GHAWAZI ON THE EDGE OF EXTINCTION
By Edwina Nearing
Over the years, Ms. Nearing’s continuing research among the Mazins has led to a close relationship with the family and the opportunity to live and work with the most respected of the family’s several performing ensembles, the “Banat Mazin.” Although research in Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen has lately curtailed Ms. Nearing’s visits to Luxor, she still keeps abreast of the Mazins’ activities and recently (January 1993) spent a few days in Luxor with Khairiyya Mazin, the youngest member of the Banat Mazin group. What she learned on this visit, and its implications for the future of the ghawazi and perhaps for traditional Middle Eastern dance in general, form the substance of this report.
Researching the traditional arts of the Middle East is a bit like salvage archaeology – one races ahead of the bulldozers to save what cultural remnants one can before all is crushed into oblivion. Economic pressures and the lemming-like rush towards westernization have induced the peoples of the Middle East, like most of the world, to turn their back on their own rich and diverse cultural heritages and to build themselves, literally and figuratively, shabby cement boxes to house body and spirit. In the process, many of the Middle East’s curious and beguiling arts, crafts, customs and environments have already been lost. Researchers scramble to record what yet survives, both for its own sake and for the delectation and inspiration of a future which, they hope, will value it more than does the present.
Middle Eastern dance, that most curious and beguiling of arts still survives in its homeland, perhaps because there it is a “social art,” and Middle Easterners in general are very social people. Dance in the Middle East celebrates war and peace, birth and the other passages of life; affirms the solidarity of the family, the tribe, the people; even effects oneness with God, or the All, in the Muslim dhikr and hadra ceremonies. The line between spectator and participant often disappears; dancers, musicians and audience are interchangeable when the call of the blood breaks down social barriers. In the ancient Middle East, and among the Arabs before Islam, the blood was the life, and the blood has its rhythm, and the quam – “the people,” the Arab tribe – dances the dahiyya to the rhythm of the blood.
But it is moot whether Middle Eastern Dance will continue to endure in any of its traditional differentiated forms. The tribe, be it Arab, Turkic or Berber, appears to be breaking up – although it would be premature to consign it to history as some have done, for the quam’s blood runs deep. The same forces which have weakened the tribe have struck at the dance in the Middle East; westernization and economic pressures have largely destroyed many of its forms, its practitioners and its venues. Where, for instance, are the notorious Ouled Naïl who haunt the paintings of Dinet and entertained the Foreign Legion in the Restricted Quarters of Algeria only 40 years ago? Where Syria’s dazzling Sayf wa Turs dance, its clash of sword on shield mingling with the shrill ululations of female onlookers? Still, the blood of the quam runs deep – the bedouin have not entirely relinquished their dahiyya, nor the tenacious peasantry of Egypt ceased to hire those women of mysterious origin, the ghawazi, to sing and dance at their festivities.
So we trek to Luxor to see the ghawazi, and take for granted the steady, but slow, decline of what remains of the region’s traditional dance arts. But now an old enemy, religious intolerance, has joined hands with the modern forces arrayed against the dance, threatening to turn a slow decline into a fatal hemorrhage. More than once, in the past, a relatively few but violence-prone extremist adherents of Islam, the Middle East’s dominant religion, have caused dance, sometimes even music, to be banned, and harried its practitioners. Heretofore the rhythm of the blood has always proven stronger than the brief spasms of fanaticism and repression. Now, however, religious intolerance has strong, new allies: world recession, undercutting financial support for the arts; inflation, increasing the price of admission to venues showcasing professional dance to beyond the reach of most pockets; infatuation with the powerful West, rejecting things Eastern and embracing things Western in hopes that some of the power will rub off; the spread of technology, making it cheaper and easier to watch a videotape at home than to dress up and buy a ticket to an expensive dance show; even overpopulation, skewed heavily toward an unproductive and growing majority under 20 years of age, mostly the impoverished children of teeming cities, raised on “Dallas” and cut off from their own cultural heritage.
