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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi
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" 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 8 - 1976

I continued my interview with Yusuf Mazin, patriarch of Upper Egypt's premiere Ghawazi dance ensemble, the Banat Mazin, and his eldest daughter Su'ad and youngest daughter Khairiyya, members of the ensemble, in their comfortable but unpretentious two-storey house in Dandara Street on the edge of Luxor.  Had the Mazins introduced any innovations into their performances, I asked; had they changed anything at all within memory?  I wondered whether modifications had occurred over the years which might account for some of the discrepancies which seemed to exist among the descriptions and representations I had encountered of Ghawazi dancing, some of which conveyed a quite different picture from the one I had received among the Mazins.  Yusuf assured me that the only innovation was in costume and had been adopted only within the last year, the occasional substitution of a long, rather form-fitting gown of the type Khairiyya had worn in performance for me that morning for the traditional skirt and vest of the Ghawazi dancer.  Khairiyya fetched one of the knee-length georgette skirts with its seven or so horizontal rows of pailette-tipped bugle-bead fringe. 

The construction was fascinating:  a continuous circle with one side seam, cut on the straight-of-grain to make a short, wide tube about nine feet in diameter which the dancer gathered around her hips on a soft rope.  With such a diameter, the skirt alone involved perhaps 63 feet of hand-beaded fringe.  Su'ad later told me that a bustle was worn around the hips under the top of the skirt to augment hip motion.

Tahia Carioca in Tull bi-Telli or "Assuite"

When I mentioned old photographs of Ghawazi dancers in long skirts of what looked like velveteen or satin, Yusuf said that there were Ghawazi who still wore this antique garb.  He and Su'ad were also familiar with the long gowns of tull bi-telli, net worked with flattened metal knots, often associated with the Ghawazi in the Egyptian popular imagination.  These they described as black with silver- or gold-colored metal, with long, wide sleeves; open down the front nearly to the waist, and long enough to cover the feet.  Gowns of tull bi-telli had been unobtainable for a long time, however.

Although Yusuf mentioned only one innovation, I quickly learned of others which he had not specified as such.  There was, for instance, the taj (Arabic for "crown"), the rolled, stuffed and bejeweled crescent diadem which so artfully set off the face while keeping back the hair.  Su'ad claimed that the taj had been designed by the Banat Mazin as a substitute for the mandil, the ubiquitous head covering of the Egyptian village woman, which the ghaziyyas had formerly worn.  The mandil was a light-weight triangular scarf edged with little pom-poms or beaded crochet-work which, artfully wrapped and gathered with the ends tied rather forward on the head, formed a tiara-like silhouette.  The Mazins had tired of washing out their delicate mandils and had hit upon the idea of the taj to give a similar effect.Heather & Monifa

With these observations on costume and the approach of afternoon siesta time, my all-too-brief visit with the Mazins came to an end.  But that was not the last I was to see of Su'ad and Khairiyya.  Back at my hotel, a tall, sandy-haired sociology student from Holland who had been present at the morning's entertainment began questioning me about the Ghawazi.  His interest, it turned out, was not entirely academic.  "I have a problem," he confided, "I think I have fallen in love with the little girl in the red dress."  He spoke with a convincing air of resignation and, having already tentatively assessed him as sane, I took him at his word.  I explained to him what Yusuf had told me:  that among the Ghawazi, if a man had, say, six daughters, three would stay unmarried in their youth so that their troupe might remain intact. 

While a ghaziyya might marry and continue to dance, like Su'ad, this was not common, and almost impossible in the case of one who married outside the profession.  If Khairiyya were to marry a foreigner, the Banat Mazin would lose a key member and the family would lose her income. 

But Khairiyya might, after all, have ideas of her own.  Jan seemed a level-headed and sensitive young man and was well situated in his own country; after making certain that he was indeed willing to marry Khairiyya, I agreed to sound her out on the matter.

So it was that I returned to the Mazin house the next day.  Khairiyya and her father met me outside the door, and I presented them with an article containing some pictures of Ghawazi, the pretext for my visit.  I had hoped to speak with Khairiyya alone, but as this had not come about, said something to the effect that, if I might be permitted to introduce a sensitive subject, there was a gentleman who had seen Khairiyya and developed feelings of profound admiration for her.  "The American doctor, the one with the beard?" asked Khairiyya, scarcely batting an eyelash.  It seemed that such a person had already offered for her.  No, said I, and described Jan; but she had not noticed the young student.  Well, and would the Mazin family object to a foreigner marrying one of their daughters?  "If the foreigners give us of their fair daughters," answered Yusuf graciously, alluding to Egyptians of his acquaintance who had married foreign women, "can we do less?"  Jan had learned that the ghaziyyas would be performing that evening for a party of tourists at a hotel across the river and, as we had both arranged to attend, I informed Khairiyya that she would be able to meet her new suitor there. 

