An Uncommon Woman
Nagwa Fouad, Queen of Oriental Dance
by Shareen El Safy
As I pushed through the heavy double doors into the ballroom of the San Francisco Hilton, I nervously anticipated my first face-to-face meeting with the legendary Egyptian dancer and film star, Nagwa Fouad. In September 1985 I had been in Cairo staying at the Marriott Hotel where she performed regularly, and I was disappointed to learn that Nagwa was out of town. Now six months later I was being given a second chance; she and other luminaries of the Egyptian film industry were touring New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for a film festival. I had attended a reception the night before, meeting many actors and journalists, but she hadn’t yet arrived. Knowing that there would be a rehearsal for the $150-a-ticket dinner show later that night, I entered the crystal-chandelier hall, hoping to find her.
There she was, engaged in conversation with the stage crew. She looked up at me, quickly re-directing her focus. I introduced myself and said that I would be interested in interviewing her for Habibi, then owned by the Zalots. She shook my hand graciously. After a short exchange, I pressed on, putting aside all pretenses of formality, and blurted out, “How do you do that shimmy?” I was referring to her signature vibration, sustained and powerful. Without a hint of annoyance from her, she tossed her thick shoulder-length red hair and jumped up. Standing next to me in designer jeans, she demonstrated the shimmy, explaining that it came from the upper thighs. “It’s not difficult,” she said. “I can do this for hours.” I would later see evidence of that.
Nagwa warmly assured me that there would be an opportunity to interview her later, sometime after the show. For the next ten days I followed her around the festival functions and informal outings, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. On the last night of the tour I saw her give an incredibly energetic, exuberant performance that had all the Middle Eastern expatriates out of their chairs and dancing in the aisles. Her charismatic personality was instantly and intimately transmitted to the audience, causing a kind of collective ecstasy—all the more surprising to me knowing she had back pain from recent surgery following an automobile accident. After her three-hour performance, I found her backstage, sobbing. I asked her what was wrong? She dried her eyes, explaining that she was relieved that the show, which still had people audibly clapping and whistling their appreciation, had been such a success—my first indication of the depth of her earnest and unflagging dedication to career. She asked me when I was coming back to Egypt, and handed me a piece of paper with her phone numbers, saying, “Call me.”
As her white stretch limousine pulled away, taking her to Los Angeles airport the next day, I still did not have the sought-after interview and have never been able to snag one. “Why do you need to interview me?” is her reply to my persistent requests. “You know everything about me already.” Even after fifteen years of friendship, I am certain that I do not know everything. I am a westerner who does not speak much Arabic and am unaware of the many subtleties of meaning and complexities of Egyptian culture. But I am glad I returned to Cairo two weeks later, admittedly star-struck— I have come to admire the self-determined woman who has engineered an astounding forty-five year career in dance and film.
Nagwa Fouad was born in Alexandria, Egypt to an Egyptian father who was a railroad inspector on the Orient Express, and a Palestinian mother from Nablus. Her parents moved to Jaffa when she was just a few months old and Nagwa’s mother sadly died shortly after. Her father remarried, and her new stepmother, also Palestinian, was a loving, compassionate woman who would later become Nagwa’s source of solace and support during her early years.
Nagwa recalled these uncertain times marked by hardship in a 1998 Al Ahram interview. “In 1948 our house was blown up by Zionist gangs, and we lost everything. My father left to Alexandria to arrange for us to stay with his family there, but a few days after his departure the whole of Jaffa was lost to the Jews, and we made our escape, like everybody else, by sea. We ended up in Al-Arish, where my stepmother and I lived in refugee tents, queuing for inedible food.” They were eventually reunited with her father in Alexandria, but when he remarried again Nagwa left for Cairo with her stepmother who, though childless herself, would continue to care for Nagwa as her own, working as a seamstress to support them both.
