A Future for the Past

A Future for the Past

Cairo’s New School for Traditional Music and Dance

by Edwina Nearing

The Ouled Naïl of Algeria, the mutrib dancers of Iran, the ghawazi of Egypt — one by one the lights of a rich and diverse cultural heritage are going out across the Middle East.  Social and economic pressures are grinding the jeweled mosaic of the region’s traditional dances and music into the grey concrete of modern life in the Third World.  The few expert practitioners of the old arts are caught between Moisheyev-style “folkdance” troupes on the one hand, and Michael Jackson on the other, with national governments supporting the former and the exploding population of urban youth clamoring for the latter.  And ever around the edges prowl the more fanatical of the Islamic fundamentalists, who would put an end to all artistic freedom, if necessary by force.

The jeweled mosaic is shattered, but one man, at least, is fighting to keep a large and especially rich fragment of the mosaic intact.  Abdel Rahman Al-Shaf‘i of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, long-time director of the Nile Folk Arts Ensemble, probably the only authentic national ensemble of its kind in the Middle East, has established a school in Cairo for the transmission of his country’s heritage of music and dance to a new generation of Egyptians.  Confident of the value of that heritage, generous by nature and also, perhaps, welcoming the opportunity to express appreciation for the warm reception his artists have always met on their overseas tours, Al-Shaf‘i has invited foreigners to enroll in classes under the same conditions, and for the same low fee —  about U.S. $18 — as  Egyptian students.  The first quarter was scheduled to begin July 1, 1993, and will be taught by the premier artists of the Nile Ensemble.

Muhassen Hilal, soloist with Al-Shafi's's Nile Folk Arts Ensemble and instructor of candelabrum dance at his new school for Egypt's traditional performing arts.

The idea for the school, Al-Shaf‘i claims, is entirely his.  An attractive, rather lanky native of Sharqiyya Province in his mid-50’s who looks at least a decade younger, Al-Shaf‘i has a degree in law and heads a number of committees and projects in the Ministry of Culture, but prefers to be known simply as a “director of folk dramas.”  In a country where bureaucrats are usually remote, lethargic and noncommittal, Al-Shaf‘i is approachable, enthusiastic and totally involved.  In his younger days, he told me, he directed the works of Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, but after the traumatic debacle of the 1967 War, he was asked by the government to put together a thoroughly Egyptian drama with a hero from among the folk, something that would affirm the Egyptian spirit and help heal the national psyche.  In the course of this production, which included on-stage roles for real folk musicians, singers and dancers and was successful beyond anyone’s expectations, Al-Shaf‘i discovered something in the folkloric elements that appealed to his own spirit.  “I’m from the country myself,” he reminds people, as if that should settle the matter.  Perhaps he found in the archaic instruments, the stately measures of tahtiib, and the glittering mandala of ghawazi dance not only art, but roots.

Whatever the case, as time went on Al-Shaf‘i found more and more opportunities to showcase “folk artists” — a term which in the Middle East is applied to most of those performing artists, whether in the city or countryside, who do not work in five-star hotels, concert halls or the film industry and are relatively uninfluenced by western culture.  He gradually contacted and presented many of the finest artists in Egypt, both in the context of dramatic productions and in independent command performances.  In this he was able to take advantage of the groundwork laid by the controversial showman-folklorist Zakariyya Al-Hijjawi, who had traveled about the country years earlier assembling what became a highly popular folk ensemble, including such luminaries as the Banat Mazin ghawazi of Luxor and an outrageous but fascinating relic of Muhammed Ali Street’s golden era, candelabrum dancer Nazla Al-‘Adel.  Although Al-Hijjawi’s troupe was co-opted by the government and subsequently fell apart, it not only gave Al-Shaf‘i a known pool of artists from which to draw, but also set a precedent for a government-sponsored folk ensemble.

In the mid-1970’s such an ensemble was finally authorized, with Al-Shaf‘i as director, resulting in the survey and registration — though seldom the material assistance — of even more artists.  In 1976 this group, which seems to be known variously as the “Extemporary Ensemble for Folk Arts,” the “Nile Folk Music Ensemble” and even the “Samer Theater Company,” after the dilapidated Cairo theater in which it sometimes performs, was invited to tour several cities in the United States by the Smithsonian Institute as part of the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration.  More such invitations followed from Europe and Asia, and again from the United States, the host countries choosing Al-Shaf‘i’s ensemble over the better-known but westernized Reda Folkloric Troupe and Egypt’s Moisheyev-derived state company, the National Folk Arts Ensemble.  The impressive success of these tours has given Al-Shaf‘i’s group, still a rather fluid agglomeration built around a small permanent core of performers with others on call, increased but grudging respect by the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Culture, some of whom, deeply insecure about their own cultural identity and values, would just as soon see “those primitive, backward, embarrassing” folk artists go up in smoke.  Success has also given Abdel Rahman Al-Shaf‘i a degree of freedom unusual in the Egyptian bureaucracy, a measure of clout, so that he was able to obtain funding for his current venture, the Madrasa li Taliim al-Alaat al-Musiqiyya al-Taqaliidiyya, or “School for Instruction in Traditional Musical Instruments.”  (The name is misleading — traditional songs and dances will also be taught.  And the name will probably be rendered popularly as “Abdel Rahman Al-Shaf‘i’s School,” or “The Samer Folk Arts School,” as classes will be held at the Samer Theater.)

