Samasem’s Magic Carpet Ride
Cairo’s Ups and Downs
by Betsy Flood (Helwa)
In 1979, she was a Swedish dressmaker giving sewing machine demonstrations in Cairo for a week. Five years later, she was performing at the Safir Hotel in the Dokki section and over the past six years has been a featured dancer at the Nile Hilton, Cairo Marriott, Mena House, Semiramis Intercontinental, Cairo Sheraton, Sheraton Heliopolis and in many of the cabarets in Cairo.
In 1980, her first dance teacher’s Turkish husband took one look at her and remarked, “You’re too skinny, too old and too blonde (to be a dancer)”. Five years later, some of her Cairo nightclub fans said her style had become… “too Egyptian”!
From her lilting accent and playful mannerisms, one might imagine Swedish dancer Marita Fahlen (stage name “Samasem”) calmly riding her own magic carpet through the turmoil of the Cairo dance scene — with her hip-length blonde mane wafting in the wind. But, Marita’s frank and open conversation with me in April, 1995, during a visit to San Francisco, indicates that the Cairo dance scene exacts high prices for this extraordinary career. Marita is not sure whether she will remain in Cairo next year.
While Samasem is well-known and much-loved in Cairo, she is not known among American dance circles. However, her impressive resumé covers most of the five-star hotels and better nightclubs in Cairo and the interviewer took a semiprivate class from her that was excellent. No one could possibly have come so far so fast without abundant natural talent.
On the other hand, Marita credits two women with developing her innate abilities and helping propel her to stardom: Jamila Salimpour and Raqia Hassan. Jamila, says Marita, gave her the basic knowledge of technique that she later needed to grasp Raqia’s “beautiful, fluid and strong” interpretations of Egyptian music.
After Marita’s first tantalizing glimpse of performances by Sohair Zaki and Aza Sharif in 1979, she started taking dance classes in Sweden. During a visit to California, she became a student at the Salimpour School. She began performing at parties and in small clubs in Sweden and then in England. By 1984, she was looking for a choreographer, and found Raqia Hassan. She started studying with Raqia once a year or whenever she was traveling and needed a new choreography, but became a more frequent student after she decided to move to Cairo. Thisis where our story begins.
Why did you decide to move to Cairo?
When I turned 34, I thought that was the age to settle down in Sweden and see about my future — maybe a new husband — who knows (she smiles). But then I got so bored. I thought to myself, “If I can’t change my life into something more interesting in the next six months, I don’t want to live!”
So what happened?
I worked at a travel agency for a while so I could get a free ticket to Egypt. I brought along all my savings. I went to see some impresarios (agents).
The first one I went to see — and you won’t believe this — I showed up with my hair in braids, in jeans, wearing glasses and I told him very earnestly, “I want to dance in Egypt.” He very calmly replied, “OK. You’ll audition tomorrow at the Marriott with an orchestra.”
Well, I had never danced to live music and I never called him back! I never even knew if he was serious!
And, I’m actually working with him again these days. Sometimes, impresarios will arrange auditions for new and naive dancers with large orchestras and don’t tell them THEY have to pay for all the musicians!”
How did you get work at the Safir (her first contract)?
Well, after my visit to that first impresario — the one who I never dared to call back, Raqia took me to an impresario she knew well. I was wearing a huge sweater because it was winter and Egyptian buildings get very cold. The impresario said to me “Stand up.” I stood up. He grabbed my breasts!
No! I looked over at Raqia and shrieked “WHAT is he doing!” He very casually said “I was just checking to see if you had anything. I couldn’t see with the sweater.” That is typical for Fouad, I’d say. Actually the Safir contract came through some women I met who did show ballet at the hotel. They invited me to have lunch at the Safir with them. So I went and then I met the director of the show ballet.
What’s show ballet?
It’s jazz dance shows that are part of the programs in the five-star hotel nightclubs. The shows were really good when I first moved to Cairo. Nowadays, it’s mostly Russians who perform and they charge almost nothing. They have destroyed the market and now not even they can find work. They also behave badly, have little knowledge of dance and wear tacky “5 pound” costumes (Egyptian pounds). No one even wants to see show ballet anymore.