Nagwa graduated from a convent school at fourteen, and worked as a telephone receptionist for the Orabi Agency, an entertainment agent for the stars of the Egyptian cinema. When Orabi saw her dance, he encouraged her to “rent a belly-dancer’s costume for 50 piastres and take to the stage.” She worked for a short time at Sahara City, a tourist area of tents near the Pyramids, but it was entrepreneur Mohammed Abdel Nabi, owner of the famous Auberge des Pyramides nightclub, who confirmed her destiny. The posh nightspot was frequented by the upper crust of Egyptian society, including, not so long before, King Farouk. Years later, in 1986, I became acquainted with Mr. Nabi who has countless friends and associates in show business, and many interesting tales to tell. “Yes,” he enthused, “I gave Nagwa her start, and Sohair Zeki, too. And can you believe, Nagwa was only fifteen!” The vice police hadn’t been so amused. She was arrested and detained until they could be convinced that she was the minimum legal age for dancers, sixteen. Chronicles of her career suggest that Nagwa’s childhood dream was to be a dancer, following in the footsteps of the great stars of the forties and fifties, but she has told me that she had first wanted to be a singer.
Fate stepped in when Nagwa met the famous composer, conductor and producer, Ahmed Fouad Hassan, while dancing at the Abdeen Casino. He suggested that she perform in his popular 1960’s musical “Adwaa Al Madina” (City Lights), which had included in its cast at one time or another well-known personalities Shadia, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Fayza Ahmed and Sabah. Nagwa performed the roles of Ayoub Al-Masri and Bahiya wa Yassin with distinction. Under Hassan’s tutelage Nagwa learned theatrical techniques and showmanship that helped to develop her singular style. During this time they were married. “Hassan was seventeen years older than me, but I needed him. He nurtured my amateur’s talents…He taught me the importance of studying and working on my talent if I wanted to be a big star. He trained me at the Nelly Mazloum Dance School and I joined the National Dance Troupe to study folklore with Russian teachers.” In 1973 they divorced after six years of marriage due to the pressures of her performing career, but remained friends. Nagwa’s life was completely focused on her dance, and he wanted a family. Nagwa explained, “I was starting my career, and I was utterly convinced that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.”
Her first film appearance was a small role in “Shari’ Al-Hob” (Love Street) featuring Abdel-Halim Hafez. A starring role in the 1966 classic “Malak wa Shaytan” (Angel and Devil) followed—an important film that fixed her rising star firmly in the celluloid firmament. Nagwa took both acting and vocal lessons for this film, leading to even more opportunities. She has since acted in over one hundred films, playing everything from the vamp to the country girl, and dancing in more than two hundred and fifty films, by one count. Journalist Mustapha Amin gave her the moniker “the Rita Hayward of Egypt.” Cairo is considered the film capital of the Middle East, and throughout her prolific career she has worked with many great actors, including Hassan Youssef, Farid Showki, Adel Adham, Tahiya Carioca, Fatin Hamana, Salah Zulfikar, Shadia, Hindroustou and many others.
Concurrently, Nagwa continued with her nightclub performing, and by the 1970’s was considered the best-known dancer in the Arab world. Following the Yom Kipper War that had closed the nightclub at the Cairo Sheraton, she returned when Sheraton’s new area manager called her back for its re-opening early in 1974. Lebanese-Swiss Sami El-Zoghbi was university educated in London and had worked his way up the managerial ranks of the hotel industry on several continents. He had heard that Nagwa Fouad was the biggest star in the business and wanted to guarantee a successful re-opening for his new club. In a 1977 interview for People magazine, Nagwa recalled the maître d’ announcing the arrival of a new manager. “He’s young, he’s a bachelor, and he’s got Nagwa Fouad written across his forehead.” Apparently sparks flew at their first meeting, and Sami admitted to falling hard for her. Three months later they were having lunch and he suggested to Nagwa that they marry. “Good idea,” she said, and they finished their lunch and went out and got married!
Glorious days followed as the two jet setters shared the penthouse at the top of Sheraton’s high-rise tower overlooking the Nile. Both were ambitious and hardworking, eager to stretch boundaries and conquer new territory. El-Zoghbi was overseeing the development of five more Sheraton resorts while Nagwa was producing and starring in one hundred hour-long musicals for television. She was also entertaining the crème of society from around the world, dancing for virtually every famous personality who made the pilgrimage to the pyramids. A close friend observed, “The whole world came to Nagwa. She was Egypt’s representative.”
