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Kharriya Mazin
at the opening ceremony of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, Cairo, June 2003. Khariyya's classes at the fesitval were attended by approximately 80 participants from all over the world, as well as representantives of Japan's presitgious National Institute of Ethnology, who filmed and interviewed her for their archives

Khairiyya Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition
by Edwina Nearing

"I never quite know whether it is now or four thousand years ago, or even ten thousand, when I am in the dreamy intoxication of a real Egyptian fantasia: nothing is so antique as the Ghawazi -- the real dancing girls."
-- Lucy Duff Gordon, 1865
Letters from Egypt

Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin is one of the last exponents of Ghawazi dance, which is perhaps the primary origin of Egyptian "belly dance." She is the sole remaining practitioner of the authentic dances of the Nawari Ghawazi of Upper Egypt.

But when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.

The Ghawazi are the famed female dancers described so often in Western travelers' accounts since the 18th century, and probably the major wellspring of Egyptian danse orientale. A hundred and fifty years ago, professional female dancers of both Cairo and the countryside were called "Ghawazi;" now the term Ghawazi is used in Egypt to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform in the traditional manner, who had not added anything to their repertoire from ballet, Latin American or modern Western dance as the "oriental dancers" of Egyptian city nightclubs have done.

Khairiyya Mazin's cousin Faiza, c. mid-1980s, in traditional Ghawazi attire. Faiza is now retired, and the traditional Ghawazi attire, with its hint of Turkish Empire grandeur, is no longer worn in its homeland.

For the usual sad litany of reasons -- Islamic fundamentalism, economic pressures, Westernization and official opposition -- the old Egyptian custom of employing Ghawazi to entertain at weddings and other celebrations in the villages is dying out. The Ghawazi of Lower Egypt, an area bounded on one end by Cairo and on the other by Alexandria, have long been going into these cities to work, where they have been influenced by the dance as practiced in the cities. Thus the style of Lower Egypt's few Ghawazi, probably due to this intermingling, seems to be fairly homogeneous at present.

The Ghawazi of Upper Egypt, on the other hand, inhabiting a vast and relatively isolated area far from the great cities, have maintained some distinctive regional and, possibly, ethnic styles of dance. Regional style is dictated, at least in part, by the requirements of the musical accompaniment which, at most Upper Egyptian Ghawazi dance parties, usually held outdoors, is provided by drums and mizmars (a loud oboe- or shawm-like instrument).

Each region has its favorite mizmar bands and its own style of rendering the music, to which good Ghawazi dancers are extremely sensitive.

Rababa (a bowed string instrument) bands, less expensive to hire than mizmar groups, are sometimes used for parties staged by tour companies or others for foreigners and the unknowledgable, but are generally unable to render the specific rhythms and music styles required for specific Ghawazi dances such as the Raqsat al-Jihayni or 'Asharat al-Sibs, and do not inspire the good dancer; hence Ghawazi dance to the rababa is not seen at its best. Differences in dance style due to diverse ethnic origins rather than musical reasons are harder to prove without much further research, but seem likely in view of the diverse ethnic origins of many Upper Egyptian Ghawazi, differences of which they themselves are still aware. Many of the Ghawazi from Balyana to Aswan, for example, belong to ethnic minorities known as Nawar, Halab and Bahlawan.

The group with which the author is most familiar, the Nawar, who are ethnic Gypsies and usually referr to themselves as Domman among themselves, still speak the Nawari language to some extent and claim that the Halab and Bahlawan have their own languages, unrelated to Nawari (dommi, or domni).

If, throughout their sojourn in Egypt, these peoples have preserved something of their native tongues, they may have preserved something of their native dance styles as well. Egypt's most famous family of Ghawazi, the Nawari Mazin family, seem to have a dance style somewhat different from that of other Ghawazi whom the author has seen, though whether the difference is Nawari or simply "Mazin" is difficult to determine on available evidence.

Opportunities to see Upper Egyptian Ghawazi dance and study regional and possibly ethnic dance styles are difficult to come by in Egypt's current inimical social and economic climate, a climate which has severely curtained their opportunities to perform, forcing most of the Ghawazi into retirement. On the line Balyana-Aswan, as elsewhere, it is especially the better and more experienced dancers, like the Mazins, who have quit, leaving the field to newcomers with little training who are desperate enough to work under any conditions, however degrading or unremunerative. Thus, even if one can attend an affair for which Ghawazi have been hired to perform, the dancers may not be adequate exponents of any particular Ghawazi tradition, or competent dancers in general. (Even if one dancer is well qualified, some Ghawazi dances require more than one dancer, so the "good" dancer cannot perform those dances which the others with her may not know at all.)

But fortunately for students of Middle Eastern dance, as well as for the reputation of Ghawazi dancing, one of the best exponents of the Mazin tradition, Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin, continues to resist the many pressures upon her to retire from the art.

Khairiyya, youngest (about 35 years' professional dance experience) member of the family's premier dance ensemble, the "Banat Mazin," still performs, albeit infrequently, at the great outdoor celebrations which a few villages continue to hold in defiance of current trends. In recent years she has been augmenting her irregular income by teaching the traditions of Mazin Ghawazi dance to visiting foreign dancers and researchers. Her present address, a small apartment near the center of Luxor, is:

Al-Masakin Al-Sha'abiyya,
Salah Salem Street, Building 2,
Entrance B, Third Floor, Apartment 27,
telephone (095) 364693.

Those who wish to visit her may simply hail one of the many taxis or horsedrawn carriages that ply the larger streets of Luxor and show the driver the address in Arabic:

Khairiyya at around 18 years old
(Note: Some who have gone to visit Khairiyya, even when they have had the correct address, have been taken to other women claiming to be members of the "Banat Mazin." One or two of these even sell what they claim to be traditional-style Ghawazi costumes; these costumes are neither accurate nor well made. The street in which Khairiyya lives may be identified by its scarcity of traffic and shops, being flanked by blocks of flats on one side and a high cement wall on the other side, separating the street from the railroad tracks. The flat immediately above Khairiyya's has turquoise shutters, easily seen from the street.) Khairiyya charges 200 Egyptian pounds (about US$33 at the mid-2003 rate of exchange), for a private lesson, and permits recording, photography and videotaping at no extra cost. She is willing to tailor lessons to the student's specific requirements and to teach specific dances as requested; students should bring finger cymbals, and a cane or slender staff if they wish to learn any of the stick dances such as the Jihayni. As Khairiyya's flat is small she prefers to teach elsewhere, but can accommodate single students in her home. Home visits come with a glass of tea or soda, and occasionally lunch. Those who wish to contact her by mail should register their letters to the above address.

The author hopes that all who respect the traditional arts of the Middle East will do what they can to help Khairiyya remain active in the dance field and preserve the antique art of the Ghawazi.

More Research of the Ghawazi by Edwina coming soon!

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