Dance cannot be legislated or coerced out of humanity, but as we have seen, specific forms of dance can perish, along with all their associated traditions and accessories. For the last two years or so — at least since mid-1991, if not earlier — the ghawazi have been a major focus for the hostile forces converging on the dance in the Middle East. The ghawazi are the famed traditional, largely hereditary female entertainers of Egypt, and ghawazi dancing, which is attested to in the literature for several hundred years, is the single most important source of the Egyptian danse orientale, or “belly dance.” A century and a half ago most of the professional dancers of Egypt in both the cities and the countryside were referred to as “ghawazi”; now the term ghawazi is used in Egypt to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform in the traditional manner, who have not added anything to their repertoire from ballet, Latin American or modern dance as have the “oriental dancers” of the city nightclubs.
The ghawazi are also distinguished by being of non-Egyptian and non-Arab origin, or mostly so; the early 19th century orientalist Edward Lane, in his book An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, called them “a distinct race” who “sometimes make use of a number of words peculiar to themselves.” My own research among the Awlad Mazin of Luxor, a family which for many years have provided the leading ghawazi of Egypt, confirmed what I had come to suspect, that the ghawazi comprise at least several obscure ethnic groups; the Mazins listed Nawar, Bahlawan, Ghajjar, Halab and Shahaïna. Each group, apparently, has its own language; the Mazins, who are of the Nawar, claim that their language is unrelated to any of those spoken by the other groups. The small Nawari vocabulary I have collected demonstrates some affinities with Hindi, suggesting that the Nawar may have originated in or near India, probably in or near North India, if more circumstantial evidence I have uncovered is valid.
Ghawazi are still in demand in the villages to perform for the same functions for which, according to Lasner, they were employed over 150 years ago: engagement parties, weddings and circumcision celebrations. It is thought to bring honor to a family to provide a ghawazi show for the people of the village at such auspicious times; in Upper Egypt, from two to five ghawazi are hired to perform virtually all night on a high wooden stage built outdoors especially for the occasion. The ghawazi of the Luxor area, most conspicuously the Mazins, also carry on another tradition recorded by many 19th century travelers, that of performing indoors or on Nile boats for private parties organized for tourists visiting the ancient pharaonic monuments that abound in Upper Egypt. These take place mostly in the “cold season,” from November to April, when the weather is more agreeable to foreigners; the rest of the year, the “warm season,” is preferred by Egyptians for the outdoors festivities at which the Mazins and other ghawazi perform.
But now, in January of 1993, there are no ghawazi performing in Luxor.
The economic situation, the videocassette recorders, and the “Dallas” syndrome have taken their toll of the ghawazi’s popularity of late, but when I visited Khairiyya Mazin early last year, she and her sister Rajá performed at least five times during the week or so I was in Luxor, and it was clear that they had lost none of their skills. One of their performances, for a group of middle-aged Finnish tourists who appeared to have imbibed too much beer, was barely adequate, but another, for a minuscule group of American dance enthusiasts, was superb. Their slow movements in the dance, accompanied by sighing rababas, has the mesmerizing, self-absorbed languor of an odalisque, slowed down Time itself. Their fast work was infused with such energy that the dancers seemed to vibrate, and they “played off of each other”—unconsciously took cues from each other’s movements as they improvised, and meshed accordingly — such that at times it seemed there was an electrical current between them, a marvelous tension that ensnared the onlooker.
I had entertained some thought of working at least part of the coming “warm season” with Khairiyya and Rajá as I had in the past; their sisters had retired, leaving just the youngest two to carry on, and the villagers preferred to hire groups of three or four ghawazi for greater honor and a braver show. Of equal importance to Khairiyya and Rajá was the respite that a third dancer would give them — the village performances average five to seven hours in length with no intermissions, so the more the dancers, the less the work load on each. But Khairiyya had disturbing news. The authorities in Qena, the provincial capital, had outlawed public dance performances in the villages where they were most popular. Although it was not clear to me at the time, I suspect that such performances had been, or at least are by now, banned throughout the province, although it may in some cases be left to the discretion of the local authorities in the various districts to enforce the ban, for Qena Province is large.
