Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2008
Not So Welcoming this Year
have gone up everywhere, and Egypt is no exception. The reality
hit me as soon as I walked into the Mena House. Bottled water
was $4.00, where out in the street the same bottle was $.50. A
bottle of beer was $10.00. Internet connection was $30.00 / hour.
At those prices, life's little pleasures didn't seem important
The festival itself was equally pricey. The minimum to take
classes was $250.00 - $80.00 for the 3-hour superstar extravaganzas,
$60.00 for other well-known teachers and $40.00 for folkloric
classes. Most of the teachers were either Reda Troupe affiliates
or Raqia students.
And unlike previous years, if you didn't sign up for classes you
couldn't participate in the competition. The fee to compete was
$50.00 or $40.00 if you only wanted to perform. Two years ago
the prices were $40.00 and $20.00 respectively and you didn’t
have to sign up for classes. On the positive side, the employees
were helpful and polite, with good communication skills and patience,
even when people were arguing.
The band was also different. Khamis
Henkesh had the unfortunate impulse to work with
Group this year and was not asked back to
Raqia's stage. Instead she saved money with Sayed al-Artist for
a couple of nights, who brought 7 percussionists, a synthesizer
player and one or two other instruments, depending on the evening.
They were percussion heavy and melody light. It wasn’t clear
though whether they finished out the festival. It certainly
seemed like an entirely different band for the final day of
competition. That band could hardly hold a tune if it wasn’t Alf
Leila wa Leila.
The Mena House
The opening gala presented Soraya, Randa and Dina.
It was basically the same line-up from two years ago, but this
time the dancers only seemed to go through the moves. No one surpassed
herself or seemed passionate about being there. No new movements,
artistic breakthroughs or tableaux stuck in my mind. The ladies
were fun to watch, but once you've seen them, you've seen their
bag of tricks. Don't get me wrong, I LIKE Dina and Randa, but
I could have watched a DVD of them and seen the same stuff, without
spending $5000 for airfare and hotel fees. It wasn’t like two
years ago, when Randa impressed me so much during her closing
performance that, in spite of my better judgment, I plunked down
$75.00 for the DVD.
This year’s closing gala was a different story. It was $60.00,
the same as 2 years ago, but instead of the contestant finalists, Asmahan,
Dina and Randa, Raqia put on a love-fest
with her previous foreign-born students - who looked out of shape
and out of touch with their hired musicians. I walked out during
the second dancer, as did many others.
But my dissatisfaction also had a lot to do with
the results of the “competition” that were announced before
the second act. Instead of choosing one of the many wonderful
dancers that valiantly performed to the second rate band, Raqia
chose to crown a Taiwanese lady who did tepid choreography
to a CD. Two years ago, the audience could decide for themselves
who deserved to win. The finalists performed in the closing
show. This year they only appeared on-stage to receive prizes.
But I saw the winner’s competition performance. In my opinion,
she did not deserve to win. But politics are politics. So many
of this year’s attendees were from Asia (and part of the prize
was a trip to Korea) that it was no surprise someone from that
part of the world would be given bragging rights to Raqia’s
In fact, Americans and Europeans were in the minority this
year. Two years ago there were many more. Bozenka won
the crown after competing with four other finalists during the
closing show. This time Asians and South Americans dominated the
competition, the later with a powerful, high energy Latin style
that ruled the stage and hit every beat with gusto. Where did
the others go? I was told the professionals had come a week earlier
for “The Nile Festival.” Not a surprise, when the pervading atmosphere
at the Mena House was price-gauging the neophytes.
The worst example of this was the marathon performance schedule
set for the final evening of competition. When my students checked
in that night there were close to 60 people on the schedule. But
at registration there had only been 30 slots, like all the other
nights. Previous evenings ended near midnight. But that night
we waited until 2:30 AM for my last girl to go on - and there
were 9 poor souls after her. At that point, the audience had almost
vanished, the band was desperately trying to quit, and the organizers
were offering free workshops to any dancer willing to forego her
high-priced chance to perform in Egypt.
New Egyptian construction
Even the shopping wasn’t much fun. All the prices went up. Eman and Pharaonics were
suddenly charging $550.00 - $600.00 / costume instead of their
$400.00 price tag from just six months ago. There were also questions
about whether the workmanship of one prominent designer’s gowns
would hold up during performance. And of course inflation trickled
down to the Khan Khalili booths in the Mena House hallways as
well. Of the well-known designers, only Hanan kept her prices
down, and was rewarded by a crowded store and considerable sales.