She said she could arrange an audition. She set one up for the next day at the Sheraton Heliopolis. I had been in Egypt about two months and still had never danced to any Egyptian orchestra and I didn’t know the music. When showed up, I was very scared and I made a complete fool of myself — and the three managers sat there and stared at me with their arms folded! Then (she groans) I noticed some guy making a video. And that video still exists! Later when I was working at the Nile Hilton, I ran into that man. He had become Food and Beverage Manager at the Marriott and he told me he still had that video!
Well, I practiced several times with that orchestra and I auditioned later at the Safir Hotel, completely full with guests on a Thursday night. And then, the manager decided to hire me.
How long does it take you to put a show together?
It depends on whether the main musicians have played together before or not. It takes at least 14 days for the musicians to play well as a team. Each day of rehearsals, there are always some little problems with music that I have to correct with a smaller rehearsal. Sometimes it can take just a few minutes in the changing room with 2 musicians.
When I started, I had a very small orchestra — about ten people, and they weren’t that good either. The first 1½ years, the impresario at the Safir provided the musicians, but when I started at the Hilton I wanted to have a better orchestra and I engaged one man, Ahmed Goubashi, to be chief of the orchestra. He knew many musicians and negotiated with them. When we had a group, we began rehearsing with the music I wanted and the singers etc. Ahmed had worked with Nadia Hamdi for years and then with a Canadian dancer, Star, also known as Badia in Egypt. He was later Chief of Orchestra in the Meridian Heliopolis for Sahra.
Later, when I went to Morocco, I brought back an Egyptian tabla player and he has been my Chief of Orchestra since then. He has been the best one. Unlike others whose names I won’t mention, he has never stolen from me and knows how to deal with musicians. Musicians start to leave when they are not paid. I’d ask “where is the saxophone player today? “Oh maybe he’s sick or maybe something…” was the answer I was given, but it was because he did not get paid! And all these things go on in Arabic so I have no idea what’s being said. Also, there is a code among the musicians that if anyone gets badly treated, the foreign dancer is the last to find out!
The mother of the Chief of Orchestra was singing with me at Safir and she was wonderful, but HE was a devil! Musicians came up to me years later and said “You know why I left ?” And that’s how I found out where the money was going. A lot of this went on behind my back the first few years.
What do you know now about working with orchestras?
My orchestras became better and better as I started to know who to ask for. I also learned WHAT I could demand from the orchestra — how they should play the music. I have to be very strict with them because they try to be very lazy and cheat all the time. Sometimes they just don’t show up. This is very common in Egypt. “My mother died!” is the favorite excuse. Or if they re coming late, then I don’t pay them for that day or I pay the half price or whatever, and I have had to fire them.
On the other hand, I invite them to my house and we sit and watch videos and drink beer and gossip. We have a very unique relationship. I can never be hard and snobby to them as some Egyptians can be. I am as close to them as a foreign non-Arabic speaking dancer can be with Egyptian males. Nearly all musicians come from a lower economic class. They haven’t traveled very much. They don’t know much that goes on outside Egypt. It’s a kind of limited friendship, but they are the warmest and dearest friends I have in Egypt. I have more fun with them and feel more at home with them than with any other people I know. They are the reason I stay in Egypt.
Also I’m very good friends with singers such as Hassan Asmar, Hakim, Ali Hagan, Mohammed El Hal. Ahmed Adawi used to make of fun of me in a song once. He was just improvising away! Because I don’t speak much Arabic I didn’t know quite what he was saying (giggles). Hassan Asmar did the same thing! These are the moments you remember about dancing in Egypt. It’s sad I have no photos of these things.
What kind of music do you like to have in your shows?
Usually I finish with Um Kalthoum. For Egyptians, nothing can beat a song by her, and you cannot put another song after Um Kalthoum. I know some dancers put Oum Kalsoum after the magenci (the entrance piece that is usually a classical composition with dramatic changes which lasts about ten minutes) but it’s not right — you must finish with the best. You can’t put a folkloric song, a shaabi or baladi after Um Kalthoum as you will take the whole performance down to a more common level.
I choose every song and how it should be played. I learned about music in the cabarets. After my show at the Safir ended at 2 am — which is very early — I would grab a taxi and go to cabarets and stay out until 9 am. I would study dancers and listen to singers. I would try to develop an ear for what the audience wanted.
