Mona El Said
Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways
It was a late afternoon in November, 1995. Raqia Hassan had arranged for me to meet and take a private class with Mona El Said. Making our way through the crowded streets of Cairo during rush hour traffic, (which here, as in all major cities of the world, lasts considerably longer than an hour), our taxi slowly merged with the bumper to bumper traffic along the wide thoroughfare of Gameet Al-Douwal Al-Arabia Street in the Mohandseen district. We will meet Mona at her newly established Harmony Health Club. Going into the building we passed Mona’s red 4WD Grand Cherokee parked near the entrance, a useful vehicle for her desert forays to the Red Sea, I later learned.
We waited briefly upstairs while Mona finished a session with her clients. Then she glided into the room, a relaxed combination of elegance and ease. Slightly moist from her aerobics class workout, she dabbed a towel to her temples and kissed Raqia on both cheeks. She turned in introduction to me, offering her cool, silky, long-fingered hand. Even though Mona was dressed in a workout leotard, leggings and athletic shoes, I sensed a commanding presence which superseded her casual attire. I was reminded of her regal bearing on stage as I attempted to subtly gauge the height of the statuesque woman I was standing beside.
Mona El Said’s was one of the first Egyptian performances available on video in the early 1980’s. Her choreography complemented the music in seamless union, with an underlying intensity that continued to build with each rolling repetition. I was impressed with the thematic development that noticeably avoided harsh tempo changes but provided plenty of nuance. She entered the stage with a liquid grace and unhurried confidence. Her lyrical arms, precise hip work and contained pelvic drops made me rethink the feminine image of dance, expanding it to include a tamed power and feline strength. These movements, while appearing fluid and effortless, required a good deal of control, concentration and, in a word, technique. Above all, there was a clarification of mood and feeling. The viewer could sense a bemused playfulness and inner depth. This, combined with her imposing form and larger than average head, made her more of a mythical figure than a mortal woman. She enjoyed the music, savoring the moods and the spell she was weaving, all with a feeling of detached equanimity. How tall was this goddess, I had wondered? Now I took the opportunity to ask.
“I am 175 cm,” (about 5′ 10″) she responded to my query. “My father was very tall.” She placed a cigarette slowly in her mouth and picked up an ornate lighter from her antique writing desk. I found myself mesmerized by her deliberate and languorous movements. I was in the presence of a studied force of nature. In the afternoon light she has the face of today’s woman, a woman of the nineties — someone who takes good care of herself with plenty of exercise, saunas, massage, gourmet food and comfortable life-style. (Never mind the brown imported English cigarettes. Almost everyone in Cairo smokes.) It’s hard to guess her age. Her skin is smooth and fresh-looking, her light brown eyes clear. Though natural looking enough, her long dark wavy hair has been created by the very popular extensions, and she later acknowledges that she has had cosmetic surgery to reshape her nose.
Her coed health club, high up on the 20th floor, offers classes in aerobics, modern dance, and belly dance in an intimate setting complete with a weight room, mirrored dance studio, sauna and showers. “I am creating a business,” she says as we are given a tour of her club. “I am looking to my years.” Mona is also new to the business of teaching Oriental dance.
My privates with Mona, which began that day, were a delight. The light, airy studio has a “Marley” floor, and is very suitable for dance. I moved alongside Mona, imitating her signature movements, stopping now and then for pointers on technique, like where to start and end a hip circle. “Don’t start (in) front; don’t show your stomach. Pull in deeply to make it small, then begin (forward movement) from the side first.” Or how to project feeling, relishing each lingering moment. “Bring your inside out. Relax,” she purred. These private sessions were a rare opportunity to learn from a top star willing to share her treasure trove of superb technical detail, keen sense of timing and fine shadings of emotional expression.
Typically, Egyptians who have grown up with the dance, who learned by watching and participating, may later teach in a kind of “follow me” demonstration of their intuitive response to the music, repeating sections of movement in specific and long-held patterns. Verbalizing movement to the student is a learned skill for a new teacher, although Mona’s descriptions were succinct and her corrections illuminating. She herself has never had a teacher, nor has she worked with a choreographer, with the exception of one routine choreographed by Raqia Hassan. They have been friends for fifteen years. Mona will sometimes make a movement for Raqia, asking her opinion, “Do you think it’s nice or not?”
