Hazem Header: Dancing from Cairo to Philly

Hazem Header sits in a seat with an empty audiene. His head is in his hand.

They say that dance is a universal language and this week’s portrait, Hazem Header, certainly exemplifies that sentiment. Header is an Egyptian contemporary dancer and choreographer. He is currently in Philadelphia performing in a Fringe Festival show titled “Fix Me,” a full-length dance theater piece that explores queer male impulses across disparate cultural contexts and sheds light on the precariousness of intimacy, free expression and relationships. The project is part of “Egyptian Queer Uprising,” a three-part performance and research project centering queer expression in Egypt. This performance centers on just two performers, Header and Ben Grinberg, a Philadelphia-based performing artist, director, clown and educator. The piece depicts an Egyptian Muslim dancer and an American Jewish acrobat finding, loving and using each other. The duet uses dance, physical theater and acrobatics to tackle a universal cause and concern, sharing their side of the struggle with one another and merging two individual stories into one. The show is a collaboration between Almanac Dance Circus Theatre from right here in Philadelphia and NÜT Dance Company from Cairo, Egypt.  

Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love!
Thank you.

Tell me a little about where you’re from. Did you grow up in the country? City?
I was born and raised in a city called Faiyum. It’s about one hour southwest of Cairo. It’s an oasis so it’s a bit smaller than Cairo but it’s still a big city. I lived there until I graduated high school and then I moved to Cairo, which is a massive city — cosmopolitan you could say. The neighborhood that I’m living in right now is unfortunately the only green neighborhood left in the city. The government has taken out all of the trees and any green areas left in the city to widen the streets and build new things, whatever it is that they want to do. So I’m very lucky that I still have green spaces in my neighborhood. I guess you could say it’s a neighborhood for more middle- and upper-class residents. So there’s a lot of freedom in terms of how you look and what you wear and all this kind of stuff. There’s no hassles really. I mean Egyptians in general are not aggressive. Though sometimes in other areas, some people get words said to them for how they’re looking or something. 

When you say how they look or dress, do you mean someone being flamboyant or do you mean women not wearing modest clothing? 
If you’re a woman and wearing revealing clothes, this is something that some people take into consideration. Queer people — if they are men looking more flamboyant — this is also something that you could be harassed for, but it’s never aggressive, like violent. It might be someone just saying or shouting something. 

What did you like to do for fun as a kid?
I wanted to do ballet since I was a little boy. But the only school that had ballet was in Cairo and my mom didn’t want me to go. She didn’t mind me dancing. She just didn’t want her little boy to be away from her at such a young age. So she asked me to find something else, which I did. I got into sports and played all my life. I played volleyball professionally for 20 years and that was my major in college. I have a BA in physical education and my major in coaching volleyball. But eventually when I was 23, I picked up dancing again. I was living in Cairo and applied for a three-year program at the Cairo Opera House, it was right after the revolution. 

Before we get into that, let’s learn a little about your family. 
I have two siblings. My parents [have] both passed away. My mom passed just two months ago and my dad about five years ago. I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad. He used to work with the government, with the old regime, a party which was very corrupt and so was he. At some point, he was the head of the city we were living in and wielded a lot of power. He was trying to train me to take over and even got me a membership in the party without telling me.

When I was six or seven until I was about 10, he’d take me to meetings with business men and out to nightclubs and tell me I needed to learn how to do that and that and that and that. At about 10 years old, I started to realize what was happening and at about 12, I rejected his party and what he was doing completely. When I was about 15 or 16, they got divorced and I hadn’t seen him since that time until he passed away. 

For Americans who don’t know, give us a little history of what’s happened after the revolution.
The regime before had a lot of repression. They had a lot of restrictions, which is happening again right now but 100 times worse. Now, they’re in control of everything that happens: the economy, the arts, what people can say or not. The only thing good about the regime before is that even though it was corrupt, we were allowed to go to the streets and protest. You could say whatever you wanted. Now it’s against the law. You can’t go into the streets and protest or say something against the government — no way. They will arrest activists in their homes if they want. 

I recall seeing a documentary and Egypt was pretty progressive previously.
Egypt — until the late ’80s, early ’90s — was the most progressive country in the region. We had a very good constitution. There was complete freedom. There were none of the Islamic laws imposed on us by the Gulf countries. It was even written in the guidebooks that Cairo was considered a queer city and that all were welcome to come. Not anymore. Now it is completely the opposite. A lot of the activists were connected to the LGBT+ community, so even though it’s not illegal to be queer, they have “morality” laws that they can use against anyone — hetero, queer, whatever — to control you. They come after the queer community first because it’s easier to implicate someone in a sexual scandal than it is a political one. 

When did you come out?
I don’t really know. It just kind of happened. Well, actually my brother outed me to my parents. Luckily, my parents didn’t do anything to me and at 19 I was out of the house and living on my own. That made it easy for me to be out and especially being in the arts. 

