Gilded Serpent presents...
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.
I continued my
interview with Yusuf Mazin, patriarch of Upper
Egypt's premiere Ghawazi dance ensemble, the Banat Mazin,
and his eldest daughter Su'ad and youngest daughter
Khairiyya, members of the ensemble, in their
comfortable but unpretentious two-storey house in Dandara Street
on the edge of Luxor. Had the Mazins introduced any innovations
into their performances, I asked; had they changed anything at
all within memory? I wondered whether modifications had occurred
over the years which might account for some of the discrepancies
which seemed to exist among the descriptions and representations
I had encountered of Ghawazi dancing, some of which conveyed a
quite different picture from the one I had received among the
Yusuf assured me that the only innovation was in costume and had
been adopted only within the last year, the occasional substitution
of a long, rather form-fitting gown of the type Khairiyya had
worn in performance for me that morning for the traditional skirt
and vest of the Ghawazi dancer. Khairiyya fetched one of the
knee-length georgette skirts with its seven or so horizontal rows
of pailette-tipped bugle-bead fringe.
construction was fascinating: a continuous circle with one
side seam, cut on the straight-of-grain to make a short, wide
tube about nine feet in diameter which the dancer gathered around
her hips on a soft rope. With such a diameter, the skirt alone
involved perhaps 63 feet of hand-beaded fringe. Su'ad later
told me that a bustle was worn around the hips under the top
of the skirt to augment hip motion.
Tahia Carioca in Tull bi-Telli or "Assuite"
When I mentioned
old photographs of Ghawazi dancers in long skirts of what looked
like velveteen or satin, Yusuf said that there were Ghawazi who
still wore this antique garb. He and Su'ad were also familiar
with the long gowns of tull bi-telli, net worked with flattened
metal knots, often associated with the Ghawazi in the Egyptian
popular imagination. These they described as black with silver-
or gold-colored metal, with long, wide sleeves; open down the
front nearly to the waist, and long enough to cover the feet.
Gowns of tull bi-telli had been unobtainable for a long
mentioned only one innovation, I quickly learned of others which
he had not specified as such. There was, for instance, the taj
(Arabic for "crown"), the rolled, stuffed and bejeweled crescent
diadem which so artfully set off the face while keeping back the
hair. Su'ad claimed that the taj had been designed by
the Banat Mazin as a substitute for the mandil, the ubiquitous
head covering of the Egyptian village woman, which the ghaziyyas
had formerly worn. The mandil was a light-weight triangular scarf
edged with little pom-poms or beaded crochet-work which, artfully
wrapped and gathered with the ends tied rather forward on the
head, formed a tiara-like silhouette. The Mazins had tired of
washing out their delicate mandils and had hit upon the idea of
the taj to give a similar effect.
With these observations
on costume and the approach of afternoon siesta time, my all-too-brief
visit with the Mazins came to an end. But that was not the last
I was to see of Su'ad and Khairiyya. Back at my hotel, a tall,
sandy-haired sociology student from Holland who had been present
at the morning's entertainment began questioning me about the
Ghawazi. His interest, it turned out, was not entirely academic.
"I have a problem," he confided, "I think I have fallen in love
with the little girl in the red dress." He spoke with a convincing
air of resignation and, having already tentatively assessed him
as sane, I took him at his word. I explained to him what Yusuf
had told me: that among the Ghawazi, if a man had, say, six daughters,
three would stay unmarried in their youth so that their troupe
might remain intact.
a ghaziyya might marry and continue to dance, like Su'ad,
this was not common, and almost impossible in the case of one
who married outside the profession. If Khairiyya were to marry
a foreigner, the Banat Mazin would lose a key member and the
family would lose her income.
might, after all, have ideas of her own. Jan
seemed a level-headed and sensitive young man and was well situated
in his own country; after making certain that he was indeed willing
to marry Khairiyya, I agreed to sound her out on the matter.
So it was that
I returned to the Mazin house the next day. Khairiyya and her
father met me outside the door, and I presented them with an article
containing some pictures of Ghawazi, the pretext for my visit.
I had hoped to speak with Khairiyya alone, but as this had not
come about, said something to the effect that, if I might be permitted
to introduce a sensitive subject, there was a gentleman who had
seen Khairiyya and developed feelings of profound admiration for
her. "The American doctor, the one with the beard?" asked Khairiyya,
scarcely batting an eyelash. It seemed that such a person had
already offered for her. No, said I, and described Jan; but she
had not noticed the young student. Well, and would the Mazin
family object to a foreigner marrying one of their daughters?
