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Author and Nadia Hamdi

Gilded Serpent presents...
My Dinner with
Nadia Hamdi

by Fatima Bassmah
Video excerpt courtesy of Amina and the Aswan Dancers

We were crying and we were screaming - our driver looked back at two American women falling over themselves half in tears, and half in laughter and asked our tour guide in Arabic, "Are these girls ok?"  Tawfiq spoke English well, but not well enough to understand the conversation that had just sent us into a fit.  You see, our tour guide had just casually mentioned that her mother in law was once a famous belly dancer, maybe we'd heard of her?  Nadia Hamdi?  Thud.  Yeah, we'd heard a thing or two.

Let me back up a bit here and explain.  My friend Nefertiti and I were on a two week trip to Egypt, one that we had put together ourselves.  Two determined belly dancers in Egypt. We planned to sightsee the first week, and attend the Nile Group June 2008 festival on the second week.  And naturally, we would take over Cairo at the same time.

We had hired a highly regarded tour guide and she and her driver would take us all over Cairo.  Nefertiti and I immediately felt a very strong bond with her - she became an immediate friend.  I think our guide felt the same way towards us, because she had a shy, almost sly smile, as she mentioned her mother-in-law when we discussed belly dancers who we'd like to see on this, the second day of our trip. 

Maybe I flatter myself, but I had a feeling that she didn't mention Nadia's name to every tourist group.

After our screaming and tears were over, we eagerly replied that of course we had heard of Nadia!  And of course we would love to meet her if there was ever an opportunity (as we winked to each other).  That was it; we were determined to meet Nadia here in Cairo before our two week trip was over.  We assured Tawfiq that we were not crazy, and off our little tour car went navigating notorious Cairo traffic while our imaginations raced with thoughts of Nadia.

That evening at dinner, I caught up Nefertiti on as much as I knew about Nadia.  Nadia Hamdi had been an amazing dancer in Egypt with a long career that started out as a dancer from an established Mohammed Ali Street family and led to performances at top hotels, films, and workshop tours across the United States and Europe.  She started to build momentum as one of the best belly dancers of our time, only to suddenly give up teaching completely in the late 1990’s (she had already given up public performances in Egypt earlier that decade.) 

From my understanding, Nadia had given up dancing and then teaching abroad because her son or husband had forced her to do so.  From the late 1990’s on, it was as if she had disappeared. Where was Nadia and what had she been doing for the past 10 years?

The next day, we asked our guide, Nibal, if we could ask her questions about Nadia, and she agreed.  We found out that Nadia lived with Nibal and her only child Mohammed in the Moqattam Hills, in a two bedroom flat that they shared with their three sons, all under the age of seven.  Mohammed is very busy as an IT manager and Nibal's tour business was booming due to her references, and Nadia stays at home to watch the boys and care for the house.  Nibal discussed how her husband asked Nadia every evening if she needed anything and if she was happy, and spoke of their close relationship.  Nibal also seemed close with Nadia and frequently called her “mother” in our conversations. 

We excitedly asked if Nadia would give us a private lesson or dance with us.  “No, Nadia does not dance at all anymore, and asking her to do so would make her uncomfortable,” said Nibal.  Wait, Nadia does not dance anymore?  Not even at home?  “No, she does not dance at home or in public and does not give lessons anymore.”  

In fact, Nibal had never seen her dance.  “Not even at our wedding,” said Nibal.

Nadia Hamdi performs with shamadan 1995, Aswan Dancers, Gilded Serpent
Presented by Gilded Serpent, courtesy of Amina Goodyear and the Aswan Dancers, an excerpt of Nadia’s dance with the Shamadan performed in San Francisco, CA in 1995

With some nervousness, we asked if Nadia was happy.  To us, how could she not be happy if she wasn't dancing?  Nibal replied that her family and her sons were Nadia's life, and that she was very happy.  Nibal mentioned how Nadia had to work very hard from a very young age, and now she could be a mother and grandmother and not have to work so hard anymore.  Nadia had told her that her dancing life was over and that she was very happy in her new life.  Skeptically, we agreed. 

