Description of Egypt: Notes and Views on Egypt and Nubia Made During the Years 1825-1828
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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 2 -- 1976
Everyone in Egypt seemed to recognize the name "Ghawazi" and make the glib equation:  dancing girls.  The image evoked was not that of the oriental dancer or the showgirl who could be seen in any Middle Eastern nightclub, not that of big bands and beady bosoms, but of something too tawdry and out of style, as well as too intensely and exclusively Egyptian, to be seen in any cosmopolitan surroundings.  Little was really known of the Ghawazi and their dancing, and beyond the popular image lay a morass of vague, contradictory assertions.  Even the name itself was of unknown origin; attempts to derive it from an Arabic verb, ghawa, meaning "to err, mislead, tempt" were not justified by Arabic morphology. 

All the authorities I had consulted agreed only in the following particulars:  that there were to be found in Egypt families of people known collectively as Ghawazi who were chiefly famed as professional dancers and musicians. 

I wanted to find out more about these mysterious people who had made such an impact on the Egyptian and foreign psyche alike. 

Hoping to get to the bottom of the matter, I attempted to contact Ghawazi in what was reputed to be one of their centers, the Lower Egyptian village of
Sunbat.  So far I had only netted two irate gentlemen who disclaimed, on behalf of all the Ghawazi of Sunbat, any association whatsoever with such disreputable pursuits as dancing and music.  Dismissed from the front door, I tried to enter from the back; sending a villager to approach the Ghawazi on my behalf, I waited behind their houses in Kafr al-'Arab Street for the outcome.  Now I caught sight of the villager returning, unaccompanied.  "Mafish fayda," he shrugged, "it's no use.  They refuse."  "Do you have any idea why?" I angled.  "Surely such inhospitable behavior is most strange . . ."

The tale which unfolded was a sordid account of power politics, economic pressures and the clash of values.  According to my informant, the Ghawazi here had been forced by a local government official to take part in a commercial movie production entitled A Ghaziyya from Sunbat.  Quite possibly they had been paid little or nothing for their assistance. 

Moreover, as a result of this film they were then accused by a powerful local leader of bringing unwanted publicity and a bad reputation to the village - now any Sumbati caught in a slanging match could be insulted with "Your mother was a belly dancer!" 

It was made clear to the Ghawazi, who had never been entirely accepted in Sunbat, that they had better attract no further attention.  Hence they did not dare risk any publicity by speaking with an outsider, especially one who might write about them in Egypt.  Even if I were not a journalist, my questions might be a cover for assessing their prosperity and adjusting their taxes accordingly, an ever-present fear among entertainers, whose incomes are not easily determined. 

There had not always been Ghawazi in Sunbat, continued my informant.  They had arrived there in the 1940's, in straitened circumstances, camping on the outskirts of the village in makeshift burlap tents.  They availed themselves of their rights according to the tenets of the Islamic religion to ask food of the villagers, and whenever there was a wedding in Sunbat they would provide music and dancing.  Eventually they began to get paid for their services, and their fame spread to neighboring villages and towns, where they were also asked to perform.  Finally they were able to move into the houses of Kafr al-'Arab Street.

This, it seemed, was all that I would learn about the Ghawazi of Sunbat.  Friends of mine in a nearby town added that they considered it unlikely that the Ghawazi were only recent arrivals in the village, as they recalled having heard of Sunbat in that connection for all their lives.  They suggested that my informant may have been trying to upgrade the image of Sunbat by claiming that the Ghawazi were not really indigenous to the village.  Several days later I mentioned to Nahid Sabri, one of Egypt's great oriental dancers, that I hoped to visit some Ghawazi during the course of my stay.  "Ooh, I love the Ghawazi!" she trilled with even more than her customary warmth.  "Why don't you go to Sunbat?"  I winced.

Sunbat continued to haunt me until at last I did go back, with an introduction to a member of a Ghawazi family there. This young man, also, seemed uneasy about my presence but dutifully deposited me in his family's salon while he went to locate a dancer or two.  He had confided that his sister had been a dancer until forced to leave the profession by their mother, and now that same mother waited with me silently, expressionlessly, for her son's return. 

She resisted all my overtures, saying only that her family had nothing to do with the entertainment business and that she was very, very tired of hearing about it, tired even of the name "Ghawazi." 

Somehow it came as no surprise when her son informed me that all the dancers - there were not many in Sunbat - were unavailable, performing in other villages.  I would have to find my Ghawazi in Upper Egypt, just as tourists had been doing for the past hundred years or so.

Old accounts by such travelers and journalists indicated that the Ghawazi were centered variously in Esna, Qena, or Luxor.   What was certain was that now, in 1976, there were Ghawazi in Luxor.  Sami Yunis, Director of Egypt's National Folk Arts Ensemble, or Firqa Qaumiyya,  had told me that he had choreographed Ghawazi dances for the Ensemble based on research he had done for the Ministry of Culture among a large family of Ghawazi in Luxor, the Aulad Mazin.  Subsequently a set of records, "The Folk Music of Egypt," appeared in 1967 under the joint auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the Ethnomusicological and Folklore Institute of Bucarest.  This anthology included dance  music for the Banat Mazin, a troupe comprising the most skilled daughters of the Mazin family's patriarch, and was accompanied by a booklet of explanatory notes and photographs of the Banat Mazin and others presented in the recording.  Sometime after its release, a copy found its way to California and came to the attention of dance researchers there, notably Leona Wood and 'Aisha 'Ali.  In the early 1970's, 'Aisha 'Ali made a couple of trips to Egypt and contacted the Banat Mazin with the aid of a wealthy Upper Egyptian tourism mogul and long-time fan of the Mazin dancers, Muhammad Khalil Ibrahim, "El Baron," and  filmed the troupe in action.  Hence, with the very limited means and time left at my disposal, it seemed most sensible to go to Luxor.