It seems like you gave up dance for a while to pursue sports. How did you get back into it?
It was kind of by accident. I graduated and was working as a volleyball coach and fitness trainer. I was also working as a quality control supervisor, but I wasn’t really happy with it. A friend of mine was a dancer and choreographer and she asked me to participate in a three-month workshop, which would end in a performance. That’s actually how we met! I was hanging out in a cafe and she walked up and said, “There’s an audition for this workshop on Monday, whether or not you audition, you’re going to be in it!” and then she said hello. Sure enough, I wasn’t able to audition because of a conflict but next thing I knew, I was in! 

After an intensive three months of rehearsal, I found myself on stage in one of the biggest theaters in Cairo! It was a huge festival and I was performing in front of 1500 people. It was like, “Wow, what is happening!” After that I said to myself, “OK, I really want this. I need this.” I found a group at the Opera House and was a student there for two years. It was hard. I was working from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. and then after an hour break, I’d go to school from 5 p.m. until 10 in the evening. I’d do that five days a week and I also practiced on my own. I had no social life! 

Just two years later, I threw caution to the wind. I quit my job and started to do my own thing. I began to travel to workshops in Europe, taking every kind of class that I could grasp. I even came to the states a few times to study. I began to find my own style and to create my own body of work. 

I was going to ask what type of dance you do.
My background is in contemporary dance and physical theater but I take those styles and Egyptianize the whole thing! People in Egypt, like in all the Mediterranean countries, use a lot of gestures and have a way of moving that’s our own so I incorporate that into my style. 

How did “Fix Me” come about?
Fix Me” comes from a festival that we have at home called, “Breaking Walls.” Our model is that we bring in choreographers from around the world and they work with the Egyptian dancers to develop their skills and create a piece that they will perform at the end of the residency. 

One of those people was Ben Grinberg. We only allow the Egyptian dancers to perform, but I suggested that we let the choreographers, who were also dancers, each do a short piece to show off what they could do to start the festival. Ben did a duet that was clearly queer but subtle and the audience loved it. Everyone was talking about those four minutes! Because of the reaction, I talked to him and said, “Do you want to expand this?” and he said, “Hell yes!” So four minutes became 20 minutes. We got a standing ovation for this queer piece that we did for the general public and it was a great feeling. 

Now, we have a full 60-minute show that we perform and that’s what we’re doing in the Fringe. We have done a lot of work on it. I’ve brought my experiences with relationships from myself and other Egyptians and someone with a Muslim background; and Ben brings relationships from the perspective of someone who comes from an open society, and coming from a Jewish family. There was a lot of material to work with! 

What’s something that you found different and shocking or exciting when you came to Philadelphia?
Despite the difficulties that all artists have, it was shocking how much freedom artists have here. Just seeing people play music on the streets. At home, I have to ask permission for every little thing. You have to ask permission to go to the street and perform. I have to pass everything through censorship if I want to be onstage. I have to inform the police and pay this and this and this. There are a lot of steps you have to take. There’s so much to do that sometimes the actual work gets neglected. I remember one day here, we couldn’t use the rehearsal space so we went to the park and rehearsed there. This would NEVER happen at home! 

What’s the first gay bar you went to here?
I went to Tabu and something called Charlie I think? Tabu was fun. I just wanted to dance and see how things were. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to go out much. In addition to the rehearsals, I’m taking classes at Temple and seeing other performances almost every day when I can and trying to meet people. I’ve even had a few dates!

Do you have any gay bars at home?
We used to. Until 2013, we had a bar that was completely gay. Everyone knew about it. Trans people, lesbians and drag performers — everyone went there. And we had a huge block with about 20 gay-run cafes downtown. It was like the Gayborhood here. But when the new government took over, they shut down everything. All the cafes are closed. The bar is still open but it’s all straight now. 

I recently interviewed someone from Uganda who said that all of the gay organizations are now closed down because of the harsh penalties enacted there.
We still have things happening but they are more under the radar now and they’re not on the same scale as they were before. Most people go to house parties now and small gatherings, but it’s not like people are out like they were before. 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So let’s do some random questions. What’s something that always cheers you up?
Dogs and trees. I have two dogs back home. We also have a lot of stray dogs in Egypt and I take care of several strays too. When I take my dogs on walks, they’ll often bring a couple of strays back with us! 

When you were a kid, did you have any posters on your wall?
Oh yes, mostly boy bands like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Enrique Iglesias of course, Ricky Martin, the Spice Girls, Whitney Houston…I had a lot! 

That’s fun. Someone not with us whose performance you wished you’d had a chance to see?
My mom and my mentor. My mentor used to be a former ballerina and she passed away three weeks before my mom. It was a hard month. 

Sounds like it. Do you play any instruments?
No, I listen but I don’t play. Well, I played a little piano when I was young. 

Ever build a snowman?
I wish! But we don’t have snow back home in Egypt. 

I know that! But you said you traveled in Europe and the states…
You’re right. I have seen snow. Last time was when I was in Michigan. But I’ve never built a snowman. 

Most dangerous thing you’ve done?
Oh my God. Do you have time for that? I was always on the front lines of the revolution. So I was there for the tear-gassing. I was there with the sticks coming down on our heads. I was there with the stones coming towards us. I was there when they were shooting people down around me. I’ve been hurt a couple of times. I got 12 stitches and several injuries fighting for liberation. 

Wow. Well I’m glad you made it through to be here and are using your art to fight this time.