Over the course of her glamorous career she has performed for many heads of state, including French President Valery Giscard d’ Estaing, President Richard Nixon, President Carter, King Hussein of Jordan, and the Shah of Iran. She has danced for the contemporary Egyptian Presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarek. One of Nagwa’s treasured keepsakes is a personal letter from President Sadat thanking her for dancing at his daughter’s wedding in 1978.
Among the most publicized was her association with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had heard about Nagwa and wanted to see her perform. Between 1974 and 1975 he visited Egypt eleven times during the diplomatic sessions with Israel and Egypt, and whenever he was in Egypt he would insist on seeing her. Apparently President Carter was impressed with her as well. “He told me, ‘You are truly magnificent. Everything Kissinger said about you is true’,” Nagwa recalls. They last met at a party following the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords when she was invited by President Sadat to perform in Ismailia. There was much ado in the gossip columns about the presumed romance between the two, but she protested to a reporter, “I could not have anything to do with him, nor with any pro-Zionist or pro-Israeli,” and that she was a “half Egyptian, half-Palestinian woman. Both of these two halves abhor Zionism.”
Nagwa has performed around the world, including appearances at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London, the Palais du Congrès in Paris, and at the opera house in Teheran for the festival of Takhteh Tavoos. She has been invited to dance throughout the Middle East, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Nagwa tells an amusing story of rushing to the airport early one morning directly from the nightclub, with thirty-five musicians and singers in tow, to dance for King Hussein and the royal Jordanian family. Her luggage was inadvertently left at the Cairo airport, and with no way to get it delivered in time for her performance she apologized to King Hussein for not being prepared. In his charming manner he responded, “We don’t even want you to dance, just stand in front of us!“ She danced wearing the jeans she had traveled in. “It was one of the best shows I’ve danced because I depended on the movement and not the look. Thank God it turned out!”
Nagwa’s ascending star began to assume super-nova proportions as she made innovative changes that would transform the way Oriental dance was regarded. Despite the celebrated “Golden Age” of Oriental dance in the late forties and fifties, when Egyptian dancers Samia Gamal, Nayema Akef and Tahia Carioca had become film stars synonymous with their western counterparts, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, this dance was still denigrated and regarded as a somewhat tarnished profession. Nagwa’s fortuitous collaboration with choreographer Mohammed Khalil, which began in 1975 and would continue through 1992, profoundly influenced a change in public perception. Khalil, prolific and energetic, also concurrently held the positions of General Supervisor of the Musical Theatre of Egypt, its Director and later General Director, and since 1992 to the present has served as Deputy Undersecretary of Cultural Palaces for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. His creative expertise in dance theatre and extensive knowledge of the regional dances of Egypt brought an inventive element to Oriental dance—original, stage-worthy feature-length productions.
At a serendipitous first meeting in 1986, Mohammed Khalil impressed me with his approachable manner, flexible imagination and intuitive sensitivity. He seemed genuinely dedicated to beauty, art and truth, and not merely as vague ideals: an overview of the body of his work throughout their productive partnership has borne out these deep-seated intentions. In the years following we have had many opportunities to discuss the dance field. He once commented that even with the achievements of the past generation, the ‘Golden Age’ had come and gone without Oriental dance really reaching its full potential. The general public still held a low opinion of the dance and the dancer. To the audience, “…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.” Sex, he argued, is part of all dance movement and human nature everywhere, and can’t be separate, but it isn’t everything. Oriental dance, he felt, needed a framework; it needed the context of a story line with “good music, good orchestra, choreography and costume changes.” It took some time for these innovations to be accepted. “It’s new for the people and they think this is not Oriental dance. And they don’t take it easily because it’s by a woman.”
Khalil is an ally of the feminine and an inspired visionary. In 1989 he spoke about “building a new concept of woman.” I asked him for an example and he told of his experience in an Arabian country training their national folkloric troupe, which consisted of men only—their troupe was incomplete, like a desert without the agriculture. “I told them that the desert is man, and agriculture is the woman…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 you because there is only half the group, only half of a country—and the bad half, the desert half!” He continued, “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 nicely. Elevate the woman as something you love.” I asked how this philosophy influenced his work with Nagwa. “I believe the Oriental dance gives the woman a very good body and a good feeling…and for that we must present something beautiful…this is what I nurture—the idea of woman as beautiful.”
