Snake's Kin Studio presents.....
THE LOOSE CANNON or Edwina- unedited at last!
Orientalist/Journalist, Edwina Nearing majored in Near-Eastern Studies at University of California Berkeley & American University of Beirut, and has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East since 1968. Past Middle Eastern Affairs Editor for Habibi Magazine, writing under the name, "Qamar El-Mulouk" , her book length series, "The Mystery of the Ghawazi" is considered an important contribution to the body of knowledge on Middle Eastern Dance.

This article has been updated and posted on Gilded Serpent


Little more than a year ago Egypt's queen of oriental dance, Nagwa Fu'ad, returned to the stage after an absence of several years, only to retire again this February due to public apathy. Her retirement signals the ignominious end of an era in the history of danse orientale, but danse orientale itself will live on, and flourish, if not in Egypt, then in Europe and Lebanon. But if Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin retires, the most distinctive tradition of Ghawazi dance left in Egypt may come to an end.

The Ghawazi are the famed female dancers described so often in Western travelers' accounts of Egypt since the 18th century, and probably the major wellspring of Egyptian danse orientale. A hundred and fifty years ago, professional female dancers of both Cairo and the countryside were called "Ghawazi; now the term "Ghawazi" is used in Egypt to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform in the traditional manner, who have not added anything to their repertoire from ballet, Latin American or modern dance as have the "oriental dancers" of Egyptian city nightclubs.

For the usual sad litany of reasons -- Islamic fundamentalism, economic pressures, Westernization and official opposition -- the old Egyptian custom of employing Ghawazi to entertain at weddings and other celebrations in the villages is dying out. The Ghawazi of Lower Egypt, a relatively small area bounded on one end by Cairo and by Alexandria on the other, have long been going into these cities to work, where they have both influenced and been influenced by the older style of oriental dance practiced in the cities by many of the entertainers who work mainly at weddings and private parties. Thus the style of Lower Egypt's Ghawazi, probably due to this intermingling, seems to be fairly homogeneous at this point in time and not much unlike that of the "Old Cairo style" of wedding dancers -- or so the admittedly scanty evidence collected by this author suggests.

The Ghawazi of Upper Egypt, on the other hand, a vast and relatively isolated area far from any cities and any strong influence of modern danse orientale, have maintained distinctive regional and, possibly, ethnic styles of dance. Regional style is dictated, at least in part, by the requirements of the musical accompaniment which, at most Upper Egyptian dance parties, usually outdoor affairs, is provided by drums and mizmars (an oboe-like instrument with the volume of a trumpet). Each region has its favorite mizmar bands and its own style of music. Ghawazi of a given area work mostly with bands from their own area and claim that their dancing is neither "typical" or at its best when they have to work with a band from another area. Ethnic differences in dance style are harder to prove without much further research, but seem likely in view of the diverse ethnic origins of most Upper Egyptian Ghawazi, differences of which they themselves are still aware. Most of the Ghawazi of the Qena area, for example, belong to ethnic minorities known as Nawar (or Nawara), Halab and Bahlawan. The group with which the author is most familiar, the Nawar, who are ethnic Gypsies, still speak the Nawari language to some extent and claim that the Halab and Bahlawan have their own group with which the author is most familiar, the Nawar, who are ethnic Gypsies, still speak the Nawari language to some extent and claim that the Halab and Bahlawan have their own languages which are unrelated to Nawari. If, throughout their sojourn in Egypt, an Arabic-speaking country, these peoples have preserved something of their native languages, they may have preserved something of their native dance styles as well. Egypt's most famous family of Ghawazi, the Nawari Mazin family, seem to have a dance style somewhat different from that of other Ghawazi whom the author has seen, though whether the difference is Nawari or simply "Mazin" is difficult to determine on the available evidence.

Opportunities to see Upper Egyptian Ghawazi dancing and study regional and possible ethnic styles are difficult to come by in Egypt's current inimical social and economic climate, a climate which has forced most of the Ghawazi into retirement (often "marriages of convenience," hence children and little likelihood of returning to the dance even if the situation should improve). In the Qena area, and probably elsewhere, it is especially the better and more experienced dancers, like the Mazins, who have quit, leaving the field to newcomers with little training who are desperate enough to work under any conditions, however degrading or dangerous. Thus, even if one can attend an affair for which Ghawazi have been hired to perform (and such affairs have become extremely rare), the dancers may not be adequate exponents of any particular Ghawazi tradition, or competent dancers in general. But fortunately for students of Middle Eastern dance, as well as for the reputation of Ghawazi dancing, one of the best exponents of the Mazin tradition, Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin, continues to resist the many pressures upon her to retire from the art.

