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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
Day 11: Camels, Class, & Competitions
by Shira

Friday, July 2, 2004.  Another day, another group of classes to choose from!  Today's Oriental selection included classes taught by Zaza Hassan, Hamada Hossam, Soraya, Mo Geddawi, Dandash, and Kamal Naeim. The folkloric classes were taught by Mervat Mongy and Nawal Bein Abdullah.  I was very tempted to take Hamada Hossam's class in the morning because I had thoroughly enjoyed the class I took from him the previous year, but I had other priorities in mind!

Remember when I snarled in my journal for Day 4 about how certain people from our tour group didn't bother to return to the bus on time, and consequently caused those of us who wanted camel rides to lose out on the opportunity?  Well, this was my day to get the camel ride I'd been cheated out of a week earlier!

I met Gloria and Glee, both students of mine from the San Jose, California area, in the lobby of our hotel.  Mary Ann from Springfield, Missouri had originally intended to join us for the adventure, but she wasn't feeling well that morning so she decided to stay behind.

Gloria had thought ahead, and researched what the Misr Travel agency at our hotel was charging for camel rides.  Armed with that information, we left the hotel complex and went across the street to a shop named Memo's Bazaar to see if Memo would like to arrange a camel ride for us.

The first price he quoted us was 60 Egyptian pounds (about $10 U.S.) per person.  Gloria told me that Misr Travel was charging 40 pounds per person (just under $7) so we held out for that.

We were led to the stables.  At first they tried to talk us into accepting two camels and a horse, but I felt that was unacceptable.  We could ride horses in the U.S. 

We wanted to ride camels in Egypt!  So I told the guy that perhaps we'd go away and see if our hotel could arrange for us to get what we wanted, since it seemed that he wasn't able to.

Interestingly, he suddenly seemed to be able to produce a third camel.  It took a while for them to choose the camels, bring them over, and put us on them.  They tried to sell us a guide for an additional 30 pounds ($5).  I declined.  But once they had seated us on the camels, and helped the camels rise to their feet, and placed the single strand of rope in our hands, they asked again.  Personally, I think they always intended to provide a guide, and I think they probably induced the camels to wobble more than usual when helping us to our feet to scare us into paying them extra. Harumph.  After that somewhat scary beginning of teetering on the camels' backs as they rose to their feet, Glee and Gloria didn't want to risk doing this without a guide, so they decided we should pay it.

To get on a camel, first you have the camel lie down on its belly.  Then you place a foot in the near stirrup, and sling your leg over the camel's back to the other side.  Once you are situated in the saddle, the camel stands up, and this is one of the most challenging moments of the whole camel-riding experience.  Yikes!  The camel pushes his back legs into a standing position first, while his front ones remain kneeling, and it's enough to make you feel as if you're going to go flying over his head onto the ground!

So, we got on our camels.  Gloria found the act of flinging her leg over the camel's back to be the most challenging part of the process.  I felt so unsteady on my own camel that she was safe from having me take a picture of her less dignified moment.

Once we were all on our camels, the rope on each camel's halter was tied to the saddle of the camel in front of it.  Glee and Gloria nominated me to be on the lead camel, so the rope for my camel was held by the young man on horseback who served as our guide. It was time for our camel ride to begin.

Our guide asked whether we wanted to be taken to the pyramids, or to the desert.  We opted for the desert.  Our logic was that we had already seen the pyramids from that angle, and the desert was something we hadn't yet experienced.  Plus, we would have needed to pay an admission fee to the pyramids complex if we had chosen the pyramids route.  I'm very glad we chose the desert because of the fascinating sights we saw along the way.

From the stables, we proceeded through a narrow alley strewn with garbage.  This led us to a village that I'd had absolutely no idea was back there!  It provided us with the opportunity to see what a working class Egyptian community really looked like.

It took a while before I felt steady enough on my camel to start shooting pictures.  I operated the camera with one hand while keeping a firm hold on the saddle pommel with the other.

A camel's walking gait feels quite different from that of a horse.  On the camel, there is a very definite forward-and-back rocking motion that is much more pronounced than that of a horse.

