A New Concept for Woman:
An Interview with Mohammed Khalil
Mohammed Khalil’s background in Egyptian dance spans three decades, beginning with his involvement in the National Folkloric Troupe of Egypt as a principal dancer in 1963. He joined as a graduate of the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts, Acting and Directing. In 1976 he was appointed General Supervisor of the Musical Theater of Egypt, and three years later became the director, and finally the general director. In addition to his posts, Mohammed Khalil has choreographed over 350 dances for Arab Television networks, as well as dances for the Troupe which has given over 5,000 international performances.
Mr. Khalil is Egypt’s representative at the U.N.E.S.C.O. organization, and on the board of directors for one of its branch’s, C.I.O.F.F. He directed the Ismailia International Folkloric Festival in 1985, and was asked to direct the Folkloric Festival at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He has also designed and directed the opening ceremonies for the Pan-African Games of 1991, which involved 10, 000 participants. During the past fifteen years Mr. Khalil has choreographed for Nagwa Fouad, gleaning vibrant theatrical characteristics from various regional dances. His choreographies re-created the political, social and economic atmosphere of Egyptian society at the turn of the century, and in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
The collaboration of Mr. Khalil and Nagwa Fouad has made an impact on the general public’s attitudes towards women in general and the dance in particular. Egypt is embarrassed and apologetic about the dance, disowning it as a Turkish import from the times of the Turkish Pashas and Sultans. Characteristically paradoxical, Egypt is also ardently proud of oriental dance and its unique ability to express the many-flavored emotional subtleties of Arabic music and poetry.
In preparing for the “Nagwa Fouad Oriental Dance Training” Video series, Mr. Khalil set out to search for the origins of oriental dance, hoping to discover once and for all the mysterious birthplace of the dance.
I will never forget the occasion of my first meeting with Mohammed Khalil. In 1986 I had returned to Cairo at Nagwa’s encouragement, to spend several months researching the dance. I had arrived in Cairo during the early morning hours, and had checked into my favorite hotel, the Cairo Marriott. Nagwa had just finished her show in the Empress nightclub there, where I joined her and about sixteen of her friends and colleagues for an after-hours party around a long table laden with sumptuous fare. Although I could not follow most of the animated conversation going on around the table, the man I was sitting next to spoke a little English. Soon we were deep into the philosophical issues of the dance world. I was immediately impressed with his intelligence, wit, charm and sensitivity as our conversation continued for a couple of hours. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when Nagwa introduced him to me as her choreographer Mr. Mohammed Khalil!
Over the past years I have interviewed Mr. Khalil, and accompanied him to several Egyptian provinces where he was coaching the folkloric groups. I have also been present at rehearsals and recording sessions which he held with the National Folkloric Troupe and special projects with Nagwa. In the winter of 1989, I spoke with Mr. Khalil in Cairo. Sitting in a hotel suite at the Marriott surrounded by books, photographs, engravings and folders bulging with research notes, I asked him about his latest project. “Does oriental dance have its roots in ancient Egypt?” “Yes!”, he responded enthusiastically, launching into a synopsis of his journey through the past. “I began my research in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. I met with a specialist on ancient Egypt who informed me about the makbara (burial monument) of Men-An-Yacht in Luxor, containing reliefs of dancers during the late kingdom.” Three very large volumes of The Ancient Egyptian, the joint effort of the Ministry of Culture and U.N.E.S.C.O., contain photographs of the reliefs of the makbara and other sites and temples. This collection and other books have been a source of information for Mr. Khalil about how the people danced in ancient times.
