Gilded Serpent presents...
A similar form articles was originally published in
1985 in Habibi Magazine Vol 8, No 11 (Zalot era)
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.
than a century ago - only yesterday by history's calendar, though
it seem unimaginably distant to the modern traveler - three things
were uppermost on the agenda of the tourist in Egypt: a climb
up the Pyramids, a cruise along the Nile, and a viewing of the
Ghawazi, the famed "dancing girls" of Egypt. After the obligatory
Ghawazi exhibition, one might include in one's memoirs a paragraph
or so of vague allusions to their colorful attire and strange,
unappealing music and dancing, goings-on not entirely comprehensible
but doubtless not in good taste. The commentary could be fleshed
out with one or two clichés, jocular or censorious, but nearly
always patronizing, on Ghawazi morals and customs. So much for
the culture of contemporary Egypt! Now on to yet another description
of the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings - after a peak at Baedeker
and the Encyclopaedia Britannica!
But who were the
Ghawazi? Were they a tribe, as had sometimes been asserted?
And was the term " tribe" used in the sense of a group of people
related by blood or an eponymous ancestor; or as the term was
often used imprecisely, even jocularly, in 19th century
English, to refer to a group sharing a certain outstanding characteristic,
as in, for example, "the lascivious Delilah and all her tribe
(meaning simply "a group of women of questionable morals and profession)?
What sort of people were they - those who could be found at this
late juncture? As I watched the ghaziyyas Farida and
Khairiyya Mazin sing a final duet in the courtyard of
Luxor's Radwan Hotel on a sunny winter's day in 1976, I was assailed
by apprehensions that I, too, who professed a serious interest
in the traditional Near East and peoples like the Ghawazi, had
accomplished little more than those bygone tourists whose memoirs
were so uninformative. Thus, when Farida and Khairiyya left the
courtyard, I followed them to the dark little room where they
had gone to collect their few belongings.
Pen and notebook
in hand, I thanked the two ghaziyyas for their dances and
their songs. And might I ask just a few more questions? Indecision
played across the slender Khairiyya's face - she clearly sympathized
with me, but she had given a long performance and just as clearly
wanted to hurry home and relax. Abruptly she made up her mind:
would I be able to come by her house later that afternoon? She
couldn't repress a quick grin at the enthusiasm with which I accepted
Two hours later,
accompanied by one of Luxor's least detachable cicerones, 'Abdu,
I hailed a carriage and asked to be taken to the house of the
Mazin family. No more address was needed. The little house,
in a quiet street near the edge of town, presented the same almost-blank
façade to passersby as the houses on either side of it; according
to Eastern custom, there was no number. The clip-clop
of horse hooves apprising the occupants of our arrival, the door
was open before we could descent from the carriage. We received
the grave salutations of Khairiyya, now in smart European attire,
and a robust and imposing figure all in white - white robe, white
turban, and white mustache - Yusuf Mazin, Khairiyya's
father, patriarch of the Aulad Mazin.
We were ushered
into a small chamber lit with subdued sunlight from a window opening
onto the street, which seemed to be the "family room"- comfortable,
tidy, rather crowded, modestly prosperous, neither distinctively
Eastern nor Western. We seated ourselves, exchanged more polite
words, and the inevitable awkward pause ensued, the pause which
Arab custom bridges with an offering of tea or coffee, to be sipped
while host and guest become more at ease with each other. Oddly,
no tea or coffee appeared, then or later, but the moment was saved
by the entry of a young woman whose drab peasant gown and kerchief
could not disguise a commanding presence. She spoke, expressing
the hope that we had enjoyed the day's entertainment despite her
absence, for which she apologized; she had not been feeling well
this morning. I realized that this must be Khairiyya's sister
Su'ad, for whom Farida had substituted. Later,
when I saw Su'ad dance, I understood the pride with which she
spoke and the trepidation Farida had felt at taking her place.
Now she stood by her father across the room, wondering what sort
of person I was, what I would say and if it would be worth remaining
there to hear.
I explained my
purpose in coming, and asked Yusuf whether he had been subjected
to similar visitations in the past. Yes, he said, several. On
the spur of the moment, I asked him what he thought of all these
foreigners tromping into his home asking him strange questions.
his head and, looking me straight in the eye, replied quietly,
"I think they are people who respect art."
