Lubna Emam, Khaled Mahmoud, and Aida Nour
at the Stockholm Belly Dance Festival 2005

Gilded Serpent presents...
Behind The Nile Group Workshops in Cairo
by Zeina

Many people are wondering why we were organizing a festival in Cairo, Egypt at the same time as another Egyptian festival? After reading the review for Gilded Serpent about the Cairo dance festival by Shira we would like to set a few things straight.

Stockholm Belly Dance Festival
First of all, The Nile Group is not arranging the annual Stockholm Belly Dance Festival as Shira wrote. The first festival in Stockholm was June 1-4 of 2000 (before the other Cairo festival).

The organizer of the Stockholm Belly Dance Festival is Mohamed Abou Shebika. The festival is organized through our dance school in Stockholm “Egyptian Cultural Centre,“ or Egyptiskt Kulturcentrum.

The first festival in Sweden featured only three Egyptian dance teachers and about ten local Swedish teachers.

In the following years, the festival has grown continuously. At the last festival we brought in 15 local teachers and these ten master teachers: Mahmoud Reda, Raqia Hassan, Aida Nour, Lubna Emam, Khaled Mahmoud, Magdy El Leisy, Ahmed Fekry, Ghada Hafez, Soraya, and Zahra.

This is when the problem began!
We received a phone call from Aida Nour about three weeks before our festival was going to take place. Aida said that Raqia Hassan called her and told her that she was not intending to travel to our festival. Because Raqia thought that by bringing all these teachers to Sweden we were trying to destroy her festival!

How absurd it sounds! How could we, in a small country that a lot of people couldn’t even locate on a world map, compete with her enormous festival in Cairo? People travel to Egypt for many reasons, not only for the teachers. How could we in Sweden compete with the magic of the pyramids?

When we received this message from Aida, Mohamed called Raqia immediately and asked her how she had gotten this wrong idea about us. He explained to her that everybody has the right to work; this was our work in Stockholm. Further Mohammed commented that our date is not even near her festival date. Our festival took place from the 5th to the 8th of May, 2005; whereas her festival ran at the end of June, 2005. He further explained to Raqia since 2000 we have been bringing groups of dancers from Sweden and the rest of the North to her festival. We have always spread the latest news of her festival in all our advertisements and on our website. We have attended every one of her festivals with groups.

The phone call ended with Raqia assuring us that she was going to travel, saying that she wanted to sit down with us before the upcoming festival but the teachers we were bringing would not be allowed to work in her festival. We had no intention to agreeing with this, as the teachers are free human beings and have the right to decide where they want to work for themselves.  Raqia expressed that she was also upset over our bringing the Brazilian dancer Soraya, and accused us of stealing her teachers. However, we have been working with these teachers since 1995 in Sweden, bringing them for workshops several times each year. In fact, she is the one who has been contacting some of the teachers we had first, and she brought them to her festival after she saw that they were popular and successful in our festival. Ahmed Fekry, Magdy El Leisy and Khaled Mahmoud were three of those teachers.

The time for the Stockholm Belly Dance Festival drew near. One week before, we heard that Soraya could not travel to our festival because the hotel in which she was working wouldn’t let her. Even though Soraya had been teaching and performing in our dance school only two months earlier without any objections from her hotel. She had signed the contract a long time ago. We would have preferred a direct phone call from Soraya herself.

Just a few days before Raqia Hassan was supposed to travel to us, Mohamed’s brother in Egypt called to confirm the time for the flight to Sweden. When Raqia answered, she said calmly: “I am not traveling to Stockholm. I am sick.” His borther asked, ”Does Mohamed know that?” She answered “No.” Without any intention to tell us that she was not coming, she stood us up just a few days before the festival. 

We didn’t want to think badly of Soraya. She actually called Mohamed her “brother” in Sweden. She phoned us twice after her return to Cairo, to say thank you for the nice treatment and the good time she had with us. We were not aware of her being upset with us for any reason. Was Raqia using Soraya to punish us for arranging a festival she thought competed with her festival in Egypt?
Fortunately, with the speed of a comet, we were fortunate to get two replacements who cancelled their own work in their respective countries to help us out:  Nesma from Spain, and Zahra from Algeria, with whom everybody was more than pleased. We cannot thank them enough!

The Nile Group
All the Egyptian teachers at the Stockholm Belly Dance Festival at that time objected to Raqia´s behavior. The dance teachers started to share their bad experiences and dissatisfactions amongst themselves regarding her way of dealing with them. It turned out that most of the teachers had a personal experiences regarding their own work with her. Something had to be done... the Nile Group idea was born.

To make the Nile Group different, we wanted the teachers to have the possibility to work many times in the year, and at the same time, give the participants many choices of dates to travel. When we were planning the first festival of the four, we didn’t intend to choose the exact same date as the other festival. However, there were no vacancies at the hotel on the other dates, and most of the teachers were already in Egypt at that time. It became the most suitable date. We tried to plan the workshops so that they would not disturb Raqia's festival. We had our own visitors who had booked with us in advance, and the hotel rooms were sold out in a short time. We scheduled our festival so that the teachers who taught in both festivals were scheduled to not clash with each other.

Lubna Emam, for example, was going to teach in both festivals until Raqia called her and forced her to choose.

She chose the Nile Group. We were not “recruiting away people.”

Raqia altered her schedule at the last second for one of the teachers who was going to teach in both festivals so that he was not going to be able to teach for us.

Many of the teachers in Egypt are unhappy with the fact that Raqia is controlling them this way, both inside and outside of Egypt.  When dancers around the world start asking about these teachers, they are told these teachers are not allowed to work except once a year at her festival. Some of the teachers told us stories about workshops that were cancelled for them in other countries suspecting Raqia.  (Not openly, of course, but they believe Raqia is behind it.)

All of us working in the Nile Group, think that the Nile Group is a good and necessary thing, to promote friendship between the artists. They are happy to meet many times throughout the year, respect each other, and have a good time together sharing their knowledge and experiences with each other.

After we broke the news about the new festival, we had many letters around the world sending us their congratulations and wishing us the best of luck. The reactions from the people were positive, and that they welcomed the idea.

We simply helped these teachers to organize themselves and become more independent. We believe they deserve respect as they are all professional artists with many years in the field. The Nile Group maybe the start of a teacher's union.

We want to give the teachers many opportunities to work, when and where they want. The students should feel welcome, and they should get the most fun possible out of the money they pay for classes. Too many dancers are often squeezed in to the classrooms, and the result is that the students cannot see or hear the teachers. The festival is well attended but this is for the benefit of whom? The festival should be able to accomodate everyone's needs in a beneficial way.

We have four festivals scheduled so far- three within the next year. The first one will be this November in Giza.

We heard that Raqia's assistants were guarding the hotel doors, stopping people, and asking them rudely where they where going! One girl came back from the other dance festival, crying. She told us that because she had been performing in one of our parties the night before, she was no longer welcome to their festival again! Another famous dance teacher called one of the Nile Group organizers and said "Congratulations, I would really like to come and visit your festival, but I cannot go out of the hotel, as they are guarding all the doors."

The stories we heard were amazingly different.  It is nice to hear that some people had a good time at Raqia's festival, but there are two sides to every story. Our goal is to improve conditions for everyone.

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