The research papers of the English archeologist Dr. Hickman, written in 1884, detail hand postions, circular movements like that of oriental dance, and acrobatic positions. It also describes the dress of the dancers. “You can imagine the relationship between the dress then and now”, he says, showing me copies of the drawings of Dr. Hickman. “These are clothes for training, the leotard for the ancient Egyptian.” The tight-fitting uniform covers the torso to the mid-calf, with straps that go over the shoulder from the middle of the chest. There is also a short dress that extends just below the knee, with one strap over the shoulder, and another short dress for the male that ends about mid-thigh. Pointing to the famous painting of an exotic looking wavy-haired dancer arched in a backbend with only a scarf around her hips, he continues. “This is just for oriental dance. In pharaonic times they believed that in design and painting the dancer must be without clothes. Why? Because it meant the dancer must have God inside: the dancer takes God inside and has union with the god while dancing.” “You mean the body was sacred when it was dancing?” I asked. “Yes, and they only put this (girdle) around the hip. In the relief the musicians have clothes, but the dancer doesn’t. Many of the pharaonic clothes were transparent but (otherwise) like what dancers wear now,” he said, turning the page to a drawing of a beledi style costume with a tight-fitting torso, flaring out from the hips.
Another important research paper by Dr. Hickman became available in 1961. Translating the hieroglyphic writing found at Saqqara into French, the paper “Mastaba Meroka” or “Dance of the Mirror”, describes a dancer, her movements, the music and the rhythm. There is a mirror in front of the dancer, and another mirror beneath her. Both the dancer and the audience can watch the dance in the mirrors.
Mr. Khalil has also studied other sources which have described the ancient Egyptian use of floorwork and choreography. His research has led him to conclude that oriental dance was a form of expression during pharaonic times. “Kaanen was a magic priest and prophet during the Old Kingdom. He (choreographed) the official dance. The dance in the temples was special for pharaonic parties like the crowning and the death of the Pharaoh. The priest designed this part of the celebrations with choreography, (using) high technique. And it’s very close to the classical (western) dance of today. There was also the popular dance in pharaonic times, (which is) exactly like that of the village now.” Besides these two kinds of dance, there was a third form. “It was like oriental dance, a dance especially for woman. This method was protected and cultivated from the simple to the more complicated form of what we have today.
“During this time women were very strong. There were the female Pharaohs Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. The woman had a special way of doing many things from the inside, a language which came from the culture. She did this dance very well because she believed that it was the contact between the god and the outer world, the relationship between inside and the whole world — the rhythm of the woman and the rhythm of the world connected…And I think it’s a special dance to the god for pregnancy. The woman does some element to show that the body is very good…‘my hips are very good…(etc.)‘ After many, many years, it’s the beginning of an element (of dance).
“No one could do anything without the consent or approval of the priest (Kaanen)…He had communication with all of the gods of that time…He wanted to control everything. When he saw that the woman danced, and it gave some happiness to the people, he wanted to control it. He organized and designed (dances), and this was the beginning of choreography.”
Pursuing the idea of oriental dance having its basis in a fertility ritual, I asked, “Was it believed that the movement itself increased a woman’s ability to conceive?” “Yes”, answered Mr. Khalil, “I think during pharaonic times they used some training to bring (about) pregnancy and childbirth.” I noted that the Bedouin still perform the imitative movements of childbirth around the bed of a woman in labor. “Yes, west of the Nile River they still do this, because the pharoahs lived in this area and there are many temples there.”
Aware of the potentially controversial nature of my question, I ventured, “Do you think there may be a connection between oriental dance practiced as an aid in fertility and childbirth during the Old Kingdom (2,700-2,000 B.C.), and archeological findings of voluptous female fertility figurines unearthed from Paleolithic (12,000-9,000 B.C.) and Neolithic (6,000 B.C.) sites?” (See Gimbutas article in this issue.) “Yes,” he replied, making an equally controversial leap, “this is where it came from. It has its basis in many millions of years, I think. We’ve rediscovered (what was done before). We have a genetic memory (similar he agreed, to the butterflies that return to the same nesting area several generations later). We have a long cultural history and the dance comes automatically to the Egyptian children…We know it from the inside.
“I’ve written about this,” he continued. “I think the movement of the body is an expression for happiness, sadness, knowledge, love and hate; all the emotions of human life. In all the world, (the movement of) the body is the first language. The inside is expressed and understood very quickly. Each person has a different character, and the Egyptian has a different character. But, like water, it comes from different channels and is put into one vessel, the oriental dance.”
