Back From the Brink of Extinction (For now)
posted July, 2009
In January 2009, I went to Egypt with the aim of visiting Khairiyya Mazin, the last remaining practictioner of authentic Ghawazi dance. It had been on my mind for six years since I met her in Cairo at the 2003 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. At that time things looked dire for Khairiyya and the legacy of the Ghawazi. Most of the Mazin girls had retired and disappeared from public view. They had sold all of their costumes; the“Pharaonic” costumes as well as the tob abu-l-kharaz (beaded dancing dress). As a result, Khairiyya had to rent her costume from the musicians when she worked. Khairiyya was dependent on the musicians and was harassed by the authorities while working. Edwina Nearing had petitioned the belly dance community to support this totally unique form of dance by going to study with Khairiyya. The one bright spot in this grim picture was that Khairiyya was determined to continue teaching and performing.
Things had certainly changed since 1985 when I first visited Khairiyya’s cousins Samia and Faiza at the Mazin house, and we had a veritable pajama party trying on their costumes.
During that first visit, I was fortunate to meet Josef Mazin, the patriarch of the family and Khairiyya’s father, who passed away shortly thereafter. I was also able to arrange a performance by Faiza and Samia with a rebaba orchestra on very short notice because they were not performing anywhere during the remainder of our stay in Luxor.
My 2009 travel plans finally came together (after obsessing about the trip for years and driving my loved ones crazy) when one of my students, troupe member and mistress of the Philadelphia web site Phillyraqs, Fatima Bassmah, expressed a desire to travel with me. She wanted to go to Cairo and Luxor to see the antiquities as well as to study with Khairiyya. One of my primary concerns was that I would not be able to conduct my interview unless I had a fluent Arabic speaker to translate for me. I wanted to find out Khairiyya’s current state of affairs as well as to ask questions about the various dances that the Mazin girls performed. In short, I needed to be able to communicate clearly with her.
When we began planning our trip we agreed that efficiency was top priority in getting around Cairo and Luxor for shopping, classes and sightseeing. We wanted to make the most of our relatively short trip. I had heard rave reviews from several sources, including Fatima, about a tour guide named Nibal
Gouda, who ran her own company, Egypt Guest. Fatima reported on her experiences with Nibal in 2008 when she visited Cairo, and of subsequently realizing that she is Nadia Hamdi’s daughter-in-law from an article in Gilded Serpent. We decided to hire Nibal to ferry us around Cairo. She specializes in personalized tours of Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria and the Oases. She also holds a degree in Fine Arts so her knowledge of ancient Egyptian and Islamic art history, as well as her intimate knowledge of Old Cairo (being the daughter in law of the great Nadia Hamdi), makes her a perfect guide for dancers. I didn’t have a current phone number for Khairiyya so I asked Nibal to help me contact her before our trip. I sent Nibal the address in English and Arabic that Edwina had published in Gilded Serpent. Nibal wrote to Khairiyya but received no reply. So, she asked one of her Luxor tour guides, Heba, to stop by her house. Khairiyya was home and gave Heba her current cell phone number.
Nibal called and yes, Khairiyya would be there in January when we planned to visit. My next problem was to find a female translator who could work with us during our dance lessons. I wanted a female translator who would respect Khairiyya. I thought that the typical young male tour guide would introduce discomfort, and I also did not know what the current mood was in Luxor about the dancers. Nibal’s guide, Heba Abd El Montaleb, agreed to translate during our sessions. Because I’d read that Khairiyya’s apartment was too small to teach more than one person, I wanted to rent a room in a hotel. Heba turned out to be a gem. She arranged for us to rent a disco in a hotel. She grew up in Luxor in the guide business, and was familiar with the hotel managers and the Benat Mazin without any bad connotation. She also took great photos and video. The space was enormous with a lot of light, and was great for photographs and videography.
We took two hours of class a day for three days. January turned out to be the perfect weather for visiting Cairo and Luxor, though the room was also air conditioned should we have needed it.
I was able, with Heba’s help, to ask Khairiyya about her situation and was totally surprised and delighted at her news. She will, of course, be teaching at Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2009. She is also available for lessons in Luxor. She actually prefers working with tourists over Egyptians. She said that in a small city it is difficult for her to perform. Khairiyya said that they are not allowed to dance in the street for weddings as they used to, but they did perform at a purification ceremony, or sub’u, for two children recently. The staff of the hotel were very respectful, and a waiter even came to the room where we were dancing and asked to meet her.