This was disheartening news to me, not so much for how it affected my own short-term plans, but for what it meant to the survival of the ghawazi and their art. Over the years I had seen village after village close its doors to the farahat, the great public celebrations of weddings and other happy occasions, of which the ghawazi were the centerpiece and which, like fairs, attracted visitors from surrounding areas. Indeed, it was the very popularity of the farahat which doomed them, for in the crowded excitement of the night, with beer often freely available and firearms being discharged in the traditional Arab “joy shots,” fights sometimes broke out. It was not unknown for an outsider in a state of vendetta with an individual or family of the host village to take advantage of the farah to attempt a revenge killing. So it was that the dominant factions in some villages had ended the great public dance farahat, and it was not unnatural for me to assume that the central authorities, in the name of law and order, had decided to ban them entirely. “But it will take more than a few policemen to keep the Sa‘aida — the unruly people of Upper Egypt — from their wonted pastimes,” I tried to reassure myself, uneasily aware that Time itself was against the ghawazi, that with increasing westernization the traditional farahat had already been losing popularity.
“And why have they banned the farahat?” I asked Khairiyya. “The Islamic fundamentalist groups. They want to forbid dancing, stop tourism , and,” she added disgustedly, “make women cover themselves completely, even their faces!” To all Middle Easterners, the term munathamat islamiyya had come to signify a major destabilizing factor in Middle Eastern society for good or ill, depending on their viewpoint; to many, it simply means “those dangerous religious fanatics.”
Extremist members of the munathamat, the irhabiyin, or “terrorists,” had attached “godless foreign tourists,:” killed Egyptian policemen, and broken up farahat, sometimes precipitating bloodshed. In Cairo, it was rumored, irhabiyin had thrown acid in the faces of oriental dancers. Everyone lived under their threat. The authorities in Qena didn’t care to give them any excuse for violence; indeed, the munathamat had sympathizers, even members, among the Qena authorities and constabulary. A few Sa‘aida continued to hold public farahat in defiance of the munathamat and the new regulations, especially in the far north, in the region of Al-Balyana, but the 1991 season had been a disaster for the ghawazi. The Banat Mazin had been virtually unemployed.
“Ta‘ishi zavy?” I asked Khairiyya, “How are you surviving then? How will you finish building your house?’ The house was the equivalent of a narrow one-bedroom apartment in the West; after her father Yusuf had died in the mid-1980’s, the Mazin family home had been sold off and Khairiyya had to fend for herself, all her sisters being married at the time. She had rented a modest flat, scrimped and saved, and finally had been able to buy a tiny piece of land on the edge of town. She hoped to build a second story to her “house” and reside there so that she could rent out the first story; the rent would be a sort of “social security” or pension when she became too old to dance.
Khairiyya assured me that although she could no longer work at the great farahat parties, opportunities for work within the town of Luxor itself had increased dramatically. Travel agencies, hotel management and restaurateurs had finally awakened to the fact that the hordes of tourists who descended on Luxor during the winter to see the tombs and temples of the pharaohs wanted something to occupy their time in the evenings too, and that there could be profit in it. The folkloric shows which for years had been presented regularly at the Winter Palace, Luxor’s oldest big hotel, were proved crowd pleasers, and the other big hotels had slowly followed suit. Perhaps the occasional groups of Middle Eastern dance enthusiasts who have been coming to Luxor over the last decade or so and arranging their own ghawazi parties also gave the movement a nudge. Now everyone in tourism, it seemed, had gotten into the act, and there was enough work in Luxor to keep the ghawazi fully occupied, at least in the winter — dancers were even being brought in from Cairo. So it was that I was able to see several performances by the Banat Mazin during my brief stay in Luxor in 1992, and I had reason to hope that the ghawazi would survive for a while longer.
Within minutes of my arrival at Khairiyya’s house in January, 1993, I learned that my hope was ill founded. “Everyone is forgetting the karama — the honor, the high prestige — of the Banat Mazin,” she lamented. “No one respects art anymore. The town is full of belly dancers from Cairo and Al-Minya; no one asks for us…” She had no work, so she had allowed her licenses to expire, papers without which a dancer is not permitted to work in Egypt and which have to be renewed yearly: the expensive 200 L.E. license from the Ministry of Tourism, the license from the Adab — essentially the “vice squad” — and all the others with which Egyptian bureaucracy burdens the performing artist. Her sister and partner Rajá had married a well-to-do gentleman of the town. Khairiyya was trying desperately to finish her house so that she could let the downstairs portion; later I found that she had no money to finish the work and had already received and spent a deposit on the downstairs flat, which she would have to vacate when the new tenants took possession in another month or two. The upstairs flat, to which Khairiyya was supposed to move, was still half-mortared walls and rubble.