I noticed popular songs would be played first in the cabarets and then several months later, the dancers in the five star hotels would start to perform with them. I started with some songs maybe six months before Fifi Abdou or anyone started to pick them up. The five star dancers go to the cabarets, too, to see what’s hot.
What do you like to use for your magenci?
I have a real passion for George Wassouf’s music. He’s Lebanese, but most of his good songs were composed by an Egyptian living in Paris, Shakr E1 Mougi — like “Bint Habini Aiwa.” Much of his music just cries out to be danced to. He’s from a very famous family of musicians and composers. One day I ran into him in Cairo. I had just finished performing for a wedding and as I left the stage my musicians told me he was there. I saw a very skinny, hard-looking man, with a sort of dangerous look in his eye, standing with his arms folded, watching me perform.
Were you dancing to any of his music that night?
Yes, two of his songs. We started talking and I asked him if he wrote any magenci and he said he had written some for Hwayda el Hashem but not many. “.. but I will write you one,” he said. In the changing room he started to beat on the makeup table and hum and I said to him “I’ll buy that one!!” He looked astounded and said, “You can’t just buy a piece you haven’t heard fully composed and played by a live orchestra!” I said, “I’ll buy this one you are humming now. This is my gut feeling!”
So he wrote the notes and it ended up being an 18-minute piece, way too long for a five-star hotel. They don’t like it that long, so I had to cut it down to about 12-14 minutes. But he included all the Egyptian rhythms, Indian rhythms, rhumba, samba — it’s a classical piece, but also one written for a dancer. It cost me a lot of money, but it’s a masterpiece. He was supposed to write more songs but I refused the two songs he offered me because they were not good enough.
Sometimes foreign dancers get taken when they commission a piece of music. I bought one tape a foreign dancer had made that supposedly began with original music written just for her. I played it for Raqia who immediately recognized it as a very old song that wasn’t used much anymore. So much for original music !
How are you paid for your performances?
I charge the same price in five star hotels that I do for weddings, but because I’m a foreigner I have to pay a 40% tax on what I earn in the hotels. I am paid in a lump sum. 10% goes to the impresario and after the 40% tax, half the money is gone. As I have to pay the orchestra, the sound, the light and the bus for everyone, I wouldn’t have any money left. So in the five star hotels, we wrote two contracts because the musicians pay 17% tax. One is for me and one is for the orchestra, and that way we can save money. But in the cabaret and weddings it’s one sum. After I pay the impresario 10%, I divide the rest between myself and the musicians. In the cabarets, the money is so bad, I just pay the musicians the money. We used to make big tips in cabarets, but in the last few years owners want cheaper dancers — ones who work for less than half my price. And I don’t want to compete on that level.
Are the guests in the cabarets the same, but just not spending as much?
Raqia always told me that I should work in cabarets as that’s really the school for dancers. It was there that a dancer could really learn to work with the audience. All the dancers that are famous now started there. But I feel I started ten years too late. The first two years I was in Egypt the cabarets had some nice Egyptian customers — actors, singers etc. But the last three to four years, cabarets (and their customers) have gone downhill because of the economy.
There are fewer guests for one thing, and fewer Gulf Arabs. Ever since the Gulf War, the business has never been the same. It may never be as lively. Also it’s a generational change. Cabarets used to be frequented by men between 40-60 years old. Today, they stay at home. Now really young people want to use the cabarets as discos. Instead of tipping the dancer, they tip each other! No more tips of gold jewelry, that’s for sure.
Has that happened?
Yes. But I have to tell you that the last three times it happened, I found out later it wasn’t really gold! (Laughs) And, when a dancer gets a gold tip, the nightclub manager gets half the value of the gold. I did get real gold tips but that was a long time ago.
I have a bizarre story about a gold necklace. I know one Sheikh Saleh — a friend of mine and also a friend of the Chief of my orchestra — a really charming man. One day he invited us to Cave du Roi. He had a plate in front of him that contained a huge gold necklace, and also a big stack of money — about ten thousand pounds. One time he actually threw 8,000 Egyptian pounds on me (giggles) — all those notes covered the floor! That didn’t happen too often.