Declining the customary offer of tea, I left with the impression that enamoured foreigners and marriage proposals were not remarkable occurrences in the lives of the Banat Mazin.

The first stars were coming out as our small party boarded the great wooden ferry to cross the Nile.  The interior was lost in darkness; not a lantern was lit; but the soft rustle and chink of dancing costumes revealed the presence of the ghaziyyas on the same boat.  We greeted one another softly, in keeping with the waitful hush that had fallen over the river with the approach of night, and I was delighted to see Su'ad with Khairiyya on this occasion - perhaps I would now have the chance to see some of the dances of which their father had told me.  Arriving at the opposite shore, we found cars to take us along the rutted track to the Hotel Marsam, a rambling structure in the picturesque local style presided over by a cheerful and ubiquitous old gaffer referred to as "Shaykh 'Ali."  This dignitary was engaged in distributing a largesse of fake mummy beads to the tourists dining at trestle tables around the perimeter of the Marsam's courtyard when we entered - the evening's entertainment was to take place outdoors, like most events in the warm climate of the Nile Valley.  A small orchestra with tabla baladi and mizmar shawms was already seated at one end.  Su'ad and Khairiyya appeared shortly after in beautifully crafted costumes of Ghawazi style, Su'ad in turquoise vest and skirt, Khairiyya in midnight blue, both aglitter with lavish beadwork and spangles, and crowned with the taj diadems.

Without any  prelude, they began to dance.  Each went her own way about the courtyard, pausing here and there before the various tables to dance before the assembled guests.  After fifteen minutes of this walk-about, in style not unlike the freestyle I had seen the previous day except in its superior execution, the ghaziyyas exited.  I sat patiently, certain that they would return.  When they did, each bore a khazarana, the long defensive staff of Upper Egypt. 

Now I saw the skill upon which rested the Mazin reputation:  a tightly organized martial dance, strongly suggestive of tahtib, through whose imperious measures the dancers moved, always in unison or opposition, with grace and nobility.

The music quickened and the dancers swung into a gayer mode, shimmying energetically and twirling their staves like batons, working side by side, then turning in to each other, one advancing and the second retreating before her, then the second advancing and the first retreating; or facing away from each other and leaning backwards slightly from the waist till their shoulders touched, and maintaining this position while circling about an imagined axis with side-to-side shimmies.  So sure was their control of this most typical of Ghawazi movements, the side-to-side shimmy, that when facing each other their hips would  move in the same direction at  the same moment, which meant that one dancer was leading with the left hip while the other led with the right. 

The whole performance lasted perhaps five or six minutes.  "None of the old travelogues ever mentioned anything quite like this!" I thought and, gazing heavenwards, wished that C. B. DeMille had been on hand with a camera crew to preserve it for viewing again and again.  "What was that dance?" I asked 'Abdu beside me.  "The Raqs al-Shuma," he answered, the shuma being the heavier fighting stick of the Sa'idis.  But when I followed the ghaziyyas to their room a while later to introduce Jan to Khairiyya, they told me that this so called "Raqs al-Shuma," which I had assumed to be one dance with two parts, a slow prelude and a longer, fast section, was really two dances back to back:  the Raqs al-Jihayni, and the Nizzawi.  Then I laid aside my own questions to negotiate the delicate subject of Jan's marriage proposal.  One could read little in the faces of Su'ad and Khairiyya as I broached the matter; they sat silent, and finally Khairiyya indicated with a few quick words that she could not accept without the approval of her sister and her aunt, Yusuf's sister, who had raised them from childhood like a mother after their own mother died and who still chaperoned them to performances. 

For the first time I noticed the motionless, black-shrouded figure in the corner of the room.  This was indeed, confirmed Su'ad, the aunt in question; it was she who made their costumes, she who had taught them to dance.  Now someone had to remain with her in her old age:  Khairiyya.  The matter was thus closed, at least for the time being. 

