Gilded Serpent presents...

Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 11- 1977

Research Strengthens the Impression that Until Recently,
the Majority of Professional Dancers in Mid East Were Gypsies

Chengi Dancer
Dancing Girl, Topkapi Palace Museum, ca.1710-20

by Edwina Nearing
posted December 12 , 2011

Begun in the mid-1970’s , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi" were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi" in Habibi Magazine in 1977. The author, orientalist Edwina Nearing (writing under the nom de guerre "Qamar el-Mulouk"), intended the series to be an investigative report on what Lady Duff Gordon in 1865 called "the real dancing girls of Egypt." Now, in the decades since Nearing’s Ghawazi series first appeared, it has itself become a part of history, its people, places and events almost as exotic and remote as those described in the 19th century works the author drew upon for background information. "The Mystery of the Ghawazi" was reprinted in 1984 by popular demand and updated in a 1993 article, "Ghawazi on the Edge of Extinction." Since then, most of Nearing’s Ghawazi material has been out of print. Gilded Serpent is happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.

[ Ed note: This section was previously published in Habibi as the last section of "Part 9". Because it is has been so long since the previous section was published here in Gilded Serpent, it has been renamed "Part 11". Please go to Edwina’s biopage to find the previous sections of this series here on Gilded Serpent]

Turkish cengi dancersMajor Jarvis devotes several pages of his 1930s Egyptian memoirs to the Nawar (var. Nawara) whose name he heard or construed as "Nawah":

"Those who have read Doughty’s classic Arabia Deserta will recall frequent mentions of a queer nomad race who were not Beduin Arab stock and who were called the Solluba.  Doughty met parties of them on many occasions during his wanderings and relates of them that they are a nomad people who live by hunting, veterinary work and the tinkering of pots and pans for the Beduin.

"Nothing whatsoever is known of the origin of these Solluba, or Nawah as they are called in Palestine and Egypt, but there seems little doubt that they are an Eastern branch of that queer and unaccountable race, the Gipsies.  Making allowances for difference of climate and surrounding, their methods of life are almost precisely the same as those of our Gipsies in England . . .

"Tinkering of pots and pans is common in both races, but it is over the doctoring and faking of animals that the similarity is most marked . . .

"The Solluba of the desert, as Doughty relates, have the same extraordinary gift with horses, donkeys and camels, but the Beduin like the British farmer is very suspicious of anything that emanates from a Solluba encampment, for the filing of teeth to hide the correct age and all the other devices of the expert horse-coper are known to them.  Another charge that is made against thise race is the mysterious disappearance of chickens that seems to coincide with their arrival in the vicinity of Arab encampments . . .

"It is, however, among the womenfolk that the resemblance is most marked, for the Solluba woman, unlike the retiring Arab female, is a brazen creature with flashing black eyes and striking good looks which she sets off by huge ear-rings and cheap jewellery.  Her features, as a rule, are very similar to those of the English Gipsy girl, and there is usualy some hint of the Tartar in the slanting angle of the eyes and the height of the cheek-bones.

"She is a professional singer and dancer, being taught by her mother from her earliest youth, and with the menfolk beating the taboor (drum) and twanging the kamanga (zither) she gives turns at the Beduin encampments for which the "hat" is passed round afterwards.

 The contributions are usually in kind rather than coin and take the form of corn, olives and coffee beans.  When they become old and lacking in charm and allure, fortune-telling takes the place of dancing and in every Solluba encampment there are wizened old hags who, when their palms are crossed with silver, will give one glimpses into the future where lovely girls and fast-riding camels play a prominent part.

"The Solluba speak Arabia but like our Romanies in England, also have heir own language which they use among themselves only; it is disappointing if one tries to link up the two races to find that there is apparently no similarity between the two vernaculars.  One point, however, they have in common is the face that it is an entirely original language and almost impossible to arrive at a derivation of any of the words used.

"The policemen of the East have much the same opinion of the Solluba as have our constables of the Gipsies — in other words, they prefer their room to their company.  In return the Solluba have little use for the forces of law and order and the appearance of a uniform is usually the signal for a quiet fading away into the desert wastes.  It is this natural aversion to officialdom that hampers one in one’s efforts to discover the origins of this queer people, for they are naturally on their guard when interrogated in any way.  A harmless question such as ‘Where did your people come from originally?’ is immediately considered to be the beginning of a cross-examination concerning a shady camel deal at the last stopping-ground, and the Solluba become mute or evasive as a result."(1)

CengiIn light of Major Jarvis’ identification of the ‘Nawah’ with the Solluba, I reviewed some relevant passages on these people by a noted sociologist whose works are required reading in university courses in Near Eastern Studies, Raphael Patai, and was rewarded with the following:

"One of the best-known and -studied vassal tribes, the Solluba . . . are dispersed all over the northern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and further to the north in the Syrian Desert and the adjoining territories, while according to some observers they can be found as far south as Yemen.  Solluba splinter groups are attached to practically every [noble badawin] tribe within this wide area, and while they all go under the name of Solluba, they can be identified more closely by the name of the tribe of which they are the clients . . .

