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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi
by Edwina Nearing
A similar form articles was originally published in
1985 in Habibi Magazine Vol 8, 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 7 - 1976

Less than a century ago - only yesterday by history's calendar, though it seem unimaginably distant to the modern traveler - three things were uppermost on the agenda of the tourist in Egypt:  a climb up the Pyramids, a cruise along the Nile, and a viewing of the Ghawazi, the famed "dancing girls" of Egypt.  After the obligatory Ghawazi exhibition, one might include in one's memoirs a paragraph or so of vague allusions to their colorful attire and strange, unappealing music and dancing, goings-on not entirely comprehensible but doubtless not in good taste.  The commentary could be fleshed out with one or two clichés, jocular or censorious, but nearly always patronizing, on Ghawazi morals and customs.  So much for the culture of contemporary Egypt!  Now on to yet another description of the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings - after a peak at Baedeker and the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

But who were the Ghawazi?  Were they a tribe, as had sometimes been asserted?  And was the term " tribe" used in the sense of a group of people related by blood or an eponymous ancestor; or as the term was often used imprecisely, even jocularly, in 19th century English, to refer to a group sharing a certain outstanding characteristic, as in, for example, "the lascivious Delilah and all her tribe (meaning simply "a group of women of questionable morals and profession)?  What sort of people were they - those who could be found at this late juncture?  As I watched the ghaziyyas Farida and Khairiyya Mazin sing a final duet in the courtyard of Luxor's Radwan Hotel on a sunny winter's day in 1976, I was assailed by apprehensions that I, too, who professed a serious interest in the traditional Near East and peoples like the Ghawazi, had accomplished little more than those bygone tourists whose memoirs were so uninformative.  Thus, when Farida and Khairiyya left the courtyard, I followed them to the dark little room where they had gone to collect their few belongings.

Pen and notebook in hand, I thanked the two ghaziyyas for their dances and their songs.  And might I ask just a few more questions?  Indecision played across the slender Khairiyya's face - she clearly sympathized with me, but she had given a long performance and just as clearly wanted to hurry home and relax.  Abruptly she made up her mind:  would I be able to come by her house later that afternoon?  She couldn't repress a quick grin at the enthusiasm with which I accepted her invitation. 

Two hours later, accompanied by one of Luxor's least detachable cicerones, 'Abdu, I hailed a carriage and asked to be taken to the house of the Mazin family.  No more address was needed.  The little house, in a quiet street near the edge of town, presented the same almost-blank façade to passersby as the houses on either side of it; according to Eastern custom, there was no number.  The clip-clop of horse hooves apprising the occupants of our arrival, the door was open before we could descent from the carriage.  We received the grave salutations of Khairiyya, now in smart European attire, and a robust and imposing figure all in white - white robe, white turban, and white mustache - Yusuf Mazin, Khairiyya's father, patriarch of the Aulad Mazin

We were ushered into a small chamber lit with subdued sunlight from a window opening onto the street, which seemed to be the "family room"- comfortable, tidy, rather crowded, modestly prosperous, neither distinctively Eastern nor Western.  We seated ourselves, exchanged more polite words, and the inevitable awkward pause ensued, the pause which Arab custom bridges with an offering of tea or coffee, to be sipped while host and guest become more at ease with each other.  Oddly, no tea or coffee appeared, then or later, but the moment was saved by the entry of a young woman whose drab peasant gown and kerchief could not disguise a commanding presence.  She spoke, expressing the hope that we had enjoyed the day's entertainment despite her absence, for which she apologized; she had not been feeling well this morning.  I realized that this must be Khairiyya's sister Su'ad, for whom Farida had substituted.  Later, when I saw Su'ad dance, I understood the pride with which she spoke and the trepidation Farida had felt at taking her place.  Now she stood by her father across the room, wondering what sort of person I was, what I would say and if it would be worth remaining there to hear.

I explained my purpose in coming, and asked Yusuf whether he had been subjected to similar visitations in the past.  Yes, he said, several.  On the spur of the moment, I asked him what he thought of all these foreigners tromping into his home asking him strange questions. 

He raised his head and, looking me straight in the eye, replied quietly, "I think they are people who respect art." 

