Description of Egypt: Notes and Views on Egypt and Nubia Made During the Years 1825-1828
by Edward William Lane, Jason Thompson
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An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians
by Edward William Lane, Jason Thompson, William Lane

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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi
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" 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.

Part 1-- 1976
A boy came into sight on the path that separated the outermost houses of the village of Sumbat from the muddy rice fields, throwing bricks and pieces of wood at the donkey trotting before him.  I drew my black scarf closer about my face and lowered my eyes, remembering other villages, and stones which had found a different target. 

Ten minutes passed, then fifteen.  I wondered how much longer I could remain inconspicuous, a stranger in a place where everyone knew each other, skulking behind their houses with no apparent purpose.

The whole affair, begun with such lofty intentions, was degenerating into low farce; I felt silly, and worse, could not shake off a sense of futility, the iron-bitter taste of resident failure.  Could the young student have brought me here secretly, told me to wait 'just a moment' while he secured my admittance to the Ghawazi, the famed hereditary dancers of Egypt, and then abandoned me, merely as an elaborate joke?  No; more likely he had not succeeded in gaining their acquiescence and, ashamed or seeing no point in informing me, had decided not to return.  But I could not leave until I knew for sure.

It has all seemed so simple the night before in the tiny upstairs office of the Mehalla Agency for Weddings and Celebrations.  Mahmud, the owner of the Agency, has said that there were Ghawazi in the village of Sunbat.  Mahmud had been providing entertainers for festive occasions in the town of Al-Mahalla al-Kubra and its neighboring villages for forty years, and Sunbat was less than ten miles from Mahalla.  Indeed, he claimed, Sumbat was a major Ghawazi center of Wajhu Bahari, as the northern part of Egypt, or Lower Egypt, was called. 

Mention of the Ghawazi had prompted a certain amount of laughter in the bare little room, the sort which in Egypt all too often greets the mention of folklore and traditions that have been cast off too recently to have become enshrined in school pageants and tourist office handouts. But upon my prodding, Mahmud had tried to recall what he could of these people about whom so much has been claimed and so little really known:  The Ghawazi had originally come from a village called Kafr al-'Arab, at least those in the area of Wajhu Bahari with which Mahmud was familiar.  They were to be found all over Egypt, in families among which the arts of music and dance were handed down from generation to generation.  The women danced in long gowns while the men played the tabla, or goblet drum, and the kawal, a sort of narrow nay, or flute.  They performed in the villages for the farmers' weddings and harvest celebrations, but not in the towns or the cities as, like most of the traditions pertaining to Egyptian village and farm life, they were considered low class.  Formerly they were also to be seen at the mulids, the annual festivals held in various places in honor of local saints.

What kind of dancing did the Ghawazi do?  "Bad!" everyone agreed.  "But what kind?" I insisted.  "Just hazz al-batn and hazz al-sadr," answered one of Mahmud's employees, an older woman in peasant garb who sang comic songs, "just shaking the belly and shaking the breast" - sometimes while balancing a water jug or candelabrum on the head, Mahmud added.

The term hazz al-batn was ambiguous, sometimes even used jocularly, or contemptuously, to mean "belly dancing" in general instead of the more usual term raqs al-sharq, "dance of the East."  So . . . "What do you mean, shaking the belly?" I asked.  The portly songstress got to her feet, pulled her voluminous black gown tight across her lower torso and, to the general merriment, began to toss her abdomen up and down.  I wondered if she were trying to suggest a belly roll, something which I had never seen in Egypt.  This, and other questions, would hopefully be answered as soon as I could get to Sunbat, which would be as soon as possible.

Later that night I had reviewed the greater part of the information I had on the Ghawazi, Edward Lane's The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians1, first published in 1835. 