That evening and on subsequent ones, we huddled around a clay pot full of burning charcoal in the smallest room of the house, wrapped in layers of clothing and blankets, and I heard more. Khairiyya apologized for the brazier — she had had to sell her electric space heater; her television and refrigerator, too, I had noticed, were gone. She had tried to work the previous summer at the farahat which some Sa‘aida in the distant Al-Balyana area still attempted to hold in defiance of the law and the munathamat. The ghawazi in that area, she said, were mostly of the Bahlawan rather than her own people, the Nawar — she referred to them by the Nawari term sharishtiyya, “thievish.”
As it was almost impossible to go back and forth between Al-Balyana and Luxor by the cumbersome, complicated local transportation several times a week, she took up residence with a prominent ghaziyya of the Balyana area, Umm Hashi. “To see her on the stage, you would say she was a queen,” Khairiyya said, “but she was dirty — she stank!” As did all the ghawazi of the area. Umm Hashim’s bathroom was so filthy that Khairiyya was hard put to bathe after a performance; she didn’t even want to touch the cushions on the divans, let alone recline against them, for they too stank. She lasted a week with Umm Hashim, “seven days in hell!” as she put it.
The “sharishtiyya” comment was explained: her “colleagues” among the Bahlawan, as Khairiyya called them bitterly, had stolen most of her costumes, wigs, and other things of value. But her days among the ghawazi of Al-Balyana were numbered anyway, for after a few performances the police raided a farah and dragged her and her “colleagues” off to jail, where they spent the night in their costumes, freezing. One officer told Khairiyya that if he caught her again, he would kill her. Then she was formally arraigned, “as if I were a great criminal, a public enemy, and not an artist.” As her experiences in Al-Balyana did not augur well for her future in the area, she reluctantly decided to give up the farahat there.
I asked Khairiyya if the ghawazi of Al-Balyana were still working. So far as she knew, they were: “The police catch them and imprison them one day and they just appear someplace else the next.” And the people of Hamadat, Qenawiyya, and the other villages near Gena where the Mazin ghawazi were popular, were they still hiring dancers for farahat? They were, a little, and when I wondered aloud that the villagers were not afraid of the authorities, Khairiyya said that they kept a sharp watch for the police and as soon as they were sighted they would “grab the dancers and throw them into the cultivation” — the fields of sugarcane or whatever around the village — to hide. This, however, was dangerous; it was too easy for a dancer out alone in the dark, in the fields, to be harassed or even attacked, especially in the excitement of a raid. At any rate, Khairiyya sighed, her health was not good and she couldn’t endure much of this sort of treatment. Her sister Su‘ad later told me that the police of Qena had specifically warned Khairiyya not to work in the area, claiming that they could not protect her from the irhabiyin, the religious terrorists.
So Khairiyya had passed the long “warm season” with little work and less income, hoping that the winter tourist season would be better. But winter found Luxor inundated with oriental dancers from Cairo, dancers whom she claimed were sahilin, “easy”, willing to exchange sexual favors for work or gifts and to perform in any venue, under any circumstances. Su‘ad said that some of these dancers tried to pass themselves off as folkloric artists by wearing folkloric costumes, but she wasn’t impressed, noting that they ruined the effect with “foreign-style make-up and hair-do’s.” She thought they had come down from Cairo from fear of the irhabiyin; I thought it more likely that they were just looking for steady work and had heard of the demand for dancers in Luxor. Whatever the reason, their numbers and easy availability had driven out the true folkloric artists; the local musicians had even turned against the Banat Mazin, Khairiyya said, preferring the more accommodating dancers from Cairo. And the favor of the musicians was important for obtaining work in Luxor, as most employers in the town, often inexperienced in the entertainment business or from outside the area, left it to the musicians to recommend or provide dancers, unlike the Sa‘aida of the countryside who knew their dancers and contracted with them directly.
