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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
Day 6: The Festival Begins
Travel Journal by Shira

Sunday, June 27, 2004. I felt a bit pensive at breakfast.  This was our last morning in the Victoria, and I knew I would miss its air of faded elegance and warm hospitality.  I spread my last dose of helawa, a sweet paste made of sesame seed, onto a piece of pita bread, knowing from prior experience that there would be no helawa at the next hotel.  I also savored my glass of carcadet (hibiscus juice), knowing that the juices at the next hotel's breakfast would be excessively sweet in comparison.  Hani, the manager, said his good-byes to us as we ate.

Whenever a large group of people is brought together, there will inevitably be some problems.  And so it was with our group.  Now that we had been together nearly a week, some tales were starting to come out. There was the story of the woman who was spat at by a man in a passing car for wearing what Egyptians consider to be indecent clothing. (The spittle actually hit the conservatively-dressed person walking next to her rather than the person it was meant for.)  There was the story of the woman who left puddles of urine pooled on the surface of the toilet seat in her hotel room, much to her roommate's distress.  There were people whose guts had been assailed with "mummy tummy".  There were people who were tired of organized activities and wanting to strike out on their own. The time was ripe for us to disperse and pursue our own individual plans for classes, side trips, etc. rather than continuing to do everything together as a full group.  

We loaded up the bus with all our belongings and set out for the Mena House Oberoi hotel.

The Mena House Oberoi
The Mena House Oberoi was a 5-star hotel set in a complex originally built to be used as a palace. It sat at the base of the Giza plateau, within convenient walking distance of the pyramids and Sphinx.  From there, it was quite a drive to downtown Cairo. However, for guests wanting to be close to the pyramids, the Sphinx, camel rides, and the Parisiana (club where Lucy dances), the Mena House offered an excellent base of operations.  Although we had already been to the pyramids and Sphinx in our sightseeing, it was still satisfying to be so close to them on a daily basis.  Some members of our group walked over to the pyramid complex during our Mena House stay for a second look.

The Ahlan wa Sahlan festival was being held at the Mena House. The hotel offered the facilities needed to operate an event of this nature:  large ballroom facilities, kitchens and catering services capable of serving hundreds of people at once, a 24-hour bank for changing money, an English-speaking staff, assorted rooms suitable for administrative tasks such as registration, a business center with copy machines and Internet café, an on-site travel agency for helping guests arrange side trips, a swimming pool for festival attendees needing a bit of down time, and more.

One of the several restaurants was on the side of the hotel facing the pyramids, and offered a wonderful view of the Great Pyramid, as shown in this photo. When the host or hostess of the restaurant seated people, they always offered the chairs that face toward the pyramid, knowing that the guests would want to enjoy this view while dining.

Like any high-quality hotel, the Mena House offered amenities in the guest rooms, including shampoo, conditioner, soap, tissues, etc.  Most of these amenities resembled what might be expected in a similar quality of hotel in the United States, but the Mena House offered one item that made me think, "I'm not in the U.S. any more."  This item was an aerosol spray can in a straw basket (as pictured in the photo). My first assumption was that perhaps this was hair spray or room air freshener, but when I removed it I found out how wrong I was. It was a can of Raid bug killer!  There's something a bit unsettling about being in a hotel room that offers bug spray as something you might need during your stay.  Thankfully, I did not have such a need myself.

The Registration Circus
The scene in the registration room was a madhouse. Apparently there were twice as many attendees as in 2003, many of whom had not provided any kind of advance notice of their intent to come. So the festival organizers were caught off guard by the number of people. Also, new software was being used to manage the registration process, and it was slow.   Approximately three people were sitting at the registration table diligently keying in class enrollments and processing payments.  A fourth was attempting to direct traffic, asking people to take a number, then wait 1 1/2 to 2 hours for their number to be called for their turn to register. 

As I expected based on the previous year's experience, there were some differences between the class schedule that had been published in advance versus the actual schedule distributed at registration.  Some instructors had been added; others removed.  I was pleased to see that a master class with Khairiyya Maazin (of the Banat Maazin) had been added, because I had much enjoyed her Ghawazee class in 2003 and wanted to take it again.

The Outdoor Pre-show
The gala began with an outdoor show on the steps leading up into the ballroom area.  This was the first problem.  The featured act was on sidewalk level.  The small number of people who were lucky enough to be standing directly in front of the performance area had a satisfying view of the dancing, while those who were unlucky enough to come even 5-10 minutes later had absolutely no way of seeing anything of the dancing.  This staircase had 6 landings, and the higher landings were used either for whirling tannoura dervishes or costumed people posing.  It would have been better to use the landing one level above ground level for the featured act with choreography designed to faced out to each side rather than straight forward, because that would have allowed a much larger number of people to see it and enjoy it. What's the point of putting on a show when only about 50 of 700 potential audience members can be positioned to see it?

