Gilded Serpent presents...

At Home With

Fifi Abdou

Fifi Abdou

by Yasmina of Cairo
posted July 29, 2009

Yasmina of CairoAs befitting a living legend of Egypt, Fifi Abdous city home overlooks a six-lane highway crossing the river Nile. Perfect. For here in Cairo no one wants to be living in a quiet back street – where would be the fun in that? The view from the enormous living room window is like having a front row seat for a showing of ‘Cairo: The Movie!’, and here we are, sitting with one of its most enduring stars. Doing my fourth interview with Fifi in eight years has given me some insight into the progression of her life in the new millennium. The daughter who was just 12 when I first came to this apartment, busily doing her homework in the corner while we sat (as I recall) eating fish soup with rice is now an AUC (American University in Cairo) graduate, beautiful, highly educated and with the dress style and accent of a typical American teenager. It is she who acts as Fifi’s translator as we discuss her proposed trip to the United Kingdom, and it’s easy, seeing her, to remember Fifi’s own tall, slender shape at that age when, she once remarked, she chose dancing as an alternative to becoming a fashion model. Fifi herself, no longer svelte but looking very fit, is sportily dressed in a bright turquoise and white tracksuit, her black mane of hair glossy, her face glowing. Is the mane real? How old is she? Does it really matter?

This is my second recent visit to her apartment. Prior to this I bring her the contract for the International Bellydance Congress so she can peruse it at her leisure. In a deja-vu experience of that first interview, Fifi appears in a black galabaya and headscarf, face scrubbed clean of make-up, a non-descript baladi woman from anywhere – it’s her favourite disguise. Although she is unrecognizable, this time around she doesn’t fool me. But Ahmed Alaa, the young singer (and my nephew-by-marriage) who accompanies me, is completely dumbstruck and refuses to believe it’s Fifi until she opens her mouth and he hears the famous husky voice and its amused drawl. ‘So you’re a singer are you?’ she asks him – much more interested in a good-looking 20-year-old than in my questions – ‘so sing me something!’ He obliges and I sip my cold drink and run my eye over the apartment, which, she tells us later, has now mainly become a storage place for her vast wardrobe.

In 2001 she admitted to owning over 5,000 dresses – no wonder, by now, she’s had to buy yet another house.

‘The public always supposes that I’ve made so much money in my career,’ she says, ‘but the fact is I always re-invested back into my business; my costumes alone used to eat up much of my earnings. When I did start to make money I invested in property.’ And so she has. The palatial flat on the Maadi corniche is a just a short drive in a 4×4 from her out-of-town villa (de rigeur for the rich of Cairo these days) with a gigantic green garden and swimming pool in the leafy Sakaara valley.

She has also bought an even larger villa for her daughter, and gives me a virtual tour of it, complete with background music, on her ipod. If your image of Fifi is still set somewhere back in the 1980’s, coming down in that crane wearing Madame Abla, think again – she’s on Facebook!

It wasn’t long ago that Fifi declared the foreign dance scene irrelevant to her own life as a dancer, but since going to the United States twice to teach, her viewpoint has changed. Elaborating on her comments last time around, she once again expressed pleasure in foreigners’ appreciation of Egypt’s dance.

‘I am really proud that raqs sharki is so appreciated around the world – something that most Egyptians are not really aware of. In America, one of the things that especially pleased me was the inclusiveness of the dance scene there – in my classes I saw women of many different ages – and body types – enjoying dancing, and that made me happy. They want to learn this dance no matter what their background, age, or shape!’

She was also keen to point out that she has been an exporter of belly dance throughout her career, and indeed her home is full of awards presented to her over the years at international arts festivals, and by dignitaries of different countries – many of them within the Arab world. ‘I even danced for your Prince Phillip,’ she said, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘at the Mena House Hotel.’

Fifi dances with her bandThat twinkle is an intrinsic part of Fifi’s charm, which she can switch on like a dazzling chandelier at will. On a far-off stage it keeps her audience totally attuned to her; at close quarters it is almost hypnotic. There is something soft and kittenish in Fifi, but even as you are lulled by her apparent guilelessness, and the arch of those quizzical eyebrows, you sense the very real tiger that lives within – she is one powerful personality.