"Egypt has long been celebrated for its public dancing-girls; the most famous of whom are of a distinct tribe, called "Ghawazee."  A female of this tribe is called "Ghazeeyeh," Lane began.  "Their dancing has little of elegance; its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side.  They commence with a degree of decorum; but soon, by more animated looks, by a more rapid collision of their castanets of brass, and by increased energy in every motion, they exhibit a spectacle exactly agreeing with the descriptions which Martial and Juvenal have given of the performance of the female dances of Gades.  The dress in which they generally thus exhibit in public is similar to that which is worn by women of the middle classes in Egypt in private, that is, in the hareem; consisting of a yelek, or an 'anteree, and the shintiyan, etc., of handsome materials [yelek-- tight-fitting, floor-length, long-sleeved vest, worn over a qamis -- wide-sleeved gauzy blouse and shintiyan, voluminous pantaloons tied around the hips.  A red tarbush, or cap, was worn on the head with a bejeweled turban, and a convex filigree gold disk, the kurs, was worn on the cap.  A shawl was tied around the hips. -ed.)  They also wear various ornaments: their eyes are bordered with the kohl.and the tips of their fingers, the palms of theirs hands, and their toes and other parts of their feet, are usually stained with the red dye of the henna . . . In general, they are accompanied by mus icians (mostly of the same tribe), whose instruments are the kemengeh or the rabab [a sort of violin -ed.] with the tar [tambourine - ed.); or the darabukkeh [goblet drum -- ed.] with the zummarah or the zemr (an oboe-like instrument-ed.] . . . They dance (with unveiled face) before the men, in the court, so that they may be seen also by the women from the windows of the hareem; or they perform in an apartment in which the men are assembled, or in the street, before the house, for the amusement only of the women [on the occasion of a wedding or birth -ed.] . . .

"They are never admitted into a respectable hareem, but are not infrequently hired to entertain a party of men in the house of some rake.  In this case, as might be expected, their performances are yet more lascivious than those which I have already mentioned.  Some of them, when they exhibit before a private party of men, wear nothing but the shintiyan and a tob [avery full, long, wide-sleeved shirt or gown -- ed. ] of semi-transparent, coloured gauze, open nearly half-way down the front.  To extinguish the least spark of modesty which they may yet sometimes affect to retain, they are plentifully supplied with brandy . . . The scenes which ensue cannot be described . . .

"When they . . . perform for the entertainment of a party, one of the friends of the host usually collects for them small sums of money upon the tambourine, or in a handkerchief, from the guests; but sometimes, the host will not allow this custom to be observed.  The contributions are called 'nukoot.'  It is the general practice for the person who gives the entertainment to engage the Ghawazee for a certain sum:  he receives the nukoot, which may fall short of, or exceed, the promised sum:  in the former case, he pays the difference from his own purse:  in the latter case he often pockets the surplus.  Or he agrees that they shall receive all the nukoot, with, or without, an additional sum from himself . . . It is a common custom for a man to wet, with his tongue, small gold coins, and stick them upon the forehead, cheeks, chin, and lips, of a Ghazeeyeh . . .

Mid 19th century dancing girls, a lithograph by L. Hagne
after an illustration by David Roberts

"I need scarcely add that these women are the most abandoned of the courtesans of Egypt.  Many of them are extremely handsome; and most of them are richly dressed.  Upon the whole, I think they are the finest women in Egypt.  Many of them have slightly aquiline noses; but in most respected they resemble the rest of the females of this country.  Women, as well as men, take delight in witnessing their performances; but many persons among the higher classes, and the more religious, disapprove of them.

"The Ghawazee being distinguished, in general, by a cast of countenance differing, though slightly, from the rest of Egyptians, we can hardly doubt that they are, as themselves assert, a distinct race.  Their origin, however, is involved in much uncertainty.  They call themselves 'Baramikeh' . . . and boast that they are descended from the famous family of that name who were the objects of the favour, and afterwards of the capricious tyranny, of Haroon Er-Rasheed . . . they probably have no more right to call themselves 'Baramikeh' . . . perhaps the modern Ghawazee are descended from the class of female dancers who amused the Egyptians in the times of the early Pharaohs.  From the similarity of the Spanish fandango to the dances of the Ghawazee, we might infer that it was introduced into Spain by the Arab conquerors of that country, were we not informed that the Gaditanae, or females of Gades . . . were famous for such performances in the times of the early Roman emperors.  However, though it hence appears that the licentious mode of dancing here described has so long been practiced in Spain, it is not improbable that it was originally introduced into Gades from the East, perhaps by the Phoenicians.