I climbed up to a landing above the ground level and looked down, which is how I managed to take some pictures.  But it wasn't a very appealing vantage point for watching the show.  All I could see were the backs of the performers, and there were performers waiting their turn standing between me and the ones actually dancing, partly blocking my view.  Also, a member of the dance company was standing right next to my vantage point holding a large purple chiffon flag that kept blowing in my face.  I kept brushing it out of my way, but it kept finding its way back into my face.  I think he was annoyed with me for interfering with his fluttering flag.

Looking down, I noticed that many members of my group had given up on trying to see the dancing, and were standing back away from the action, just waiting for it to be over.  The looks of disgust on their faces and in their postures were quite visible even from quite a distance away.

Well, from what I could see of the "entertainment", I think the disgust would have remained on their faces even if they could have seen it.  The dancers were all clad in cheap-looking Pharaonic costumes, and doing stereotypical Pharaonic dance with the silly bent-wrist arm angles.  One fellow was clad in a white body suit, presumably representing Osiris, and he did a few odd contortionist things with his arms. Compared to the 2003 opening night zeffa, I found the 2004 event disappointing.

Since I had just seen the excellent tannoura exhibition the night before at the Citadel, the tannoura on the staircase landings didn't really grab much of my attention.  In a particularly tacky-looking moment, one of the dancers clad in the cheap-looking Pharaonic garb took the cape that had been shed by one of the dervishes, placed it over his head, and started to whirl with it around his neck.  

Eventually, the dervishes quit whirling and the fakey-Pharaohs quit prancing with their broken-wrist poses, and they started leading the way up the steps into the ballroom area.  It was time for the gala to begin.

The Gruesome Gala
I don't even know where to begin in describing how awful the opening night gala was.  It was a miserable experience.  Absolutely, positively miserable.  Beyond miserable.  It was execrable.  Horrid. 

The first disaster was the seating.  As we walked inside after the zeffa, we discovered that 90% of the tables were already claimed by people who hadn't bothered to watch the zeffa.  The very best seats in the center of the room were all roped off, presumably for the local Egyptian "who's who".  There was a mad rush to grab the remaining seats.  Some other folks from my group and I managed to secure two tables side by side in the farthest corner away from the stage possible.  Visibility was awful, but at least we had furniture.  Half of our group was not so lucky.  It seemed surprising to me that no tables had been reserved for large groups like ours and Scheherezade Imports who had pre-registered in advance.

As we waited for the room to settle, I could see from the video screen mounted inside the ballroom that the outdoor show was still in progress .  I was disappointed to see that I was missing the dancing horse and the Ghawazee performance.  Those had been highlights of the previous year's outdoor pre-show for me, and I would have much preferred to see those rather than the Pharaonic stuff and dervish redux.

By the time all seats in the ballroom were filled, there were still at least 100 people standing around with nowhere to sit, including about half of our group.  I felt guilty seeing my friends without a place to sit, but there really wasn't much I could do for such a large number of people. 

It took a while (about a half hour, I think), but eventually the hotel staff figured out that more seats were needed.  They then started trying to figure out how they could fit more tables into a ballroom that was already stuffed to overflowing.  I don't think Egypt has the same attitude toward fire codes that the U.S. has.

They tried to move our table even farther away from the stage into the wall niche to make room for another between us and the table in front of us.  We protested.  They tried to put strangers at our table by adding more chairs to an already-crowded table.  We weren't happy about it, but couldn't really prevent it.

Somewhere after 8:00 or 8:30 the event finally started.  The buffet lines out in the lobby area were all set up with food, steaming hot, ready to go.  But were we allowed to fill our plates while the food was hot and fresh?  No, absolutely not.  At first, the food attendants told us it would be "five minutes" which in Egypt usually means "twenty minutes or more."  And then, a few minutes later, they told us it was pushed back to thirty minutes which meant "goodness only knows" how long. 

So, the food sat out there getting cold and stale while the stage featured a fashion show of costumes by Amira El Kattan, the designer for Pharaonics of Egypt.  A too-loud band blared away as groups of 4-5 women at a time walked onto the stage area modeling costumes. Typically, one would come forward and dance around some while the others did bits of shimmies and such behind her. This went on for much too long.  The costumes were attractive, but not particularly innovative.  They looked like the types of things I've seen on mannequins at Rakkasah and other belly dance events. The models were mostly okay, but some needed serious posture correction.  Others seemed as if they might be competent dancers, but the situation didn't allow them to show much of their skill.  It was an endless parade. It was boring, the music was too loud to allow conversation with my friends at the table, and it was delaying our food.

At last somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 the costume parade finally ended. It was feeding time at last!  Unfortunately, the time had come for the next dreadful development of the evening: 

The Feeding Frenzy.
People charged the buffet tables.  I'm not exaggerating.  Those of us who had politely queued up behind the plates quickly discovered that courtesy would cause us to go hungry. People charged to the plates, then ran past the salads and straight to the meat.  They elbowed their way up to the meat dishes and literally shoved people out of the way in order to get their own portions.  They were openly rude and irate to the more courteous people whom they shoved out of their way.  No words of "Excuse me," were offered.  Some of the worst offenders were women from Japan, local Egyptian friends and relatives of the band, and a large Russian group.