Nibal added that Nadia had no interest in dancing, but that she was still very interested in dancers.  She was always curious to see if anyone still remembered her and if they had liked her dancing.  Still remembered her?  Nefertiti and I tried to explain how much she was remembered and revered, how much she was missed and how many people lamented that she had left the scene.  We told Nibal to please tell Nadia that she was remembered with much love by many people, that she had an impact on dancers she had met and even ones who had never seen her dance, like us.

We asked if they had any videos, photos, or costumes from Nadia's life as a dancer, but they had none.  When Nadia took the hijab and gave up dancing, she destroyed all photos and videos of herself since that life was over.  She had also sold all her costumes and props.  Everything is gone, but Nibal told us as an aside that she and Mohammed still keep a few photos of Nadia as a dancer on the family computer. Nadia doesn’t know they are there.

Before the day was over, Nibal invited us to have dinner with her family sometime during our trip. Then we would get to meet Mohammed, the boys, and of course Nadia!  We promised that we would definitely have dinner (after just a perfunctory pause and a weak protest to save face and not look too eager). We secretly started to count down the days till we got to meet Nadia.  Would she really be happy, as Nibal had assured us?  Would she be happy to meet us, or would we be painful reminders of past memories?

Author, Nibal? and Nefertiti?

Impatiently Nefertiti and I grew worried as our trip progressed and there was no word of dinner with our new Egyptian friends.  We had finished our sightseeing with Nibal and the Nile Group festival began.  We became busy with classes, new friends, and shows at night.  I fretted and spoke with Nibal on my mobile - she was very busy, but soon, soon, she promised - "I did not forget you, Batta, and we will have dinner before you go, I promise."  Finally, she called near the end of our trip, “Would tomorrow night work?”  Of course it would work, time was running out.  The day of our dinner, plans kept changing and being pushed back - I began to worry that we had burdened our hosts too much.  Finally, the time came and their sedan pulled up in front of our hotel.  We were on the curb, waiting with flowers, and I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous. 

Mohammed and Nibal greeted us with hugs and handshakes, and we peered into the car to see three shy and sweet little boys surrounding their gram, Nadia Hamdi!  We climbed into the sedan and we leaned over to kiss her and we told her how honored we were to meet her, and we thanked Nibal and Mohammed for our evening together.  Nadia's smile and kind eyes lit up her entire face and she said she was happy to meet us too.  Mohammed drove for some time, as they were taking us out to dinner and they were taking us to a special surprise place. 

The drive was well spent - we had so much fun talking with Nadia, Nibal and Mohammed as the boys either dozed or slipped shy glances our way.  We laughed with them about Cairo traffic, we complimented them on their English and remarked that Nadia, also, remembered her English very well.  We told them funny stories about our adventures since we had left Nibal and we described the festival to Nadia. She was very interested in who was dancing in the shows and who the instructors were.  We told her of many dancers who knew who she was, and that we still watched videos of her and that she was remembered and missed by everyone she had met, and by many others who she had never met personally.  I knew our flattery meant a lot to her.  Seeing her smile as she listened to us and looked out the window, I felt that she could leave dancing behind as long as she knew her lessons and her memory were still alive.

Dinner was a surprise! It was a chain Western restaurant in Heliopolis. It was very nice, had a jungle theme that the kids would enjoy, and had great food - even better, it had great Western food! Mohammed and Nibal had graciously thought that we would probably be missing American food so late in our trip.   The food was a little bit of home and it felt good to be around a family with lots of talk, laughter, and little ones running here and there. 

As we ate dinner, I kept catching Nadia's eye, and we would quickly blush and look away.  Nefertiti sat between us, and I kept asking her to lean back to get a better view of Nadia - I wanted to stare at her, as if I could learn through osmosis, trying to remember everything to tell my friends back home.  I asked Nibal to tell Nadia that I apologized for staring at her; that I did not want to make her uncomfortable, but that I was so excited to meet her.  Nadia smiled, assured me it was ok and cheerfully stared back. 

We hesitated to ask her about her past - I wanted to hear about her family, about Mohammed Ali street, about how dancing had made her feel.  I desperately wanted to ask her why she stopped dancing completely and if she was happy. 