Khalil had researched the Pharaonic beginnings of Oriental dance, which included combing through the dusty archives of the Cairo Museum, studying the three volume work, The Ancient Egyptian, a joint effort of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and U.N.E.S.C.O, and visiting archeologists’ field work in Saqqara. In addition to the ancient Egyptian ritualized dances of the priests, the group dances for the royal court’s entertainment, and the popular dances of the common people, there was the female solo dance that Khalil believes was the precursor to our modern form.
In an interview for Habibi’s cover story in 1992 (Volume 12, No. 4), he spoke of a special dance that was used for pregnancy and childbirth. “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 that 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…’ After many, many years it’s the beginning of an element [of dance].”
With or without an historical context, there is something very ancient, even primal about Nagwa’s drum solo, and while watching one can’t help but be transported to a distant time and space. This portion of the dance I consider to be her most integrated and authentic expression. Following a dynamic exchange of rhythms between the dancer and five or six drummers, they would move into morakeb with a sustained hypnotic pulse. Nagwa would gather herself into a contained posture, legs and feet together with subtle knee and pelvic drops, her arms moving in powerful, compelling gestures, her head thrown back and eyes distant. The light technician would dim all the stage and house lights, fixing a narrow band of red light across her abdomen as she descended into a subconscious realm, existing fully immersed in the moment. It was awesome, frightening and sacred. This was not lightweight entertainment; this was the soul speaking. For five mesmerizing minutes, she held her audience spellbound. After one show, when her shimmy had lasted ten minutes (!), I asked her what she had been feeling. She answered, “I go into a trance, and what happens is between me and my God.”
1976 marked the beginning of a new era for Oriental dance when Nagwa Fouad revolutionized the industry by commissioning Egypt’s beloved composer, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, for his first and only piece for a dancer, “Qamar Arba’tashar” (Full Moon of the Fourteenth). Commercial successes followed with the creation of scores of now standard classics, frequently used in the dance world. After Wahab’s “Qamar Arba’tasher” came “Maharajan Al Raks,” by Ahmed Fouad Hassan; “Arousti” and “Sit El Hosn,” by Mohammed Sultan; “Sheherezade,” by Mohammed El Mogy; “Al Mashal,” by Hani Muhana; “Ali Loz,” by Mustapha Hamido; “Omar Khariat,” by Khalid El Amir; “Ayoum,” by Dr. Gamal Salema; “El Gades” and “Al Ahwa,” by Farouk Salema; “Layali El Mawled,” by Sayed Makawi, and many others. Mohammed Khalil often sat with the composers, conveying his thematic vision, the atmosphere and total design for each piece.
Khalil was instrumental in bringing together the best of the artistic world, original compositions, inventive choreography and imaginative themes which recalled historic times like the Ottoman Empire (“Set El Hosn”), myths and stories (“Sheherezade”), and the vibrant cultural atmosphere of Cairo (“Al Ahwa” and “Ali Loz”). “Oriental dance has a big history,” he said, recounting various times when dance has played an important part in Middle Eastern culture. He said that in “Al Ahwa,” 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 [process] since 1975.”
Nagwa’s dance ensemble, consisting of four men and four women, had trained for the most part in the folkloric troupes of Mahmoud Reda and Mohammed Khalil. They orbited around her like the moons of a planet, the dancer at the center in the role of actress and storyteller. “It was like a dramatic dance,” said Nagwa describing their musical production numbers. “I took the Oriental dancing of Tahiya Carioca and Samia Gamal…and Nayema [Akef’s]’s acrobatic style, and created a stage show.” In addition to the elegant, classical Oriental pieces, their shows also included lively, robust folkloric dances. Costuming was colorful, ranging from the white tux and tails of Hollywood to the galabeya and kafiyah headdress of the Gulf, to the fishermen’s garb of Port Said. The resulting theatrical display placed the dance within an entertaining but dignified context. “To the people of Egypt [Oriental] dance is not like before,” Khalil explained. “It’s more sophisticated. It means we have made a bridge between liking and respecting.”