I was told the reason for the price augmentation
was that Raqia was charging more this year for the booths.
Raqia let it be known however, that The Mena House was charging
her more… because the hotel, still under construction, had
undergone extensive renovations. I don’t know about the others,
but I didn’t have hot water for the entire 10 days I was there.
Two years ago I chalked it up to an old boiler, but AFTER the
work was completed? I love the oasis that is the Mena House,
but I think this is the last time I will stay there.
Female Muslim attire in 100 degree heat
Personal disclaimer – I did not sign up for classes (because
I felt they were too expensive) so I have no first-hand knowledge
of any of them. But I asked how they went over breakfast every
morning and can give you the second-hand opinions I received from
professional dancers. No one complained about the class sizes
for the star teachers this year, perhaps because overall enrolment
was down. Some classes were given top marks, Dandesh’s
in particular. Some people were also happy with Mona
Said and her new Caribbean fusion, but others were
less happy with Dina, who arrived quite late,
took half hour cigarette breaks and apparently had a diva moment
looking for a piece of glass on the stage. The Saidi was good,
the Egyptian sword less so. The Khaligi had a replacement teacher
when the person scheduled to teach it got stuck in traffic. No
one I knew took classes with the many non-Egyptian instructors.
Were the classes worth traveling so far for? It depends what
you can get at home, I guess. For Americans, we are blessed with
many sponsors who bring over stars on a regular basis. I live
in the same city as Faten Salama and try to take
a workshop with her at least once a year. But I do not know how
easy it is in Korea or Brazil to take lessons with Egyptian superstars.
One thing is certain however, choreography and the Reda Troupe
ruled at Ahlan. Since I prefer technique and improv, I was destined
to feel short changed no matter what Raqia offered, which is the
other reason I didn’t sign up for classes.
What I didn’t expect was how depressed I would feel witnessing
the current state of Egypt. I LOVE Egypt. I love its people, its
history and its culture. I lived there for two years in the 1980s.
But in the taxi to the Mena House this year I passed canals whose
banks were piled high with garbage and saw a dead horse floating
in the water - with little boys wading nearby. There were miles
of tenement buildings 12-13 stories high, rapidly constructed
out of little more than brick, concrete and steel wire. But Cairo,
Alexandria and the rest of the Middle East are near a fault line
(under the Red Sea). The African tectonic plate is pulling away
from the Arabian one. I couldn’t stop thinking that when another
earthquake occurs (think Jericho), the recent deaths in China
will seem like a drop in the bucket.
People are hurting in Egypt. Inflation and the economic
crises in the US is nothing compared to what these 80 million
people are facing. And life just got more expensive in the
last six months, due to the global economic downturn. Most
women don’t work, at least not those of the lower classes.
They stay home. I was told that 50% of them would be lost if
they tried to navigate the streets alone. That is why they
need men to take them places.
Egyptian Moslem women wear headscarves, long sleeves and pants,
long skirts or cover-ups, even in 100 degree heat. If you don’t
wear these things you are Coptic Christian or foreign, that simple.
Uncovered shoulders, cleavage or leg higher than a calf were not
shown by anyone except oblivious Western tourists. Yet the people
are kind, with a quick sense of humor and a ready laugh. And because
I speak passable Egyptian I saw corners of Cairo and Alexandria
that most other dancers don’t. I heard stories not meant for Western
ears and I understood when I was being insulted, intentionally
or not, as a foreigner, as a woman alone or as a stupid American
dancer who should have known better.
I returned home very thankful to be an independent woman. I
wondered what I had done in previous lives to deserve such a good
one this time. I am now even more motivated to release my Egyptian
music. I have seen first hand where the money goes – to my producer’s
extended family and the musicians who play for him. I wonder what
Raqia will do with her money. Hopefully she will share her wealth
with those who need it. What about a table for the poor during
Ramadan, similar to Fifi’s or Sa’ad as-Soughayir’s? Then it would
be a gift from all of us, thousands of hard-working belly dancers
from around the globe contributing to Egypt’s less fortunate – but
I wonder what the religious leaders would say?
Cairo women vending beans and greens on market day.
Shoo Shoo Amin with author. She now lives
in Alexandria and
was not involved with this year's festival.
The Ahlan ballroom from the beginning of the final night of the competition.
Visible under banner are the musicians for the contestants, at this moment 5
out of 8 are percusionists.
off site resources:
of AWS contest winners
Don't forget to check out author's bio
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