Gilded Serpent presents...
Originally published in 1977 in Habibi Magazine, vol3 , no 11 (Zalot era)
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 3 - 1976
A name, figures
glimmering deep in the mind's eye, a legend - the Ghawazi finally became
a reality for me in the back room of a riverside casino in Upper Egypt.
On the one hand, I saw Karam and Amal Shauqi
Mazin, of the long-celebrated dancers of
Karam and Amal looked
at me out of eyes almond-ringed with kohl, the dark lines extending
somewhat beyond the inner and outer corners of the eye and the lids
dusted with turquoise to the brows, which were plucked narrow from underneath: the
legacy of ancient
Past and present were mingled, too, in the ghaziyyas' attire. Their polychromatic costumes were basically similar to those in rare photographs of Egyptian dancers from the 1890's, but under the traditional little sleeveless vest of the one, instead of a thin white blouse, was a heavy synthetic knit pullover, and beneath the vest of the other, a home-made blouse of some lustrous, flimsy violet stuff, the sleeves tight to the elbow and then flaring wide to the wrist.
Gone, too, were yesteryear's restraint in color, the pale golds on dark reds, the silver on deep rose.
To be sure, Karam's skirt and vest were black and the beadwork silver, but each strand of beads ended in a red or green spangle, and alternate rows of red and green spangles flashed from the blue streamers of the girdle. Her blouse was violet, her high heels blue, her bracelets, rings and earrings gold, her necklace, a pointed bib of coins covering the deep opening of the vest to the sternum, age-darkened brass. The taj in her blonde hair, set off with a rhinestone brooch in the center, was encrusted with cup sequins in wide, vertical bands of silver, green, and red, separated by ropes of gold beads. More gold beads fell from the taj in festoons over her forehead.
Those shivering yards and yards of fringe, and the short skirt which bulked unnaturally wide at the hips and flounced with every movement, suggested a manner of dancing far removed from the fluid poetry of the "Ghawazi Dance" presented in the 1976 repertoire of Egypt's National Troupe for Folk Arts. There the dancer had worn the long black and silver gown of tull bi-telli, net worked with flattened metal knots, often associated with the Ghawazi in the Egyptian popular imagination.
Did Karam and Amal never wear the gowns of tull bi-telli, I asked wistfully? No, they did not; nor did they recognize the name of the fabric or identify the stuff itself with certainty, though perhaps it was that from which they made the summer blouses of their costumes. Except for the seasonal variation in the blouse, their costumes were what I saw before me now, in December. And if form were any indication of function, what I saw before me indicated a predominance of rapid hip movement, just as did Tahitian dance costume, whose silhouette these Ghawazi costumes somewhat resembled.
This prediction proved accurate, as I found after concluding my too-hasty visit with Karam and Amal and settling down at a table in front of the Casino Rababa's large stage to watch their performance. Their dancing, as the great orientalist Edward Lane had recorded of the Ghawazi in the early 19th century, had "little of elegance, its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side." Playing their finger cymbals continuously, Karam and Amal danced, sometimes in unison, usually going their own ways, to the music of a standard oriental orchestra, music in 4/4 time which varied from medium-fast to very fast. The perpetual bounce of the skirts and flurry of glittering fringe, while emphasizing the motion of the hips, also obscured the exact nature of the movements, but not the lack of variety. Besides the predominating side-to-side shimmy, there appeared to be a vertical shimmy; both were occasionally done with a little stomp of the right foot in time with the music. There was a walk with a shallow, halting torso undulation, the pelvis slightly forward.There were breast shimmies. The famous "Egyptian Walk" ("Step-Hip," "Step-Lift") was much in evidence, though not immediately recognizable as they rendered it: on each "hip" or "lift" segment, in which there occurred virtually no thrust of the hip, they turned to face at full right angles to the direction of travel, and the "step" segment was somehow accomplished with a little upward toss of the derriere. For this "Egyptian Walk," as for most of the dance, the arms were carried in one position, broken at the elbow with the forearms almost at right angles to the upper arms and rather forward of the body, the hands shoulder level or higher, palms facing each other.