Here in Egypt, Fifi is now as much an acting star as a famous dancer.

She has made dozens of movies and TV series, often in the lead role, and gained respect as an actress – not always easy when you are coming from another field. This transition is similar in a way to one of her predecessors, Tahia Carioca, who had a terrific career playing matriarchal characters on screen for years after she hung up her costumes. (The connection between the two has lasted even after Tahia’s death, since Fifi took on the upbringing of Tahia’s adopted daughter when the girl was just three years old.) One of the proudest moments in Fifi’s life was a trip to Cannes Film Festival several years back where she took her place amongst the world’s elite actors in representing her country. It also, of course, appealed to her total love of glamour. I’ll never forget once whilst covering the Cairo Film Festival myself as a journalist, seeing the rush of the photographers when Fifi arrived outside in her limousine.

She may not have had the hit film of the festival that year, but she totally took the prize in the high glamour stakes, wearing floor length shocking pink and showing most of the other female stars how it should be done – this is a woman born for the red carpet!

In our last conversation Fifi had declared an interest in the idea of opening a school in Egypt for oriental dance, and I asked her whether she had taken any more steps towards this. Other dancers, including Dina, have already tried and failed because basically the dance is not officially recognized here as something one can go to school for or that the powers that be wish to be encouraged. Fifi addresses the topic: ‘If I want to do it, I can,’ she insists. ‘There is a problem in that there is no syndicate for oriental dancers, but I am a member of the actors’ syndicate and the dance can also come under the heading of folkloric dance. If the authorities object to calling it a school for oriental dance, then I can call it something else.’

Which is what usually happens; belly dance classes (usually folkloric based) can be found under the umbrella of ‘health clubs’ in Cairo. When I asked for her thoughts on the lack of recognition for the dance in Egypt that this indicates, she retorted:

‘I have been so busy with my own career I have not really been paying attention to the state of the dance here or the attitudes towards it. But one thing is sure: if oriental dance was not recognized and respected, I wouldn’t have got where I am today!’

Point taken. Perhaps Fifi’s recent and on-going experiences as a dance teacher may lead to real interest in making the school idea a reality, but my guess is that at present it’s a bit of a novelty for her and a change from her normal routine. She goes on to admit as much:

‘Teaching is not work for me – it’s a way to take time off from my normal hectic life and relax a little! I see it as a holiday.’ Compared to the grueling schedule of a Ramadan TV series shoot (which can be thirty episodes of an hour each, shot in a hurry because the director, crew and even the stars have a couple of other soaps to make for the same deadline), one can see her point. But what can students at the Congress actually expect from Fifi in her classes? Well, apart from the sheer thrill of being with her – and she really is a ‘people person’, using the warmth of her personality to connect – it will be a chance to see up close the mechanics of some of those unique moves we’ve all tried to emulate. Definitely a very different, and perhaps refreshing, approach to interpretation, feeling the subtleties of the music from the inside out with internal movements, rather than relying on the balletic and dramatic body flourishes we’ve come to expect from the ‘modern Cairo style’ crowd (including Randa Kamel).

Here is what one excited student has to say about what draws her to Fifi:

‘Watching her, it’s freeing to realize you can just get up there on stage and enjoy yourself; that it’s not about technique, but having the confidence and personality to do very little!’

That ‘very little’ may turn out to be harder than people think though. Deep muscle work, layering in the hips and learning mastery over weight changes in the feet are key to Fifi’s style. Then there are those shimmies: ‘from five feet away it’s a sight to behold’, was one comment by an awe-struck student after her last US workshop.

One thing is guaranteed though. Fifi is, above all things, an entertainer who knows how to work the crowd – and that includes a roomful of students. I for one can hardly wait!

Veil class in 2008
Veil class from the International Bellydance Congress 2007 in Surrey, England.
Fifi Abdou will be teaching at this September’s event. Info: bellydancecongress.com

 

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MaryEllen Donald