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Shira travels to distant lands!The Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan wa Sahlan 2005:
First Impressions as of
Wednesday, June 29

by Shira

The 2005 Ahlan wa Sahlan Oriental Dance Festival in Egypt organized by Raqia Hassan opened Monday, June 27 and runs through Sunday, July 3.

I’m pleased to report that in just the first couple of days it has been a great experience, improved in many ways over 2004.

The opening night gala the evening of Monday, June 27 was excellent. About 1,000 people attended (compared to about 750 in 2004). The outdoor introductory show started shortly after 7:30 pm and was my favorite of the three Ahlan wa Sahlan opening night outdoor shows I have seen so far: Khairiyya Maazin and two assistant dancers performed Ghawazee dancing on the landing of the outdoor staircase outside the hotel, accompanied by music played by the Musicians of the Nile, the prestigious Upper Egypt band consisting of mizmars, rebabas, and traditional-style drums. At times, the band played Saidi music, and others times Ghawazee. At times, audience members were invited to join the performers on the landing and dance with them. As the dancing drew to a close, a dancing Arabian horse appeared, dancing to the mesmerizing Saidi beat. Its rider, Samir Abo Basha, guided it through its paces. I was sorry when the outdoor entertainment ended and it was time to head inside.

Inside, it took a while to clear the ticket line. Once inside the ballroom, I was relieved to discover there were plenty of open seats still available, and I was able to find the rest of Morocco’s group and join them. As people continued to pour in, there were plenty of tables available. On either side of the main stage, projectors and screens were set up to show those sitting at the tables farther out just what was happening on stage.

The indoor show started shortly after 8:30 pm. There was an incredible half-hour tabla solo by Hamis Henkesh who is recognized as one of Egypt’s leading tabla players and used to play for Soheir Zaki. He was accompanied by a large number of supporting percussion players on various types of drums. This year’s fashion show featuring Amira al Kattan’s designs seemed shorter than last year, which was welcome. During the 30-minute fashion show, the waiters brought salads out to all the tables, which helped keep our appetites under control until supper time.

Around 9:40 pm the fashion show ended and it was time to eat – another improvement over 2004 when the buffet lines weren’t opened until after 10:00 pm. This year the experience was vastly improved over 2004. There was plenty of food for everybody. For the most part people behaved courteously and respectfully, and there was plenty of food to go around. I had stayed behind to guard our table when most of the group went to the buffet line, and I didn’t join the line myself until my colleagues returned. So I was one of the last people to head for the food, and I was still able to fill my plate with many appetizing choices. There were some isolated incidents of bad behavior. For example, a Canadian dancer from our group had just placed some tasty morsels on her plate when a rude male musician smashed into her so hard that her food went flying. But this was the exception, and it’s not fair to blame the organizers for the bad behavior of a few individuals. In another improvement over 2004, the waiters replenished our bottled water more frequently than they did before.

The dancers for the opening night show included Soraya, Randa Kamel, and Dina. This too was an enhancement over the 2004 show which had featured only two performers, Dahlia and Dina. Soraya, the first dancer, started performing about 11:00 pm. The show ended around 2:00 am.

Classes began on Tuesday, June 28. I elected to not take any classes this day, instead going on a side trip to the step pyramid and tombs at Saqqara with three other women from Morocco’s group. On the way back, we stopped at a carpet-making school, and I acquired a wool-and-silk treasure to bring home. In the evening, we attended the first of the week’s summer parties. It opened with a half-hour fashion show, but I must admit I didn’t figure out which designer’s garb was featured this time. For the performers, this evening’s theme was mostly to feature the teachers who would be offering classes throughout the week. I didn’t note the names of everyone, but there was someone from Milan, the Algerian teacher, a Bollywood-style dancer, Tamalyn Dallal doing a piece from China, and Morocco doing Oriental. Although I was enjoying some fine dancers, I left at intermission, deciding I needed a good night’s sleep.

On Wednesday, June 29 I took Khairiyya Maazin’s Ghawazee workshop. She was once again accompanied by the Musicians of the Nile. I’m now resting a bit before dinner and the evening show and decided to take the opportunity to send my first impressions to the Gilded Serpent.

Coming into Ahlan wa Sahlan this year, there were many questions. One concern, of course, was the question of whether the opening gala would be as disastrous as the one in 2004 and whether the crowding in the classes would be a problem. I’m so pleased that it went so smoothly this year – it was a very positive experience, and I would encourage everyone who was alienated by the 2004 feeding frenzy to consider giving Ahlan wa Sahlan another chance. I’ve only taken one class so far, so it’s too early to comment on what the crowding levels in classes are like. The one I took was fine.

A rival organization, the Nile Group, announced about 3 weeks ago that they were organizing a rival festival at a hotel near the one where Ahlan wa Sahlan was to be held.

They had chosen to have it on the exact same dates as Ahlan wa Sahlan, and they had recruited away some of the popular instructors including Aida Nour, Lubna, and Dandash. This raised many questions over whether the existence of their event would undermine the success of Ahlan wa Sahlan. From what I’ve seen so far, however, that’s not the case. I considered going over to take classes taught by Dandash and Lubna, but they were scheduled opposite other classes at Ahlan wa Sahlan that I wanted to take, so I stayed with the Ahlan wa Sahlan classes. I’m still considering wandering over to see what’s happening at some point.

Last night, at the Summer Party, Mo Geddawi announced that Raqia will be holding a large festival with many leading Egyptian instructors in Sweden in April. (In case you don’t see the significance of this, Nile Group has been a leading organizer of festivals in Sweden in the past, and it’s reasonable to conclude this is Raqia’s way of “reciprocating” their decision to hold a rival festival opposite hers.)

So, a couple of days into the event, my first impressions of Ahlan wa Sahlan 2005 are very positive. Things have gone well so far. Now all I have to do is figure out how on earth I’m going to transport home the rebaba I bought from the Musicians of the Nile, the carpet I bought near Saqqara, and the tabla I bought on Mohammed Ali Street!

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