Khairiyya was now the last ghaziyya in the Luxor area; her own relatives had married and retired. And she, accomplished exponent of an antique art, she, still young, whose arms and neck had once been draped in gold, could no longer support herself. In desperation she was considering an arranged marriage but, as she said, “How can I know if the man is good? I would rather work for a thousand years than live one day with a man I hated.” Nor did she really want to “sit at home all the time and get fat and forget how to dance.” She had told me just the previous year that even if she were comfortably married she would not wish to stop working entirely, both to maintain a position of strength from which to deal with her husband, and that the fame of the Banat Mazin not perish.
I tried to think of something that would assure her of an adequate, reliable income and enable her to remain in her chosen field, something, moreover, that might improve the odds that the dance of the ghawazi would survive for a while longer in spite of all the forces which were gathering against it like an unlucky conjunction of the planets. And an answer lay ready to hand, suggested by a recent encounter with a Swedish dance student on her way to Luxor who had asked me if I knew of any ghawazi who might be willing to give dance lessons. I had given her Khairiyya’s address with a note of recommendation, confident that Khairiyya, who had helped me to learn something of ghawazi dance and seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding of foreigners’ whims, would oblige. The student had never appeared, but the idea was good — the Swedish student had not been the first to ask me about ghawazi dance lessons. I broached the idea to Khairiyya, and she was enthusiastic. We settled on a rate of 60 L.E. for an hour-and-a-half lesson — about $18.00 U.S. — in accordance with what was charged by a dancer of similar stature in Cairo, Nadia Hamdi. This would not solve Khairiyya’s immediate problems, but if she could somehow hold on a few months longer until word of the “Mazin Institute for Folk Arts” spread through the international dance community — well, the idea was good.
If. If she could hold on. If the dancers of Al-Balyana could hold on, if the Sa‘aida could hold on, if lovers of art and freedom — the two somehow seem intertwined in the Middle East — could hold on. It must not be thought that Khairiyya Mazin’s story is an isolated phenomenon; given the present inimical climate of religious intolerance, bureaucratic incompetence, recession, and westernization, similar stories must be enfolding all over the Middle East. Recent years have seen the danse orientale outlawed in countries from Libya to Iran, but danse orientale is an eclectic, ever evolving form, and its suppression in one country merely tends to cause it to proliferate in other countries and to accelerate its continuing mutation. But if the ghawazi are long suppressed at this critical juncture, they will likely perish, and if they perish, one of the last major, distinct Middle Eastern dance traditions perishes with them. The ghawazi arts have proved tenacious, surviving into the late 20th century where others have failed. If they, too, go down the road to extinction, can the remaining Middle Eastern dance traditions be far behind?
Oh Believers: “Inna Allaha jamilun wa yahubb al jamal”
“Verily God is beautiful, and loves what is beautiful”
For those interested in ghawazi dance lessons:
Khairiyya Mazin lives about a mile north of the Luxor train station, near the railroad track. Show the address below to any carriage or taxi driver, and the ride should not cost more than 5 L.E. (about $1.50 U.S.) from anywhere in town; do not keep the carriage, as it is easy to find another near Khairiyya’s house. If you have a favorite piece of music suitable for ghawazi dancing, do not hesitate to bring it; if you are offered tea, do not hesitate to accept it.
Orientalist/journalist Edwina Nearing majored in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the American University of Beirut, and has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East since 1968. As Middle Eastern Affairs Editor for Habibi, writing under the name “Qamar El-Mulouk,” she broke new ground in the mid-1970’s with feature articles on Nagwa Fu‘ad, Sohayr Zaki and other Egyptian dance stars now household names among fans of danse orientale all over the world. But perhaps her most important contribution to the still all-too-slender body of knowledge on Middle Eastern dance is “The Mystery of the Ghawazi,” her book-length series on Egypt’s traditional class of female ghawazi entertainers. The heart of the series is the data gathered on-site by Ms. Nearing in 1976 through interviews with and performances by members of the large Mazin family of Luxor, Egypt, renowned practitioners of the ghawazi arts. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.