Could he recall some of these visitors?  Well, there was 'Aisha 'Ali, of course, the dance researcher from Los Angeles of whom I had already heard in Luxor.  She had declared the intention of bringing the Banat Mazin to the United States to perform with her own troupe.  There was a girl named Sherry, or Cheri, and an older woman . . .  the earliest foreign visitor whose name he could recall was someone from Hollywood, Cees--, Ceesible--  Cecil B. DeMille?  I knew that the great film producer was reputed to spare no expense for authenticity in the sets and costumes of his historical spectaculars - in everything but the history itself, in fact - and that part of the 1956 The Ten Commandments had been shot on location in Egypt.  Mr. DeMille had perhaps consulted the Mazin Ghawazi in connection with the sequences of ancient Egyptian dance in this film.  Judging from the result which finally appeared in theaters, he had come away disappointed.  But if the famed movie mogul could be here now, I thought, he would be delighted with the Biblical figure cut by Yusuf Mazin, and Charlton Heston might have lost the role of the older Moses to the Ghawazi patriarch from Luxor!

There had been other visitors, too, Yusuf went on.  A group of Soviet experts with personnel of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, including the Ministry's young Sami Yunis, present Director of the Egyptian National Folk Arts Ensemble, had come to research and record their dances.  Subsequently Sami had brought some of the Mazin girls to Cairo to perform with the Ensemble for a month so that the it might perfect its Ghawazi material.  "And now when they present our dances," Su'ad broke in, "they announce, 'choreographed by Sami Yunis!'"  Indeed, every dance I had seen in the Ensemble's latest program had been introduced as choreographed by Sami Yunis.

It did not surprise me to learn that so many researchers had come to the Mazins; the highly colored descriptions of Ghawazi over the years must have generated a certain amount of curiosity.  The Mazins were well known, and Luxor was the only town in Egypt that had not been officially off limits to foreigners for the last decade where Ghawazi of unquestioned authenticity might be found.  What surprised me was that, according to Yusuf, none of these researchers had asked him the questions that had been put to me so many times:  Who were the Ghawazi?  Were they a tribe?   Were they Gypsies?  What of their origins?

Yusuf answered that the Ghawazi were of a tribe called the Nawara.  They were not ghajjar, he said (a term translated as "Gypsies" in dictionaries of Modern Standard Arabic, although many English-speaking Arabs in other parts of the Middle East, even Egypt, used various other terms which they translated as "Gypsies").  With further discussion, it became evident that the Nawara were a tribe in name only; there was no shaykh or council, no tribal organization, no concerted effort among Nawaris.  They did, however, share one bond which distinguished them from the surrounding population:  language.  Su'ad assured me that, while they generally spoke Arabic in public, they still used their own speech, unrelated to Arabic, in the home, where their children learned it alongside of Arabic.  She rattled off some examples of the vocabulary, pointing to her hair as she said, "hair, bala," to her eyes, "kiyatat," and so on through "nose, bishin; throat, dardanash; breast, mashkihan; veil or tarha  (the long scarf draped loosely over the head by Egyptian women), sarkona; dress, razzija."  Yusuf thought that this language might be Persian, or a language of Iran, but stated this with little conviction.  It was not Persian. 

The old man - Yusuf claimed to be 75 - had to think a while to recall anything of his people's history; it is not common in Egypt to find individuals with much knowledge of events occurring before the time of their grandparents.  I tried to jog his memory:  had he ever heard of a dark time for the Nawara, around 150 years ago, under the iron-fisted rule of the khedive, or ruler of Egypt,  Muhammad 'Ali?  The khedive had, as one can read in the English orientalist Edward Lane's contemporary account, promulgated an edict against public entertainers, purportedly intended to protect or improve public morals, which must have fallen hard on the Ghawazi.  Yusuf was able to recall something of this episode:  according to him, many of the Nawara had left Egypt as a result, dispersing to other countries of the East, most notably Persia.  Some of them had later returned to Egypt when circumstances became more favorable.  Not having mentioned the reason commonly given for the khedive's edict, I asked Yusuf what, in his opinion, had been the motive.  His answer was entirely unexpected but struck me as being as plausible, in the Egyptian context, as a khedivial concern with morality. 

Yusuf considered the edict a repressive measure against a group whom the ruler suspected of being spies.

Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer. During WW1 she was convicted of spying for the Germans, and was shot
A people of dubious background who traveled freely among all levels of society, who were in a position to overhear the careless remarks of the powerful at drunken parties and the secrets of the harem, who could communicate in a language unintelligible to all but themselves and who, as I would learn, had international connections, mostly in areas where the khedive himself was involved in dangerous machinations - such would not be conducive to the autocratic peace of mind, I reflected. 