Could he recall
some of these visitors? Well, there was 'Aisha
'Ali, of course, the dance researcher from Los Angeles
of whom I had already heard in Luxor. She had declared the intention
of bringing the Banat Mazin to the United States
to perform with her own troupe. There was a girl named Sherry,
or Cheri, and an older woman . . . the earliest foreign visitor
whose name he could recall was someone from Hollywood, Cees--,
Ceesible-- Cecil B. DeMille? I knew that the great film
producer was reputed to spare no expense for authenticity in the
sets and costumes of his historical spectaculars - in everything
but the history itself, in fact - and that part of the 1956 The
Ten Commandments had been shot on location in Egypt.
Mr. DeMille had perhaps consulted the Mazin Ghawazi in connection
with the sequences of ancient Egyptian dance in this film. Judging
from the result which finally appeared in theaters, he had come
away disappointed. But if the famed movie mogul could be here
now, I thought, he would be delighted with the Biblical figure
cut by Yusuf Mazin, and Charlton Heston might have lost the role
of the older Moses to the Ghawazi patriarch from Luxor!
There had been
other visitors, too, Yusuf went on. A group of Soviet experts
with personnel of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, including
the Ministry's young Sami Yunis, present Director
of the Egyptian National Folk Arts Ensemble, had come to research
and record their dances. Subsequently Sami had brought some of
the Mazin girls to Cairo to perform with the Ensemble for a month
so that the it might perfect its Ghawazi material. "And now when
they present our dances," Su'ad broke in, "they announce, 'choreographed
by Sami Yunis!'" Indeed, every dance I had seen in the Ensemble's
latest program had been introduced as choreographed by Sami Yunis.
It did not surprise
me to learn that so many researchers had come to the Mazins; the
highly colored descriptions of Ghawazi over the years must have
generated a certain amount of curiosity. The Mazins were well
known, and Luxor was the only town in Egypt that had not been
officially off limits to foreigners for the last decade where
Ghawazi of unquestioned authenticity might be found. What surprised
me was that, according to Yusuf, none of these researchers had
asked him the questions that had been put to me so many times:
Who were the Ghawazi? Were they a tribe? Were they Gypsies?
What of their origins?
that the Ghawazi were of a tribe called the Nawara.
They were not ghajjar, he said (a term translated as "Gypsies"
in dictionaries of Modern Standard Arabic, although many English-speaking
Arabs in other parts of the Middle East, even Egypt, used various
other terms which they translated as "Gypsies"). With further
discussion, it became evident that the Nawara were a tribe in
name only; there was no shaykh or council, no tribal organization,
no concerted effort among Nawaris. They did, however, share one
bond which distinguished them from the surrounding population:
language. Su'ad assured me that, while they generally spoke Arabic
in public, they still used their own speech, unrelated to Arabic,
in the home, where their children learned it alongside of Arabic.
She rattled off some examples of the vocabulary, pointing to her
hair as she said, "hair, bala," to her eyes, "kiyatat,"
and so on through "nose, bishin; throat, dardanash;
breast, mashkihan; veil or tarha (the long scarf
draped loosely over the head by Egyptian women), sarkona;
dress, razzija." Yusuf thought that this language might
be Persian, or a language of Iran, but stated this with little
conviction. It was not Persian.
The old man -
Yusuf claimed to be 75 - had to think a while to recall anything
of his people's history; it is not common in Egypt to find individuals
with much knowledge of events occurring before the time of their
grandparents. I tried to jog his memory: had he ever heard of
a dark time for the Nawara, around 150 years ago, under the iron-fisted
rule of the khedive, or ruler of Egypt, Muhammad 'Ali? The khedive
had, as one can read in the English orientalist Edward Lane's
contemporary account, promulgated an edict against public entertainers,
purportedly intended to protect or improve public morals, which
must have fallen hard on the Ghawazi. Yusuf was able to recall
something of this episode: according to him, many of the Nawara
had left Egypt as a result, dispersing to other countries of the
East, most notably Persia. Some of them had later returned to
Egypt when circumstances became more favorable. Not having mentioned
the reason commonly given for the khedive's edict, I asked Yusuf
what, in his opinion, had been the motive. His answer was entirely
unexpected but struck me as being as plausible, in the Egyptian
context, as a khedivial concern with morality.
considered the edict a repressive measure against a group whom
the ruler suspected of being spies.