This being the case, I asked Khairiyya's aunt, who had perhaps been dancing a generation before Tahia Carioca and must have a wealth of knowledge and experience, whether she had seen many changes in her art.  "Yes, many changes," she sighed distantly, but could not or would not specify what.  This was the longest sentence she uttered in our acquaintance, and it was not at all clear whether she had understood the drift of the question.  She certainly appeared to have weathered many changes, being possibly the most world-weary individual I had ever met; long after, I was still wondering what memories were locked in her mind. 

The conversation returned to family matters.  Su'ad volunteered the information that she was 35 years old and had a teen-age daughter in school.  This I could scarcely credit, looking at her youthful, unlined face, slightly fuller than Khairiyya's.  An isolated house outside of town had already been pointed out to me as her property.  She and Khairiyya had three more sisters, only one of whom was still dancing professionally.  In the winter, the tourist season, they danced for tourist groups; in the summer they performed for the local weddings which were customary in that season.

At this point I withdrew so that the sisters might have some time to rest, for they intended to dance again shortly.  Returning to my table, I found Jan hastily composing a letter of farewell to Khairiyya.  The gracefully written epistle, expressing his admiration of her character, the joy her dancing and her smile had brought to him, and his acceptance and understanding of her decision, was then set down in Arabic so that I might give it to her before she left that evening, for it would be unseemly for him, a male, to deliver it himself.

The ghaziyyas returned to the courtyard and began to dance freestyle; seeing me, they came over and urged me to join them.  I followed their movements clumsily;  one or two, such as a peculiar shimmy in which a stomp of the right foot sent their full, heavily beaded skirts flouncing up to one side - quite deliberately - to reveal a flash of red slip, I could not follow at all.  "Watch the feet!"  Watch the feet!" hissed Su'ad, but to no avail.  More than once the ghaziyyas prompted me thus, and I regretted not being able to remain longer to study the dance with such cheerful, patient teachers. 

Su'ad had already shown me that she was familiar with more than one aspect of Middle Eastern dance, demonstrating some of the differences between oriental dancing and Ghawazi dancing.

After this, much of the party dispersed and I again found myself on the same ferry as Su'ad and Khairiyya.  The last time I saw them was as the boat docked and, night-blind, groped my way over the side.  Soft, chinking sounds of jewelry came from two dark figures near me, and I caught the words of one to the other, "The poor thing!  Help her . . . she can't see . . ."  There was much I still did not know about the Ghawazi, many points, perhaps, on which I had been misled or mistaken, but now I felt I knew the most important part of the answer to the question, "What kind of people are they?"

So ended my visit among these far famed, little known people.  The figures vanished into the night.  I looked about me; the ramshackle buildings of Luxor were picked out, here and there, by the lantern of a tardy fruit peddler bundling up his wares or the light spilling from an open window.  Luxor, ancient Thebes . . . here was once the capital city of the Egyptian Empire, over 3,000 years ago.  Hither for generations had come the dedicated scholars who spend years of their lives wresting the knowledge and beauty of ancient Egypt from the desert sands and all-consuming maw of time.  In former days these men and women had often paid a high price - their health, their personal fortunes, even their lives.  In more recent times their task had become somewhat easier; long-term or permanent missions to the area had been established by the world's great museums, universities and learned societies.

The archaeological excavations with their resulting papers and exhibits, the years of research with their ensuing books, the droves of tourists from all over the world who visited Luxor every year, all testified to the continuing fascination with ancient Egyptian art and technology, society and religion.  Yet for all humanity's concern, who now alive knew what an ancient Egyptian song sounded like?  Who could tread the measures of their dances?  It was too late, too late to ask these questions.

I would go to Syria, and there I would find traces of the Nawara.  But the Ghawazi would remain, essentially, as much a mystery as the Sphinx- a mystery that will be solved only if the scholars ask their questions before this people, too, with all their arts and laughter, become one with the desert sands.

Listen till you see, then you can judge.
We are at Qena and Mazin's daughters,
Khairiyya and Raja', and the third is Su'ad.
Art is beautiful and its lovers are happy.

- A Song of the Banat Mazin

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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
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05 You are here!
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

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This was my 5th trip to Algeria since 2000 and I have been amazed at the rapid economic development. The government is working very hard to make Algeria a very popular tourist destination once again.

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If you know about photography, then it will help performing for the movies or for television because usually the choreographer stands beside the director of the movie.

10-17-05 How MECDA Began by Feiruz Aram
M.E.C.D.A., (Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association) is a nationwide organization which began in 1977 for the purpose of organizing working dancers, sharing information between teachers...

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