Nagwa surrounded herself with the best artists in the business: a fifty-piece orchestra with virtuoso musicians, solo vocalists, costume designers, and a support team of technicians, publicists and business managers. She invested tremendous amounts of capital in her shows. New dance pieces debuted every few months requiring original music, choreography, costuming and set design and costing upwards of $35,000. It’s a well-known fact that Nagwa commanded a high price for her dance extravaganzas, but everything she earned she put back into her shows, relying instead on her film career for personal income. She recently reflected on her career, saying it had “helped to make Oriental dance respected. It stood against the people who said that this dance is not hard.”
She wanted to be on top, and once she had defined where that pinnacle was, she worked hard to maintain her reputation. Nagwa was always thinking about the next show she would do, and keeping an eye out during her travels abroad for fashionable accouterments from Paris, London and New York. She also visited plastic surgeons in Paris an undisclosed number of times and took health treatments in Germany and Switzerland. Whatever was needed to keep in top form, she did—for more than four decades. As early as 1978 a writer from the Washington Post asked her what the most difficult challenge was in her career. “I think the most difficult part of my life is now because I am at the top and I have to keep myself there,” a rare frown crossing her face.
Always incredibly busy, with almost super-human diligence and ambition, Nagwa moves gracefully and surely through her multi-layered, multi-faceted roles of artist, businesswoman and empire builder. One day we were driving near the Citadel when I marveled at how much she was always doing, how hard she was working, sometimes going days without sleep. “When will you rest?” I asked. “When I go there,” she laughed, pointing to the marble tombs in the City of the Dead.
Nagwa kept her hand on the pulse of the entertainment industry both in Cairo and abroad. She attended theatre productions in London and New York and was up-to-date on international events and celebrity gossip. She recognized and warmly welcomed well-known personalities in her audience, sometimes inviting them to say a few words, or sing or dance. She kept a keen eye on the dance scene and an ear to the ground. And did she ever look over her shoulder for up-and-comers, one might wonder? In the wee hours one morning after her show, she was snacking on smoked salmon and drinking Campari/soda while waiters cleared the other tables. One of her assistants came from the service entrance with information about that evening’s shows in the other hotel nightclubs. Leaning towards her in hushed tones he detailed what the dancers had worn, the music used, the audience members and their response. She wanted to be informed. Competitive, yes—but with a noble surety.
A few years ago she was being interviewed on Lebanese Television’s “Kass El-Nejoum” (Stars’ Cup). The moderator introduced Nagwa, saying she has danced around the world and is famous on five continents. Was there anyone in the next generation of dancers who will replace her? “There should be,” Nagwa replied. “I have been looking for the past ten years, but until now I haven’t found anyone. There are a limited number of good dancers. Like good art, dance needs hard work. You can’t buy it with money. I thank God for my success. I had a dream and it came through. I thought about it coming true. I improved, studied and educated myself. The money I made I put back into my business.”
She was a trendsetter, but her main interest was entertaining her audience, helping them to enjoy life. “Dance,” she says, “is in my blood.” Over a number of years I was fortunate to watch many shows; she gave generously of herself, with tremendous energy, skilled dramatics, and a genuine affection for the people. A year or two before her last show at the Marriott’s Empress Nightclub, I saw an inspiring display of choreographic memory. After a two hour performance came the expected finale, but rather than end there Nagwa turned to her long-time orchestra leader and accordionist, Mustapha Hamido, with some softly-spoken instruction, and within a few beats they had embarked upon one of their old standards. Like pulling arrows out of a quiver, they resurrected familiar song after song, complete with the original choreography. Amazed by her spontaneity and exuberance, the audience sat mesmerized for three more hours! When Mohammed Khalil arrived just near the end, I whispered that she had been dancing all of their hit songs. “Oh,” he said, “that’s too much!” I felt her true love for performing had spilled out, and like a tidal wave, swept over us as she meticulously re-created complex choreography, hard-won by rote memory, imbuing it with a fervent intensity. Perhaps this was the beginning of her farewell to dance.