A people of dubious
background who traveled freely among all levels of society, who
were in a position to overhear the careless remarks of the powerful
at drunken parties and the secrets of the harem, who could communicate
in a language unintelligible to all but themselves and who, as I
would learn, had international connections, mostly in areas where
the khedive himself was involved in dangerous machinations - such
would not be conducive to the autocratic peace of mind, I reflected.
Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer. During WW1 she was convicted
of spying for the Germans, and was shot
that the Nawari language was Persian and his mention of that area
as the main destination of the self-exiled Nawara were no coincidence.
Yusuf believed that the Nawara came originally from Persia, from
an area "on the border of Fars." Fars is the southwesternmost
province of present-day Iran, the home of many nomadic peoples,
including Lurs, Qashqa'is, and Arab tribes, but in older times
the name was sometimes applied in Arabic to all of Persia. I
could not ascertain whether Yusuf was referring to Persia as a
whole or to the province of Fars alone, but Fars is itself a border
area and the first Persian soil that would be encountered by the
Nawara on their most likely route of migration, the Fertile Crescent.
According to Yusuf,
the putative ancestor of the Nawara was one Nur al-Din.
They also traced descent from a "great-grandmother," Jilbiyyas,
"a Persian." These personages did not seem to be contemporary
with each other, and from the way Yusuf spoke of Jilbiyyas, in
particular, it seemed that she might have been a Persian resident
who came to Egypt with the returning Nawaris in the 19th
century, perhaps even an ancestress of the Mazin family itself,
rather than a legendary tribal ancestress. It became increasingly
unclear whether there had even been two Nawari emigrations
to Egypt, an original emigration from a Persian area of residence
in the distant past and another, 19th century emigration
after a temporary return to Persia; and as my pressing for clarification
began to seem ill mannered in the face of Yusuf's obvious uncertainty
on these points, I dropped the subject.
Two things, however,
were apparent from these disclosures: the Nawara acknowledged
a connection with Persia, and they were to be found in other countries
besides Egypt. Illustrating this, Yusuf told me the story of
some relatives who were visiting Kuwait, a bit northwest of Fars
on the Persian Gulf. His kinsmen had walked into a shop and begun
discussing the merchandise in their own tongue; imagine their
surprise when the shopkeeper interrupted excitedly in the same
language! He, too, was a Nawari. And there was a famous singer
in Jordan, Yusuf claimed, called Yusra Nawariyya.
(Later research revealed Yusra to be a singer, dancer and casino
owner of Aleppo, Syria, first under the name Yusra Nawariyya and
later under the more socially acceptable sobriquet "Yusra Badawiyya."
Yusuf may have referred to Yusra as being from Bilad al-Sham,
an old term referring to Jordan, Syria and their periphery.)
I remembered a
recent talk with a well traveled badawi, Lafi,
of the Palestinian-Sinaitic tribe of Al-Akharsa, who had told
me of a tribe from the Aleppo area called the Nawar. These Nawar,
said Lafi, were formerly engaged in the crafting of silver jewelry,
but as silver had become more and more expensive over the last
few years, had been reduced to manufacturing pots and pans instead.
Though originally from near Aleppo, that cosmopolitan Syrian city
near Turkey's southern border, the Nawar were presently scattered
all over, and could even be found in Lower Egypt, where Lafi and
many of his own people had been forced to settle by political
and economic exigencies. Were there Nawara in Syria, in Aleppo,
I asked Yusuf? He did not know, but thought it possible. Nor
did he know of Nawara in Lower Egypt; if there were any, they
did not include Ghawazi, female entertainers.
In Upper Egypt,
though, practicing Ghawazi could be found in the towns of Qena,
Balyana, and Jirja, as well as Luxor. Well known performers among
these Ghawazi, like his own Banat Mazin, were from groups, not
Nawari, known as Bahlawan and Halab,
this latter name, interestingly, the Arabic for "Aleppo." The
women, following in the footsteps of their ancestors whom Western
literature had immortalized as symbols of the Exotic East, performed
as singers and dancers; the men played musical instruments, kept
order at weddings and other celebrations, and performed the tahtib,
or stick-play, half dance and half formalized duel. Here another
memory teased: brief glimpses on film of what had appeared to
me at the time to be a form of stick-play somewhat similar to
tahtib among the Qashqa'i of Fars. Was the similarity
imagined? I would not find the answer in Luxor, but there were
other facets of the Ghawazi arts which might yield to examination
Prompted by Su'ad's
earlier remark about the National Folk Arts Ensemble's presenting
Ghawazi dances without acknowledging their source, I inquired
whether there were specific dances in the Banat Mazin repertoire,
contrary to what I had seen at the Radwan Hotel, which had been
what appeared to me "freestyle" dancing. As I had come to suspect,
the great disparity in the competence of the two dancers, Farida
and Khairiyya, had precluded the performance of the sort of dancing,
with many figures demanding precision timing and coordination,
for which the Mazin Ghawazi were famous.