Leading me to ask the obvious: “Do you think dancers from the West can learn to perform this dance well?” “You have many training facilities”, he answered, “and you have technique. Now everything is very easy because you can record and analyze the movement…It’s more scientific now. But the problem, as we’ve talked about before, is the feeling. As I just mentioned, this dance comes from many millions of years…A foreign woman can dance well, but you see some and it’s a comedy. Why? What’s the difference? Some women have this feeling inside. It’s not only control of the movement. If you discover this feeling it can give the body a lot of movement, you feel to do something. If you don’t discover this, it’s impossible. It’s the difference between good and bad.”
Continuing on a more encouraging note, he added “Communication is much better now. (Western dancers) have videos, and you can travel to Egypt and stay for a month. For thousands of years this was impossible. Because of that, the character (of dance) remained isolated, kept separate. I haven’t thought of this before, but it may be like the story of long-fiber cotton in Egypt. We didn’t have this cotton before, but the climate is very good for it. An Englishman planted three cotton plants at the villa of the first king of Egypt, Mohammed Ali. They grew nicely there so the king planted fields of cotton, beginning a new civilization here five or six hundred years ago. He (contributed) canals, military ships and agriculture. (ed. note: Egypt now exports 80% of the world’s cotton.) In culture now you can take ideas from Egypt and put them in America, and maybe they grow better there. (Compared to) historical time, it can happen very quickly. The U.S. is only two hundred years old, but (already) you have many things.”
“Can you speak about the connection between movement and rhythm?,” I asked. In my own dance I have been exploring the connections between quality of movement as influenced or generated by the quality of sound and rhythm.
Eagerly beginning a topic of interest to him as well, he spoke of the more esoteric creative forces at work in the shaping of dance. “When the human feels rhythm, it is the beginning of movement. Everything has a rhythm: the heartbeat, the cycles of the seasons, the (movement) of the sun and moon. The human doesn’t think about this, but it comes from inside; it is the relationship between the inside and the world around us…I know that the wind, the water, the land, the agriculture influence and inspire culture. What is the difference between the Egyptian woman here and the woman in Libya? The land and water and weather and geographic location and food gives the people something. Afterwards, the customs come, the special character of the people.”
“Are there 24 rhythms in oriental dance?” I asked, following the logic of celestial rhythm influencing movement. “It’s more than this, but we fixed it at 24 separate rhythms of oriental dance; 24 is basic. There are many reasons for this: You have 24 hours in the day and many rhythms inside these 24 hours. 24 hours is a round of life, the wholeness of a lifetime.”
Mohammed Khalil has worked closely with Egypt’s “Queen of Oriental Dance,” Nagwa Fouad, for the last fifteen years. (She retired as a dancer in 1992 to head a film production company and participate in other dramatic and comedic acting roles in film and television projects, and musical roles in theatre.) Their long collaboration changed the face of oriental dance. Nagwa spared no expense to produce Cairo’s most lavish, colorful and lively oriental dance shows. She hired over fifty full-time musicians, dancers, singers, sound and light technicians, costumers, dresser, hair stylist, managers and agents, drivers, etc. to stage the creative outpourings of Egypt’s finest composers.
Nagwa commissioned many of Egypt’s most popular and frequently played pieces. Mohammed Khalil often sat with the composer, conveying his choreographic vision of a theme for a specific piece, always with a guiding hand and a goal for the elegant, dignified and beautiful. A very high standard of cultural excellence was represented in the compositions of Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s “Amar Arbatashar”, Mohammed Sultan’s “Arousti” and “Sit El Hosni”, Mohammed El Mogy’s “Scheherezade”, Dr. Gamal Salema’s “Ayoum”, Khalid El Amir’s “Omar Khariat”, and Mustapha Hamido’s “Ali Loz.” Farouk Salema composed “El Gades” and “Al Ahwa (the Coffee House).” The center page poster in this issue was taken during a lively performance of “Al Ahwa” in 1989. The photo captures the finale pose, with Nagwa rushing to stretch across cafe chairs arranged on cue by her male dancers.
