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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 4 - 1976

The Ramessuem on the West Bank at Luxor
(Ancient Thebes)
Like so many towns in the Middle East nowadays buffeted by the winds of change, Luxor seems neither old nor new, oriental nor Western.  It sprawls without discernible boundaries on the east bank of the Nile, far above Cairo where the river cuts a trough through the desert for hundreds of miles towards the interior of Africa.  The foreign visitor, who usually comes in winter or early spring to see the pharaonic monuments listed in his guidebook, carries away memories of the salubrious climate, the dilapidated horse-drawn carriages, and the wooden ferry which bears him majestically to the opposite bank of the Nile, oddly gracious notes against a background of grimy poverty.  His recollections of the ancient temples he came to see are likely to be less vivid - sun-blurred impressions of walls and courtyards, broken statues and battered columns covered with hieroglyphs, walls without roofs, courtyards without walls, monumental gateways leading to nothing, a sort of unfinished antediluvian construction project incised with acres of inscriptions whose pictorial qualities tease his mind without ever revealing their meaning. 

But perhaps, if he is fortunate, he has heard the wail of rababas and crackle of drums and finger cymbals as he walked back to his hotel through the night-darkened streets of Luxor, and followed the pulse-quickening sounds to their source.  If so, he can say that he has seen the Ghawazi dance.

A modern Egyptian artist's rendering of a Ghaziyya dancing at a 19th century moulid, or 'saint's day' festival
A Ghawazi entertainment may be the foreign visitor's sole experience of the folkways of the Egyptian people.  These dancers, said by the early 19th century orientalist Edward Lane to be of a particular tribe which styled themselves "Baramikeh" and popularly referred to as Ghawazi, are one of the few survivals from the old Egypt.  And yet, as I was to learn when I spoke with the patriarch of the Aulad Mazin, Luxor's leading family of Ghawazi, they may not be of Egyptian origin at all.  Two hundred years ago they were to be found in every large town and city of Egypt and were in such demand that, according to Lane, there were "other dancing girls and courtesans who call themselves Ghawazi, but who do not really belong to that tribe."  In the 1830's the Europeanizing khedive Muhammad 'Ali enacted stringent legislation against female dancing and prostitution, evidently resulting in an exodus of many of the Ghawazi from Cairo and perhaps other large cities with a large government presence, and their name gradually became linked in the popular mind with the "backward" villages where many of them resumed their careers. 

This association proved an equally great blow to them; isolated from the largest cities' rush towards westernization, the Ghawazi came to be considered "folkloric" or merely low-class, depending on the point of view.  But despite these vicissitudes - or perhaps, in part, because of them - an undeniable aura of glamour has remained attached to their name.

At present the Ghawazi are most accessible in Luxor, attracted in part by the opportunity to practice their arts in the hotels and riverside casinos which have sprung up to cater to the tourist trade and accustomed to the exotic manners and predilections of the outside world.  This accessibility brought me to Luxor in the winter of 1976 after unsuccessful attempts to see Ghawazi elsewhere, hopeful of learning more about these people whose origins, arts and customs are a subject of much fantasy but relatively little study.  At the least I should be able to see them perform their own dances, which have been so variously represented, and sometimes misrepresented, by others.

It had been a simple matter to contact the Ghawazi here in Luxor.  The very evening I arrived, I had been able to attend a Ghawazi performance and speak briefly with two of the dancers.  I had contracted to sponsor a daytime performance myself and now, in the courtyard of the Radwan Hotel, prepared to film the highlights.  "It is well that you are doing this now, in the daytime," commented 'Abdu, who had made the arrangements for me.  "Why?" I asked.  "At night, there would probably be drinking, and it might become unpleasant."  I didn't have a chance to pursue the subject; the orchestra of five robed and turbaned rababa players, a drummer and tambourine player, seated on chairs against the near wall, was clearly ready to begin, and the young English and Dutch tourists at the tables which had been pushed to either side of the courtyard craned their necks as the two Ghawazi dancers stepped forth.  One was Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin of the area's premiere dance troupe, the Banat Mazin, a slender young woman in a long, straight gown of dark red stuff trimmed with silver spangles.  The other, Farida, was a last-minute substitute supposed to be an inexpert dancer but clad in the traditional regalia of the ghaziyya, in this area at least:  a tight little sleeveless vest with vestigial epaulettes worn over a blouse or pullover, and a rather full skirt depending from the hips of slightly more than knee length, both decorated with horizontal  rows of bugle-bead fringe tipped with large spangles.  Around the top of the skirt, high on the hips, was a narrow girdle of rolled cotton from which depended several long spangle-covered streamers.  Like the Ghawazi I had already seen in Luxor, she wore a bejeweled diadem, a stuffed crescent set forward on the head with the ends passing behind the ears and tied down at the nape of the neck, as well as a breast ornament of flat filigree crescents, each smaller than the one hanging above, an item of jewelry which appeared to be as popular among the Ghawazi now as the knob-headed anklets which they no longer wore had been 75 years ago.

