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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi
by Edwina Nearing

Originally published in 1977 in Habibi Magazine, vol3 , 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.

Faiza, a ghaziyya cousin of Khairiyya Mazin, mid-1980s. The costume is still basically the type worn in the mid-1970s, when this part of "Sirat al-Ghawazi" was written. However, the "currents of change" referred to by the author would indeed soon sweep this away; by the late 1980s, most ghawazi were wearing long gowns, and the type of costume shown in this photo disappeared entirely in the 1990s, supplanted entirely by the long gown

Part 3 - 1976

 A name, figures glimmering deep in the mind's eye, a legend - the Ghawazi finally became a reality for me in the back room of a riverside casino in Upper Egypt.  On the one hand, I saw Karam and Amal Shauqi Mazin, of the long-celebrated dancers of Egypt called Ghawazi, of the tribe of Al-Nawara, as working women trying to maintain an air of composure under an unexpected barrage of questions. 

On the other, they seemed glowing fragments of the shattered mosaic of Egyptian culture and folklife, soon perhaps to be swept way with the rest by the onrushing currents of change.  But here in Luxor, for the moment, an eddy had formed and past and present existed side by side. 

Karam and Amal looked at me out of eyes almond-ringed with kohl, the dark lines extending somewhat beyond the inner and outer corners of the eye and the lids dusted with turquoise to the brows, which were plucked narrow from underneath: the legacy of ancient Egypt.  Their lips and fingernails were carmine.  Their hair (in actuality wigs) fell smoothly to the shoulderblades, where it turned under slightly, from behind the hairbands on which their glittering diadems rested.  Karam's hair was blonde, Amal's black.  Karam had long bangs parted in the middle and swept to either side across the forehead, rather longer and wavy in front of the ears, in the manner of the Turkish period.  Amal wore her bangs cut straight across the forehead a little above the brows, "pudding-basin"style.  It was difficult to determine their age; they seemed neither very young nor very old.

Past and present were mingled, too, in the ghaziyyas' attire.  Their polychromatic costumes were basically similar to those in rare photographs of Egyptian dancers from the 1890's, but under the traditional little sleeveless vest of the one, instead of a thin white blouse, was a heavy synthetic knit pullover, and beneath the vest of the other, a home-made blouse of some lustrous, flimsy violet stuff, the sleeves tight to the elbow and then flaring wide to the wrist. 

Ghawazi, 1890s
Where their grandmothers had worn long, dark skirts of what appeared to be velveteen or satin, Karam and Amal wore knee-length skirts of dense chiffon or georgette, covered from top to bottom with horizontal rows of bugle-bead fringe tipped with large pailettes.  Similar rows of fringe adorned the tight, brief vests, with longer strands trailing from the shoulders where formerly the vestigial epaulettes had sported a more clipped growth of metallic fringe.  Yesteryear's girdle of tasseled, ankle-length brocade streamers and shorter tasseled silk ropes, attached to a narrow roll of cloth around the hips, was now an arrangement of four or five broader streamers covered with large pailettes, hanging down the front of the skirt to the hem.  Gone were the silver anklets, the long necklaces of coins and strings of beads, the small fillet or cap perched atop the bound-up hair.  In their place were a type of necklace and headdress which in the past few years have become stereotypes of Egyptian folklore:  a breast ornament of filigree crescents of decreasing size suspended from a coin-edged ribband attached to the garment beneath, and a regal headdress, the taj, or crown, a stuffed, bejeweled crescent worn forward on the head with the ends passing behind the ears and tied at the nape of the neck under the hair. 
Gone, too, were yesteryear's restraint in color, the pale golds on dark reds, the silver on deep rose

To be sure, Karam's skirt and vest were black and the beadwork silver, but each strand of beads ended in a red or green spangle, and alternate rows of red and green spangles flashed from the blue streamers of the girdle.  Her blouse was violet, her high heels blue, her bracelets, rings and earrings gold, her necklace, a pointed bib of coins covering the deep opening of the vest to the sternum, age-darkened brass.  The taj in her blonde hair, set off with a rhinestone brooch in the center, was encrusted with cup sequins in wide, vertical bands of silver, green, and red, separated by ropes of gold beads.  More gold beads fell from the taj in festoons over her forehead. 

Where some might have found such a palette grotesque, I was fascinated as by the color-dripping jewels of a Tiffany window, and saluted the simple directness which dared them.  It was the style of the costume, rather than the colors, which disturbed me.

"'Ghawazi Dance' presented by the Egyptian National Folklore Ensemble in 1976, with the soloist in a black and silver gown of tull bi-telli (a handmade fabric erroneously called 'assiut')"

 Those shivering yards and yards of fringe, and the short skirt which bulked unnaturally wide at the hips and flounced with every movement, suggested a manner of dancing far removed from the fluid poetry of the "Ghawazi Dance" presented in the 1976 repertoire of Egypt's National Troupe for Folk Arts.  There the dancer had worn the long black and silver gown of tull bi-telli, net worked with flattened metal knots, often associated with the Ghawazi in the Egyptian popular imagination. 