I commented (not for the first time) on the great diversity of stylist movement, cultural character and historical context of the choreographies which Mohammed Khalil had set on Nagwa Fouad over the years. “I think oriental dance has a big history,” he said, recounting various periods. “It came from ancient Egypt…One emperor, Constantine, took all the artists from Egypt to Turkey. He (gathered) all the dancers and musicians and artisans from Khan el Khalili and took them to Constantinople (which was called Istanbul after 1453 ), when Egypt was under the rule of the Sultan. At an earlier time, when the Moslem religion came in the Sixth Century, A.D., it was opposed to oriental dance. This meant that the dance was kept private, inside at weddings or a girl dancing in the fields while she worked.”
Khalil wanted to create tableaux, staged choreographies that were set in the context of time and place. But oriental dance was now suffering from a long spell of degradation and misunderstanding. The high level of dance in the 40’s and 50’s had come and gone without ever reaching, he felt, it’s full potential. When Mohammed Khalil and Nagwa Fouad began their collaboration the general public held a low opinion of the dance and the dancer: “It is a sexy dance. Only sex. The dancer comes (on stage) and does some sexy movement. And the people like it, but they don’t respect it. This is two things at the same time. It’s like two faces…I thought about this, about how to put oriental dance in a good position — good music, good orchestra, and the (element of) choreography and costume changes. It’s new for the people and they think that this is not oriental dance. And they don’t take it easily because it’s (presented) by a woman.
“If you study movement from everywhere in the world, all movement is sexy. We can’t divide sex from dance. It’s human nature. It’s a part of being human, but it is not all. For this reason I put oriental dance (into a context) with a story, a name. When we compose the music and (set the choreography) my imagination thinks about this (theme). The last show (‘The Coffee House’ dance) Nagwa talked about the past. ‘It was very nice but it’s gone now. We must think about the future to have more happiness than the past.’ That was the idea behind the dance. When we write the words to the songs, we write especially about these things. We’ve done this (approach) from 1975…To the people of Egypt (oriental dance) is not like before. It’s more normal and sophisticated. It means we have made a bridge between liking and respecting.”
Ever since I first met Khalil, I have been aware of his genuine dedication and a longing for women to be more respected. For some time he has spoken of the subject of “building a new concept for woman” as if this were one of his main goals in life. Feeling comfortable with his approachable manner, flexible imagination and intuitive sensitivity, I asked him why he felt it was so important to do this.
“It’s very dangerous talk. While I was in an Arabian country, the government asked me about directing their national folkloric troupe. I said: ‘I can’t talk about your national troupe, because your troupe has only men. It means I speak with the desert, and not with the agriculture.’ They asked me ‘What are you talking about?’ I told them that the desert is the man, and agriculture is the woman.’ Now you have only half of the people here (in the troupe). It’s impossible, because the woman is like the mother of the country. The woman gives us life, like the land gives us food, green things. I can’t work with the group because there is only half of a group, only half of a country — and the bad half, the desert half!’
“Without woman in the country, in the home, to love and influence you, you can’t do anything. For that you must treat the woman very nicely. Elevate the woman like something you love. I believe oriental dance gives the woman a very good body and a very good feeling…and for that we must present something very beautiful.”
“When you speak of woman”, I ventured, “do you speak also of the woman inside of you, the feminine aspect of the male?” “You know”, he replied earnestly, “inside the man is woman, and inside the woman is man. If I do something for woman I respect myself. I remember a dance I did with Fifi Abdou. I danced like a man, but not oriental dance. When I dance, I dance like a man. But when I teach, I teach like a woman. That’s another thing. It must be equal and balanced, and we see how the man dances and the woman dances. This is what I must nurture — the idea of woman as beautiful.”
“The Western cosmology supports a hierarchy that popularly holds that man is superior to woman, but that woman is more connected to the earth. For this and other complex reasons, women, and what is typically regarded as the feminine perspective, bear the brunt of ecological stresses. The fate of woman and the fate of the earth are inseparable, perpetually linked by the metaphors of woman as nature and nature as female.” Jean Achterberg, M.D., Woman as Healer
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.