“I am her eyes,” Raqia confirms.
“Yes, she’s my mirror, and my sister Mervet as well.”
“Was she influenced by any particular dancer?” I wanted to know.
“I didn’t take my style from anyone. I have my own style and that’s why I am successful.” She didn’t think she would have “made it” if she had “taken something from someone else.”
“But your arms and hands are so beautiful,” I persisted, “and you are up on your toes so much.”
“Everybody tells me ‘You have very nice hands, you move your hands nicely,’ but believe me, I don’t know. This is from God. Just that I stand in front of the mirror and see I have to be like this,” she says, gathering herself with a certain majestic air. A compelling image comes to mind of Mona executing one of her unique movements — poised on her toes, vibrating the back leg while holding the spread fingers of both hands over her forehead like a royal double crown. “I don’t like hands down or ugly stomach or ugly back. I like to be lifted.”
After class, Raqia and I were invited to join Mona at her home for drinks and dinner the next evening. Her multilevel apartment is located in a high rise building in a nearby section of Cairo. As we approached her doorway, Raqia mentioned that Mona was remodeling her flat, something she was “always doing.” A domestic helper opened the door and we were met in the foyer by Mona, just back from the club and still in her leggings and baggy cotton pullover.
As she led us into a cavernous reception, living room and dining area, she said, “I am changing everything,” gesturing enthusiastically with wide, sweeping arms. Here and there furniture had been covered to protect from the workmen’s paint and plaster, but a playful use of color was evident — coral, peach and ivory prevailed with accents of deep blues and green. There was an unexpected sense of warmth and liveliness for such a large room which contained a number of very fine English antiques, including an impeccable hundred year plus mahogany lawyer’s bookcase with leaded glass. Luxurious Oriental carpets were spread between groupings of plush sofas and Louis Quatorze chairs. Decorative end tables were generously laden with aged Chinese porcelain vases, antique silver boxes and eighteenth-century Arabian pistols and muskets. Original oil paintings in rich colors, many depicting an Orientalist theme, hung on the walls, lending a friendliness to the formality.
Going up a short flight of stairs to the next landing, we were shown the master bedroom, newly decorated in hues of gold and green, and furnished with antique French furniture. One entire wall consists of a built-in closet with beveled mirror doors. A velvet agate-green neoclassical recamier (a la Josephine Bonapart) is positioned prominently nearby. Adjoining is the master bath with black and gold fixtures including a giant gold scallop-shaped bath.
Collecting in a smaller TV room, which provides an undisturbed corner from the remodeling project, are members of Mona’s family: her mother, two sisters, a newly-born niece, brothers-in-law and several close friends. Mona was married eight months ago, and as I am introduced to her new husband, I recall meeting him a few years before at Nagwa Fouad’s show. He is a very successful industrialist who owns a plastics company, and needless to say, is also a lover of Oriental dance.
Laughter and chatter began immediately as we all sat closely together on low divans around a large square coffee table full of mezzah, drinks in hand. Quintessential Egyptian hospitality dictates that more food be offered than can possibly be eaten, and trays of perhaps a hundred fried whole fish were brought in with halved lemons and salt. The wee hours happily rolled by, and before leaving the intimate party I made an appointment to meet Mona at the club for an interview.
A few days later I arrived at her office, and as I settled in with notes, tape recorder and mike, we were served fresh red balah (dates), apples and demitasse Turkish coffee. The phone rang, the first of a dozen incoming calls that afternoon. She removed an earring, fingering it while in a mellow, even seductive voice answered, “Harmony Club…Yes?” She laughs easily, but retains an aura of mystery and thoughtfulness. My questions are aimed at finding the woman behind the persona, but perhaps the veil between the two is impenetrable though deceptively sheer. Can one really separate the artist from the art?
Mona Ibrahim Wafa was born in Suez Canal, though her parents, who are cousins, had come from the Sinai oasis of Musa. There are no dancers, musicians or singers in her extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, but Mona began dreaming of stardom when she was very young. “When I first got the feeling to dance I was seven years old. I didn’t dance on a stage, but at my school,” where they did folkloric dances. “Sometimes I danced at home. If my sisters had a birthday I would stand up and dance Oriental, or if I had a friend with me in my home, I danced like this.” She dreamed of being famous, but the thought that she would actually become a dancer had not yet crystallized in her young imagination.