The really fabulous news is that Khairiyya’s sister Raja has come out of retirement and is dancing again.
They were booked all last season, though. Raja currently has a pin in her knee and is recuperating from knee surgery.
When asked about the Luxor dance climate she said that it has never been good in Luxor because everyone knows everyone else’s business. Rais Murad, the bandleader, is Khairiyya’s cousin, and acts as her agent. He is the world famous rebabist, Metqal’s Qennawi’s brother. When I talked with her about attitudes towards dance in Luxor, and Egypt in general, she feels that when the mind is opened through education this fosters acceptance of dance as an art form. When asked, she said that younger members of the family will not go into the family entertainment business. At present, all of her sisters are married and so are their children, so she can dance again without jeopardizing wedding plans for nieces and nephews.
Khairiyya apparently keeps abreast of who is performing in Cairo, and had some interesting recommendations on nightclub entertainers. Khairiyya’s picks: singer Sherifa Fadl at the Casino Leil, Lucy at the Parisiana and the rebaba player at the Casino Kasr al Nil.
The best part of my visit was that I got a chance to spend hours dancing with Khairiyya, and repetition is a great way to master a movement. In spite of the many years I have been teaching workshops in Ghawazi technique, I still feel that it is important for me to back to the source. I’ve found that even though I had the outline of a movement, I might not have developed the correct core and tone of the movement. The steps are often much more subtle than I remembered and the changes are minute from one step to another. We worked on Raqs al Sibs, which is performed to slower parts of the music and includes movements that literally melt into one another with gestures so subtle you might miss them. We also did some Raks al Jihayni (stick dance) steps and, of course, Raks al Takht, the beginning element in a Ghawazi performance.
Heba is a delightful companion and was a wonderful addition because she enjoyed dancing with us. It was a totally happy experience, like being in a time capsule, away from all conflicts. Fatima also said that she had rarely felt as happy as she did dancing those afternoons away.
I don’t have a lot to say about other dance in Luxor except I saw the worst folklore shows I’ve ever seen at the luxury hotels. The shows at the Steigenberger Palace and Winter Palace were totally awful. The dancers seemed so dispirited it appeared that they weren’t even trying to be pleasant.
I did see a folkloric ballet in a theater and, although the dancers were well trained and beautiful, it was more theater dance and historical pageant than beledi. It was a little like presenting the opera Aida as authentic Egyptian culture. To be perfectly fair, the average tourist in Luxor on a group tour probably prefers this kind of spectacle.
I had an unexpected additional opportunity to see Khairiyya in March when my husband and I went to Esna for a trip up the Nile in a 19th Century restored dahabeyah (a sailboat) for our 30th Anniversary. We stopped in Luxor to recover from jet lag and I contacted Nibal and Heba to see if I could visit Khaireyya. She invited us to her house for coffee and I was able to give her some things that I had written about the family over the years, like the Habibi articles (I was unable to give them to her in January because the airline lost all of my luggage and it was not recovered until the day before I returned to the States). We had a great time visiting, and Khaireyya shared some of her family photos with us that I hope to use in an upcoming work on the history of the Ghawazi.
Once again I am struck by the urgency of documenting the Mazin family history. I think the Ghawazi have gotten a reprieve with the return of Raja and the persistence of Khairiyya, but make no mistake, no one else in the family is going to enter the traditional family business, so we all have a responsibility to preserve this dance form.
If You Go:
You will find that studying with Khairiyya is very reasonable ($35 for a one hour private lesson) and so was renting the room (about $35 for 2 hours in a hotel disco.)
Khairiyya’s cell: 002 0163797012
If you feel that you need more help, and/or want to hire a translator, contact Nibal Gouda and ask to hire Heba in Luxor. Heba’s services were part of a package that included personal tours of the Valley of the Kings and other antiquities. Nibal’s rates depend on the tour package selected. Hallmarks of her business include spotless vehicles, skilled drivers, and guides with excellent English skills.
Company: Egypt Guest
To call Nibal from the US: 002-0101649785
To call Nibal in Egypt: 0101649785
To reach Nibal on Facebook: search Nibal Abdel Aziz
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