Gilded Serpent presents...
Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
Day 6: The Festival
Travel Journal by Shira
27, 2004. I felt a bit pensive at breakfast. This was our
last morning in the Victoria, and I knew I would miss its air
of faded elegance and warm hospitality. I spread my last dose
of helawa, a sweet paste made of sesame seed, onto a piece
of pita bread, knowing from prior experience that there would
be no helawa at the next hotel. I also savored my glass of
carcadet (hibiscus juice), knowing that the juices at the next
hotel's breakfast would be excessively sweet in comparison. Hani,
the manager, said his good-byes to us as we ate.
a large group of people is brought together, there will inevitably
be some problems. And so it was with our group. Now that
we had been together nearly a week, some tales were starting
to come out. There
was the story of the woman who was spat at by a man in a passing
car for wearing what Egyptians consider to be indecent clothing.
(The spittle actually hit the conservatively-dressed person
walking next to her rather than the person it was meant for.) There
was the story of the woman who left puddles of urine pooled
on the surface of the toilet seat in her hotel room, much to
her roommate's distress. There were people whose guts had
been assailed with "mummy tummy". There were people who were
tired of organized activities and wanting to strike out on
their own. The time was ripe for us to disperse and pursue
our own individual plans for classes, side trips, etc. rather
than continuing to do everything together as a full group.
up the bus with all our belongings and set out for the Mena
House Oberoi hotel.
Mena House Oberoi
Mena House Oberoi was a 5-star hotel set in a complex originally
built to be used as a palace. It sat at the base of the Giza
plateau, within convenient walking distance of the pyramids and
Sphinx. From there, it was quite a drive to downtown Cairo.
However, for guests wanting to be close to the pyramids, the
Sphinx, camel rides, and the Parisiana (club where Lucy dances),
the Mena House offered an excellent base of operations. Although
we had already been to the pyramids and Sphinx in our sightseeing,
it was still satisfying to be so close to them on a daily basis. Some
members of our group walked over to the pyramid complex during
our Mena House stay for a second look.
wa Sahlan festival was being held at the Mena House. The hotel
offered the facilities needed to operate an event of this nature: large
ballroom facilities, kitchens and catering services capable
of serving hundreds of people at once, a 24-hour bank for changing
money, an English-speaking staff, assorted rooms suitable for
administrative tasks such as registration, a business center
with copy machines and Internet café, an on-site travel agency
for helping guests arrange side trips, a swimming pool for
festival attendees needing a bit of down time, and more.
One of the
several restaurants was on the side of the hotel facing the
pyramids, and offered a wonderful view of the Great Pyramid,
as shown in this photo. When the host or hostess of the restaurant
seated people, they always offered the chairs that face toward
the pyramid, knowing that the guests would want to enjoy this
view while dining.
any high-quality hotel, the Mena House offered amenities in
the guest rooms, including shampoo, conditioner, soap, tissues,
etc. Most of these amenities resembled what might be expected
in a similar quality of hotel in the United
States, but the Mena House offered one
item that made me think, "I'm not in the U.S. any
more." This item was an aerosol spray can in a straw basket
(as pictured in the photo). My first assumption was that perhaps
this was hair spray or room air freshener, but when I removed
it I found out how wrong I was. It was a can of Raid bug killer! There's
something a bit unsettling about being in a hotel room that
offers bug spray as something you might need during your stay. Thankfully,
I did not have such a need myself.
scene in the registration room was a madhouse. Apparently there
were twice as many attendees as in 2003, many of whom had not
provided any kind of advance notice of their intent to come.
So the festival organizers were caught off guard by the number
of people. Also, new software was being used to manage the registration
process, and it was slow. Approximately three people were sitting
at the registration table diligently keying in class enrollments
and processing payments. A fourth was attempting to direct traffic,
asking people to take a number, then wait 1 1/2 to 2 hours for
their number to be called for their turn to register.
As I expected
based on the previous year's experience, there were some differences
between the class schedule that had been published in advance
versus the actual schedule distributed at registration. Some
instructors had been added; others removed. I was pleased
to see that a master class with Khairiyya
Maazin (of the Banat Maazin) had been added, because
I had much enjoyed her Ghawazee class in 2003 and wanted to
take it again.
gala began with an outdoor show on the steps leading up into
the ballroom area. This was the first
problem. The featured act was on sidewalk level. The small
number of people who were lucky enough to be standing directly
in front of the performance area had a satisfying view of the
dancing, while those who were unlucky enough to come even 5-10
minutes later had absolutely no way of seeing anything of the
dancing. This staircase had 6 landings, and the higher landings
were used either for whirling tannoura dervishes or costumed
people posing. It would have been better to use the landing
one level above ground level for the featured act with choreography
designed to faced out to each side rather than straight forward,
because that would have allowed a much larger number of people
to see it and enjoy it. What's the point of putting on a show
when only about 50 of 700 potential audience members can be positioned
to see it?