A performance in 1982 at Shaykh 'Ali's Marsam Hotel, near Qurna, across the Nile from Luxor. The author is in the middle, with Khairiyya Mazin, youngest of the five Banat Mazin, on her left, and Raja' Mazin, the next youngest sister, on her right."
A minute or two of confusion while everyone looked around as if to ask, "What happens now?" and at my signal the musicians struck up a tune in rather fast 4/4 time, and the two ghaziyyas began to dance.  Khairiyya stepped out with practiced assurance, making a circuit of the dance area in a graceful, hip-swinging stride; she would throw her right foot and hip forward as she stepped and, as her weight fell on that foot, her hip would slide out loosely to the side, and she would shift balance so as to accomplish the same with the left foot and hip on her next step.  The effect was one of relaxed but constant on-going motion.  Khairiyya used this rhythmic walk sometimes to open a dance and sometimes to get quickly from where she was to a distant point without disrupting the dance.

This sort of finesse Farida lacked, as she herself had forewarned me.  She began tentatively with a stilted "Step-Hip" ("Step-Lift," "Egyptian Walk") in place, and this, along with the famous side-to-side shimmy noted by Edward Lane, and another shimmy which I was to see among all the Ghawazi dancers of Luxor, a sort of shimmy in place with a regular stomp or emphatic drop of one foot, constituted the major part of her repertoire.  She did not move around the dance area much to add variety to the dance and afford the surrounding audience a kaleidoscope of views, changing her angle of travel with swift partial pivots as Khairiyya did; when Farida wanted to get from one point to another, as to speak with one of the Egyptians who were converging on the scene, she would simply stop dancing and flounce over.  She was clearly aware that she was no match for Khairiyya, and was content to serve most of the time as a sort of chorus for the better dancer.

As Farida and Khairiyya continued through song after song, I began to perceive the basic structure of the musical selections and how it determined some aspects of the dancing.  The selections were all in 4/4 time.  Each selection fell into two parts, of unequal duration, the first part slower and more deliberate than the second part, which was very fast and bright and also, in most cases, of much longer duration than the first.  The basic form of the rhythm for the first part of a selection, played on the drum over two measures, may be illustrated verbally as:

 First Measure 4/4  Second Measure 4/4
DUM rest DUM rest Takka Tak rest  DUM rest Takka Tak rest  Takka
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

the DUM being a heavy stroke upon the drum, the Takka two lighter strokes and the Tak a slap or emphatic high-pitched stroke.  The "rest" represents a silence of the same duration as the preceding stroke. 

The tempo would increase as the dance progressed until this meter finally gave way to another, played over one measure of the now very rapid music:  

One Measure 4/4
DUM Tak rest Tak DUM rest Tak rest
2 3 4

The whole measure might be filled in with drum beats as:

One Measure 4/4
DUM Tak  Tak Tak DUM Tak Tak Tak
1 3 4

A rababa (spike fiddle) orchestra. Although the Ghawazi sometimes perform to the rababa, this is not by choice, as the rhythms and styles of the Ghawazi dances performed in Upper Egypt require the expertise of the mizmar (shawm) and tabla baladi (large double-headed drum) orchestras, who traditionally perform the rhythms and styles with which rababa orchestras are largely unfamiliar. Rababa orchestras are much cheaper to hire than mizmar orchestras; hence those staging Ghawazi performances for tourists or the unknowledgable usually engage rababa orchestras for these performances."
Other combinations occurred as well, but the shift in emphasis from two-measure units in the first part of a piece of music or dance, to one-measure units in the second faster part, seemed to hold true for all of the Ghawazi dance music I encountered in this performance and for much Sa'idi music in general.