Anyway, the club arranged for a dancer to perform who was an old girlfriend of the Sheikh. And, I couldn’t believe my eyes. She came up to the table and put one foot up on it and — well it was quite a revealing view for the entire table! And then she started to grind her hips a lot and stare at the gold. Well, the sheikh very slowly wound the heavy gold necklace around my arm and shut the clasp. She became very angry. The manager (unfairly I thought, since I wasn’t performing that night) demanded half of that gold necklace. He didn’t get it. So, now I can’t work there any more for political reasons.
(Note: Recent photos reveal that Samasem IS working at the Cave du Roi again, so perhaps all is forgiven).
How has the economy affected the dancers?
Dancers aren’t getting as many jobs any more. Also people aren’t as hot for dancers as they used to be. While it’s competitive to land a contract, quality-wise, it’s not competitive at all.
When Shareen E1 Safy was working in Cairo – now that was still a nice time to work. It’s sad. Today, not even the five star hotels are working six days. Last summer, Dina was traveling a lot to Beirut and even the summer before — she was thereabout three days a week. And that was in the summer season when the whole Cairo Sheraton is full of Gulf Arabs — but no one is in the nightclub.
The Cairo Sheraton’s nightclub has a very bad ambience — very cold and boring. People don’t go there. There were so many nights I was supposed to dance and they cancelled on me. If they have less than 120 reservations, it’s not worth it to open the club and offer a performance program. And they don’t pay me if there are not guests. Believe me — they don’t even pay Fifi Abdou if there are no guests!
If some of the really famous dancers such as Fifi or Nagwa call in, and the hotel informs them there are not enough guests, they usually call their friends and get some big tables to make reservations.
What has your relationship been with other dancers who are performing in Egypt?
Well, they were much friendlier when I was simply a student taking classes and going to see their shows and talking with them afterwards. Shu Shu Amin and Sahar Hamdi worked in London so they know English and I could talk with them. Lucy speaks some also. All the others don’t.
After I started dancing professionally in Egypt, some of them prevented some hotels from signing me on. For example, I was scheduled for three nights at Mena House and an Egyptian dancer was scheduled for the other three nights, and they simply told the management they wouldn’t sign up unless an Egyptian had the other three nights. This happened in other places also. I can understand this. Maybe I would do the same in their place — I don’t know.
The dancers who have lowest prestige are the friendliest. And the ones who have the least to fear (as I will never attain their status!) are the most snobbish. Wahid Asfoul, one of the best violin players in Egypt, was working both with me three days a week at the Hilton and with Nagwa Fouad three days when she was at the Meridian. Then one day we met her in a club and he introduced us, “ Madame Nagwa, this is Madame Samasem, the dancer I work with at the Hilton.” She eyed me up and down and then asked pointedly in Arabic, “Where does she work? The disco?” “No,” said Wahid, “she works in the Belvedere (the nightclub).” She looked me up and down again and didn’t say anything more (Samasem giggles).
There are some of the non-five star dancers I really like, who are really nice. They sit and chat with me (mostly in Arabic, but we get by) and they fill me in on what’s happening. One even offered me money when I didn’t have a lot of work, but perhaps it was just the hashish talking.
So why isn’t the audience interested anymore? Why are the numbers dwindling?
I don’t know why, but it has made the dancers lazy. Raqia saw Mona Said earlier this year. She came out in a thobe dancing to a song. She didn’t bother with a magenci. For me, the magenci is when you really show your skill as a dancer. After that, you can “entertain,” or whatever. It’s really nice to have a magenci for the audience, especially after they have been listening for a long time to a singer or a band, as is usually the case.
But now the managers are so afraid that the audience will be bored. Abdul Hamid Toto wrote the most magical, fun, exciting, HOT magenci for Hendaya a year ago, one of the best I have ever heard, and Raqia made a choreography that was dynamite. He put some Latin rhythms in it, the style for last few years. Sadly, the last time I saw her perform it, she had cut it down to two minutes.
Fifi Abdou hasn’t had a good magenci for years. She comes in and does something lazy for three to four minutes, then she gets so bored herself that even in the magenci she brings in her Saiidi musicians and plays Saiidi when she still has a bedla (cabaret costume) on. And she brings in 2-3 times more for her show.