Did Karam and Amal never wear the gowns of tull bi-telli, I asked wistfully?  No, they did not; nor did they recognize the name of the fabric or identify the stuff itself with certainty, though perhaps it was that from which they made the summer blouses of their costumes.  Except for the seasonal variation in the blouse, their costumes were what I saw before me now, in December.  And if form were any indication of function, what I saw before me indicated a predominance of rapid hip movement, just as did Tahitian dance costume, whose silhouette these Ghawazi costumes somewhat resembled.

This prediction proved accurate, as I found after concluding my too-hasty visit with Karam and Amal and settling down at a table in front of the Casino Rababa's large stage to watch their performance.  Their dancing, as the great orientalist Edward Lane had recorded of the Ghawazi in the early 19th century, had "little of elegance, its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side."  Playing their finger cymbals continuously, Karam and Amal danced, sometimes in unison, usually going their own ways, to the music of a standard oriental orchestra, music in 4/4 time which varied from medium-fast to very fast.  The perpetual bounce of the skirts and flurry of glittering fringe, while emphasizing the motion of the hips, also obscured the exact nature of the movements, but not the lack of variety.  Besides the predominating side-to-side shimmy, there appeared to be a vertical shimmy; both were occasionally done with a little stomp of the right foot in time with the music.  There was a walk with a shallow, halting torso undulation, the pelvis slightly forward.There were breast shimmies.  The famous "Egyptian Walk" ("Step-Hip," "Step-Lift") was much in evidence, though not immediately recognizable as they rendered it:  on each "hip" or "lift" segment,  in which there occurred virtually no thrust of the hip, they turned to face at full right angles to the direction of travel, and the "step" segment was somehow accomplished with a little upward toss of the derriere.  For this "Egyptian Walk," as for most of the dance, the arms were carried in one position, broken at the elbow with the forearms almost at right angles to the upper arms and rather forward of the body, the hands shoulder level or higher, palms facing each other.

This seemed to lend a strained, wooden aspect to the shoulders and upper torso which, in my eyes, considerably detracted from the grace of the dance.  As Karam and Amal themselves had asserted, it did not resemble oriental dance.

Edward Lane's Drawing

Ghawazi, 1890s
Halfway through their show they were joined by a member of the audience, a slight girl dressed in a man's cotton galabiyya, and a black mandil, or kerchief, around her head, trimmed with large artificial coins.  She handed Karam a couple of bills, as is the custom in Egypt when one wishes to dance with the performers on stage (there generally being no dance floor in Egyptian cabarets), and tied a sash around her hips.  She was said to be from the environs of Luxor, and thus I was given a capital opportunity to compare Ghawazi dancing with the ordinary dancing of the women of Upper Egypt.  There were notable differences.  The little Sa'idiyya's dancing was slower, more stylized, both smoother and more angular, her movements broader and more deliberate.  Her pelvic work was relatively large and well defined, unlike that of the Ghawazi, the outstretched hip a major characteristic, while the fast shimmies so typical of Ghawazi dance were almost, or entirely, nonexistent.  She used her arms, simply but effectively, to frame her head or complement a torso movement, and her carriage was confident and graceful.  Although her repertoire of movements was no larger than that of Karam and Amal, the timing and arrangement were more apposite.  Still, it was difficult to say which style was better; they were merely - different.   

The belief being expressed that there would be another show later that evening, I stayed at my post.  My dedication was rewarded with an unlooked-for bonus:  Karam and Amal sang this time, as well as danced.

Although Edward Lane had observed that "some of these women add to their other allurements the art of singing, and equal the ordinary 'Awalim . . .," that had been over a hundred years ago, and I had resignedy assumed this attainment to have gone by the board, with so much else.  Karam and Amal sang, in unison, every other stanza of the lively tunes played by the musicians, and as they sang they did a simple step-lift in place, alternating feet.  This combination of song and dance could occasionally be seen in old Egyptian films.  After their performance, the individual who, no doubt for "a piece of the action," had undertaken to arrange for me a special performance of Ghawazi dancing and tahtib, inquired whether these dancers would be acceptable.  As I could hardly form an idea of the Ghawazi arts from the performance of only two of their exponents, and might well not find other Ghawazi by myself performing in the limited time at my disposal, I requested that other, hopefully better, dancers be obtained.  "But not the Banat Mazin," I admonished him, explaining that the Mazin family's most famous troupe was supposed to have been already subjected to a good deal of study by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and more than one foreign researcher as well. 

"Aiywallah, if not the Banat Mazin, then who else?" his look said, but a dragoman of Luxor, a town whose prosperity depended upon amusing and placating capricious foreigners, must never appear at a loss, and he left with instructions that I be at the Radwan Hotel at 11 a.m. Saturday with movie camera 8-mm, silent film, alas) in hand. 