  After we'd had a bit of time to get used to how it felt to be sitting on our camel, our guide goaded his horse into a trot, which naturally caused our camels to trot to keep up with him.  As he did this, he turned around in his saddle and gave me a huge, mischievous grin.  I laughed.  And I can now tell you that the gait of a trotting camel feels very much like that of a trotting horse.  We never galloped the camels, so I can't comment on that.

We wove through the village for some time. It was very interesting to see how working class people dressed and what the architecture of their homes looked like. We also had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the interiors of some homes.  The people didn't pay much attention to us.  I'm sure they have a constant parade of tourists on camel and horseback passing through their community.

Eventually we reached the edge of the village and headed out into the desert.  It took my breath away.  It was at once beautiful and hostile in appearance.  Looking out in that direction, as far as my eye could see, was nothing but empty waste. 

I found it incredible that such complete desolation could exist so close to the bustling city of Cairo with its population of 18 million people.  It really brought home to me that the vast majority of land in Egypt is unpopulated desert like this.

Our guide led us along a fence that ran along the outer edge of the pyramids complex.  It was a pleasant ride.  I was feeling more relaxed on my camel's back now.  Eventually we reached a gap in the fence, and our guide led our camels through it, so we had entered the pyramid complex.  He then led us up closer to the pyramids, allowing us to see them from an angle we had not previously experienced. 

By this time, we had been riding about 40 minutes, so our guide decided this was a good time for a break.  He got off his horse, then helped each of us in turn dismount as our camels knelt.  He gave us some time to take whatever pictures we wished of the pyramids, then offered to take a picture of the three of us together.

After giving both us and the camels a bit of rest, our guide helped us re-mount, then led us back in the direction of the village.  This time, it was easier to keep my place in the saddle as my camel stood up.  Our guide led us through a downhill section that made me somewhat nervous.  I remembered to lean back as my camel negotiated his way through the terrain, and all was well.

As we headed back to the village, we had a view of the desert ridge we were on in the foreground and the busy city of Cairo far below.  This contrast of the desert area on the Giza plateau versus the activity of the city really made me think about how much the people of Egypt live on the edge of desolation and how crucial the Nile River truly is to their way of life.

We finally arrived back at the stables and dismounted from our camels.  The total adventure had taken about an hour and a half, which I thought was just perfect.  My back muscles were tight from the nervous tension of keeping my balance on the camel, and my seat was complaining a little about the bouncing up and down.  I'm glad we took the time we took, but I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer.  In retrospect, I'm glad our camel ride didn't happen on Day 4, because I'm sure it wouldn't have been as interesting as the ride we did have. It certainly wouldn't have been 90 minutes long like ours, probably wouldn't have offered as much view of the village, and probably wouldn't have given us the same impression of the desert expanse.

When Glee offered a tip to our guide for the great job he did of taking care of us, he tried to refuse the money. 

This was rather astonishing.  She insisted, and he eventually accepted it.  When she paid the guy who was collecting the fee for our camel rental, that obnoxious little man tried to demand additional money beyond what we had agreed to in our negotiation.  Glee refused, a decision which I fully supported. 

We walked back to our hotel, tired but thrilled that we had done it!

Dandash's Class
We dispersed to freshen up, rest a bit, and have some lunch.  We needed a bit of down time before Dandash's class at 4:00 p.m.  This class would be 3 hours long, and I was being careful to pace myself.

This class was originally supposed to be one day earlier, on Thursday.  However, it had been moved to Friday to accommodate a change in Dina's schedule.  Dina had originally been scheduled for Friday, but a conflict arose in her schedule and she needed to change her class time.  So all Thursday evening classes were moved to Friday, and Dina was moved to Thursday.

I was looking forward to Dandash's class.  I had seen her perform on both of my previous trips to Egypt, and I enjoyed both occasions very much.  In 2003, I did not take her class, and I later heard feedback from friends who had taken it that they enjoyed it very much. They made me wish I would have attended it, too.  So, Dandash's class was on my 2004 list of must-do's.

