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Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2008

Not So Welcoming this Year

by Yasmin

Prices have gone up everywhere, and Egypt is no exception. The reality hit me as soon as I walked into the Mena House. Bottled water was $4.00, where out in the street the same bottle was $.50. A bottle of beer was $10.00. Internet connection was $30.00 / hour. At those prices, life's little pleasures didn't seem important anymore.

The festival itself was equally pricey. The minimum to take classes was $250.00 - $80.00 for the 3-hour superstar extravaganzas, $60.00 for other well-known teachers and $40.00 for folkloric classes. Most of the teachers were either Reda Troupe affiliates or Raqia students. And unlike previous years, if you didn't sign up for classes you couldn't participate in the competition. The fee to compete was $50.00 or $40.00 if you only wanted to perform. Two years ago the prices were $40.00 and $20.00 respectively and you didn’t have to sign up for classes. On the positive side, the employees were helpful and polite, with good communication skills and patience, even when people were arguing.

The band was also different. Khamis Henkesh had the unfortunate impulse to work with the Nile Group this year and was not asked back to Raqia's stage. Instead she saved money with Sayed al-Artist for a couple of nights, who brought 7 percussionists, a synthesizer player and one or two other instruments, depending on the evening. They were percussion heavy and melody light. It wasn’t clear though whether they finished out the festival. It certainly seemed like an entirely different band for the final day of competition. That band could hardly hold a tune if it wasn’t Alf Leila wa Leila.

The Mena House

The opening gala presented Soraya, Randa and Dina. It was basically the same line-up from two years ago, but this time the dancers only seemed to go through the moves. No one surpassed herself or seemed passionate about being there. No new movements, artistic breakthroughs or tableaux stuck in my mind. The ladies were fun to watch, but once you've seen them, you've seen their bag of tricks. Don't get me wrong, I LIKE Dina and Randa, but I could have watched a DVD of them and seen the same stuff, without spending $5000 for airfare and hotel fees. It wasn’t like two years ago, when Randa impressed me so much during her closing performance that, in spite of my better judgment, I plunked down $75.00 for the DVD.

This year’s closing gala was a different story. It was $60.00, the same as 2 years ago, but instead of the contestant finalists, Asmahan, Dina and Randa, Raqia put on a love-fest with her previous foreign-born students - who looked out of shape and out of touch with their hired musicians. I walked out during the second dancer, as did many others.

But my dissatisfaction also had a lot to do with the results of the “competition” that were announced before the second act. Instead of choosing one of the many wonderful dancers that valiantly performed to the second rate band, Raqia chose to crown a Taiwanese lady who did tepid choreography to a CD. Two years ago, the audience could decide for themselves who deserved to win. The finalists performed in the closing show. This year they only appeared on-stage to receive prizes. But I saw the winner’s competition performance. In my opinion, she did not deserve to win. But politics are politics. So many of this year’s attendees were from Asia (and part of the prize was a trip to Korea) that it was no surprise someone from that part of the world would be given bragging rights to Raqia’s gold crown.

In fact, Americans and Europeans were in the minority this year. Two years ago there were many more. Bozenka won the crown after competing with four other finalists during the closing show. This time Asians and South Americans dominated the competition, the later with a powerful, high energy Latin style that ruled the stage and hit every beat with gusto. Where did the others go? I was told the professionals had come a week earlier for “The Nile Festival.” Not a surprise, when the pervading atmosphere at the Mena House was price-gauging the neophytes.

The worst example of this was the marathon performance schedule set for the final evening of competition. When my students checked in that night there were close to 60 people on the schedule. But at registration there had only been 30 slots, like all the other nights. Previous evenings ended near midnight. But that night we waited until 2:30 AM for my last girl to go on - and there were 9 poor souls after her. At that point, the audience had almost vanished, the band was desperately trying to quit, and the organizers were offering free workshops to any dancer willing to forego her high-priced chance to perform in Egypt.

New Egyptian construction

Even the shopping wasn’t much fun. All the prices went up. Eman and Pharaonics were suddenly charging $550.00 - $600.00 / costume instead of their $400.00 price tag from just six months ago. There were also questions about whether the workmanship of one prominent designer’s gowns would hold up during performance. And of course inflation trickled down to the Khan Khalili booths in the Mena House hallways as well. Of the well-known designers, only Hanan kept her prices down, and was rewarded by a crowded store and considerable sales.

