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Fresh Eggs and the Festival Begins

Report No. 3: Ahlan Wa Sahlan, Part 1

Dinner!

by Leyla Lanty
From the Field June 14 – July 1 5, 2011
Dancer portraits by Denise Marino
posted November 10, 2011

On June 14, 2011, I left home for a month long stay in Cairo, Egypt, my home away from home.  The purpose of this trip, one of many I’ve made there, was to attend Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2011 as well as visit with old friends, make new ones and most important of all this year, to see and experience some of the changes taking place after Egypt’s revolution in January.  What follows is a six-part recounting of what I saw, did and felt, based on a diary I kept while I was there.

Fresh Eggs, Dinner at a Local Restaurant

On most days, my breakfast consists of a fresh egg, fresh bread, butter and good Brazilian coffee.  Because I prefer brewed coffee to instant, I brought a coffee filter cone and enough paper filters for the month with me and bought the ground coffee at the Carrefour store that I described in Report #1.  Sometimes I buy grocery items for myself, but on occasion, one of Ahmed’s sons or the ‘tween-age daughter of our bowab (doorman) brings supplies and/or a shrimp or chicken lunch for which I’ve paid in advance.   Essential supplies for me are “3aish fino” (fine bread) which are hot-dog bun sized baguettes, butter, bottled water by the case, marinated olives, cheese, cheap luncheon meat for the hall kitties, and fresh eggs.

In one delivery, the eggs arrived nestled in a big “nest” of straw, with a few fluffy chicken feathers (and other reminders that the eggs come from real birds), all enclosed in a big sturdy plastic bag.  I soaked them in a pot of soapy water for an hour or so and then used paper towels to scrub them clean before putting them in the refrigerator.  This is what it means to have fresh eggs in Cairo!  Yummy–but you have to work for them!

However, for most dinners and lunches, I eat in local restaurants.   Here’s a typical dinner for two at one of my favorite places in Khan el Khalili:  beef and lamb kabob, humus, baba ghanoug, pita bread, green salad and torshi (pickled vegetables).

Mena House
Photo credit www.oberoihotels.com/oberoi_menahouse/index.asp

Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2011 at the Mena House, Oberoi)

As usual, Ahlan Wa Sahlan was a wonderful experience for me!  I attended every day, going late on days on which I had no class scheduled, to meet with people, planned or not, shop at the booths of vendors lining the hallways, enjoy lunch and dinner with other dancers.  We’d discuss dance in general or our experiences in classes with the AWS teachers, from super stars such as Azza Sherif, Dandash, Dina, Nelly Fu’ad and, of course, Raqia Hassan, to teachers and trainers from the Mahmoud Reda troupe and top teachers from outside of Egypt.  

Now for the details:
Opening Night, June 27 – A treat for the eyes and ears, and (oh yes!) the taste buds too.
Because there was a much smaller crowd this year than in previous years, the Opening Gala was held on the Nile Maxim River Boat (operated by the Cairo Marriott hotel).

 Photo credit: www.maximrestaurants.com

There were three big buses ready at the hotel to take everyone from the Mena House to the boat–about a half an hour drive.  We arrived at the Maxim in good time by local standards, with a full security escort of police cars with their blue lights flashing.  

Elisa from Australia, several others, and I were the last to get off the buses, and we found ourselves in a procession into the boat loading area along with the raqs tanoura dancers and a band of drums, rebaba, and mizmars; there is nothing like making a big, loud entrance!  The band members encouraged us to dance along as they played, and who are we to argue against that?

Although we could see the dancers pretty well, it was not a good vantage-point for taking pictures.  Dinner was delicious and so was the show!  Each dance star had her own orchestra of 15 to 20 pieces, plus a solo singer or two, as well as some backup singers.  The music was to “die for”!

Katia by Denise MarinoOur first dancer was Katia Sherbakova, a Russian dancer who has been performing in Cairo for several years.  Her performance included excellent Raqs Sharqi followed by playful Balady or folk and another Balady number, complete with tabla balady and mizmar players on the dance floor with her.   

Aziza by Denise MarinoAziza, a rising star Egyptian dancer was next.  I very much enjoyed her Oriental performance as well as her Balady.  (I was pleased to see that Dandash’s talented sister, whom I met several years ago, is now Aziza’s singer!)

