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 6 - 1976
More and more swiftly shrank the long shadows in the courtyard as the sun swam toward its zenith above Luxor.  Khairiyya and Farida, among the last of those once numerous and still notorious Egyptian dancers called Ghawazi, had entertained their audience of foreign tourists and inquisitive locals for over an hour.  Now the two ghaziyyas slipped away, disappearing into the dark interior of the hotel and leaving me with an armload of notebooks and cameras exclaiming, "Where are they going?  Are they coming back?  What's happening?"  No one seemed to know.  Only when the throng parted midst a sudden hush to admit two gowned and turbaned gentlemen bearing staffs, businesslike affairs about four and a half feet long and an inch and a quarter thick, did I recall hiring a pair of tahtib players as well as the ghaziyyas and orchestra.

Tahtib was sometimes called Raqs al-'Asa ("Dance of the Staff," "Stick Dancing") by city slickers, but it was under the name "taytiyb"  that it stirred the blood of the Sa'idis, the people of Upper Egypt, for whom it was a living heritage.  Although executed to music and certain rhythms and classified as a dance by Sami Yunis, Director of Egypt's National Folk Arts Ensemble, one spoke in Arabic of "playing tahtib," (la'ibat al-tahtib) rather than "dancing tahtib."  Here were displayed that fire, grace and strength of the Sa'idi spirit which centuries of hardship had never quite extinguished.  As rababas cried out and drum and tambour beat a grave, imperious cadence, the two antagonists circled each other at a distance with a rhythmic step-hop, step-hop on alternate feet, each swinging his staff slowly around his head by one end.  I recognized that simple step hop as one of the first dance steps I had ever learned, shown me long ago on a Nile boat by a grizzled Luxorite who was trying (successfully, as it happened) to jolly me out of a case of heel tendinitis.  It was the basic, perhaps the only, dance step of the tahtib, which resurfaced several times throughout the dance as a counterpoise and respite from the more active, combative sequences.

I became mesmerized by the metronome of left foot swinging out over right, right foot over left, by the swing and billow of galabiyya skirts from side to side, by the swinging rotation of the staves and the complementary progression of the opponents in their great zodiac, opponents with a single beating heart, the drum, a single bloodstream, the sostenuto of the rababas, whose staves would yet leap at each other unerringly as striking serpents. 

The tahtib would meander through feint, thrust and parry, flamboyant stick tossing, balancing and twirling alternating with oddly hieratic gestures, and long moments where the opponents would face each other motionless, crouching on one knee, each waiting for the other to drop his guard.  Seldom did the staffs actually come into contact, and never did a blow land on the body - as in the martial arts of the Far East, skill lay in the demonstrated ability to land a blow, in the number of movements, attacks and responses mastered by the practitioner, and art in the grace and dexterity with which he executed them.  And, like kendo and karate, the acquired skills could be turned to deadly purpose.  The tahtib staff, the khazarana as it was called locally, could become the shouma, the heavier killing staff, the weapon brought from its dark hiding place to break heads in the feuds which still erupted between family and family, village and village. 

But now the high-noon call to prayer floated hauntingly, melodiously over the roofs of Luxor, and the tahtib broke up in confusion, no one quite daring to appear so publicly impious as to pursue such an activity at such a time.  Again, feeling like an incompetent shepherd as I watched the white turbans disappear in the hubbub, I rolled my eyes heavenward and asked, "Are they coming back?  What's happening?"  To my relief  I caught sight of Farida and Khairiyya emerging from the hotel, still in costume, the latter bearing a cane covered with silver spangles to match the trim on her gown and headband.  Were they so enjoying the occasion themselves that they chose to return, or did they feel that they had not yet danced long enough to fulfill their obligation to their employer?  Whether personal inclination or professional integrity, it gladdened the heart and was a far cry from the sullen, elusive Ghawazi of Sunbat and the jaded second-raters of Lower Egypt's cities.

As the orchestra seated themselves and resumed their instruments, I prepared to watch Khairiyya perform a cane dance to end all cane dances.  Professor Yunis' research had revealed a close association between stick dancing and the Ghawazi, and the "Ghawazi Dance" of the National Folklore Ensemble in 1974 had been entirely a stick dance, choreographed for three women dancing in unison.  Also, I had often remarked a number of similarities between tahtib and what I conceived of as the older, more vigorous style of female cane dancing, and I suspected that the dance as performed by the Sa'idi ghaziyya, to whom all the lore and intricacies of stick dancing must be an open book, would reflect the tahtib even more dramatically.  But although Khairiyya handled the cane with practiced ease, her dance seemed to have little of tahtib, little even of the variety, momentum and cohesiveness of the better cane dances I had seen in Cairo nightclubs, being hardly a formal dance at all.  She brought both Farida and myself into the act, one after the other, to perform a riff which recalled Sami Yunis' "Ghawazi Dance," she and her partner moving in a circle shimmying with the cane balanced between them at the waist, their hands free to play the cymbals. 

One of the men also partnered Khairiyya, and more successfully than Farida had done that morning - at one point, facing away from each other, each moved in a circle about three or four feet apart, mirroring each other's movements, then leaned backwards till their shoulders touched.  They continued circling in that position, progressing by means of hip thrusts in the direction of the line of travel, over four or six measures. 