"The Ghawazee mostly keep themselves distinct from other classes, abstaining from marriages with any but persons of their own tribe; but sometimes a Ghazeeyeh makes a vow of repentance, and marries a respectable Arab; who is not generally considered as disgraced by such a connection.  All of them are brought up for the venal profession; but not all as dancers; and most of them marry; though they never do this until they have commenced their career of venality.  The husband is subject to the wife:  he performs for her the offices of a servant and a procurer; and generally, if she be a dancer, he is also her musician:  but a few of the men earn their subsistence as blacksmiths or tinkers . . . many of their customs are similar to those of the people whom we call 'gipsies,' and whom are supposed, by some, to be of Egyptian origin.  It is remarkable that some of the gipsies in Egypt pretend to be descended from a branch of the same family to whom the Ghawazee refer their origin; but their claim is still less to be regarded than that of the latter, because they do not unanimously agree on this point . . . The ordinary language of the Ghawazee is the same as the rest of the Egyptians; but they sometimes make use of a number of words peculiar to themselves, in order to render their speech unintelligible to strangers.  They are, professedly, of the Muslim faith; and often some of them accompany the Egyptian caravan of pilgrims to Mekkeh.  There are many of them in almost every large town in Egypt, inhabiting a distinct portion of the quarter allotted to public women in general.  Their ordinary habitations are low huts, or temporary sheds, or tents; for they often move from one town to another:  but some of them settle themselves in large houses; and many possess black female slaves (by whose prostitution they increase their property), and camels, asses, cows, etc., in which they trade.  They attend the camps, and all the great religious and other festivals, of which they are, to many persons, the chief attractions.  Numerous tents of Ghazeeyehs are seen on those occasions.  Some of these women add to their other allurements the art of singing, and equal the ordinary 'Awalim . . . There are some other dancing-girls and courtesans who call themselves Ghawazee, but who do not really belong to that tribe."

Ah, the good old days!  Many travellers after Lane had devoted pages to the Ghawazi, and though some obviously based their notes on Lane's account (just as Lane appears to have derived much of his information on the Ghawazi from the orientalist J. L. Burckhardt's 1830 publication, Arabic Proverbs; or the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians), others limited themselves to descriptions of what they actually saw on visits to Egypt. Few of these writers were orientalists. Reading their diaries and travelogues, I could not determine to what extent the bewildering variety of costumes and dances described is due to the possible existence of different costume and dance traditions among the Ghawazi, to changes in costume and dance over the roughly half century covered by the works in questions, or to the writers' ignorance of Arabic or lack of the experience and vocabulary to describe Middle Eastern dance accurately. The French writer Gustave Flaubert had left eloquent descriptions of several performances of Egyptian dancing he had witnessed during his journey down the Nile in 18502, a few years after public female dancing and prostitution had been outlawed by government decree and, according to some accounts, many of the practitioners of these arts bundled off to the towns of Qena, Esna and Aswan in Al-Sa'id, or Upper Egypt, the "primitive" south of the country.  Flaubert, unfortunately, had never mentioned the Ghawazi by name, although he was familiar with Lane's book, and hence one could not ascertain which of the dances he saw, if any, were among the repertoire of the Ghawazi, or whether the Ghawazi had a distinctive style or repertoire.  "Splendid writhing of belly and hips; he makes his belly undulate like waves," Flaubert had written of the most famous male oriental dancer in Cairo, Hasan al-Belbeissi, but "arms stretched out front, elbows a little bent, the torso motionless; the pelvis quivers," he had described the dance of a Cairene prostitute.  In Esna, where he could easily have found Ghawazi, he visited only Kutchuk Hanem, a renowned courtesan-dancer with a Turkish name from Damascus, Syria (often confused with another famed dancer of the period, Safiya).  Kutchuk Hanem danced in an outfit that, in Flaubert's detailed descriptions of kurs, tarboush, shintiyan, etc., was clearly the descendant of the dress worn by Lane's Ghawazi and the ancestor of that worn by Ghawazi dancers of the present day.  Accompanied by two rababas and a darabukka, Kutchuk Hanem and her servant Bambeh entertained Flaubert at home:

"Kutchuk Hanem and Bambeh begin to dance.  Kutchuk's dance is brutal.  She squeezes her bare breasts together with her jacket.  She puts on a girdle fashioned from a brown shawl with golden stripes, with three tassels hanging on ribbons.  She rises first on one foot, then on the other --marvelous movement:  when one foot is on the ground, the other moves up and across in front of the shinbone, the whole thing with a light bound.  I have seen this dance on old Greek vases.

"Bambeh prefers a dance on a straight line, she moves with a lowering and raising of one hip only, a kind of rhythmic limping of great character." 

Would Bambeh have been considered a Ghaziyya?

Flaubert continued with a description of "The Bee," a dance mentioned by several other travelers of his period who were afraid to offend the sensibilities of their readers with an exact description: 

"Kutchuk dances the Bee.  Kutchuk shed her clothing as she danced.  Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and feet and behind which she pretended to hide, and at the end she threw down the fichu.  That was the Bee.  She danced it very briefly and said she does not like to dance that dance.

"Another dance:  a cup of coffee is placed on the ground; she dances before it, then falls to her knees and continues to move her torso, always clacking the castanets, and describing in the air a gesture with her arms as though she were swimming.  That continues, gradually the head is lowered, she reaches the cup, takes the edge of it between her teeth, and then leaps up quickly with a single bound." 

Did Kutchuk Hanem learn any of this from the Ghawazi among whom she lived?

One of the last accounts mentioning the Ghawazi by name, Present-Day Egypt, had been published in 1899.3  According to the author, F. Courtland Penfield, U.S. Diplomatic Agent and Consul-General to Egypt: 

"Another widely described institution, satisfying most spectators with a single view, is the dancing of the Ghawazi girls, to be witnessed at a dozen Cairo theatres and cafes.  The Chicago Midway, and certain places of amusement in Paris, by means of elaborations, have given this exhibition undeserved prominence.  A performance wherein the feet are seldom lifted from the floor can be termed 'dancing' only by courtesy; but as an illustration of what the muscles of the body may be trained to do, the danse du ventre is in a way remarkable.  The Ghawazi, bred from childhood to their calling, are deemed essential at every form of Egyptian merrymaking, prince and fellah alike enjoying them.  These women form a class, with head quarters at Keneh in Upper Egypt, and by thirty have generally managed to wriggle themselves into a competency.  They are not necessarily immoral, but are not respected, the habitual exposure of the face, if nothing more, placing them beyond the pale."

Karl Baedeker's Egypt: Handbook for Travellers,4  published in 1898, augmented the above commentary:

"The female dancers, or Ghawazi . . . were formerly one of the chief curiosities of Egypt, but for some years past they have been prohibited from performing in the streets. Really good dancers are said to be now rare, but may still be seen occasionally in the cafes-chantants in Cairo. The Hawal, or men in female attire, who frequently dance at festivities instead of the Ghawazi, present a most repulsive appearance."

1890's Ghawazi in Egyptian cafe from antique postcard

Further evidence of the decline of the fortunes of the Ghawazi -- in Cairo at least -- appeared in an 1897 work by E. A. Reynolds-Ball, Cairo of Yesterday and Today:5

"Cairo abounds in Egyptian cafes, where dances by the soi-disant members of the Ghawazee tribe are the sole attractions. They are, however, altogether lacking in local color, and are, in fact, run by enterprising Greeks and Levantines for European visitors, and the performance is as banal and vulgar as at any cafe chantant in Antwerp or Amsterdam. The whole show consists of a few wailing musicians sitting on a raised platform at one end of the cafe, accompanying the endless gyrations of a stout young woman of unpreprossessing features, who postures in particularly ungraceful and unedifying attitudes. Then her place is taken by another, equally ill-favored and obese, who goes through the same interminable gyrations, to be relieved in her turn; and this goes on hour after hour. This strange 'unvariety show' is, nevertheless, one of the established sights of Cairo, and is frequented in great numbers by tourists. Genuine performances of these dancing girls are seldom seen in Cairo, except occasionally at weddings among the rich Cairenes; and, in fact, the public dances of the Ghawazee are forbidden by the authorities. They can, however, be seen at most of the towns of the Upper Nile Valley, especially at Keneh and Esneh."