climbed up to a landing above the ground level and looked down,
which is how I managed to take some pictures. But it wasn't
a very appealing vantage point for watching the show. All
I could see were the backs of the performers, and there were
performers waiting their turn standing between me and the ones
actually dancing, partly blocking my view. Also, a member
of the dance company was standing right next to my vantage
point holding a large purple chiffon flag that kept blowing
in my face. I kept brushing it out of my way, but it kept
finding its way back into my face. I think he was annoyed
with me for interfering with his fluttering flag.
down, I noticed that many members of my group had given up
on trying to see the dancing, and were standing back away from
the action, just waiting for it to be over. The looks of disgust
on their faces and in their postures were quite visible even
from quite a distance away.
what I could see of the "entertainment", I think the disgust
would have remained on their faces even if they could have
seen it. The dancers were all clad in cheap-looking Pharaonic
costumes, and doing stereotypical Pharaonic dance with the
silly bent-wrist arm angles. One fellow was clad in a white
body suit, presumably representing Osiris, and he did a few
odd contortionist things with his arms. Compared to the 2003
opening night zeffa, I found the 2004 event disappointing.
I had just seen the excellent tannoura exhibition the night
before at the Citadel, the tannoura on the staircase landings
didn't really grab much of my attention. In a particularly
tacky-looking moment, one of the dancers clad in the cheap-looking
Pharaonic garb took the cape that had been shed by one of the
dervishes, placed it over his head, and started to whirl with
it around his neck.
the dervishes quit whirling and the fakey-Pharaohs quit prancing
with their broken-wrist poses, and they started leading the
way up the steps into the ballroom area. It was time for the
gala to begin.
don't even know where to begin in describing how awful the opening
night gala was. It was a miserable experience. Absolutely,
positively miserable. Beyond miserable. It was execrable. Horrid.
disaster was the seating. As we walked inside after the zeffa,
we discovered that 90% of the tables were already claimed by
people who hadn't bothered to watch the zeffa. The very best
seats in the center of the room were all roped off, presumably
for the local Egyptian "who's who". There was a mad rush to
grab the remaining seats. Some other folks from my group and
I managed to secure two tables side by side in the farthest
corner away from the stage possible. Visibility was awful,
but at least we had furniture. Half of our group was not so
lucky. It seemed surprising to me that no tables had been
reserved for large groups like ours and Scheherezade Imports
who had pre-registered in advance.
As we waited
for the room to settle, I could see from the video screen mounted
inside the ballroom that the outdoor show was still in progress
. I was disappointed to see that I was missing the dancing
horse and the Ghawazee performance. Those had been highlights
of the previous year's outdoor pre-show for me, and I would
have much preferred to see those rather than the Pharaonic
stuff and dervish redux.
By the time
all seats in the ballroom were filled, there were still at
least 100 people standing around with nowhere to sit, including
about half of our group. I felt guilty seeing my friends without
a place to sit, but there really wasn't much I could do for
such a large number of people.
It took a
while (about a half hour, I think), but eventually the hotel
staff figured out that more seats were needed. They then started
trying to figure out how they could fit more tables into a
ballroom that was already stuffed to overflowing. I don't
think Egypt has the
same attitude toward fire codes that the U.S. has.
to move our table even farther away from the stage into the
wall niche to make room for another between us and the table
in front of us. We protested. They tried to put strangers
at our table by adding more chairs to an already-crowded table. We
weren't happy about it, but couldn't really prevent it.
after 8:00 or 8:30 the event finally started. The buffet lines
out in the lobby area were all set up with food, steaming hot,
ready to go. But were we allowed to fill our plates while
the food was hot and fresh? No, absolutely not. At first,
the food attendants told us it would be "five minutes" which
in Egypt usually means "twenty
minutes or more." And then, a few minutes later, they told
us it was pushed back to thirty minutes which meant "goodness
only knows" how long.
So, the food
sat out there getting cold and stale while the stage featured
a fashion show of costumes by Amira El Kattan,
the designer for Pharaonics of Egypt. A too-loud
band blared away as groups of 4-5 women at a time walked onto
the stage area modeling costumes. Typically, one would come
forward and dance around some while the others did bits of
shimmies and such behind her. This went on for much too long. The
costumes were attractive, but not particularly innovative. They
looked like the types of things I've seen on mannequins at
Rakkasah and other belly dance events. The models were mostly
okay, but some needed serious posture correction. Others seemed
as if they might be competent dancers, but the situation didn't
allow them to show much of their skill. It was an endless
parade. It was boring, the music was too loud to allow conversation
with my friends at the table, and it was delaying our food.
At last somewhere
between 9:30 and 10:00 the costume parade finally ended. It
was feeding time at last! Unfortunately, the time had come
for the next dreadful development of the evening:
charged the buffet tables. I'm not exaggerating. Those of us who
had politely queued up behind the plates quickly discovered that
courtesy would cause us to go hungry. People charged to the plates,
then ran past the salads and straight to the meat. They elbowed
their way up to the meat dishes and literally shoved people out of
the way in order to get their own portions. They were openly rude
and irate to the more courteous people whom they shoved out of their
way. No words of "Excuse me," were offered. Some of the worst offenders
were women from Japan, local
Egyptian friends and relatives of the band, and a large Russian group.
tables quickly ran out of food. Just as the hotel had not
set up sufficient tables and chairs for the size of crowd,
it also had failed to make enough food for the thundering herd.