The tahtib/ghawazi Step-Hop
as adapted for danse orientale
Although Khairiyya's cane solo was generally undistinguished, there occurred in it one unusual "show stopper" of a step which riveted my attention as it had done only a week or two before when I saw it in the National Folk Arts Ensemble's most recent "Ghawazi Dance."  To execute this strangely angular, stylized step-hop, the dancer steps forward onto, say, the left foot and then, with a light little hop or rise and drop of the left heel simultaneously swings the right foot forward and up so that the thigh is roughly parallel to the floor and the calf at right angles to it or extended somewhat further forward, the foot usually continuing the downward line of the calf somewhat so that the foot is pointed elegantly.  This is held for a fraction of a second, but not rigidly, and then the dancer may advance either by stepping down on the right foot, hopping lightly on it and swinging forward the left foot, and so onwards as before, alternating sides; or she may advance by stepping down onto the right foot, then forward onto the left foot, hopping lightly on the left foot as she began and swinging the right up and forward.  The step may also be done several times in place, or traveling in a rather large circle.  Khairiyya advanced with three or four such "right-legged" step-hops when she danced, holding her silver-spangled cane by its straight end with one hand at an angle over her head, conveying the high-spirited, martial air of the tahtib.  The National Folk Arts Ensemble's soloist, who performed without a cane or staff, rendered this step in the "alternate-legged" fashion.  However rendered, it was always strikingly dramatic and had a somehow archaic or ceremonial quality that was often in contrast to the remainder of whatever dance in which it was performed.  Now I was about to learn why this step seemed to be a stereotype of Egyptian folk dance to the extent that one often encountered various renditions of it in photographs both of folkloric dancers and of cabaret dancers affecting a "typical Egyptian pose."

Fauzi Jad Mahmud decided to dance.  Fauzi, a slender, older man, was "first violin" of the orchestra; he lay the long neck of his rababa across the crown of his turban, and as he danced he accompanied himself on the instrument balanced thus atop his head.  Neither his fiddling nor his dancing suffered one whit from such vigorous demands on human coordination.  Even the long, foot-wide sleeves of his charcoal-grey galabiyya and the white galabiyya under it, rather than impeding his movements, were often turned to positive advantage by his kicking the hem of the gown in such a way that it swirled out to the side and flipped up on each step like an opening flower, the white under-gown foaming against the grey and then disappearing as the hem of the over-gown fell back.  At times Fauzi danced slowly and deliberately, his eyes closed and an expression of deep concentration on his oval face; at others he swung exuberantly about the courtyard, his eyes reflecting the smile of the born performer delighting in his audience's delight.  There was but one basic step to his dance, susceptible, however, to many interpretations, many variations in style.  And in that continuous step-hop, step-hop, I recognized both the basic dance step of the tahtib and the strangely angular, stylized step-hop of the ghaziyya Khairiyya and the "Ghawazi Dance" of the National Folk Arts Ensemble.  It was called, I was told on asking, al-tawwala, the most common dance of Upper Egypt, a dance of a single step which, like the hora it occasionally resembled, might go on for hours at a time.  Its name possibly derived from the Arabic verb tala, "to last a long time,"or tawwala, "to be exhaustive." Fauzi performed the tawwala step-hop in place, turning in place or facing one direction; he used it to travel in a large circle, and to travel forwards and backwards while facing the same direction, and to conclude his dance in a series of spins across the courtyard carrying him away from the audience.  Sometimes the foot was swung across the shin of the other leg, a simple hora step; sometimes it was swung straight forward, the only way I have noticed it done in female cane dancing.  The foot might be lifted but a few inches, or so high that the thigh almost paralleled the ground, and its swing might be held slightly at apogee, or be continuous.  The tawwala could be bent to express many different moods:  gaiety, solemnity, exuberance, martial pride, exaltation. 

Khairiyya's father Yusuf later told me that the ghawazi repertoire included two stick dances, the Raqs al-Jihayni and the Raqs al-Nizzawi, semi-choreographed dances for two dancers.  The Raqs al-Jihayni, said Yusuf, was "very old." 

I subsequently had the great good fortune to see these powerfully effective dances performed by Khairiyya and her oldest sister, Su'ad, and in the opening sequence of the Jihayni was mirrored the opening of the tahtib.  The ghaziyyas circled each other at a distance with the step-hop, step-hop of the tawwala, each swinging her staff from above her head.  This step alternated with series of sweeping, gliding steps changing directions regularly with a half-pivot to keep the dancers level with each other and staffs held and in various graceful but often menacing positions, sometimes with one hand and sometimes with two, as if facing off for a duel.  The dance was brief, taking its style from the tahtib, gracefully and proudly executed, with little or nothing in it that might be found in danse orientale.  The Jihayni shaded into the much faster Nizzawi without a break, the latter a flashy shimmy dance in complete unison, with much stick twirling.  Neither of these dances bore much overall resemblance to the cane dancing of the professional oriental dancer or the impromptu cane dancing sometimes seen at parties - at least as these are generally performed nowadays - where the emphasis in cane manipulation is more on decorating and complementing fairly standard oriental dance movements common to both the nightclub and generic folk repertoires of Egypt.  Still, elements of the tahtib could be seen even in the nightclub, and all of these forms of stick dancing were far more similar to one another than, for example, to the Samir and Dahiyya, stick dances of the bedu of Sinai whose wanderings used to carry them into Lower Egypt.  It seemed likely to me that Egyptian cane dancing had borrowed something from tahtib, perhaps in part through the intermediacy of dances such as the Jihayni and Nizzawi, but had long developed in its own separate direction.

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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

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