somewhat more focused on cultural liberalization. Thanks to Clarissa Bencomo for helping me to clarify this point. [BACK]

30. The rest emigrated to Brazil, France, the United States, Argentina, England, and Canada (see Beinin 1998). [BACK]

31. Murad’s films are regularly aired on Egyptian television, her music is played on the radio and readily available on cassette, and her death in November 1995 brought forth a wave of laudatory obituaries and tributes in the Egyptian press. The exclusion of Egyptian Jews from nationalist discourse was also noticeable in the favorable tributes to Layla Murad that appeared, following her death, in the Egyptian press during November and December 1995: almost all of them failed to mention her Jewishness. [BACK]

32. See Beinin 1998, chap. 3; Somekh 1987; Bulletin of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, no. 10, July 1988. [BACK]

33. Ironically, much of the coverage of Danna in the press is written by poorly paid young stringers who have no real “voice” but merely ventriloquize official discourse. [BACK]

34. Danna’s claim, in an interview with Jerusalem Report, that a half million of her cassettes had been sold in Egypt is credible (Grynberg 1996, 35). [BACK]

35. One of my students purchased Busni ya Susu on the black market for £E 8 (just slightly above the average price of a prerecorded cassette) before the media offensive was launched against Danna; her friends who bought the cassette after the onset of “moral panic” were forced to pay £E 50. [BACK]

36. Algerian Rai star Cheb Khaled’s 1992 hit, “Didi,” also reached the top of the charts in both Israel and Egypt. [BACK]

37. On Whitney’s 1990 CD, I’m Your Baby Tonight. [BACK]

38. Whereas house and “dance” music in the West normally uses major keys, Danna’s dance music deploys Oriental modes; thanks to Smadar Lavie for observations on comparative musical modes. [BACK]

39. According to Lavie, Danna is parodying the parodies of Mizrahi- and Palestinian-accented English by Israeli-Ashkenazi comedians such as Shaike Ofir. [BACK]

40. Such polylingual wordplay is a long-standing tradition for Levantine Jews, going back at least to Andalusian Spain (see Alcalay 1993). [BACK]

41. Telephone in Italian is telefonare, but telefoni rhymes nicely here with pantaloni. [BACK]

42. Representative lines from ‘Adawiya’s “Bint al-Sultan” include “The water’s in your hand / And ‘Adawiya is thirsty…/ Why don’t you look at me / My little fruit, my pineapple / Water me, water me more / The water in your hand is sugar” (Armbrust 1996, 132); from Sahar Hamdi’s “Illi shartit ‘aynuh bitghannin”: “The delicious ones / Because they’re delicious play hard to get / Like this, like this, like this, like this…/ May God forgive you, you who are on my mind” (Lorius 1996, 517). Both singers also frequently mix in English words with the Arabic. [BACK]

43. The song’s supposed lewd lyrics, in fact, got it banned from sales and airplay in Indiana and elsewhere and inaugurated an FBI investigation. Controversy only spurred greater sales, and the record hit number 2 on the Billboard chart and number 1 on the Cashbox chart ( [BACK]

44. On the peculiar contradictions of Egypt’s homosexual community, see, e.g., Miller 1993, 68–69. Miller describes the complex situation of Egyptian gay life as follows:

Making contact with a gay or lesbian community in Egypt was difficult. There was essentially no such thing. Egypt was the place I visited where there was the strongest social sanction against an openly gay or lesbian life, where a sense of homosexual identity was weakest, where there was the least degree of AIDS awareness. Paradoxically, in a society where the sexes remain strictly segregated, same-sex relations were commonplace, at least among men. But you didn’t talk about the subject, except to your very closest friends, and perhaps not even then. In Egypt, sex had to be kept secret, and homosexual sex in particular was haram—taboo. Categories of sexual identity and orientation were slippery, elusive in Egypt and in the Arab world in general. Once you crossed the Mediterranean, the terms “gay” and “straight” revealed themselves to be Western cultural concepts that confused more than they elucidated. In modern-day Cairo, male homosexual sex was everywhere and nowhere. (1993, 68–69)

See also AbuKhalil 1993; Dunne 1990, 1998; Murray and Roscoe 1997. [BACK]

45. This is also true of some of the work of Egypt’s most celebrated director, Youssef Chahine. See, in particular, his film Iskandariyya layh? (Alexandria Why?). On “cross-dressing” and homosexuality in Egyptian cinema, see Menicucci 1998. [BACK]

46. The Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, opposed sex-change operations on the basis that what God has created should not be changed (Rizq 1995b). Tantawi replaced al-Haqq as Shaykh al-Azhar after the latter’s death in March 1996. [BACK]

47. Incidentally, sex-change operations are also performed in Saudi Arabia (the cases I have read about are all female-to-male), again with fatwas from religious leaders. [BACK]