The buffet tables quickly ran out of food.  Just as the hotel had not set up sufficient tables and chairs for the size of crowd, it also had failed to make enough food for the thundering herd. Two different women in our group were so upset by the food stampede that they started to cry.  One of them gave me a fierce look and said, "Someone should write about this.  Someone needs to let the worldwide dance community know just what a disaster this event is." Still another person in our group, who was at a different table from mine, got almost no food at all - by the time she reached the buffet tables, all she could find to eat were beets and rice.

I heard that the primary reason for the insufficient food and seating was that the festival had attracted many more attendees this year than were expected. Apparently, the majority just showed up and registered that day, rather than registering in advance to let the organizers know how many to expect. It might be a good idea in future years for the organizers to have a “late registration” surcharge for people who register for the festival less than 7 days before it begins – that would offer people incentive to pre-register, allowing everybody to plan ahead more effectively for the crowd size.

There is also a rumor that the band that played for the fashion show arranged for some of their own friends and relatives to slip into the event without paying. Perhaps next year more controls should be exercised over who the bands are allowed to bring in with them.

Eventually the show started.  A large view screen had been set up on our end of the ballroom which projected the image from one of the video cameras that was filming the stage.  I appreciated it because it provided a closer look at what the dancer was doing, but the idiot operating the camera kept pulling his focus away from the dancer on stage and showing faces of audience members.  Sheesh, it was bad enough being at a table so far away from stage that I needed a telescope to see the dancer, and even worse that the screen that was supposed to show me the performance was instead showing the faces of people I didn't give a damn about. I wouldn't have minded the glimpses of people sitting at their tables during band setup and teardown times, but it was very obnoxious while dancers were performing.

The first dancer was someone named Dalia. Her style seemed to be very influenced by the ballet-intensive folk troupe approach to choreography, with many turns and Arabesques.  Her dance was very repetitive, and I quickly grew tired of her. 

In 2003, digital cameras were banned at the opening and closing night galas, because many digital cameras have the ability to make videos.  For that reason, I brought two cameras to Egypt in 2004 - a film camera for shooting the opening and closing night galas, and a digital camera for everything else.  So imagine how annoyed I was when I went to shoot a picture of Dalia and one of the male thugs came rushing up to me to tell me no photos at all were allowed, not even on film cameras.  So, I managed to snap one picture of Dalia which proved to be unusable, but then didn't dare shoot any more pictures during this show.  Grrr, I toted this second camera and 8 rolls of film for it 8,000 miles only to be prevented from using it. 

Once Dalia was done, her band tore down and the next one set up.  It was a pleasure to see that the second soloist was Dina.  She came across as relaxed and charismatic, showing a sense of fun as she danced.  It was an excellent performance which I enjoyed very much. At least the night wasn't a total loss.

We had been told in advance that one of the performers that night was supposed to be Nour.  Someone said they saw her in the audience, but she never danced.  Later, I heard a rumor that the permit she had applied for to appear in this one-time special event had not been approved in time for her to dance in this show, so due to the ban on foreign dancers she was not able to dance for us.  It was disappointing, but not surprising.

So.  It was a pleasure seeing Dina dance.  But was it worth the $60 fee to fight for a place to sit, endure an endlessly boring fashion show, shove my way to the buffet to ensure I got something to eat, comfort friends who were crying from the stress, and sit so far away from the stage that Dina looked no bigger than a dancing postage stamp?  Honestly, I don't think so.  It was an abysmal experience, and I felt like I had really been cheated out of $60.  At least I got to see Dina do a great show.

I went to bed feeling very grumpy, and hoping the next day would be better.

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 POSTED 7-9-04
Day 6: The Festival Begins POSTED 7-17-04
Day 7: Classes and Free Time POSTED 7-17-04
Day 8: Side Trips, Part 1: Gayer Anderson Museum POSTED 7-25-04
Day 8: Side Trips, Part 2: The Parisiana 7-26-04

Day 9: The Evening Show posted 11-12-04
Day 10: Classes and the Sphinx Speaks posted 11-22-04
Day 11: Camels, Class, & Competitions posted 12-15-04

6-16-04 Egypt Travel Health Checklist
Here is a packing checklist that may help you anticipate your own needs.

2-12-04 When Comparing & Contrasting
Often, people base their negative judgments of other styles on student-quality performances.

6-16-03 Mailbox Missives: When Pop Culture Meets Belly Dancing; Here we go again!
Today, we’re seeing another revival. Belly dancing is popping up on music videos featuring Shakira and other artists.

7-15-04 Belly Dance Superstars at DNA Lounge Photos by Susie Poulelis
Saturday, April 17, 2004 San Francisco, CA. Yes, that is Petite Jamilla playing a bagpipe,


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