Mona recounted how she had arrived in Cairo from the Suez Canal, where everyone in the area had been asked to evacuate to escape the shellfire during the Egypt/Israel war of 1967. For safety Mona, with her mother and sisters, took refuge in Cairo, and in a mysterious twist of fate Mona’s move led to her first “big break.” One evening she and a friend went to the popular disco, Triang A Go Go, and were dancing to “Mustapha, Mustapha,” she recalls. Afterwards a waiter was sent to ask who she was and where she lived. Mona was called to the table of Anwar Amar, owner of the Sahara City nightclub, who asked her if she knew how to dance. “I told him, ‘No, I am not a professional dancer.’ He said, ‘You should be a professional because you are a very good dancer and you are very good looking.’ Leila Murad, (see Entrances and Exits in this issue) a very big singer in Cairo, was sitting with him, and she told me, ‘You have to dance because you are artistic-looking. Don’t marry; don’t sit at home. You should dance, because you should be an artist.’ And ever since this time, I have loved to be a dancer.”
Before the first steps could be taken, however, Mona’s mother needed to be convinced that this was the right way for her daughter. “He came the next day to my mother and told her, ‘Please give her a chance to be something, to have a good name in this career.’ My mother refused and said ‘No, we have a problem.’ And then I told her, ‘I am going to be a dancer; I am going to be a dancer! I am not going to listen to you.’ I was thirteen years old.”
It was then that Mona clearly began to think of herself as a “belly dancer” (her term). I mentioned that Sohair Zeki was also thirteen when her first appearance on television launched her career.
“When I started to dance,” Mona explained, “Sohair Zeki was already a big name, and Nagwa Fouad and Nahed Sabry were big stars.” So it was that Mona began dancing at Sahara City on the outskirts of Cairo at thirteen, but worked there for only two months before leaving.
“I was very young and my father didn’t like me to dance, and he tried to kill me. He wanted to kill me because he’s Bedouin and doesn’t like this — very shame(ful) for the family. He said he has to kill me. My mother was living with me in Cairo and my father was in Suez Canal. He came after me to Cairo. My mother knew that. She told me ‘You have to leave Cairo.’ I went to Lebanon.”
Mona lived in Lebanon from 1970 to 1975, dancing at Casino Lebanon, the “biggest Casino in all the world, in Beruit.”
“And did she ever see her father again?” I asked.
“I saw him again. I went to Suez Canal. He was very ill…He just told me to look after myself…He died two weeks later.” By this time Mona, a very successful dancer, was supporting her family, and her mother and sisters were living with her.
“Was it difficult to enter the dance profession at such an early age?” I asked. “Did anyone try to control you or your career?”
“No, not at all”, she responded. “The first man that I married was the son of the president of Lebanon. He loved me very much, and he helped me a lot to be a big star. He worked a lot. He loved my job…I didn’t have a problem with anybody; nobody tried to hurt me.”
“So you started at a very high level to begin with, and didn’t have to go through all of the steps?”
“No,” Mona verified, “I didn’t have to run or eat the dust or stones like some stars or belly dancers who say ‘I am working very hard to make this name.’ How do you work very hard? If you are a good dancer, if you have a good style, you go like the Concorde. You don’t need to sit on the floor and eat the dust or the stone, no.”
“It was your destiny to go straight up,” I gestured to the ceiling.
“I am like a Concorde. Maybe because my mother prayed for me or something.”
“She wanted you to be successful?” I asked.
In 1975 Mona returned to Cairo to open the Meridian Hotel nightclub, the first of her many openings, dancing there until 1976. The next contract took her to the exclusive Omar Khayyam’s in London, a fashionable club for the Arab jet set. After one year she had a two month leave to visit her family in Cairo, but returned to London, buying Omar Khayyam’s with a Turkish partner and performing there from 1976 to 1980.
I told her that I remembered hearing about the toney night spot and the $200 bottles of champagne; that the crème of Middle Eastern entertainment appeared at Khayyam’s; and behind the scene Mona kept an eagle’s eye on all the doings at the opulent club. This was during the peak glut of Gulf oil money, when entire neighborhoods in posh districts were being bought up, and London’s economy revolved around the consumer trends of wealthy Arab potentates. She nodded in agreement. “All of my guests are from rich people.”