In the early 1990’s fallout from the Gulf War had created a dearth of nightclub patrons. I was working as a dancer in Cairo at the time, and witnessed startling, pervasive changes while economic woes plagued Egypt as unemployment rose and the cost of living tripled. A climate of fiscal and religious conservatism crept in, while conversely there was increased exposure to western morality that flowed freely on satellite TV. Wealthy patrons now chose to entertain lavishly and privately, and nightclub hopping did not hold an attraction for the younger generation. During this time most hotel nightclubs were closed and dancers retired in droves, including Sohair Zeki and Nagwa Fouad.
In 1992 Nagwa co-starred in the musical comedy, “The Red Eye.” She danced and acted her way through five hours of set and costume changes. Backstage at the Housafina Theatre I asked her when she would return to nightclub performing. “Now is not my time,” she replied. Slowly it sank in, and I sadly began to understand that those glorious days were over. Except for the occasional limited nightclub appearance or special concerts, Nagwa would no longer dance at continuous engagements.
But Nagwa was already, in her typical fashion, thinking ahead. In addition to her acting career on stage, film and television, in 1992 she formed her own film production company and was associated with another independent filmmaker. While I was writing this article, I put in a call to Amal Bakir, a mutual friend who is the cultural editor at Al Ahram. I reached her by cell phone just as she was taking her seat at a film showing in Cairo with Nagwa beside her. What were the films that Nagwa’s company had produced, I asked? There have been six, including “A Thousand Kisses and a Kiss,” “Man and Woman,” “The Sword,” “The Story of Midnight,” and the “Red Note.” Nagwa knows her craft, and while her latest venture as film producer was a natural extension, it was, none-the-less, a bold step for a woman to take.
Nagwa broke new ground as the first dancer to make a dance/music video for Egyptian TV five years ago. She danced the role of “Flooz Al Malima” to music by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and at the first video awards ceremony won Best Video Clip award.
For two years, in 1998 and 1999, Nagwa was playing two starring roles on two Egyptian television series. She was animated when she described the shows, although her daily shooting schedule at the TV station, just a block down from her flat on Maspero Street, was challenging. In “Zizinia” she played Badia Masabni, the show business entrepreneur whose stage review at Salat Badia gave newcomers Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and Farid Al-Atrash their start during the 1940’s. She also starred in “Bint Assuiti,” written by Helmi Salem and directed by Mohammed Nabi which aired on Channel One. I visited her during this hectic time in the spring to see her newly decorated flat, the parquet inlaid floors refurbished and the wallpaper and tapestry upholstery in coral, peach and gold tones, a big change from the earlier royal blue velvet. Refreshing breezes from the Nile came in the open windows, as she relaxed on a settee nearby. A knee problem that had plagued her for the past few years had responded well to therapy in Europe. She looked terrific—rested, svelte and happy.
As glorious as her career achievements are, and as adored as she is by fans around the world, Nagwa’s personal life has had its ups and downs. She has told me with a tone of resignation that she has had every success in her career, but her love life has not been so good. In a society where women do not live independently from family members, it is rare to be without a husband or other male protector. Live-in boyfriends are strongly discouraged, so perhaps even for someone with a worldly education, sequential marriages are preferable to living alone. But there is no doubt that her love has been genuine for her five husbands. Besides Hassan and El-Zoghbi, there was the actor Ahmed Ramzy; dance director and choreographer Kamel Naem; and Director of the Vice Police, Mohammed El Sobi.
Nagwa supported her early caregiver, her stepmother, throughout her prosperous career, visiting her frequently in Alexandria until she passed away about ten years ago. I had heard that Nagwa had a daughter, although I’d never met her. According to a close friend and confidant, she had adopted a baby girl after the parents, whom Nagwa knew, had died in an automobile accident. She raised her, sending her to university and buying her a big house following her marriage. Nagwa now has three grandchildren.