 ". . . it may be mentioned that the women of vassal tribes generally enjoy more freedom than the women of the noble tribes.  Among the noble tribes there are several who veil their women.  The women of the vassal tribes, however, do not wear any veil, and therefore, especially in places where the noble women are veiled, are easily recognizable..  The Solubba women, for instance, never veil and rarely wear a milfa [a face or head veil as opposed to the burqa, face mask].  Among the Solubba, who are very fond of dancing, it is moreover customary for men and women to dance together — in itself a highly disgraceful and unseemly thing in the eyes of the noble tribes — and, what is even more shocking for them, in the course of the dance the men occasionally kiss their partners on the mouth before the audience . . .

"The theory of the non-Arab ancestry of the Solubba is supported by the non-Arab language that they use among themselves . . ."(2)     

Only a comparison of Nawari and Sollubi vocabularies would determine whether they are indeed the same people.  Patai’s caveat that the Solluba "can be identified more closely by the name of the tribe of which they are the clients" indicates just one of the potential difficulties in tracing the history of the Gypsies and Gypsy-like groups.  The important point for dance research, however, which I subsequently found supported by descriptions in many other accounts (e.g., Richard Burton, Gertrude Bell) is the association of such groups with music and dance; usually the only mention of Gypsies in an old Middle Eastern ‘travel book’ is in connection with a dance performance.

As stated in Part 10, the consensus of scholarly opinion is that the Gypsies split into two parts during their westward migration through Iran. One branched off to the south through Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and the other continued west through Turkey into Europe and hence the New World, these latter the ‘Romanies’ or Roma, whom the world at large knows as ‘Gypsies.’  The Roma, when they first appeared in Britain centuries ago, claimed to be from ‘Little Egypt,’ whence their name was distorted as ‘Gypsy’ in English.  (It is interesting, though probably fanciful, to speculate whether the dancer ‘Little Egypt’ of 1893 World Fair fame who, by one account, was from Syria, may not have been of the Nawar, slyly revealing her identity in her name.)  At any rate, the Roma, too, left a Ghawazi-like group in the East, in Turkey.  The Turkish Gypsies, the Cingene, have a major presence in Turkish danse orientale, attested in numerous sources.  There are the usual old travelogues, but in addition newer hints  — a brief but powerfully realistic scene of a Gypsy cengi (‘belly dancer’) in Turkish-born director Elia Kazan‘s film America America, for example, and more than one videotape of Turkish dance entitled ‘Sulukule Nights’ in recognition of Istanbul’s Gypsy quarter as Turkey’s chief dance venue. Researching dance in Istanbul after leaving Aleppo in 1977, I had the good fortune to find a copy of A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing by Metin And, Drama Professor at the University of Ankara and long-time dance and drama critic for the Turkish press, as well as contributor to the American magazine Dance Perspectives.  Professor And emphasizes the Gypsy role in his description of cengi dance:

"The Turkish name for both dancing boys and girls is cengi . . . explanation of the origin of the word derives from its similarity in sound to the word cingene meaning gypsy and it will be remembered that the majority of the dancing boys and girls were, in fact gypsies . . .

"Sulukule is the quarter of gypsy dancing girls, and some have found shelter in the night clubs performing so-called Oriental Dancing, and a great number of them tour the Middle Eastern countries, Europe, and the U.S.A. and have performed in luxurious night clubs.  And some can still be seen in villages in Anatolia.

"In Europe cengi dancing is invariably called belly dancing or danse du ventre . . ."(3)

Thus, under one guise or another, we find Gypsies or Ghawazi-like groups as a fluid substratum of professional entertainers all over the Near East.  In view of the numbers and wide distribution of such groups, and their disproportionate representation in the entertainment arts because of the ‘respectable’ Muslim’s avoidance of these professions, it seems reasonable to suspect that the Gypsies left elements of their style(s) of music and dance wherever they passed, as well as appropriating elements of the styles of the regions through which they passed and spreading them to other regions.

 It has yet to be determined whether all of the Ghawazi-like groups are related to one another, what specific subcultural elements they share, where they have been, what they have left behind and what they took with them.  Perhaps, in today’s fast-changing world, it is already too late to do this, or to evaluate the extent of their role in the development and diffusion of the East’s lively arts, but the implications of their existence must be taken into account in any consideration of Near Eastern music and dance.


(1)  Jarvis, C. S., Desert and Delta, London, John Murray, 1938, pp. 152-155.

(2)  Patai, Raphael, Golden River to Golden Road, University of Pennsylvania Press, 3rd ed., 1969, pp. 251, 259-262.

(3)  And, Metin, A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing, Ankara, Dost Yayinlari, 1976, pp. 138-146.


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  1. Morocco

    Dec 20, 2011 - 07:12:45

    I mention Edwina’s fab series on the Ghawazi in my book a few times – because her series is a must read.
    How obvious the Major’s racism is, but there is much good & valid info to be gleaned even from him.
    FYI: the Ghawazi (& prob. also the “Nawah” he mentions) are Sinti, not Roma & yes, they ARE a different linguistic group than “his” English Romanies. Both groups originated in different areas of India, the Sinti men were originally mercenaries, the Roma are the ones mentioned in the “Shah Nameh” as having come with the retinue of a daughter of the Maharajah of the Hindustan area, who married one of the sons of the Shah: musicians, singers, dancers, silver/gold/metalsmiths, etc.
    FWIW, there are also Luri & Manoush. Django Reinhardt was Manoush.

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