Khairiyya Mazin Struggles
to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition
at the opening ceremony of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan
Festival, Cairo, June 2003. Khariyya's classes at
the fesitval were attended by approximately 80 participants
from all over the world, as well as representantives of
Japan's presitgious National Institute of Ethnology,
who filmed and interviewed her for their archives
"I never quite
know whether it is now or four thousand years ago, or even
ten thousand, when I am in the dreamy intoxication of a
real Egyptian fantasia: nothing is so antique as the Ghawazi
-- the real dancing girls."
-- Lucy Duff Gordon, 1865
Letters from Egypt
Yusuf Mazin is one of the last exponents of Ghawazi
dance, which is perhaps the primary origin of Egyptian "belly
dance." She is the sole remaining practitioner of the authentic
dances of the Nawari Ghawazi of Upper Egypt.
when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive
traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.
The Ghawazi are
the famed female dancers described so often in Western travelers'
accounts since the 18th century, and probably the major wellspring
of Egyptian danse orientale. A hundred and fifty years
ago, professional female dancers of both Cairo and the countryside
were called "Ghawazi;" now the term Ghawazi is used in Egypt
to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform
in the traditional manner, who had not added anything to their
repertoire from ballet, Latin American or modern Western dance
as the "oriental dancers" of Egyptian city nightclubs have done.
Khairiyya Mazin's cousin Faiza, c. mid-1980s, in traditional
Ghawazi attire. Faiza is now retired, and the traditional
Ghawazi attire, with its hint of Turkish Empire grandeur,
is no longer worn in its homeland.
For the usual
sad litany of reasons -- Islamic fundamentalism, economic pressures,
Westernization and official opposition -- the old Egyptian custom
of employing Ghawazi to entertain at weddings and other celebrations
in the villages is dying out. The Ghawazi of Lower Egypt, an
area bounded on one end by Cairo and on the other by Alexandria,
have long been going into these cities to work, where they have
been influenced by the dance as practiced in the cities. Thus
the style of Lower Egypt's few Ghawazi, probably due to this
intermingling, seems to be fairly homogeneous at present.
The Ghawazi of
Upper Egypt, on the other hand, inhabiting a vast and relatively
isolated area far from the great cities, have maintained some
distinctive regional and, possibly, ethnic styles of dance. Regional
style is dictated, at least in part, by the requirements of the
musical accompaniment which, at most Upper Egyptian Ghawazi dance
parties, usually held outdoors, is provided by drums and mizmars (a
loud oboe- or shawm-like instrument).
region has its favorite mizmar bands and its own
style of rendering the music, to which good Ghawazi dancers
are extremely sensitive.
bowed string instrument) bands, less expensive to hire than mizmar
groups, are sometimes used for parties staged by tour companies
or others for foreigners and the unknowledgable, but are generally
unable to render the specific rhythms and music styles required
for specific Ghawazi dances such as the Raqsat al-Jihayni or 'Asharat
al-Sibs, and do not inspire the good dancer; hence Ghawazi
dance to the rababa is not seen at its best. Differences in dance
style due to diverse ethnic origins rather than musical reasons
are harder to prove without much further research, but seem likely
in view of the diverse ethnic origins of many Upper Egyptian
Ghawazi, differences of which they themselves are still aware.
Many of the Ghawazi from Balyana to Aswan, for example, belong
to ethnic minorities known as Nawar, Halab and Bahlawan.
group with which the author is most familiar, the Nawar,
who are ethnic Gypsies and usually referr to themselves
as Domman among themselves, still speak the Nawari
language to some extent and claim that the Halab and Bahlawan
have their own languages, unrelated to Nawari (dommi,
their sojourn in Egypt, these peoples have preserved something
of their native tongues, they may have preserved something of
their native dance styles as well. Egypt's most famous family
of Ghawazi, the Nawari Mazin family, seem to have a dance style
somewhat different from that of other Ghawazi whom the author
has seen, though whether the difference is Nawari or simply "Mazin" is
difficult to determine on available evidence.
to see Upper Egyptian Ghawazi dance and study regional and possibly
ethnic dance styles are difficult to come by in Egypt's current
inimical social and economic climate, a climate which has severely
curtained their opportunities to perform, forcing most of the
Ghawazi into retirement. On the line Balyana-Aswan, as elsewhere,
it is especially the better and more experienced dancers, like
the Mazins, who have quit, leaving the field to newcomers with
little training who are desperate enough to work under any conditions,
however degrading or unremunerative. Thus, even if one can attend
an affair for which Ghawazi have been hired to perform, the dancers
may not be adequate exponents of any particular Ghawazi tradition,
or competent dancers in general. (Even if one dancer is well
qualified, some Ghawazi dances require more than one dancer,
so the "good" dancer cannot perform those dances which the others
with her may not know at all.)
fortunately for students of Middle Eastern dance, as well
as for the reputation of Ghawazi dancing, one of the best
exponents of the Mazin tradition, Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin,
continues to resist the many pressures upon her to retire
from the art.
(about 35 years' professional dance experience) member of the
family's premier dance ensemble, the "Banat Mazin," still performs,
albeit infrequently, at the great outdoor celebrations which
a few villages continue to hold in defiance of current trends.
In recent years she has been augmenting her irregular income
by teaching the traditions of Mazin Ghawazi dance to visiting
foreign dancers and researchers. Her present address, a small
apartment near the center of Luxor, is:
Salah Salem Street, Building 2,
Entrance B, Third Floor, Apartment 27,
telephone (095) 364693.
Those who wish
to visit her may simply hail one of the many taxis or horsedrawn
carriages that ply the larger streets of Luxor and show the driver
the address in Arabic:
(Note: Some who have gone to
visit Khairiyya, even when they have had the correct address, have
been taken to other women claiming to be members of the "Banat Mazin." One
or two of these even sell what they claim to be traditional-style
Ghawazi costumes; these costumes are neither accurate nor well made.
The street in which Khairiyya lives may be identified by its scarcity
of traffic and shops, being flanked by blocks of flats on one side
and a high cement wall on the other side, separating the street from
the railroad tracks. The flat immediately above Khairiyya's has turquoise
shutters, easily seen from the street.) Khairiyya charges 200 Egyptian
pounds (about US$33 at the mid-2003 rate of exchange), for a private
lesson, and permits recording, photography and videotaping at no
extra cost. She is willing to tailor lessons to the student's specific
requirements and to teach specific dances as requested; students
should bring finger cymbals, and a cane or slender staff if they
wish to learn any of the stick dances such as the Jihayni.
As Khairiyya's flat is small she prefers to teach elsewhere, but
can accommodate single students in her home. Home visits come with
a glass of tea or soda, and occasionally lunch. Those who wish to
contact her by mail should register their letters to the above address.
Khairiyya at around 18 years old
The author hopes
that all who respect the traditional arts of the Middle East
will do what they can to help Khairiyya remain active in the
dance field and preserve the antique art of the Ghawazi.
More Research of the Ghawazi by Edwina coming
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