48. I saw the ad in 1995 and 1996 on the video monitors that run a nonstop mix of music videos, ads, movie trailers, cartoons, snippets of soccer matches, and bits of “America’s Favorite Home Videos” for passengers waiting to board the metro at downtown Cairo stations. The promotion of Luna 2 opens to the strains of Danna’s song “Sa‘ida Sultan” (the remake of Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan”) and shows ordinary-looking (somewhat chubby by U.S. standards) Egyptian women dancing around and mouthing the opening words of “Sa‘ida Sultan,” “Wa-t’ulu eh, wa-t’ulu ah” (And you [pl.] say what, and you say yeah). Danna’s tune rumbles in the background as the ad promotes the shampoo’s virtues, and then the volume of the music comes up again as the spot closes with another chorus of “Wa-t’ulu eh, wa-t’ulu ah.” I am unaware of any press attacks on Luna 2 for its exploitation of the music of Israeli sexual corruption to market its product. [BACK]

49. Al-Ghayti, however, claims that Ofra Haza’s tape was “licentious” (F, 34–35). [BACK]

50. On Israeli “Oriental” music, see Regev 1995, 1996; Alcalay 1993, 253–55; Horowitz and Namdar 1997. [BACK]

51. I depend in this section primarily on the Israeli correspondents Yael Ben-zvi and Smadar Lavie. [BACK]

52. Regev 1996; Yael Ben-zvi, pers. com.; Smadar Lavie, pers. com. [BACK]

53. Danna’s gender and sexuality still resist pigeonholing. Although she is widely reported to be a transsexual, probably it is more correct to say that she is intersexual. In an interview in Yediot Aharanot’s weekly supplement, Danna revealed that she does indeed have a penis and has no plans to have it “cut” in an operation. She stated that she had had hormone injections for breast development and would soon have silicone implants. In response to the question of her sexual preference, Danna—who calls herself “a woman and a man”—divulged that she has a boyfriend and that she is not and has never been physically attracted to women (Birenberg 1996). Thanks to Smadar Lavie for translating this article for me. [BACK]

54. But, according to Lavie, Ashkenazi gays’ real role models are the same as those of straight Israelis, because they are so mainstream. [BACK]

55. It should be noted that Mizrahi youths, because of their place in the economic-racial hierarchy in Israel, have not benefited from the Israeli economic boom in the wake of post-Oslo peace deals with Arab countries and that their hopelessness and alienation resembles that of lower- and lower-middle-class Egyptian youths. The Mizrahi position has worsened since the economic downturn that coincided with Netanyahu’s accession to the prime ministership. The average salary of a Mizrahi, 79 percent of that of an Ashkenazi in 1975, was only 65 percent of that of an Ashkenazi in May 1997. Unemployment was two to three times higher among Mizrahim than among Ashkenazim. Mizrahim constitute more than half of the population, two-thirds of the working class, one-third of government workers and employees, and only one-fourth of university students (Rouleau 1998). [BACK]

56. The extreme importance accorded to Western classical music in Israel, for instance, should be understood as part of Israeli Ashkenazis’ unceasing efforts to project a “Western” identity. It is also noteworthy that the Israeli national leadership also occasionally warns against U.S. cultural imperialism, with reference to precisely the same icons of “trashy” cultural domination invoked by Egyptian nationalists. For instance, Israeli President Ezer Weizman warned in August 1995: “The Israeli people are infected with Americanization. We must be wary of McDonald’ we must be wary of Michael Jackson; we must be wary of Madonnas” (Mid-East Realities,, August 11, 1995). [BACK]

57. For an introduction to the position of the Mizrahim in Israel, see Alcalay 1993; Lavie 1996; Shohat 1988, 1989; Swirski 1989. [BACK]

58. Although the word freha (pl., frehiyoot) literally means “chick” (the related word farkha has the same meaning in Arabic), it is more derogatory than “chick” (for young woman) in English. Freha can also be used to refer to an Ashkenazi woman, usually working class, but is mostly reserved for Mizrahim. Thanks to Yael Ben-zvi for translating Assif’s article (1995) and for her gloss on frehiyoot-bivim. [BACK]

59. For an analysis that highlights the critical edge of several of Danna’s songs, see Ben-zvi 1998. [BACK]

60. The administration of Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel is essentially apartheid, with separate (and unequal) “Arab” sections in the Education Ministry, the Histadrut (Israeli Trade Union Federation), and other institutions. [BACK]

61. Although the report of Israeli involvement in hashish smuggling is believable, its effects appear to have been mixed during the period in question, a fact not noted in the report. In the June 1967 war the Egyptian army failed miserably, but in the October 1973 war, it acquitted itself admirably. [BACK]

62. Interview in Hebrew, at Thanks to Yael Ben-zvi for the translation. [BACK]

63. Until now, Danna has remained an underground phenomenon in the United States, largely in the dance-club scene. Dance mixes of her songs have circulated on the scene for several years (Henry Sutton, pers. com.), and Danna performed “My Name Is Not Sa‘ida” in New York City, when it was on the dance hit list (Kerem n.d.). In December 1996 Danna did concerts at the Palladium in New York City and in Miami and Los Angeles. [BACK]

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