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The Festival That Never Sleeps

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The Costumers at 2010 Ahlan Wa Sahlan

by Roza
posted August 24, 2010

Named “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” (meaning welcome in Arabic) the 2010 International Belly Dance Festival in Cairo Egypt, produced by Raqia Hassan, charged ahead for a sleep-starved week. Many of the promoters, organizers, and even the vendors didn’t have time to sleep if they intended to accomplish their goals.

In 2007, 1,200 women from around the globe descended on this palace, according to appearances, or more accurately, a hunting lodge as the plaque in the lobby states, of the late King Faruq in 1889, and more recently converted to a 5-star Hotel by the Oberoi Group. 

However, in response to the recession of the world economy, the 2010 crowd thinned to approximately 580 dancers and the teacher roster dwindled from around 90 to 50. Still this represented an enormous achievement, considering it was all started by one woman, Raqia Hassan, with 9 teachers, just 11 years ago.
In economically struggling Egypt, the large numbers of tourists represent an incredible opportunity to initiate business. It is no accident that President Obama’s speech in Cairo encouraged Americans to engage in business exchange with Egyptians. There is evidence on every street corner of the exquisite artistry and business entrepreneurship of the Egyptian architecture and citizens.

As the true behavior of any species or culture can only be viewed in full force within its native environment, so too can an artist wishing to discover the magic in Egyptian Belly Dance or Raqs Sharqi, only succeed in observing the art in its full force here in Egypt.

  This dance permeates the culture and everything from the sense of humor, to the despair at the lack of privilege, and even basic necessity, plays a part in the spirit of the art. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Where the spirit does not move the hand, there is no art.”

I came from Arizona, as I have every year since 2007.  I’ve made friends here in Egypt with dancers from all over the world, dance teachers, college professors, lawyers who have a dance hobby, and Egyptians from every walk of life.  It is not unusual for me to talk about economics or politics with vendors, Arabic language teachers, poets, and seamstresses.

I accompanied my friend Sabouschka on a costume hunting mission where I saw my fellow American, Jillina, dance the final show of the closing Gala, discovered new dancers such as Aziza of Cairo, Joanna of Portugal, and loved seeing old favorites like Dina and Sorraya.

There was one thing they all had in common: the most creative, cutting edge, couture related costumes!

Egyptians have been making costumes for (possibly) thousands of years, and since Belly dance goes back 5,000 years; why not? They know how it should fit the body, move with the lines and motion, and creative geographic designs are, of course, a Middle Eastern staple.

Here in Egypt, all costumes are handmade, one of a kind.  The majority of these businesses are family owned, and it’s nice to know costume purchases are helping people in Egypt maintain both this craft and artistic skill and their families.

The vendors at Ahlan Wa Sahlan pay a premium price to rent a space inside the festival. The pressure to earn that money back is intense and most stay there in their vending stall 24 hours a day for the whole 7 days of the festival. In order to sleep they find a corner and nap for an hour or two. 2007 found them dancing in the aisles and singing and joking with the women who visit from over 20 countries. 2010 tells a more somber story–with far fewer vendors in a far more serious state of mind.  They still joke (Telling jokes is a traditional Egyptian pastime.) and try to make the girls laugh, but the dread is there. The pinch of the economy can be felt.

One attribute all vendors must possess is the ability to speak at least 4 languages, just well enough to tell a few jokes and sell a costume or two.  What they don’t know, they try to learn.

For example: one perplexed vendor didn’t know what it meant when trying to sell a costume, being told to “hold his breath.”  However, by the next day, their determination to do business was impressive, and with luck and cooperation, they will succeed.   In a very real way, it is interesting that this festival is doing exactly what President Obama mentioned: encouraging business between two countries that have such an amazing and unexpected connection.

Photos taken by author on July 1, 2010 at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, in Cairo Egypt.  
The photos in the ‘factory’ are in Giza. 
Caption for photo at top of page: A kind sould at her vending table inside
the Mena House Hotel, Ahlan Wa Sahlan, Cairo, Egypt, July 2010
Designer measuring a dancer in his costume, (Mamdouh Morisse, designer, and Saboushka, dancer)

Seamstress 1
Mother and Daughter and Grandmother in the supply room.

Seamstress 1
Mamdouh’s "factory" Grandmother, Daughter and Daughter’s Daughter
Seamstress 2
Friendly Seamstress and her Husband
Roza with ?
Roza between two young vendors from the designer house Crazy Move.,, Amad, Roza, Ahmad

Raqia Hassan,

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