Following a career trend, Mona came back to Cairo to open another club, this time the Al Hambra at the Sheraton Cairo, living in the hotel until 1983. She danced the next year in London, but again returned to Cairo to open the Gezirah Sheraton nightclub, performing there from 1984 to ’85. In 1985 Mona married an Egyptian, moved to London and stopped dancing for one year. This was the year of my first trip to Egypt, and I very much regretted being unable to see her perform. When she did begin dancing again, she worked at the Gezirah Sheraton in 1987 and ’88.
Seeing Mona dance was at the top of my list when I arrived in Cairo to perform in 1988. Her appearances there had never coincided with my previous stays, so I was especially excited about catching her show on this trip. However, almost as soon as I landed and even before checking into my hotel, I became aware that the grapevine was buzzing about Mona’s fall on stage the night before. She had slipped on a marble floor and broken a leg. Oh, cruel fate and exasperating timing! To further extend her absence from the performing arena, she had another unfortunate fall. “I fell in the street and broke my face, a terrible accident. So I stopped dancing for three or four years.”
A plethora of tales, ranging from spousal abuse to fundamentalist threats, abounded. When I repeated the rumors about her forced retirement period, she laughed. I had also heard that her daughter had married an important government official who disapproved of belly dancing, and so she had to cover herself and stop dancing. Mona laughed again, and had me repeat the story later to her equally amused family. She has two sisters — the oldest is like a “friend”, the youngest is like a “daughter.” “In all the gossip here in Cairo”, she tiredly intoned to me, “they think that Marium is my daughter. But I and all my family and God know she is my sister. And I don’t care about the people talking — stupid talking…Because of the people here, it’s difficult to have a normal life as a dancer.”
“Did you ever want children?” I importuned.
“God didn’t give me the good life of a mother…I asked God many times, but I think God doesn’t want. So I accept this…and halass (enough).”
Mona returned to Cairo’s stages in fine form, working again at the Meridian and Marriott nightclubs in 1993 and ’94. Finally, I was able to attend several performances at the Cairo Meridian in 1994 with one of my dance/study tour groups. She was definitely worth the wait! Although her entrance piece, “Saher Sabaya” (Magic of the Young Girls) composed by Mohammed Sultan, was the same as the earlier mentioned video performance, the thirty piece orchestra delivered a more articulate, integral version than is possible on tape. Her show consisted of deftly interwoven elements with musicians, singers and male dancers painting lively and engaging tableaux.
Cloaked in a natural rhythmic ability, Mona’s style was precise, passionate and packed a powerful punch. No one had any doubt that she was a woman first and foremost, but overall, a technician of the highest caliber. I still recall her expensive, gorgeously vibrant costumes of gold, chartreuse and coral, all created by the talented Hafez Ismael, whose current designs include strategically placed cutouts.
Mona’s performance of the adored standard “Lessah Fakir” was especially notable. She dug deeply into herself, dramatizing the meaning of the words with exaggerated facial expressions and trembling hands. The raw emotional value was palpable, and the intensity may have made some of the audience members nervous. I asked her, now a year later, if she had a special connection with this piece. “I have a personal memory for this. The first time I danced this, I cried. I stayed like this for one year. I have memories for this song. I used to be married to a man I loved very much, and we had a problem together. And I still remember him when I dance (to) this song.”
But Mona has not been dancing lately. “Now I am relaxing a little bit,” she explained.
“There seems to be a pattern that when you marry you stop dancing,” I ventured.
“No, this is not true,” she objected. “My husband now wants me to work; he likes my job. He doesn’t tell me to stop, but I like to stop for awhile. I know that a belly dancer should disappear from the people for a little bit,” she said, knife in hand. “If you eat apple everyday,” she paused, taking a crunchy bite from one that she has just finished peeling, “you are going to hate it. If you keep away and then go back to the apple, you like it. This is my system. I don’t like to work every day, every night, every year, continuously. I like to keep away from the people a little bit and then ‘Mona Said, she’s coming back!’ Everybody talks and everybody’s running to see.”
Inquisitive, but not wanting to appear intrusive, I asked almost under my breath, “You’ve been married before. How many husbands have you had?”