I was told the reason for the price augmentation was that Raqia was charging more this year for the booths. Raqia let it be known however, that The Mena House was charging her more… because the hotel, still under construction, had undergone extensive renovations. I don’t know about the others, but I didn’t have hot water for the entire 10 days I was there. Two years ago I chalked it up to an old boiler, but AFTER the work was completed? I love the oasis that is the Mena House, but I think this is the last time I will stay there.

Female Muslim attire in 100 degree heat

Personal disclaimer – I did not sign up for classes (because I felt they were too expensive) so I have no first-hand knowledge of any of them. But I asked how they went over breakfast every morning and can give you the second-hand opinions I received from professional dancers. No one complained about the class sizes for the star teachers this year, perhaps because overall enrolment was down. Some classes were given top marks, Dandesh’s in particular. Some people were also happy with Mona Said and her new Caribbean fusion, but others were less happy with Dina, who arrived quite late, took half hour cigarette breaks and apparently had a diva moment looking for a piece of glass on the stage. The Saidi was good, the Egyptian sword less so. The Khaligi had a replacement teacher when the person scheduled to teach it got stuck in traffic. No one I knew took classes with the many non-Egyptian instructors.

Were the classes worth traveling so far for? It depends what you can get at home, I guess. For Americans, we are blessed with many sponsors who bring over stars on a regular basis. I live in the same city as Faten Salama and try to take a workshop with her at least once a year. But I do not know how easy it is in Korea or Brazil to take lessons with Egyptian superstars. One thing is certain however, choreography and the Reda Troupe ruled at Ahlan. Since I prefer technique and improv, I was destined to feel short changed no matter what Raqia offered, which is the other reason I didn’t sign up for classes.

What I didn’t expect was how depressed I would feel witnessing the current state of Egypt. I LOVE Egypt. I love its people, its history and its culture. I lived there for two years in the 1980s. But in the taxi to the Mena House this year I passed canals whose banks were piled high with garbage and saw a dead horse floating in the water - with little boys wading nearby. There were miles of tenement buildings 12-13 stories high, rapidly constructed out of little more than brick, concrete and steel wire. But Cairo, Alexandria and the rest of the Middle East are near a fault line (under the Red Sea). The African tectonic plate is pulling away from the Arabian one. I couldn’t stop thinking that when another earthquake occurs (think Jericho), the recent deaths in China will seem like a drop in the bucket.

People are hurting in Egypt. Inflation and the economic crises in the US is nothing compared to what these 80 million people are facing. And life just got more expensive in the last six months, due to the global economic downturn. Most women don’t work, at least not those of the lower classes. They stay home. I was told that 50% of them would be lost if they tried to navigate the streets alone. That is why they need men to take them places.

Egyptian Moslem women wear headscarves, long sleeves and pants, long skirts or cover-ups, even in 100 degree heat. If you don’t wear these things you are Coptic Christian or foreign, that simple. Uncovered shoulders, cleavage or leg higher than a calf were not shown by anyone except oblivious Western tourists. Yet the people are kind, with a quick sense of humor and a ready laugh. And because I speak passable Egyptian I saw corners of Cairo and Alexandria that most other dancers don’t. I heard stories not meant for Western ears and I understood when I was being insulted, intentionally or not, as a foreigner, as a woman alone or as a stupid American dancer who should have known better.

I returned home very thankful to be an independent woman. I wondered what I had done in previous lives to deserve such a good one this time. I am now even more motivated to release my Egyptian music. I have seen first hand where the money goes – to my producer’s extended family and the musicians who play for him. I wonder what Raqia will do with her money. Hopefully she will share her wealth with those who need it. What about a table for the poor during Ramadan, similar to Fifi’s or Sa’ad as-Soughayir’s? Then it would be a gift from all of us, thousands of hard-working belly dancers from around the globe contributing to Egypt’s less fortunate – but I wonder what the religious leaders would say?

Cairo women vending beans and greens on market day.

Shoo Shoo Amin with author. She now lives in Alexandria and
was not involved with this year's festival.

The Ahlan ballroom from the beginning of the final night of the competition.
Visible under banner are the musicians for the contestants, at this moment 5 out of 8 are percusionists.

off site resources:
photos of AWS contest winners

Don't forget to check out author's bio

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