But, I didn't want to upset her or offend her or our hosts.  They were taking us to a very fancy dinner and I cringed inwardly to think how expensive it was and how they were driving all over Cairo for us.  I didn't want them to think that I didn't appreciate this wonderful night.  I didn't know if she'd want to talk about any of this, and I didn't want to see that beautiful smile vanish from her face.  Nadia was quiet, patient, and sweet during dinner.  There was no other way to describe it - she emanated a feeling of happiness and goodness. 

We laughed and hugged Nadia throughout dinner, and gave her kisses on her cheek.  She laughed with us and was genuinely curious about our lives.  She liked hearing about Nefertiti's children, and promised to pray for me that I might have children soon.  She told us how her grandsons were her whole life and that she was very happy. 

A few times she referred to dancing as her old life, but there seemed to be no regret or sadness.  Nadia seemed to have a loving and normal family.

Dinner ended much too soon, and we couldn't stop thanking Nibal and Mohammed for this night and for their thoughtfulness. We kept thanking Nadia too; she must have felt very spoiled from all the praise and good wishes we were heaping on her.  We stopped on our way out of the restaurant to take photos with her and her family and we joked with her that we were posing with her like we posed at the Pyramids and other tourist sites.  Still, the silent question of her not dancing hung heavy in the air and our evening was over. 

As we walked to the car, finally I had my chance.  Mohammed and Nibal were ahead with Nefertiti and the boys, and I hung back for just a fraction of a second with Nadia.  I felt us both hesitate, as if she knew what was on my mind.  The car was not far in front of us and we only had a few seconds to ourselves.  We looked at each other, and I knew the moment had arrived. 

“Are you happy?”  I asked her, and she knew what I meant.  I was asking her if she was happy not dancing.  With no hesitation and that beautiful smile, she said "Yes!  I am very happy."  I asked her if she missed dancing.  She said, "No, that was my old life.  I am happy in my new life." 

Then, unsolicited, she told me that she had made Hajj, she had gone to Mecca, and that after she had returned, and had taken up the veil.  After that, she said, "I could no longer dance, it would not have been right for strangers to see my stomach and my legs uncovered.  It would have been wrong to keep dancing."  She assured me again that she was happy, and that she was happy that she was remembered, and we squeezed hands.  I didn’t realize that we were holding hands till that second.  One more look between us, and we were at the car and the boys were clamoring for Gram and we loaded ourselves in and took off for our hotel in Zamalek.

Much too quickly, we arrived back at our hotel.  We kissed Nadia one more time and kissed Nibal and Mohammed, and we promised to remember their family and pass along their greetings to all of Nadia’s friends in America. 

Often, I have heard the story of the amazing Nadia Hamdi, the wonderful dancer who was forced to quit dancing by her family.  I'm not sure what the real truth is in that story.  There is the saying that there are three sides to any story – your side, my side, and what really happened.  With Nadia’s story, there are more facets – the Western perspective towards dance and our bewilderment on how one could give up something they loved, and the Eastern perspective of dance as an inappropriate activity, one that can even incite threats and violence towards dancers and their families. 

The stories of Mohammed being harassed by fellow students at university as the “son of a dancer have been reported previously by Margo Abdo O’Dell  and Morocco.  Nadia’s son asked her to stop performing publicly because of pressure from those around him.  It is easy to view his request in a negative light but I feel that he was a young man who hoped to marry and make a good life for himself and his family, and take care of his mother. 

If he couldn't complete his studies or if the prejudice of his fellow students spilled over to professors and potential employers, he would never have been able to provide for her.  If Mohammed asked her to stop dancing, I feel that he did so not as a cruel man but as a son who must have worried about his future and the future of his family in an increasingly conservative society. 

So where has Nadia been for the past 10 years and why is she no longer dancing?  I have no definitive answers.  Perhaps she bowed under pressure from a conservative society, perhaps she gave up dancing from family concerns, or perhaps, as she herself said, for religious reasons.  Maybe it was all these reasons or maybe none of them – maybe it was her time to rest and be a grandmother.  Regardless, speculation is only so useful, as her new life will never intersect with her old life. 

However, I can bring back a message from Cairo that is clear – Nadia and her lovely family are doing very well and they are very happy.  Nadia is as beautiful, kind, and sweet as ever, and she dearly enjoys being remembered.

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