Gilded Serpent presents...
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. 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.
Part 2 -- 1976
I wanted to find out more about these mysterious people who had made such an impact on the Egyptian and foreign psyche alike.
The tale which unfolded was a sordid account of power politics, economic pressures and the clash of values. According to my informant, the Ghawazi here had been forced by a local government official to take part in a commercial movie production entitled A Ghaziyya from Sunbat. Quite possibly they had been paid little or nothing for their assistance.
It was made clear to
the Ghawazi, who had never been entirely accepted in Sunbat, that they
had better attract no further attention. Hence they did not dare risk
any publicity by speaking with an outsider, especially one who might
write about them in
There had not always been Ghawazi in Sunbat, continued my informant. They had arrived there in the 1940's, in straitened circumstances, camping on the outskirts of the village in makeshift burlap tents. They availed themselves of their rights according to the tenets of the Islamic religion to ask food of the villagers, and whenever there was a wedding in Sunbat they would provide music and dancing. Eventually they began to get paid for their services, and their fame spread to neighboring villages and towns, where they were also asked to perform. Finally they were able to move into the houses of Kafr al-'Arab Street.
This, it seemed, was
all that I would learn about the Ghawazi of Sunbat. Friends of mine
in a nearby town added that they considered it unlikely that the Ghawazi
were only recent arrivals in the village, as they recalled having heard
of Sunbat in that connection for all their lives. They suggested that
my informant may have been trying to upgrade the image of Sunbat by
claiming that the Ghawazi were not really indigenous to the village.
Several days later I mentioned to Nahid Sabri, one
Sunbat continued to haunt me until at last I did go back, with an introduction to a member of a Ghawazi family there. This young man, also, seemed uneasy about my presence but dutifully deposited me in his family's salon while he went to locate a dancer or two. He had confided that his sister had been a dancer until forced to leave the profession by their mother, and now that same mother waited with me silently, expressionlessly, for her son's return.
Somehow it came as no surprise when her son informed me that all the dancers - there were not many in Sunbat - were unavailable, performing in other villages. I would have to find my Ghawazi in Upper Egypt, just as tourists had been doing for the past hundred years or so.
Along with the Pyramids, Luxor, a large village on the Nile River in Upper Egypt, has been a major goal of tourists for the last 150 years. This is chiefly due to its proximity to such reminders of ancient Egyptian greatness as the Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. There are, however, other attractions as well.
Arriving in the evening at the railway station, I, like generations of foreign visitors before me, was quickly taken in hand by one such enterprising individual, and scarcely an hour later I had paid a deposit of ten Egyptian pounds (approximately US $15.00) as part of a total fee of twenty pounds for a troupe of musicians, a pair of tahtib (quarterstaff) players, and a pair of Ghawazi dancers to perform for me on Saturday, two days hence. I would be free to ask questions and make recordings and movies - the people of Luxor were accustomed to such goings on, perhaps even amused by them. A few minutes afterwards, I was bundled off in a hantur, or horse-drawn carriage, to a riverside casino, the Rababa, where Ghawazi were scheduled to perform that very evening. Surely now, at last I should find out who the Ghawazi were and what they really did; but warned by experience, I had an uneasy suspicion that things wouldn't be so simple.
The Casino Rababa proved
to be a cavernous aggregation of brick walls and the varicolored appliqué
tentwork typical of festive occasions in
Hasty introductions were made: the girls were Karam and Amal Shauqi Mazin, the man, their father. I could not help but think of them as girls because of their short skirts and long, loose hair, an anomaly among Upper Egyptian woman. At odds with this youthful silhouette, heavy make-up lent them an appearance of sophistication and indeterminate age. As they were due on stage, I came immediately to the point: "Who are the Ghawazi?"
"Ghawazi are dancers," answered the man, "just as mughaniyyin (Arabic for "singers") are people who sing."
"But isn't the word for women who dance raqisat?"
"Yes, but ghawazi is the word the peasants around here use."
"Are the Ghawazi from a particular qabila, tribe?"
"They are of the tribe of Al-Nawara."
I tried to write, listen
and formulate my questions all at the same time, wishing for the umpteenth
time that the Gobbledegook Foundation would give me a grant to replace
my defunct tape recorder. Did they know of Ghawazi in other parts of
The answers came readily. Ghawazi were to be found in various places, from which they traveled to others to perform as they were needed. Their center in Upper Egypt was Luxor, where they lived at ease among the townsfolk. There were Ghawazi in Lower Egypt, and they had had contacts with them as far away as Alexandria. He could not speak with certainty of those people in Sunbat; perhaps they were afraid that we were tax assessors, or undercover police investigating prostitution. It was too hard for Ghawazi to live in Lower Egypt, where the people did not understand their art.
Oriental dancers moved around more and had a more varied repertoire, especially of arm movements. Oriental dancers performed to oriental music, with its "classical" Middle Eastern instruments, taqsim interpolations, and so forth, where the proper music of the Ghawazi was folk music on the mizmar and tabla baladi, which were never used in oriental orchestras, or sometimes the rababa (spike fiddle). Oriental dancers wore revealing costumes of delicate, gauzy materials; Ghawazi wore heavier, more complicated outfits which, they said, did not allow as much freedom of movement.
This was my first opportunity to examine Ghawazi costumes at close range. They were clearly descended from those shown in photographs of Egyptian dancers from the 1890's, which in turn may be ultimately derived, in part at least, from the standard, basically Turkish attire of preceding centuries best detailed by Edward Lane.
Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part
1 by Edwina Nearing
5-11-04 Page 4 of the Rakkasah West Saturday Photos The last page of photos for Saturday
2 of the Rakkasah Saturday Photos, Page
Dance in Israel by Orit Maftsir