She is very generous, always giving assistance to those around her. When I first arrived in Cairo, she cajoled the Minister of Culture on my behalf, seeking his permission for yet another foreigner to be licensed to dance, but to no avail. Three years later he was replaced and I was licensed and contracted through other avenues, but she had tried! We are close to the same size, and she has gifted me with some costumes from her extensive collection. Have you ever wondered what it is that Queen Elizabeth of England carries in her purse? Well, I’ve wondered about Nagwa’s purse, which holds the keys to her enormous ivory lacquered armoire, bulging with an incredible collection of gowns and costumes. Every time I have arrived in Cairo she has been the first to ask if there was anything I needed. I remember commenting to a member of my band that Nagwa was so kind and thoughtful. “She can afford to be,” he said, “she’s already famous.” But her long time friends say she’s always been that way. “She’s a lovely lady by all means, with her private and her public life. With everyone she meets, she’s fantastic and kind with all the people.”
Spontaneous affection is easily expressed towards her everywhere she goes. One day I was in her silver Mercedes with Nagwa behind the wheel—she loves to drive! The traffic was thick along Corniche El Nil during the afternoon rush hour. I was startled as horns honked more insistently than usual and people leaned out of their car windows, enthusiastically waving and calling her name. Another time I had gone to costumer Madame Abla near Mohammed Ali Street, and Nagwa was just leaving after checking on some costuming details. A moment later it sounded like a riot in the street below and Abla and I hung out the window to see what was happening. A great throng of people had quickly surrounded Nagwa’s car, clapping and chanting her name, “Nagwa! Nagwa!” She showed her appreciation, waving her hand in the air and laughing. Madame Abla smiled, nodding her head at the now familiar sight.
Some of her kind gestures have been unnoticed but by a few. Once, we were driving away from a nightclub at dawn when a man in a tattered galabeya, his legs missing, wheeled his plywood platform in front of us on the deserted street, begging. Quietly, she reached into her purse as he stretched out his hand to receive the large bill, kissing it and pressing it to his forehead in thanks to God. One evening during Ramadan I was with her when she paid a visit to an employee’s family at their humble apartment, the young children on their best behavior. She graciously accepted the simple meal that was offered, breaking the day’s fast together. When leaving she pressed a large gold piece inscribed with Koranic verse into the hands of her stunned hostess.
Her career as queen of Oriental dance has been remarkable, but it is her attitude about life that makes her uncommon. I have never seen her down or depressed for more than a moment. It is as if she does not allow herself that indulgence. Perhaps she has disciplined herself to look on the bright side, always turning her attention to the future. She does not dwell on the troubles of the past. I have been impressed with how Nagwa has smoothly handled difficulty in her life. To me, she seems quietly courageous, with an indomitable spirit. On one occasion we had double-parked along a boulevard jammed with many other cars at dusk, visiting a close friend in her home recovering from recent surgery. Over tea and the latest gossip we heard screeching tires and the smashing of metal and breaking glass. Running to the balcony, we looked down at her newly purchased late model Mercedes, crumpled like an accordion from the trunk to the front seat, the likely uninsured hit-and-run motorist speeding away. Shock briefly crossed her face, but once she was assured that no one had been hurt, she said, “Maleesh” (too bad) with a steady voice and turned back to the living room. We didn’t talk about it again until it was time to go and arrangements were made for a driver.
Several years before her retirement from dance, Nagwa was still top-drawer and setting the pace. I was sitting in her bedroom as she dressed for dinner one evening, and we talked about the current influx of younger, less expensive dancers invading the Cairo nightclubs. She was philosophical as she said that it’s not just Cairo, but “everywhere they like young.” Turning away from the mirror as she applied blush to her cheeks, she fixed me with a penetrating look and said, “Do you see anything wrong with my body, with my arms or my legs?” pointing her black stocking feet. Like most women of an undetermined age, her weight has fluctuated from time to time. Immaculately groomed, only her short fingernails betray a nervous tension. Although already in her fifties, she was still beautiful with her Mediterranean olive skin, strong limbs and striking face.
Now into her sixth decade Nagwa looks better than ever, as demonstrated by the very recent cover photo for this issue. In an interview for Al Ahram in 1998, she was asked about retirement. “Art,” she said, “is not linked with age or nationality; it is linked with creation and presence and if the artist can give and enjoy, she must continue to perform.” Like a spring pouring forth its deep waters, Nagwa keeps giving to her craft, her audience and to the world.
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.