Now Dina keeps the audience’s interest by the way she dresses. I see that in the U.S. they think it was Abla who was making “scandal dresses” for Dina, but that was not true. It’s a woman called Mme. Saha who has been working with her ever since she had the fight with Mme. Rawhia (Samasem, who is a dress maker, sews her own bedlas but has Mme. Rawhia bead them). She is more expensive than Rawhia and makes these little outfits which can be rather exciting.
Are there other costume designers we may not know about?
Hafez makes thobes for Fifi Abdou that usually range between 10-20,000 Egyptian pounds.
Lucy is the only Egyptian dancer who has gotten good work from Mme. Hekmet and Mme Abla. She knows fabric, she buys fabric and everything else when she travels abroad, and then draws a design down to every stone. I have seen her sit at Mme Abla’s place and help finish her own costumes. Lucy is very, very clever. But, not all her costumes have been a success, especially not last year. That was when she had a fight with Mme. Abla and Mme Hekmet and told me Abla was “like the mafia.”(Editor’s note: Nagua Fouad has used Mme. Abla for many years with mutually satisfying results.)
Hesham Osmen told me Lucy had come to him after that and had ordered 16 costumes. But some American dancers saw her recently and said that the work was bad on her costumes.
Are there any upcoming dancers who are really improving their performances these days?
The best dancers in Egypt aren’t automatically becoming instant stars anymore because they don’t make movies. Two of them are Nani and Aida Hamoud.
Some people don’t like Nani because when she is bored or angry (which is too often) she cannot still put on a good “show face.” Her face sometimes looks like she is home washing dishes. But her body is gorgeous — like Fifi Abdou’s when Fifi was young. She listens to the music fantastically. I saw her very recently and her performance almost made me cry. I felt so klutzy compared with her. She is at the Meridian this season. Nani has worked a lot with Raqia.
My favorite, Aida Hamoud, started in the Reda Troupe when Raqia was leaving. She has always been a good dancer. Over the last five years she has simplified her style. She is a very original dancer, and is working in Sunset now.
Of the older dancers, Aza Sharif is one of my favorites. I saw her about a year ago. She still has the best style because she has the most beautiful arms, hands — and attitude.
Nadia Hamdi, too, is a beautiful dancer. Don’t confuse her with Sahar Hamdi, who has fantastic technique and very good feeling. Sahar Hamdi used to work in London and started to be vulgar, but in a funny way — like Mae West almost. It was simply an act she put on. But she was drinking too much -something between a half to a full bottle of whiskey before a show. When she was at the Cairo Sheraton, they made a walkway over the swimming pool for her grand entrance. One day, she was so drunk she fell into the pool with her costume and all, and her wig floated away. They had to cancel that night! Security had to come fish her out! She told me that once when she was working in London, she was doing a Saudi hair toss with her hairpiece on — her wig flew off and landed in someone’s food!
What was the most exciting thing that happened to you in your Cairo dance years?
Simply dancing at the Marriott, Mena House or Semiramis was the highest high for me because then I always danced really, really well. Another time was when my parents came to see me. They had never seen me perform before. My father is an accordion player and was so moved by Mohammed Shalaby’s accordion playing that he started to cry. I love the accordion and it’s my number one instrument. In fact, I have this photo of myself, one year old, naked and bald, climbing on my father’s accordion. I showed that picture to all of my orchestra and they loved it!
What advice would you have for dancers visiting Egypt?
Well, Habibi and Arabesque probably have covered a lot of this, but one thing they might do is get in contact with the foreign dancers and go see them perform. And YES!! (a mischievous grin) SEE how horrible the changing rooms and bathrooms are! SEE the fights between the dancers and musicians! And you’ll really get a good idea of what is happening.
If you ask an Egyptian dancer about how this career is and how it works, you will not get the truth. It’s not that they deliberately decide to lie, but more that they want to impart a certain glamour and impression of Oriental dance and their life which does not exist. It’s because they are very proud of their work and their country.
Betsey Flood (Helwa) currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is a marketing consultant, and writer. She holds Masters degrees in Classical Archaeology and in Business Administration. Helwa has been a Middle Eastern dance teacher and club performer for over 15 years. www.helwa.biz/dancer.html
Without the efforts of Zulya (Valve Züercher) this article would not have been possible.