This seemed to lend a strained, wooden aspect to the shoulders and upper torso which, in my eyes, considerably detracted from the grace of the dance. As Karam and Amal themselves had asserted, it did not resemble oriental dance.
Although Edward Lane had observed that "some of these women add to their other allurements the art of singing, and equal the ordinary 'Awalim . . .," that had been over a hundred years ago, and I had resignedy assumed this attainment to have gone by the board, with so much else. Karam and Amal sang, in unison, every other stanza of the lively tunes played by the musicians, and as they sang they did a simple step-lift in place, alternating feet. This combination of song and dance could occasionally be seen in old Egyptian films. After their performance, the individual who, no doubt for "a piece of the action," had undertaken to arrange for me a special performance of Ghawazi dancing and tahtib, inquired whether these dancers would be acceptable. As I could hardly form an idea of the Ghawazi arts from the performance of only two of their exponents, and might well not find other Ghawazi by myself performing in the limited time at my disposal, I requested that other, hopefully better, dancers be obtained. "But not the Banat Mazin," I admonished him, explaining that the Mazin family's most famous troupe was supposed to have been already subjected to a good deal of study by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and more than one foreign researcher as well.
Saturday morning arrived sunny and clear, like most mornings in Upper Egypt's winter, with only a faint reminder of night's chill in the air. The enclosed courtyard of the Radwan Hotel had been partially cleared for the event, the dining tables having been pushed to the back and sides. A few of these were already occupied by small groups of European tourists whose dragomans had gotten word of what was up and informed their charges. The sun still lying at an angle to the high walls of the hotel, only a patch of sunlight toward the front of the courtyard reached the lawn on which the Ghawazi would dance, leaving the rest in heavy shade. As I needed sufficient light for movie filming, I shoved the tables further to the sides to create a larger dancing area here, then walked off the distance at which I would need to stand from the performers in order to keep them entirely within the camera's lens. This put me uncomfortably near the thorny hedge along the back of the court.
They appeared to be in their 20's, one slender and brunette, the other fairer, with raven black hair; both were quite pretty. The brunette wore a long, form-fitting gown of some dark red stuff, slashed up the sides from the hem to a few inches above the knee, the hem and side openings edged with silver spangles, as were the long bell sleeves. The deep "V" neck of the garment, which disclosed another of the ubiquitous heavy knit pullovers donned against the earlier chill and a necklace of red jewels, was trimmed with wider bands of spangles, and from there to the hem of the gown ran a narrow double row of silver spangles. These also covered the hairband in her hair, or wig, which was long with straight-cut bangs, like that of Amal at the Casino Rababa Her earrings were of a set with the necklace, and red high heels completed the ensemble. Later, when she danced, she would put on the hip girdle: cut straight across of the same red fabric as the gown, a hand's breadth wide in front and wider in back with a band of silver spangles along upper and lower edges, and two rows of silver bugle-bead fringe, tipped with spangles, one row short and the other, hanging from the girdle's lower edge, about seven inches long.
The other dancer's attire was similar to that of Karam and Amal, the only major difference being in the colors and the style of the vest. The vests of the two ghaziyyas at the Casino Rababa had largely covered the bosom, the "V" neck plunging to the sternum but relatively narrow; the present ghaziyya's bodice was cut wide enough to curve around and under the major portion of the bosom. The ends of her crescent necklace were fastened to either side of the bodice opening at about the collarbone, pulling the bodice together there somewhat for a pleasing reversed "key-hole arch" effect. Thus it seemed that modern Ghawazi costume preserved variations in style, just as could be seen in prints of Egyptian dancers from the early 19th century.
The increasing noise from outside, to which were now added the sounds of the orchestra's arrival, cut short our talk and summoned me back to the theater of operations. Chairs were being placed along the near wall of the courtyard for the musicians: five rababa (spike fiddle) players, a drummer and a tambourine player, dark and dignified men with moustaches in the traditional garb of the Egyptian village. They knew their jobs, and took only a few moments to settle themselves and unlimber their instruments. Farida and Khairiyya came out and stood near them.
Caption for "typical costume 1976"
Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part
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