Mona looked up into space, her eyes moving overhead as she mentally counted. “Mmmm…seven. I love men.” And again for emphasis, in a velvety voice , “I love men! So I change a lot.”
“And you were a dancer before you married any of them, and so it was okay to continue dancing?” I asked.
“All rich,” she smiled broadly, enjoying the heady topic.
Curious about how Mona has dealt with the pressures of stardom, I asked, “Did you always try to balance your career with your personal life, or did you have your mind on your career most of the time?”
“Look my dear,” she said, settling back in her black lacquered Chinese chair and pensively drawing on a thin brown cigarette. “I have loved dance since I was seven. I loved to be famous and believe me, to have my name in all the magazines, films and all the theatres, like this. But when I was twenty years (old), I was a big name; I had made my name by this time.” It was then that she decided to have another career, another occupation. “An artist has to work all nighttime and sleep all day. I like to work in the day like all the normal people. And, I love to dance and give (as in) an artist’s life.”
She sounded conflicted, like many dancers trying to juggle their creative expressions with the practical concerns of everyday life. “Are you a Gemini?” I asked, (not knowing much about astrology but thinking the twin concept might be an explanation). “Cancer, and I love my home. I love it! When I went to England I studied interior design in school for one year. And then I studied architecture. (I also) studied body massage and aerobics. In England there are all of these things. And now I am working to open my showroom for interior design (here in Cairo) next month.”
The strained Egyptian economy has certainly impacted the entertainment industry. And although Cairo boasts a great number of influential and wealthy citizens, the nightclubs are closed about half the time. I asked Mona if the current political conservatism was adversely affecting the dance scene. Were fundamentalist threats forcing dancers to stop working?
“No, no, no. I don’t think they want Oriental dance to stop. But the people change. The class of people change.”
“What happened to the elite and refined patrons?,” I asked. “I don’t see them in the nightclubs anymore.”
“Not anymore,” she responded. “Because they like to go now and have a good dinner, quiet life, go back home, sleep…The people now like to work to make money; not like before (when) they already had money, rich. If you are rich you should work to keep yourself rich. The people like to work and like to sleep early. Nightclubs now close at four, five, six o’clock (am). This is harram. This is shame(ful). For me, if I am coming to my health club at eleven, I can’t be (going to) sleep at six in the morning…Now you go to the nightclub and the dancer starts to work at three o’clock. What time will she finish? Five o’clock? This is shame(ful). Especially now the nightclubs don’t serve nice food; (it’s) not like before when they used to serve the best food…Now (there are) a lot of restaurants that are not as expensive as nightclubs. They have nice music, delicious food, lovely service, with very chic people sitting around you.”
Sensing a general dissatisfaction with the nightclub business, and noting her successful ventures and ambitious plans, I asked Mona if there was anything left in the dance world that she wanted to do.
“I am satisfied”, she said, stretching contentedly in her chair. “I make everything in a short time, on TV, movies. I danced for presidents and kings; I danced for Queen Elizabeth in London…”
Feeling frustrated by the possibility that Egypt’s glorious dance stars were having to look elsewhere to make a living, I asked, “Do you have plans to return to dance?”
“I think it’s important for the artist to go away to let the change come, and then you have more to give,” Mona replied. Then gesturing to her head and chest, “Clean here and here. Mind and heart, emotions and body — clean all your system. And then you go back to dance like a virgin, so you can give more.”
“But the night life, with its occasional drugs and violence, isn’t a very pretty life,” I commiserated.
“Now,” she retorted. “That’s why I don’t want to work six days in a nightclub. I want to work only two nights…I wake up early now, not like before (when) I woke up at seven in the afternoon. Now I wake up at nine in the morning. I take my shower; I drink my coffee. I come here about twelve or one and leave my (health) club at nine. I have a small drink with my husband, talking, sitting watching CNN, or films or whatever. Back to sleep. I don’t have time…”
Mona’s life and career has been a marvelous mix of public victories and private milestones. She seemingly has done everything and been everywhere, and yet she has also quietly cultivated her personal growth, in privacy. Has she had the best of both worlds? For days following our interview, Mona’s entreaty kept coming to mind. “How can you live for the people? You need to live for yourself, so you have a life.”
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.