After the turn of the century, travelers' memoirs of Egypt became fewer and fewer, and the name 'Ghawazi' seemed to disappear from their vocabularies.

This last recorded government crackdown on the Ghawazi of Cairo coincides roughly with the changes in costume and dance which resulted in the Egyptian oriental dance as we know it today. Perhaps the 'Ghawazi' of Cairo rid themselves of this epithet and evolved their costumes and style to become the 'belly dancers' of the 20th century. Perhaps this lasat suppression broke their hold on the dance profession in Cairo, and most left the profession, some joining their sisters in other parts of Egypt. At any rate, the term 'Ghawazi' is no longer current in Cairo, raqisat, an Arabic word meaning "female dancers," being used instead. In the town of Al-Mahalla al-Kubra, I had found that the name 'Ghawazi' was still readily recognized; one old gentleman recalled that the Ghawazi used to dance at the annual mulid of Sidi Ibrahim al-Desouqi at Desuq in Wajhu Bahari, though he doubted whether they still did so, considering the rapidity with which the old customs were disappearing in Egypt.  Another man recalled having seen Ghawazi dancers at a mulid in a village near the Bahari town of Sammanud about two years previously, in the summer of 1974.  He could not describe their dancing but remembered that they wore long, decorated gowns and headdresses adorned with old silver coins.

Back in Cairo, Nagwa Fu'ad, considered in the Middle East to be one of the three greatest performing oriental dancers along with Sohayr Zaki and Nahed Sabri, had told me that the Ghawazi were among the purest exemplars of the Egyptian dance, having retained their art pure while dancers in Cairo and other urban centers succumbed to the baneful influence of the Turkish overlords to lard their performances with vulgar, foreign element and heavily sexual overtones.  Nagwa's Ghawazi were decent, respectable people, living in families of artists wherein the pater familias might play the flute and the girls clap rhythmically to accompany the dancing of others of their number.

According to Sami Yunis, an eminent choreographer and dance researcher for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture as well as Director of Al-Firqa al Qaumiyya li-Funun Sha'biyya, or Egypt's National Folk Arts Ensemble, the Ghawazi were not a tribe but a professional group or class -- not in the sense of an organized group, or a caste, however.  No, they were not Gypsies, or ghajjar, as Gypsies are called in the Egyptian dialect; but yes, they were composed of families of professional artists.  The dancing of the Ghawazi was not oriental dancing, but folk dancing; oriental dancing contained a strong sexual element and elaborate and suggestive pelvis and arm movements lacking in folk dancing.  Their proper rhythm was the emphatic, driving wahda wa nuss, the Egyptian rhythm par excellence.  Ghawazi dancing was simply, for the most part, the sort of dancing that ordinary Egyptian girls did among themselves at home, the sort of thing that respectable young girls were not supposed to do in front of men.  "The little girl watching an oriental dancer, or a Ghaziyya, at a wedding celebration from her window imitates her.  She then becomes a model for other little girls, and perhaps she grows up and becomes a professional dancer whom other little girls watch and copy," Professor Yunis had explained, and I remembered the tiny creatures I had seen at weddings, standing on the seats of chairs and imitating the movements of the dancers, sometimes with astonishing poise and control.  Professor Yunis had concluded with an off-the-cuff definition:  "Ghawazi are women who perform Egyptian folk dance in front of men for money."

I tried to dredge from memory the Ghawazi dance choreographed by Professor Yunis which I had seen the Firqa Qaumiyya perform early in 1974.  There had been three girls, dressed in matching taffeta costumes, a simplified stage version of the costume presently worn by many, perhaps all, of the Ghawazi of Upper Egypt:  a sort of body stocking or tight blouse with a short, tight, low-cut vest over it; a knee-length skirt, and a girdle made of many cloth ribbons streaming from the hips almost to the hem of the skirt.  Reds and yellows predominated.  The girls danced in unison and each carried a staff about four feet long.  Their repertoire was limited as to variety of movements and the emphasis was on footwork and hip thrusts - no one would have called it oriental dancing, although most of it would not have been out of place in the faster sections of an oriental dance. 