Two different women in our group were so upset by the food
stampede that they started to cry. One of them gave me a fierce
look and said, "Someone should write about this. Someone needs
to let the worldwide dance community know just what a disaster
this event is." Still another person in our group, who was
at a different table from mine, got almost no food at all - by
the time she reached the buffet tables, all she could find
to eat were beets and rice.
I heard that
the primary reason for the insufficient food and seating was
that the festival had attracted many more attendees this year
than were expected. Apparently, the majority just showed up
and registered that day, rather than registering in advance
to let the organizers know how many to expect. It might be
a good idea in future years for the organizers to have a “late
registration” surcharge for people who register for the
festival less than 7 days before it begins – that would
offer people incentive to pre-register, allowing everybody
to plan ahead more effectively for the crowd size.
also a rumor that the band that played for the fashion show
arranged for some of their own friends and relatives to slip
into the event without paying. Perhaps next year more controls
should be exercised over who the bands are allowed to bring
in with them.
the show started. A large view screen had been set up on our
end of the ballroom which projected the image from one of the
video cameras that was filming the stage. I appreciated it
because it provided a closer look at what the dancer was doing,
but the idiot operating the camera kept pulling his focus away
from the dancer on stage and showing faces of audience members. Sheesh,
it was bad enough being at a table so far away from stage that
I needed a telescope to see the dancer, and even worse that
the screen that was supposed to show me the performance was
instead showing the faces of people I didn't give a damn about.
I wouldn't have minded the glimpses of people sitting at their
tables during band setup and teardown times, but it was very
obnoxious while dancers were performing.
dancer was someone named Dalia. Her style
seemed to be very influenced by the ballet-intensive folk troupe
approach to choreography, with many turns and Arabesques. Her
dance was very repetitive, and I quickly grew tired of her.
In 2003, digital
cameras were banned at the opening and closing night galas, because
many digital cameras have the ability to make videos. For that
reason, I brought two cameras to Egypt in
2004 - a film camera for shooting the opening and closing night
galas, and a digital camera for everything else. So imagine how
annoyed I was when I went to shoot a picture of Dalia and one of
the male thugs came
rushing up to me to tell me no photos at all were allowed,
not even on film cameras. So, I managed to snap one picture of
Dalia which proved to be unusable, but then didn't dare shoot any
more pictures during this show. Grrr, I toted this second camera
and 8 rolls of film for it 8,000 miles only to be prevented from
Once Dalia was
done, her band tore down and the next one set up. It was a pleasure
to see that the second soloist was Dina. She
came across as relaxed and charismatic, showing a sense of fun as
she danced. It was an excellent performance which I enjoyed very
much. At least the night wasn't a total loss.
We had been told
in advance that one of the performers that night was supposed to
be Nour. Someone
said they saw her in the audience, but she never danced. Later,
I heard a rumor that the permit she had applied for to appear in
this one-time special event had not been approved in time for her
to dance in this show, so due to the ban on foreign dancers she was
not able to dance for us. It was disappointing, but not surprising.
So. It was a pleasure
seeing Dina dance. But was it worth the $60 fee to fight for a place
to sit, endure an endlessly boring fashion show, shove my way to
the buffet to ensure I got something to eat, comfort friends who
were crying from the stress, and sit so far away from the stage that
Dina looked no bigger than a dancing postage stamp? Honestly, I
don't think so. It was an abysmal experience, and I felt like I
had really been cheated out of $60. At least I got to see Dina do
a great show.
I went to bed feeling
very grumpy, and hoping the next day would be better.
a comment? Send us
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for
other possible viewpoints!
more from Shira-
-04 Ahlan Wa Sahlan
Festival 2004-Intro Travel Journal by Shira
Middle Eastern dance artists and students from throughout the world attend this
event to immerse themselves in instruction by leading Egyptian instructors, shop
for costumes and other supplies offered by Egyptian vendors, and enjoy the gala
shows featuring top Egyptian dancers. Check back for regular updates!
3: First Look at Egyptian History
4: More Egyptian Monuments and First Dance Show
Day 5: Shop-portunities
and Whirling Dervishes POSTED 7-9-04
Day 6: The Festival
Begins POSTED 7-17-04
Day 7: Classes
and Free Time POSTED 7-17-04
Day 8: Side Trips,
Part 1: Gayer Anderson Museum POSTED 7-25-04
Day 8: Side Trips,
Part 2: The Parisiana 7-26-04
9: The Evening Show posted 11-12-04
Day 10: Classes and
the Sphinx Speaks posted 11-22-04
Day 11: Camels, Class, & Competitions posted
Travel Health Checklist
Here is a packing checklist that may help you anticipate your own needs.
Comparing & Contrasting
Often, people base their negative judgments of other styles
on student-quality performances.
Missives: When Pop Culture Meets Belly Dancing; Here we go again!
Today, we’re seeing another revival. Belly dancing is
popping up on music videos featuring Shakira and other artists.
Dance Superstars at DNA Lounge Photos by Susie Poulelis
April 17, 2004 San Francisco, CA. Yes, that is Petite Jamilla playing