Yusuf's impression that the Nawari language was Persian and his mention of that area as the main destination of the self-exiled Nawara were no coincidence.  Yusuf believed that the Nawara came originally from Persia, from an area "on the border of Fars."  Fars is the southwesternmost province of present-day Iran, the home of many nomadic peoples, including Lurs, Qashqa'is, and Arab tribes, but in older times the name was sometimes applied in Arabic to all of Persia.  I could not ascertain whether Yusuf was referring to Persia as a whole or to the province of Fars alone, but Fars is itself a border area and the first Persian soil that would be encountered by the Nawara on their most likely route of migration, the Fertile Crescent. 

According to Yusuf, the putative ancestor of the Nawara was one Nur al-Din.  They also traced descent from a "great-grandmother," Jilbiyyas, "a Persian."  These personages did not seem to be contemporary with each other, and from the way Yusuf spoke of Jilbiyyas, in particular, it seemed that she might have been a Persian resident who came to Egypt with the returning Nawaris in the 19th century, perhaps even an ancestress of the Mazin family itself, rather than a legendary tribal ancestress.  It became increasingly unclear whether there had even been two Nawari emigrations to Egypt, an original emigration from a Persian area of residence in the distant past and another, 19th century emigration after a temporary return to Persia; and as my pressing for clarification began to seem ill mannered in the face of Yusuf's obvious uncertainty on these points, I dropped the subject.

Two things, however, were apparent from these disclosures:  the Nawara acknowledged a connection with Persia, and they were to be found in other countries besides Egypt.  Illustrating this, Yusuf told me the story of some relatives who were visiting Kuwait, a bit northwest of Fars on the Persian Gulf.  His kinsmen had walked into a shop and begun discussing the merchandise in their own tongue; imagine their surprise when the shopkeeper interrupted excitedly in the same language!  He, too, was a Nawari.  And there was a famous singer in Jordan, Yusuf claimed, called Yusra Nawariyya.  (Later research revealed Yusra to be a singer, dancer and casino owner of Aleppo, Syria, first under the name Yusra Nawariyya and later under the more socially acceptable sobriquet "Yusra Badawiyya."  Yusuf may have referred to Yusra as being from Bilad al-Sham, an old term referring to Jordan, Syria and their periphery.)

I remembered a recent talk with a well traveled badawi, Lafi, of the Palestinian-Sinaitic tribe of Al-Akharsa, who had told me of a tribe from the Aleppo area called the Nawar.  These Nawar, said Lafi, were formerly engaged in the crafting of silver jewelry, but as silver had become more and more expensive over the last few years, had been reduced to manufacturing pots and pans instead.  Though originally from near Aleppo, that cosmopolitan Syrian city near Turkey's southern border, the Nawar were presently scattered all over, and could even be found in Lower Egypt, where Lafi and many of his own people had been forced to settle by political and economic exigencies.  Were there Nawara in Syria, in Aleppo, I asked Yusuf?  He did not know, but thought it possible.  Nor did he know of Nawara in Lower Egypt; if there were any, they did not include Ghawazi, female entertainers.

In Upper Egypt, though, practicing Ghawazi could be found in the towns of Qena, Balyana, and Jirja, as well as Luxor.  Well known performers among these Ghawazi, like his own Banat Mazin, were from groups, not Nawari, known as Bahlawan and Halab, this latter name, interestingly, the Arabic for "Aleppo."  The women, following in the footsteps of their ancestors whom Western literature had immortalized as symbols of the Exotic East, performed as singers and dancers; the men played musical instruments, kept order at weddings and other celebrations, and performed the tahtib, or stick-play, half dance and half formalized duel.  Here another memory teased:  brief glimpses on film of what had appeared to me at the time to be a form of stick-play somewhat similar to tahtib among the Qashqa'i of Fars.  Was the similarity imagined?  I would not find the answer in Luxor, but there were other facets of the Ghawazi arts which might yield to examination here.

Prompted by Su'ad's earlier remark about the National Folk Arts Ensemble's presenting Ghawazi dances without acknowledging their source, I inquired whether there were specific dances in the Banat Mazin repertoire, contrary to what I had seen at the Radwan Hotel, which had been what appeared to me "freestyle" dancing.  As I had come to suspect, the great disparity in the competence of the two dancers, Farida and Khairiyya, had precluded the performance of the sort of dancing, with many figures demanding precision timing and coordination, for which the Mazin Ghawazi were famous. 