At one point the girls did something unforgettable:  the three formed a circle, facing inward; the circle began to rotate, the girls holding their long staves at shoulder level and, at some unseen signal, they dropped one end of the staves against their right shoulders and the other against the left shoulder of the girl opposite and to the right, removed their hands, and continued to dance thus, joined together by a circle of staves held in place entirely by equalized pressure.

"a la art nouveau . . ."
Several days after speaking with Sami Yunis, I was able to see the 1976 repertoire of the Firqa Qaumiyya which included a different Ghawazi dance announced as having been choreographed by thePprofessor Yunis.  Extraordinary thing! -- there was no resemblance to the first dance, neither in costume nor style and content. The dancer swept onstage in a long black and silver gown of richly worked tull bi-telli (usually called 'Assiut' in the United States, after the town of its principal manufacture in Upper Egypt), caught around the hips with a sash of white and silver brocade.  A couple of mizmars (loud shawm- or oboe-like instruments) screeched away on one side of the stage while a large group of drummers in flowing galabiyyas stalked around in the center, banging out an ear-shattering wahda wa nuss on the tabla baladi, or great double-headed drum slung from the shoulder.  The dancer bounded into their midst, twirled first one way, then the other, the hem of her gown and the longer red shift she wore underneath belling out and her thick dark braids flying about her head.  She walked, or bobbed and floated, around in a circle, undulating, and carried it into a spin, coming out of it with one arm out to the side and the other bent toward the head, palm up, to do a strangely angular, stylized but preeminently Egyptian folk step:  Hop on one foot and at the same time kick the other out and up so that the thigh is parallel to the floor and the lower leg at right angles to it, and hold the pose for a long moment, then step forward and do the same on the other foot - had I seen something like this in early Pharaonic wall paintings?  Then she became a bronze Art Nouveau statuette as her other arm coiled to the crown of her head, elbow out, so that now both hands, palm up and bent backward at the wrists, framed her head while she wriggled luxuriously, all of this with arch and laughing eyes and a big smile.  From that she slid into a broad, flamboyant "Egyptian Walk" ("Step-Lift;" "Egyptian Basic," etc.) while moving backward, her fluid arms complementing every movement.  Something else -- how describe the butterfly on a summer breeze? -- and she walked forward with a rolling double-hip thrust, rotated her pelvis clockwise with a vertical shimmy, one arm over her head and the other at the leading hip, then moved backwards with shallow, precise undulations which melted into another Egyptian Walk, one hip thrust becoming larger till it dissolved into a big hip circle with a bounce.  Something else, then a one-hipped circle with a bounce that evolved into a slow pivot with gentle shimmy, a shimmy which became hip thrusts.  Walk forward with a shoulder shimmy, walk in a circle with a shoulder shimmy, the relaxed wriggle of a big cat, then a joyous spin and, with an upflung imperious arm, freeze!  Something, something, then another spin with one hand to the temple and the other arm out to the side at shoulder level, dipping at the same point in each circuit, then stopping with an abrupt shake of the shoulders and an emphatic thrust-bounce of the breast, as if to say "So there!"  Finally a drop to the knee and - oh so sensuously and unselfconsciously! - she rotated her shoulders, just for a few seconds, then rose slowly, undulating from side to side and rippling her outstretched arms from the shoulders, arms which writhed up and up above her head and back down along her body, "too beautiful to be arousing," as Flaubert had written.

Here indeed were the writhings and whirlings and flashing eyes which the Romantic poets had rhapsodized!  She wriggled and darted through the spotlight like an eel, or more like a silvery fish in the metal-gleaming mesh of the Assiuti gown, or like a cat in the way the gown rippled across her body like a loose second skin.  This was not folk dancing - this was oriental dancing, not of the sort one would see in Egyptian nightclubs, more's the pity, but not greatly unlike some of what the immortal Samia Gamal had done thirty years before.