Khairiyya, youngest (about 25 years' professional dance experience) member of the family's premier dance troupe, the "Banat Mazin," still performs, albeit infrequently, at the great outdoor celebrations which a few villages between Balyana and Aswan continue to hold in defiance of current trends. In recent years she has been augmenting her irregular income by teaching the traditions of Mazin Ghawazi dance to visiting foreign dancers and researchers. In this connection, it should be noted that the address given for her in the author's 1992 article, "Ghawazi on the Edge of Extinction," is no longer valid; Khairiyya was forced to sell her barely completed house and move by the neighborhood strongmen, who ordered her, in essence, to perform sexual services for them or suffer the consequences. Her present address, a small apartment not far from the center of Luxor, is: Al-Masakin Al-Sha'abiyya, Salah Salem Street, Building 2, Third Floor, Apartment 27, Luxor. Dance students who wish to visit her may simply hail one of the many local taxis or horsedrawn carriages available in any large street in Luxor and show the driver the address in Arabic:

(Khairiyya's address in arabic)

It should be noted that some of those who have attempted to visit Khairiyya or other members of the Banat Mazin, even when they have had the correct address, have been taken to the house of retired dancers Karam and Amal Shauqi. These cousins of Khairiyya's, relative newcomers to the dance profession before they retired, pass themselves off as "the Banat Mazin" to the unwary, to whom they try to sell dance lessons and badly made "Ghawazi" costumes. While Karam Shauqi has a soft, pleasant dance style, her repertoire of traditional Ghawazi steps and movements is limited, and her sister Amal is an even less accomplished dancer. The tuqoum (singular: taqm) or old-style "vest and skirt" Ghawazi costumes they make to sell to foreigners are neither complete nor accurate; the skirts, for example, which should be about three meters in diameter, are only one meter in diameter and not accompanied by the lowayya, the bustle which facilitates the flashy "skirt flips" and dazzling hip work for which the Mazin Ghawazi are famous. The foreign dance student who finds herself taken to a wide, busy street with a traffic island down the middle and buildings on both sides has been diverted to the Shauqis; in that case, one should walk east along the street a block or two to the nearest large intersection and turn right, and one will be in Khairiyya's street (a street which has little traffic, with apartment buildings on one side and a high cement paralleling the train tracks on the other side). Khairiyya's apartment is in the second building from the corner as one faces the apartment buildings, directly under the top-floor corner apartment with the turquoise shutters on the windows.

Khairiyya charges 100 Egyptian pounds (about $29 U.S.) for a private lesson, and permits recording, photography and videotaping. She is also available for parties, workshops and dance festivals both inside Egypt and outside of the country. Khairiyya is willing to tailor lessons to the students' specific requirements; for example, dance researchers Cara Currie and Anke Ockeloen, who accompanied the author to Luxor in 1995, chose to concentrate on three Ghawazi dances, the Raqsat Al-Takht, Raqsat Al- Jihayni and 'Asharat Al-Sibs, and videotaped most of the sessions extensively in their hotel room at the Wena Luxor Hotel. As Khairiyya's apartment is small she prefers to teach elsewhere, but can accommodate one student in her home (home visits usually come with a glass of tea, and occasionally lunch). The best time to contact her is late in the morning or early in the afternoon; unfortunately, she cannot yet afford a telephone, but she has become accustomed to finding strangers at her door and always receives visiting dance students with grace and aplomb. Also, Mr. Sarwat 'Ajami, General Manager of "Travellers Egypt" in Luxor, has expressed willingness to assist foreigners in contacting Khairiyya and facilitating her travel outside the country; his office is in Television Square, Luxor (Fax and telephone: 095 374027; alternate telephone 095 378255). Finally, any letters sent to Khairiyya at the Salah Salem St. address should be sent by registered mail.

The author hopes that all who respect the traditional arts of the Middle East will do what they can to help Khairiyya remain active in the dance field and preserve the antique art of the Ghawazi. (photo of Khairiyya -full view)

Edwina Nearing
Cairo, May 1996

(Author may be contacted at: 1110 West Eleventh Avenue, Chico, California 95926, telephone: 1-916-893-3406. Email below: {E. Nearing, c/o Lynette)}. The author apologizes in advance for he delays in responding to inquiries that result from her nomadic lifestyle.)

More Articles by Edwina Nearing
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