Along with the Pyramids, Luxor, a large village on the Nile River in Upper Egypt, has been a major goal of tourists for the last 150 years.  This is chiefly due to its proximity to such reminders of ancient Egyptian greatness as the Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings.  There are, however, other attractions as well. 

Although situated in the relatively undeveloped and isolated South, Luxor has probably the most cosmopolitan inhabitants in the whole of Egypt as a result of rubbing shoulders with the world, and some of the inhabitants have long made a livelihood of providing entertainments for parties of tourists weary of ruin trekking.

  Arriving in the evening at the railway station, I, like generations of foreign visitors before me, was quickly taken in hand by one such enterprising individual, and scarcely an hour later I had paid a deposit of ten Egyptian pounds (approximately US $15.00) as part of a total fee of twenty pounds for a troupe of musicians, a pair of tahtib (quarterstaff) players, and a pair of Ghawazi dancers to perform for me on Saturday, two days hence.  I would be free to ask questions and make recordings and movies - the people of Luxor were accustomed to such goings on, perhaps even amused by them.  A few minutes afterwards, I was bundled off in a hantur, or horse-drawn carriage, to a riverside casino, the Rababa, where Ghawazi were scheduled to perform that very evening.  Surely now, at last I should find out who the Ghawazi were and what they really did; but warned by experience, I had an uneasy suspicion that things wouldn't be so simple. 

The Casino Rababa proved to be a cavernous aggregation of brick walls and the varicolored appliqué tentwork typical of festive occasions in Egypt.  On a large stage against the far wall, an oriental orchestra in Western attire played well known Middle Eastern songs.  My admission was secured by the purchase of a minuscule dinner for one Egyptian pound (US$1.50), halfway through which a few parties of local Egyptians, Lebanese, and European tourists began drifting in.  After an hour or so, around ten o'clock, I caught sight of a slender man in a galabiyya accompanied by two muffled figures heading backstage.  I waited a decent interval and then, being signaled that I was expected, followed them.  I found myself in a small, well lighted room, bare save for three chairs and a bench, or diwan.  On one chair lounged the man in the galabiyya, rather dark, with fine features under a rakishly wound headscarf; on the diwan, in full regalia, two Ghawazi dancers.

Hasty introductions were made:  the girls were Karam and Amal Shauqi Mazin, the man, their father.  I could not help but think of them as girls because of their short skirts and long, loose hair, an anomaly among Upper Egyptian woman.  At odds with this youthful silhouette, heavy make-up lent them an appearance of sophistication and indeterminate age.  As they were due on stage, I came immediately to the point:  "Who are the Ghawazi?"

"Ghawazi are dancers," answered the man, "just as mughaniyyin (Arabic for "singers") are people who sing."

"But isn't the word for women who dance raqisat?"

"Yes, but ghawazi is the word the peasants around here use."

"Are the Ghawazi from a particular qabila, tribe?"

"They are of the tribe of Al-Nawara."

I tried to write, listen and formulate my questions all at the same time, wishing for the umpteenth time that the Gobbledegook Foundation would give me a grant to replace my defunct tape recorder.  Did they know of Ghawazi in other parts of Egypt, in Lower Egypt?  Had they any idea why the Ghawazi of Sumbat had tried so assiduously to avoid me?

The answers came readily.  Ghawazi were to be found in various places, from which they traveled to others to perform as they were needed.  Their center in Upper Egypt was Luxor, where they lived at ease among the townsfolk.  There were Ghawazi in Lower Egypt, and they had had contacts with them as far away as Alexandria.  He could not speak with certainty of those people in Sunbat; perhaps they were afraid that we were tax assessors, or undercover police investigating prostitution.  It was too hard for Ghawazi to live in Lower Egypt, where the people did not understand their art.

Karam and Amal spoke of their dance as raqs sha'bi, (popular dance,"folk dance") rather than raqs sharqi, oriental dance, "belly dancing."  The difference, they said, lay in the steps and movements of the dance, the musical accompaniment, and the costume. 

Oriental dancers moved around more and had a more varied repertoire, especially of arm movements.  Oriental dancers performed to oriental music, with its "classical" Middle Eastern instruments, taqsim interpolations, and so forth, where the proper music of the Ghawazi was folk music on the mizmar and tabla baladi, which were never used in oriental orchestras, or sometimes the rababa (spike fiddle).  Oriental dancers wore revealing costumes of delicate, gauzy materials; Ghawazi wore heavier, more complicated outfits which, they said, did not allow as much freedom of movement.

This was my first opportunity to examine Ghawazi costumes at close range.  They were clearly descended from those shown in photographs of Egyptian dancers from the 1890's, which in turn may be ultimately derived, in part at least, from the standard, basically Turkish attire of preceding centuries best detailed by Edward Lane. 

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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
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

5-11-04 Page 4 of the Rakkasah West Saturday Photos The last page of photos for Saturday

5-8-04 Page 2 of the Rakkasah Saturday Photos, Page 3
5-7-04 Rakkasah West Festival 2004 SATURDAY, PAGE 1 March 2004, Richmond, California photos by GS Volunteers including:
Biram, Clare, Cynthia, Krista, Lynette, Michelle, Monica, Sandra, Valentino, Yasmine and probably more!
*Let us know if you recognize faces!

5-4-04 Belly Dance in Israel by Orit Maftsir
Belly dancers are the hottest trend at the moment, unlike the totally frozen attitudes towards the Arab culture in Israel.

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