Then Soraya, “queen of the drum solo”, was next.  She did an energetic Egyptian-style Oriental number along with one influenced by Brazilian dance styles as well as another Balady number.  She is the best drum-solo dancer I’ve ever seen!

Soraya ZaiedDina capped off our evening with a signature Oriental show that was pure Dina!  What more can I say?  I loved her new woman singer who reminded me very much of Fatme Sirhan (Dina’s former singer who is now retired).

During the sit-down dinner at the beginning of the evening, we sailed up and down the Nile for a time or two.  Then, they tied up at the dock for the rest of the party until about 2 a.m. when we boarded the buses and returned to the festival hotel.  It was a wonderful star-studded evening and a wonderful way to start the festival, although I pitied those who had 10:00 a.m. classes the next day!

You may wonder why I go to Ahlan Wa Sahlan so often, (other than the fabulous opportunities to learn from the best teachers in the world and see the best Egyptian dancers perform).

One of the aspects of AWS that I enjoy most is the contact it offers with dancers not only from Egypt, both Egyptian and foreign-born, but from all over the world.  It’s a rare opportunity to find out that our dance idols are real people who are warm, friendly, and eager to share their knowledge.

 Many people come to the festival year after year–so each time is a reunion with old friends as well as the opportunity to form new bonds with other dancers.  This time was no exception.  Attendance was down this year because of the current state of the world economy and the changes taking place in Egypt as a result of the revolution in late January. Nevertheless, everyone said over and over, “Insha’allah (God willing) next year!”

At times during the festival–with all its noise, hubbub, excitement–one needs some “down” time to relax or enjoy conversation with friends.  One afternoon, I found a quiet place for this purpose in the first-floor lobby–-“The Mamluk Bar”.  It was not in operation for the week of the festival; so, it offered a perfect place for some peace and quiet.  There, I found Andre Elbing, one of the two photographers who were authorized to photograph all aspects of the festival.  Andre interviewed me on my background, history, and philosophy in dance and said he may use it in an article for one of the dance magazines to which he contributes.  Later in the week, I met with Andre again and with Denise Marino, the other authorized  festival photographer, to make arrangements with both of them to buy some wonderful photos that they took of my performance at the evening Summer Show.

Every night is a party at Ahlan Wa Sahlan!

If you don’t get enough schmoozing with other dancers between classes or at meals, there’s a Summer Show every night.  Each of the evening shows provides a chance to get to know new acquaintances better or to hang out with old friends.  On the first two nights, all the dance slots were reserved for teachers who wished to perform.  Teachers’ nights give the festival teachers an opportunity to show what they’re going to teach, and maybe, attract more students to their classes.  The other nights are for  anybody who wants to sign up to perform and those who want to join a competition for prizes.  The dancers range from advanced students to full-time professionals.   Beside all the lovely women who performed on the two teachers’ nights, Loli and Sherif Ragaey, two young Egyptian male teachers, were real standouts in the lineup.  In my opinion, they will likely become well-known as dancers and teachers.

On the first teachers’ night, we were treated to a performance by the Amr Abu Ziad Troupe.  They had all-male dancers, including men on 6-foot high stilts dancing through the audience, several Raqs Tanoura (turning/spinning) dancers, at least two singers, and a Saidi band.  The last few minutes of their show included audience dancing.  Wow!  It was non-stop excitement!

Leyla performs!

Stick Dancers

Amr Abu Ziad Troupe’s band (all of it) and the troupe’s tahtib dancers

Again this year, Raqia hired Debbie Smith to be the emcee and general manager of the dancers at the evening parties.  Under Debbie’s guidance, the shows ran smoothly from one dancer to the next and from CD dancers to live music dancers and back again to CD dancers.

Closing part one on a personal note: I was surprised by the number of people who asked why I was not dancing on one of the teachers’ nights.  I have taught finger cymbals (sagat, or zills) at four previous festivals, but did not teach this year because of the reduced attendance and teaching staff.  Insha’allah–I will teach again next time!

Coming up:  Report #4 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Part 2 – classes, performing with the Safaa Farid Band, and the Closing Gala.

Previous chapters of Leyla’s A Month in Cairo 2011 Reports

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