Cairo, Egypt, 1984
by Najia Marlyz
posted January 24, 2010
She stands about five feet two in her stocking feet, hand extended in greeting, a lovely smile on her finely chiseled and very famous face. Nagwa Fu’ad greets me in her dressing room at La Belle Epoche Nightclub, high on top of the French Meredien Hotel situated on a small island on the edge of the eternal Nile River. Can this be the same woman who got her start with the silly epithet "Ambassadoress of Love" and who posed for gentle cheesecake photos a decade ago?
She is indeed — now transformed into a Middle Eastern dance star of unequaled heights whom the people in Egypt readily admit will never be replaced by any of the new people now jockeying for her spot at the top. There are two dancers at the top in 1984 — each pursuing a different image for herself as the best.
Nagwa seems to have excelled in innovation and creativity with the new compositions. She dances with the old favorites, but shines with the new orchestras playing current pieces. (When I say "current" I do not mean "pop" music. These are the modern classics, which have emerged in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.)
The other dancer, Sohayr Zaki, has preferred to stick with the old classics, and songs written for Oum Kalthoum and has remained a conservative dancer throughout her career, which is now rumored to be finished due to fulfillment of her lifelong dream of motherhood. The gossip around Cairo says that it is unlikely she will return to the dance world, because she has been married for 15 years and has waited for a child all that time. She is reputed to be conservative in her private life with a good reputation to preserve. It is speculated around Cairo now, that a return to dance could possibly jeopardize her good name! Time changes many things, and for now, Sohayr Zaki is rumored to have retired. [Author’s update: Sohayr continued to dance throughout the eighties and retired gradually in the mid-nineties.]
Nagwa Fu’ad has a grown daughter who is not a dancer, and Nagwa also has a tempestuous private life. Perhaps the emotion expressed in the dance and her involvement with her music and productions has been a product of her passionate creative nature and her life — one can only speculate! It is true, however, that many Arabs place their preference for Sohayr partially on the comparison of the personal lives of these two performers, rather than on artistic merit alone.
Watching a performance by Nagwa Fu’ad is not a cheap endeavor. She appears in a first rate nightclub that features the finest of French cuisine, her audiences are composed of both locals and tourists and they are always dressed to the nines. Nagwa’s personal orchestra numbers about 35 musicians, and she has a chorus line of dancers, who perform while she makes speedy costume changes.
The first night I saw her dance in 1983, I gave her a boquet of little red roses. She accepted them with an Arabic style kiss on each cheek while still playing her finger cymbals. (Cymbals are used infrequently in Egypt, but have not been totally abandoned.)
I was very impressed by the accessibility of this famous dancer. Here I was after the performance at about 3:30 a.m., being welcomed into the dressing room of the most famous Belly dance star in Egypt (or anywhere). I was thrilled to see that Nagwa Fu’ad is an ageless beauty, whose boundless energy, during her performance is truly admirable. The costume changes, during one performance generally number of about 10. They are ornate and unique. Nagwa sings with a clear, resonant voice and has been studying music at the University in Cairo, in order to expand her performing abilities. Fortunately, she greeted me in English, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. She feels more comfortable speaking Arabic, so an interpreter was needed to translate the Arabic parts of our conversation — after thoroughly embarrassing me by announcing "Najia speaks Arabic! Say hello to your teacher, Nagwa." (After words like hello, broom, screw driver, food, and such, my Arabic gets pretty funny.) Nagwa’s speaking style, is flowery, and her voice well modulated and musical.
Nagwa (in English): Thank you for the flowers you gave me. I really feel shy about all your compliments, but I will accept whatever you say for me.
Najia: I do mean what I said before; of all the dancers, you are queen! Please, will you sign this picture of us together?
Nagwa (English): Please excuse me; can I do it in Arabic? My written English is no good at all.
Najia: It was really my dream to speak with you and to see you dance in person. My students and I have studied your dance movements on videotapes.
Nagwa (English): Also, it is a dream to me to hear from an American that they like me there. I plan to come to America soon. Please give me your phone number so I can call you when I touch America’s land.
Arabic interpreter: Najia teaches dancing in California, and she shows her students all of your videotapes. They are very popular with the students in America.
Najia: Nagwa, I feel that we are your students–in that way, watching the videos.
Nagwa(Arabic): I am very proud of that, because when I retire, there will still be somebody beautiful to take over and keep Nagwa alive. I would like to see you and talk to you further about it. Where are you staying?
Arabic interpreter: We are both staying at the Sheraton tonight and plan to move to the Meridian in the morning.
Nagwa (English): Najia, who was your teacher?
Najia: Bert Balladine in San Francisco was my first teacher and my main teacher, but now we are dance partners.
Nagwa: I think I know him… Yes, I do!
Arabic interpreter: Miss Fu’ad, you must know that you have made a dance revolution in American Belly dancing; Najia holds a meeting in her home every month to show videotapes of the dancers of Cairo, and you are always the one her dance students request most often!
Najia: I write for some American dance magazines, which are all about Belly dancing in America and everywhere, that is part of the reason I wanted to speak with you in person.
Nagwa: Oh yes! I do read the dance magazines…sometimes.
Najia: Thank you for talking with us. It is very late, and we should leave you now, but we will return to see your show on Christmas Eve. We hope to bring several friends along with us then to see you dance. There are many lovely dancers in Egypt, but you are the only one that a person must not miss when visiting Egypt!
Nagwa: Thank you. I cannot believe I hear that from America! Please come visit me after the show Christmas Eve.
The next day, Nagwa’s photograph sat prominently in our hotel room, inscribed in Arabic, "You have from me the most beautiful things that I have in my heart — with my greetings, Nagwa Fu’ad." Later that day, I watched her helpers struggle through the lobby of our hotel with a gigantic white suitcase full of her fabulous costumes, and Nagwa was on her way to a week in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia.
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