"If the foreigners give us of their fair daughters," answered
Yusuf graciously, alluding to Egyptians of his acquaintance who
had married foreign women, "can we do less?" Jan had learned
that the ghaziyyas would be performing that evening for
a party of tourists at a hotel across the river and, as we had
both arranged to attend, I informed Khairiyya that she would be
able to meet her new suitor there.
the customary offer of tea, I left with the impression that
enamoured foreigners and marriage proposals were not remarkable
occurrences in the lives of the Banat Mazin.
first stars were coming out as our small party boarded the great
wooden ferry to cross the Nile. The interior was lost in darkness;
not a lantern was lit; but the soft rustle and chink of dancing
costumes revealed the presence of the ghaziyyas on the
same boat. We greeted one another softly, in keeping with the
waitful hush that had fallen over the river with the approach
of night, and I was delighted to see Su'ad with Khairiyya on this
occasion - perhaps I would now have the chance to see some of
the dances of which their father had told me. Arriving at the
opposite shore, we found cars to take us along the rutted track
to the Hotel Marsam, a rambling structure in the picturesque
local style presided over by a cheerful and ubiquitous old gaffer
referred to as "Shaykh 'Ali." This dignitary
was engaged in distributing a largesse of fake mummy beads to
the tourists dining at trestle tables around the perimeter of
the Marsam's courtyard when we entered - the evening's entertainment
was to take place outdoors, like most events in the warm climate
of the Nile Valley. A small orchestra with tabla baladi
and mizmar shawms was already seated at one end. Su'ad
and Khairiyya appeared shortly after in beautifully crafted costumes
of Ghawazi style, Su'ad in turquoise vest and skirt, Khairiyya
in midnight blue, both aglitter with lavish beadwork and spangles,
and crowned with the taj diadems.
Without any prelude,
they began to dance. Each went her own way about the courtyard,
pausing here and there before the various tables to dance before
the assembled guests. After fifteen minutes of this walk-about,
in style not unlike the freestyle I had seen the previous day
except in its superior execution, the ghaziyyas exited.
I sat patiently, certain that they would return. When they did,
each bore a khazarana, the long defensive staff of Upper
I saw the skill upon which rested the Mazin reputation: a tightly
organized martial dance, strongly suggestive of tahtib,
through whose imperious measures the dancers moved, always in
unison or opposition, with grace and nobility.
music quickened and the dancers swung into a gayer mode, shimmying
energetically and twirling their staves like batons, working side
by side, then turning in to each other, one advancing and the
second retreating before her, then the second advancing and the
first retreating; or facing away from each other and leaning backwards
slightly from the waist till their shoulders touched, and maintaining
this position while circling about an imagined axis with side-to-side
shimmies. So sure was their control of this most typical of Ghawazi
movements, the side-to-side shimmy, that when facing each other
their hips would move in the same direction at the same moment,
which meant that one dancer was leading with the left hip while
the other led with the right.
whole performance lasted perhaps five or six minutes. "None of
the old travelogues ever mentioned anything quite like this!"
I thought and, gazing heavenwards, wished that C. B. DeMille
had been on hand with a camera crew to preserve it for viewing
again and again. "What was that dance?" I asked 'Abdu
beside me. "The Raqs al-Shuma," he answered, the shuma
being the heavier fighting stick of the Sa'idis. But when I followed
the ghaziyyas to their room a while later to introduce
Jan to Khairiyya, they told me that this so called "Raqs al-Shuma,"
which I had assumed to be one dance with two parts, a slow prelude
and a longer, fast section, was really two dances back to back:
the Raqs al-Jihayni, and the Nizzawi. Then I laid
aside my own questions to negotiate the delicate subject of Jan's
marriage proposal. One could read little in the faces of Su'ad
and Khairiyya as I broached the matter; they sat silent, and finally
Khairiyya indicated with a few quick words that she could not
accept without the approval of her sister and her aunt, Yusuf's
sister, who had raised them from childhood like a mother after
their own mother died and who still chaperoned them to performances.
the first time I noticed the motionless, black-shrouded figure
in the corner of the room. This was indeed, confirmed Su'ad,
the aunt in question; it was she who made their costumes, she
who had taught them to dance. Now someone had to remain with
her in her old age: Khairiyya. The matter was thus closed,
at least for the time being.