Saturday morning arrived sunny and clear, like most mornings in Upper Egypt's winter, with only a faint reminder of night's chill in the air.  The enclosed courtyard of the Radwan Hotel had been partially cleared for the event, the dining tables having been pushed to the back and sides.  A few of these were already occupied by small groups of European tourists whose dragomans had gotten word of what was up and informed their charges.  The sun still lying at an angle to the high walls of the hotel, only a patch of sunlight toward the front of the courtyard reached the lawn on which the Ghawazi would dance, leaving the rest in heavy shade.  As I needed sufficient light for movie filming, I shoved the tables further to the sides to create a larger dancing area here, then walked off the distance at which I would need to stand from the performers in order to keep them entirely within the camera's lens.  This put me uncomfortably near the thorny hedge along the back of the court.

Alexandria in Ghawazi attire, 1979

Informed that the Ghawazi had arrived, I asked if I might have a word with them, armed with much the same questions I had asked Karam and Amal.  I was led down a hall to the small darkened room where the new pair of Ghawazi waited, accompanied by a wizened elderly woman shrouded in black, apparently their chaperone.

  They appeared to be in their 20's, one slender and brunette, the other fairer, with raven black hair; both were quite pretty.  The brunette wore a long, form-fitting gown of some dark red stuff, slashed up the sides from the hem to a few inches above the knee, the hem and side openings edged with silver spangles, as were the long bell sleeves.  The deep "V" neck of the garment, which disclosed another of the ubiquitous heavy knit pullovers donned against the earlier chill and a necklace of red jewels, was trimmed with wider bands of spangles, and from there to the hem of the gown ran a narrow double row of silver spangles.  These also covered the hairband in her hair, or wig, which was long with straight-cut bangs, like that of Amal at the Casino Rababa  Her earrings were of a set with the necklace, and red high heels completed the ensemble.  Later, when she danced, she would put on the hip girdle:  cut straight across of the same red fabric as the gown, a hand's breadth wide in front and wider in back with a band of silver spangles along upper and lower edges, and two rows of silver bugle-bead fringe, tipped with spangles, one row short and the other, hanging from the girdle's lower edge, about seven inches long.

The other dancer's attire was similar to that of Karam and Amal, the only major difference being in the colors and the style of the vest.  The vests of the two ghaziyyas at the Casino Rababa had largely covered the bosom, the "V" neck plunging to the sternum but relatively narrow; the present ghaziyya's bodice was cut wide enough to curve around and under the major portion of the bosom.  The ends of her crescent necklace were fastened to either side of the bodice opening at about the collarbone, pulling the bodice together there somewhat for a pleasing reversed "key-hole arch" effect.  Thus it seemed that modern Ghawazi costume preserved variations in style, just as could be seen in prints of Egyptian dancers from the early 19th century. 

Khairiyya at around 18 years old, not long before her performance at the Radwan Hotel.
The more assured of the two dancers, the brunette, introduced herself as Khairiyya Mazin; the other, Farida, a relative.  As Khairiyya used the Mazin surname without any qualifier, I assumed that she was one of the famed Banat Mazin, where Farida was not.  Farida explained apologetically that she was not a very good dancer and had been contacted at the last moment to substitute for someone else; she hoped that I would not be too disappointed.  I trotted out my first question, "Who are the Ghawazi?" and was speedily derailed by Khairiyya's interjecting that they didn't care much for the term "Ghawazi," as it had a bad connotation  in the popular mind.  It was very widely used, she went on, all over Egypt, and widely misused as well, as popular catchwords often are.   

Those called Ghawazi in Lower Egypt were not real Ghawazi - the real ones were in Upper Egypt.  Ghawazi dancing was "the best sort of dance," raqs sha'bi, "the dance of the people."

The increasing noise from outside, to which were now added the sounds of the orchestra's arrival, cut short our talk and summoned me back to the theater of operations.  Chairs were being placed along the near wall of the courtyard for the musicians:  five rababa (spike fiddle) players, a drummer and a tambourine player, dark and dignified men with moustaches in the traditional garb of the Egyptian village.  They knew their jobs, and took only a few moments to settle themselves and unlimber their instruments.  Farida and Khairiyya came out and stood near them.

orchestra Fariday and Khairiyya

Ghawazi drawingtypical costume in 1976

Caption for "typical costume 1976"
A Ghaziyya of Luxor in typical costume, 1976. Skirt & vest are midnight blue, the unusually skimpy vest pulled in by the 'folkloric' crescent necklace (gold) & trimmed with strands of silver bugle beads tipped with silver spangles. Shorter strands ornament the stomach of the short-sleeved red blouse, worn over a red pullover. Rows of red, gold & blue bugle beads tipped with silver spangles decorate the skirt. The yellow-gold streamer girdle, with red & silver spangles, has tassels (yellow-gold), a rarity now.
The crown is sewn with bands of red & silver spangles separated by loops of gold beads; festoons of gold beads with coins fall over the brow. Earrings & necklace of red gems, red heels & fleshcolored stockings complete the ensemble.

More coming!

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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 - 1976posted 9-5-05
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

6-28-04 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!
First Two Days
Day 3: First Look at Egyptian History
Day 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

8-2-04 A Whole Latte' Shaking Going On, Belly Dance Comics by Alexandria
"Ok, I think we can stop now!"

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