The classroom was quite crowded, although I've seen worse. Dandash was up on the raised stage, like Randa and the other instructors.  Her chartreuse exercise clothes made it easy to see what she was doing.

Dandash's choreography to the song Ah Wa Noss included some puzzling gestures, such as grabbing her own armpit and doing a movement with her fingers that made me think of playing a clarinet.

Later, someone asked her whether those particular gestures had any meaning.  She laughed, and said that the clarinet-playing move meant, "I'm very, very angry with you!" and the armpit grabbing move also meant anger, but to a lesser degree. She explained that the lyrics of the song are about a spat between two lovers.  They care about each other, they're not breaking up, but they are having a fight nonetheless.

It was difficult to hear her in that large room over the rustling and murmuring of the crowd. Naturally, some chatterboxes seemed to think this was the right time to babble, never mind those of us who would have preferred to hear what the instructor had to say.

After class, we had some supper and relaxed.  Tomorrow would be a busy day, with Raqia Hassan's class in the morning and the closing gala in the evening.

The Dance Competition
This night, instead of the regular Summer Parties that occurred the previous evenings, there was a dance competition.  This was the first time (that I know of) that the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival included a competition as part of its festivities. 

The entry fee was $30, and the judges were several members of the local Cairo dance community.  The top two winners would be invited to perform in the closing night gala the next night.

Other members of my group went to watch it, but between the camels and the class I was tired out and decided to spend my evening resting.  Since I didn't attend it myself, I can't tell you much about it, but I did hear about a couple of highlights. 

Apparently, each contestant was allowed 5 minutes maximum for her performance.  It seems one Russian dancer's music exceeded the 5 minutes allowed, and the sound man cut it off promptly at the 5-minute mark. 

I heard that the hissy fit she threw was rather entertaining to watch.  She was furious about her music being interrupted, and wasn't afraid to let her truculence show.

Afterward, I asked one of my colleagues from our group who won, and the answer was "a couple of Cubans."  Later, someone else also told me "a couple of Cubans" won the top two places.  Since I don't know any dancers from Cuba, I shrugged and assumed it probably wasn't anybody I would have heard of.

I later learned that the dancers who took the top two positions were actually U.S. dancers who happened to be ethnic Cuban but were U.S. citizens, had grown up in the U.S., and considered themselves Americans.  First place went to Samay, and second place to Amar Gamal of Bellydance Superstars fame.  Both had studied extensively with Tamalyn Dallal and had been members of Tamalyn's troupe at one time. Obviously, both represented her well at this event.  Congratulations to all for representing the U.S. so well in this event!

More coming!

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Ready for more?
more from Shira-
6-28-04 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004-Intro Travel Journal by Shira
Middle Eastern dance artists and students from throughout the world attend this event to immerse themselves in instruction by leading Egyptian instructors, shop for costumes and other supplies offered by Egyptian vendors, and enjoy the gala shows featuring top Egyptian dancers. Check back for regular updates!
First Two Days
Day 3: First Look at Egyptian History
Day 4: More Egyptian Monuments and First Dance Show
Day 5: Shop-portunities and Whirling Dervishes
Day 6: The Festival Begins
Day 7: Classes and Free Time
Day 8: Side Trips, Part 1: Gayer Anderson Museum
Day 8, part 2:The Parisiana
Day 9: The Evening Show
Day 10: Classes and the Sphinx Speaks

12-9-05 New Dance Contest/Theme Party ”A Night at Casablanca!” Photos by Lynette, October 2, 2004 at the Benicia Clocktower Benicia, California Sponsored by Siren In Sanity

12-8-04 Mona el Said in Dallas, Part 2 by Catherine E Barros
12-7-04 Mona el Said in Dallas, Part 1, by Catherine E Barros
Sponsored by Little Egypt at the Holiday Inn, Dallas Texas September 3 - 5, 2004.
It's always nice when you find that someone, whom you've put up on a big pedestal, is down to earth, just "folks" like the rest of us.



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