I deeply regretted not having had my discussion of the Ghawazi with Professor Yunis after having seen this 1976 performance, so that he could explain the incredible dissimilarity between the two Ghawazi dances I had seen in the Firqa Qaumiyya's repertoire..  The problem was typical of my research in Egypt; the more I learned, the more I heard, or saw, the less I knew.  Especially in this matter of the Ghawazi, who they were and what they did, contradictions piled upon contradictions.  Now, standing in the village of Sunbat, it looked like I was to be foiled again; arriving in an ancient rented car, I had stared at the blank facades of nondescript houses and the chickens scrabbling for leftovers in the street while the driver made inquiries as to where Ghawazi might be found.  Twenty minutes later he returned, accompanied by two handsome gentlemen in galabiyyas, the floor-length traditional gown of Egypt..  These were men with some connection to Ghawazi, and there was about them an air of tenseness, a tightness in their gesticulations, which boded no good.  The driver had mentioned that I was a journalist in hopes of making an impression, and no, they denied emphatically, I might not question their wives, take pictures of them, paw over their clothing or indulge whatever other suspicious whims might enter my foreign mind.  Their wives and daughters were not something for display, they said.  Public entertainers "not for display"?  "Mafish aya haga" -- "there isn't anything, we don't mean anything," we tried to reassure them, "We're not journalists, we don't have anything to do with the government," and then the ultimate argument, "We're not tax collectors."  Despite hints of financial benefit and repeated protestations that I was merely a student of Near Eastern culture who wanted a glimpse of the renowned Ghawazi arts, they remained adamant:  "We don't have anything like that."

It was clear that the Ghawazi of Sumbat were trying to" maintain a low profile," to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and this had driven me to the expedient of approaching them secretly in the hope that they might prove less reticent.  A student encountered just outside the village was able to lead me by a circuitous route to the area where the Ghawazi were concentrated, a street named, interestingly, Kafr al-'Arab.  Another mystery:  Had Kafr al-'Arab once been a village in its own right, independent of Sunbat, or had the Ghawazi's quarter been named after their putative place of origin?  Or had the manager of the Mahalla Agency for Weddings and Celebrations simply confused a street or quarter with a village?  Too many questions, no clear answers . . . but here was the student now, hastening down the path to tell me - what?

1 Edward Lane, The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Everyman's Library, London, 1966

2 Flaubert in Egypt:  A Sensibility on Tour, translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1972

3 Frederic Courtland Penfield, Present-Day Egypt, U.S.A., 1899

4 Baedeker, Karl, Egypt: Handbook for Travellers, Leipsic, 1898, p. xxxviii

5 Reynolds-Ball, E. A., Cairo of Yesterday and Today, Boston, Dan Eates & Co., 1897, pp. 191-192

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Ready for more?
1-3-04 Khairiyya Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition by Edwina Nearing
But when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.

2-11-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, 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.
Part 2 -- 1976 posted 5-16-04
Part 3 - 1976
posted 8-8-04
Part 4 - 1976 posted 9-12-04
Part 5 - 1976
Posted 2-10-04
Part 6 - 1976 posted 7-5-05
Part 7 - 1976 posted 9-5-05
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

2-8-04 Kalifa's Big Comeback by Kalifa
I felt butterflies in my stomach – my throat was dry – and my fingers already damp where I lightly held the ends of my skirt. All the old familiar feelings a performer experiences just before going on stage.

2-1-04 Youth, Beauty and Branding, The Virgin Megastore Grand Reopening, part 2 photos by Lynette
with Jillina, Sahlala Dancers, and
Issam Houshan San Francisco, California, December 3, 2003

1-17-04 Virgin Megastore Reopening featuring Jillina & the Sahlala Dancers & Issam Houshan, photos and layout by Susie
San Francisco, CA, Wednesday, December 3, 2003

1-25-04 One Ad Changed My Life by Amina Goodyear
I was very desperate and determined to get back to my old self.









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