I had seen most of the basic steps and body movements, but only as scattered pieces of a broken mosaic.  There indeed existed a repertoire of dances which, from subsequent description, each had distinctive characteristics and were, in most cases, partially choreographed. 

They were known generally enough to be specifically requested on occasion.  Curiously, it was Yusuf who provided a survey of some of these, rather than the dancers themselves:

  • The Raqs al-Takht:  The opening dance of a wedding entertainment, performed to mizmar and tabla baladi by three or four dancers.  There is no choreography but, though the dancers improvise, the majority must be doing the same thing at any given time, while the remaining dancer performs the step/movement which the majority were doing last.
  • Al-Na'asi:  A side-to-side shimmy dance, performed in unison by three or four dancers, with light cymbals (unlike the generality of Egyptian dancers, who use finger cymbals little and ineptly, the Ghawazi can vary the tone and dynamics with the skill of virtuoso musicians).  The Na'asi is accompanied by mizmars played very low by muffling the mouth of the instrument.
  • The 'Asharat al-Tabla:  A drummer moves about the dance area playing a large tabla baladi, or double-headed drum, slung before him.  The Ghaziyya, leaning backwards across the barrel of the drum, follows him in this position, dancing.
  • The Raqs al-Jihayni:  The ghaziyyas' stick dance par excellence, described as "very old."  Performed by two dancers, it contains elements of tahtib.
  • The Nizzawi:  A fast, choreographed dance for two dancers with staffs.  A typical figure is the dancers' moving apart while facing each other, then coming together again, then taking a quarter pivot to face forward and advance, side by side, while twirling their staffs like batons.

Yusuf also claimed that two pairs of ghaziyyas might perform the tahtib.  Ghawazi had never danced with swords, to his knowledge; this was a thing of the badu, the bedouin.

In addition, the Mazin ghaziyyas had a large store of songs - necessarily large, because at one moment their audience might demand an old song from local folklore, and the next, one of the compositions of 'Abd al-Wahhab.  They could improvise verses on the spot in praise of a particular village or family or a newly wed couple.  They knew the songs of the Nawara, and composed new songs, some of these incorporating references to the Banat Mazin themselves (possibly with the help of Su'ad's husband, the noted poet and folklorist Zakariyya al-Hijawi, whose highly popular and authentic folkloric ensemble in Cairo, which had included Su'ad, had apparently been disbanded by a jealous and disapproving Egyptian government eager to promote its Soviet-directed, state-reconstructed "folklore.")  Su'ad sang one of these for me in a lovely, clear contralto, entirely unlike anything which might be heard on Cairo radio.  Each stanza ended in the words "Banat Mazin," rhymed with the preceding line.  She also dictated to me the lyrics of other songs from the Mazin repertoire:

A Song of the Nawara

Having fallen in love with a stranger, a village girl makes inquiries about him when she notices his absence.  A Bedouin shaykh, hearing of her beauty, comes seeking her in marriage, but she tells her father that she is in love with "the man from Karnak":

Who is as strong as you, who is like you,
O my love, O thou!    

I asked about you when I missed your eyes;
They told me that you were from Karnak.

Ya layl, ya 'ayn!  They came riding horses,
In a splendid cavalcade, asking about me.

They were seen coming; they were badu, comely.

They asked who my people were; I answered, "The Zayna."

I have fallen in love, O my father, with one of the men of Karnak.

Ghawzi drawing

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Ready for more?
1-3-04 Khairiyya Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition by Edwina Nearing
But when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.

2-11-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 1 by Edwina Nearing
Begun in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi" were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi." We are happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.
Part 2 -- 1976 posted 5-16-04
Part 3 - 1976
posted 8-8-04
Part 4 - 1976 posted 9-12-04
Part 5 - 1976
Posted 2-10-04
Part 6 - 1976 posted 7-5-05
Part 7 - 1976 posted 9-5-05 you are here!
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

7-19-05 Interview with Mahmoud Reda Part 2: The Troupe by Morocco
So what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired by the folkloric.

8-18-05 Re-defining Belly Dance and Middle Eastern Dance by Tasha Banat
The fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why.


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