It must not be thought that his basic "slow-fast" framework and the metric structures were in any way limiting or monotonous - there were an infinite number of variations and ornamentations, some quite spectacular, as well as outright departures from the form.  Spontaneity was a keynote.  During the driving latter section of a piece, or even anticipating it by a few moments, the Egyptian onlookers seldom failed to accompany the performers with rhythmic clapping; four handclaps to a measure. 

So galvanic was the music of the ensemble which I had by pure good fortune engaged, and so disarming the atmosphere of warmth and good fun that prevailed that day in the courtyard of the Radwan Hotel, that I took a turn with the ghaziyyas and other individuals myself and have never felt so at ease while dancing, or learned so much dance and danced so well as I did then. 

It is most unfortunate that recordings of Egyptian folk music of this caliber do not seem to be readily available to the public, even in Egypt; a canvass of Cairo's record shops and visits to several well hidden offices of the Ministry of Culture failed to turn up anything similar.

Farida and Khairiyya proved to be musicians in their own right.  In addition to singing, they handled their finger cymbals as musical instruments, unlike the generality of Egyptian dancers, who use the cymbals little and ineptly as if plodding through an annoying obligation.  The ghaziyyas sometimes played their cymbals continuously throughout an entire selection, and while they played only two rhythms, they varied the tone and dynamics of these with the skill of a virtuoso drummer, so that they could have performed most pleasingly with no accompaniment other than their own cymbals. 

Which rhythm they used was determined by the two-part structure of the dance selections.  During the first part of a selection, they would play four groups of three cymbal strokes each over the two measures of the rhythm, the first stroke of each triad with the right hand, the second stroke with the left, and the third with the right again, each stroke of equal duration, with a pause after each first stroke of the same duration as the stroke.  Each two measures of the rhythm would begin with the last stroke of a triad and end with the first two strokes of a triad:

 First Measure   Second Measure
drum DUM rest DUM rest Takka Tak rest  drum DUM rest Takka Tak rest  Takka
  1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
cymbals R    rest  R      L  R rest  R    L   cymbals R   rest R  L R   rest R  L

During the second, fast part of the music, they played a continuous running pattern, eight strokes of equal duration over one measure, each stroke on the opposite hand:

One Measure 4/4
Drum  DUM Tak rest Tak DUM rest Tak rest
  2 3 4
Cymbals Right      Left  Right  Left  Right     Left Right  Left

Like the good percussionists they were, Farida and Khairiyya would silence their instruments for part or all of a measure at strategic points in the music.

Alexandria in Luxor
Naturally, the components of their dance repertoire also followed this two-part musical structure to some extent.  Larger, more time-consuming steps such as the "Egyptian Walk" tended to occur in the first part of a dance, where the rhythmic structure and slower tempo of the music were more suitable for them.  Smaller, relatively concentrated steps such as the side-to-side shimmy and shimmy with stomp or emphatic foot drop were preponderant in the latter part of a selection, when the dancers' hips, in the fast, repetitive nature of the movements involved, seemed almost to be silent percussion instruments, accompanying the music as rhythmically as the dancers' finger cymbals.

to be continued...

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

9-7-04 31st Annual Belly Dancer of the Year Competition, Finalists, May 29, 2004 at Auctions by the Bay, Alameda, CA photos by Susie and Lynette. Where were the spectators? Plan on coming next year!

8-31-04 High Desert Hip Fest 2004 Report and photos sent in by Janie Midgley, photos were taken by David Ventura, High Desert Hip Fest is held every year, the first part of May in Reno, Nevada.

8-24-04 Dina in LA, report and photos by Catherine Barros
On May 14-16 of 2004, Nora, Dee Dee & Ahmad Asad of Little Egypt presented Dina of Cairo in a teaching workshop and show at the Radisson Hotel at the Los Angeles Airport.

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.

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