seen most of the basic steps and body movements, but only as
scattered pieces of a broken mosaic. There indeed existed a
repertoire of dances which, from subsequent description, each
had distinctive characteristics and were, in most cases, partially
They were known
generally enough to be specifically requested on occasion. Curiously,
it was Yusuf who provided a survey of some of these, rather than
the dancers themselves:
- The Raqs al-Takht: The opening dance of a wedding entertainment, performed to mizmar
and tabla baladi by three or four dancers. There is
no choreography but, though the dancers improvise, the majority
must be doing the same thing at any given time, while the remaining
dancer performs the step/movement which the majority were doing
A side-to-side shimmy dance, performed in unison by three or
four dancers, with light cymbals (unlike the generality of Egyptian
dancers, who use finger cymbals little and ineptly, the Ghawazi
can vary the tone and dynamics with the skill of virtuoso musicians).
The Na'asi is accompanied by mizmars played very low
by muffling the mouth of the instrument.
- The 'Asharat al-Tabla: A drummer moves about the dance area playing a large
tabla baladi, or double-headed drum, slung before him.
The Ghaziyya, leaning backwards across the barrel of the drum,
follows him in this position, dancing.
- The Raqs al-Jihayni: The ghaziyyas' stick dance par excellence, described as "very
old." Performed by two dancers, it contains elements of tahtib.
- The Nizzawi:
A fast, choreographed dance for two dancers with staffs. A
typical figure is the dancers' moving apart while facing each
other, then coming together again, then taking a quarter pivot
to face forward and advance, side by side, while twirling their
staffs like batons.
Yusuf also claimed
that two pairs of ghaziyyas might perform the tahtib.
Ghawazi had never danced with swords, to his knowledge; this was
a thing of the badu, the bedouin.
In addition, the
Mazin ghaziyyas had a large store of songs - necessarily large,
because at one moment their audience might demand an old song
from local folklore, and the next, one of the compositions of
'Abd al-Wahhab. They could improvise verses on the spot in praise
of a particular village or family or a newly wed couple. They
knew the songs of the Nawara, and composed new songs, some of
these incorporating references to the Banat Mazin themselves (possibly
with the help of Su'ad's husband, the noted poet and folklorist
Zakariyya al-Hijawi, whose highly popular and
authentic folkloric ensemble in Cairo, which had included Su'ad,
had apparently been disbanded by a jealous and disapproving Egyptian
government eager to promote its Soviet-directed, state-reconstructed
"folklore.") Su'ad sang one of these for me in a lovely, clear
contralto, entirely unlike anything which might be heard on Cairo
radio. Each stanza ended in the words "Banat Mazin," rhymed with
the preceding line. She also dictated to me the lyrics of other
songs from the Mazin repertoire:
Song of the Nawara
Having fallen in love with a stranger, a village
girl makes inquiries about him when she notices his absence.
A Bedouin shaykh, hearing of her beauty, comes seeking her in
marriage, but she tells her father that she is in love with "the man from Karnak":
Who is as strong
as you, who is like you,
my love, O thou!
I asked about
you when I missed your eyes;
told me that you were from Karnak.
Ya layl, ya 'ayn! They came riding horses,
In a splendid cavalcade,
asking about me.
They were seen
coming; they were badu, comely.
They asked who
my people were; I answered, "The Zayna."
I have fallen
in love, O my father, with one of the men of Karnak.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition
by Edwina Nearing
when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions
of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.
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.
2 -- 1976 posted 5-16-04
Part 3 - 1976 posted 8-8-04
Part 4 - 1976 posted 9-12-04
Part 5 - 1976 Posted
Part 6 - 1976 posted
Part 7 - 1976
posted 9-5-05 you
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
Part 9 - 1977
Interview with Mahmoud
Reda Part 2: The Troupe by Morocco
what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired
by the folkloric.
Re-defining Belly Dance
and Middle Eastern Dance by Tasha Banat
fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable
definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why.