This being the
case, I asked Khairiyya's aunt, who had perhaps been dancing a
generation before Tahia Carioca and must have
a wealth of knowledge and experience, whether she had seen many
changes in her art. "Yes, many changes," she sighed distantly,
but could not or would not specify what. This was the longest
sentence she uttered in our acquaintance, and it was not at all
clear whether she had understood the drift of the question. She
certainly appeared to have weathered many changes, being possibly
the most world-weary individual I had ever met; long after, I
was still wondering what memories were locked in her mind.
returned to family matters. Su'ad volunteered the information
that she was 35 years old and had a teen-age daughter in school.
This I could scarcely credit, looking at her youthful, unlined
face, slightly fuller than Khairiyya's. An isolated house outside
of town had already been pointed out to me as her property. She
and Khairiyya had three more sisters, only one of whom was still
dancing professionally. In the winter, the tourist season, they
danced for tourist groups; in the summer they performed for the
local weddings which were customary in that season.
this point I withdrew so that the sisters might have some time
to rest, for they intended to dance again shortly. Returning
to my table, I found Jan hastily composing a letter of farewell
to Khairiyya. The gracefully written epistle, expressing his
admiration of her character, the joy her dancing and her smile
had brought to him, and his acceptance and understanding of her
decision, was then set down in Arabic so that I might give it
to her before she left that evening, for it would be unseemly
for him, a male, to deliver it himself.
ghaziyyas returned to the courtyard and began to dance
freestyle; seeing me, they came over and urged me to join them.
I followed their movements clumsily; one or two, such as a peculiar
shimmy in which a stomp of the right foot sent their full, heavily
beaded skirts flouncing up to one side - quite deliberately -
to reveal a flash of red slip, I could not follow at all. "Watch
the feet!" Watch the feet!" hissed Su'ad, but to no avail. More
than once the ghaziyyas prompted me thus, and I regretted
not being able to remain longer to study the dance with such cheerful,
had already shown me that she was familiar with more than one
aspect of Middle Eastern dance, demonstrating some of the differences
between oriental dancing and Ghawazi dancing.
this, much of the party dispersed and I again found myself on
the same ferry as Su'ad and Khairiyya. The last time I saw them
was as the boat docked and, night-blind, groped my way over the
side. Soft, chinking sounds of jewelry came from two dark figures
near me, and I caught the words of one to the other, "The poor
thing! Help her . . . she can't see . . ." There was much I
still did not know about the Ghawazi, many points, perhaps, on
which I had been misled or mistaken, but now I felt I knew the
most important part of the answer to the question, "What kind
of people are they?"
So ended my visit
among these far famed, little known people. The figures vanished
into the night. I looked about me; the ramshackle buildings of
Luxor were picked out, here and there, by the lantern of a tardy
fruit peddler bundling up his wares or the light spilling from
an open window. Luxor, ancient Thebes . . . here was once the
capital city of the Egyptian Empire, over 3,000 years ago. Hither
for generations had come the dedicated scholars who spend years
of their lives wresting the knowledge and beauty of ancient Egypt
from the desert sands and all-consuming maw of time. In former
days these men and women had often paid a high price - their health,
their personal fortunes, even their lives. In more recent times
their task had become somewhat easier; long-term or permanent
missions to the area had been established by the world's great
museums, universities and learned societies.
excavations with their resulting papers and exhibits, the years
of research with their ensuing books, the droves of tourists from
all over the world who visited Luxor every year, all testified
to the continuing fascination with ancient Egyptian art and technology,
society and religion. Yet for all humanity's concern, who now
alive knew what an ancient Egyptian song sounded like? Who
could tread the measures of their dances? It was too late, too
late to ask these questions.
I would go to
Syria, and there I would find traces of the Nawara. But the Ghawazi
would remain, essentially, as much a mystery as the Sphinx- a
mystery that will be solved only if the scholars ask their questions
before this people, too, with all their arts and laughter, become
one with the desert sands.
Listen till you see, then you can judge.
We are at Qena and Mazin's daughters,
Khairiyya and Raja', and the third is Su'ad.
Art is beautiful and its lovers are happy.
A Song of the
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
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
You are here!
Part 9 - 1977
Traveling with the Touareg
by Linda Grondahl
was my 5th trip to Algeria since 2000 and I have been amazed at
the rapid economic development. The government is working very
hard to make Algeria a very popular tourist destination once again.
with Mahmoud Reda Part 3: Film & Future by Morocco
you know about photography, then it will help performing for the
movies or for television because usually the choreographer stands
beside the director of the movie.
How MECDA Began by Feiruz
(Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association) is a nationwide
organization which began in 1977 for the purpose of organizing
working dancers, sharing information between teachers...