Al-Shaf‘i does not seem at all insecure about his own cultural identity and values.  When I questioned him about the school’s curriculum on a sultry June evening at Cairo’s Al-Aa´im Theater, he was wearing a summer galabiyya, the flowing, lightweight cotton gown that is Egypt’s national garb, though no longer worn much in the cities and banned in some restaurants and hotels by proprietors who evidently are confused by issues of cultural identity.  At a meeting at the Samer Theater the previous week, in cooler weather, Al-Shaf‘i  had worn slacks and a sweater.  It is clear from his attire, his wide interests, even from the decor of his office, that he chooses the best from both worlds, from east and west, old and new — the one does not have to exclude the other.  And that is what the school, too, is about:  not only art, and roots, but choice.  In the 1960’s, state-sanctioned quasi-Soviet “kultur” was thrust upon the Egyptian people via state-controlled media, from radio and television to the National Circus;  in the 1970’s and 80’s, the encouragement of capitalism introduced what musicologist Simon Frith has called “MTV-Europe and Michael Jackson as global Pepsi salesmen.”  Al-Shaf‘i ‘s school, bringing the dying arts of the countryside to the great metropolis, and the old urban arts to a new generation, puts forward another choice, and makes it easily accessible.

Luxor, 1975: Mazin ghawazi show Al-Shaf'i what they can do. Several of these artists (Khairiyya, Raja, Faïza and Samia) were subsequently invited to perform with the Nile Folk Arts Ensemble, and have since done so on numerous occasions.

As he described the school’s curriculum to me, I wondered if he might not be making things too easy.  Classses for each three-month course would meet only twice a week, for three hours at a time.  Students would graduate in a year, after the completion of four successive courses in their area of specialization.  While each course in a given musical instrument would, as the year progressed, be prerequisite for the next quarter’s course in that instrument, each quarter’s dance course would cover a specific dance or dance tradition.  Thus the first dance course, “Candelabrum Dance,” scheduled to begin July 1, would tentatively be followed by “Dance of the Ghawazi of Soumbat” in October.  Considering that there were members of the Mazin family ghawazi of Luxor who apparently did not, after years of performing, know a fraction as much as the Mazins’ doyenne Su`ad, how could Al-Shaf`i ‘s students, with little or no previous dance training, be expected to master a similarly complex dance tradition in three months?

Al-Shaf‘i  was not entirely unaware of the problem; he had already referred dismissively in our talks to foreigners who came to him saying that they “were in Cairo for a couple of weeks and wanted to learn ghawazi dancing.”   Still, he was not himself a dancer and, perhaps, did not really understand how long it took to learn any dance form well.   The potential for failure implicit in the school’s dance curriculum compelled me to observe, “In foreign countries, serious dance students usually attend classes at least every other day.”  Al-Shaf‘i took the point and replied that he might change the schedule to require four classes per week instead of two, but that as Egyptians were “less serious about this sort of thing than foreigners,” he was afraid of losing students if the schedule seemed overly demanding, at least in the beginning.

Given the fact that Egypt’s old performing arts were dying — which was Al-Shaf‘i ‘s stated reason for founding the school — dying in part through lack of interest as well as the opposition of religious fanatics, just whom did he expect to enroll in the school?  And what would its graduates do with the skills they learned, when even the country’s foremost artists were being forced into retirement?

Al-Shaf‘i  assured me that he had been publicizing the project and that a fair number of people, particularly university students, had shown interest in it.  The L.E. 60 — about U.S. $18.00 — tuition he termed “symbolic,” low enough to allow nearly any serious candidate to enroll but sufficient to deter the frivolous.  As an incentive in a country where unemployment is high, those who completed the year-long curriculum successfully would be eligible to teach in the school, where the folk arts would enjoy at least a veneer of respectability under the Ministry of Culture’s imprimatur.  However, in an interesting aside which I cannot pretend to interpret, he added that he really didn’t expect many students to complete the curriculum successfully.

Non-Egyptians were welcome to enroll in any of the courses under the same conditions as Egyptians:  a preliminary interview with Al-Shaf‘i , and payment of the L.E. 60 tuition.  Although not required to enroll for the whole year, foreign applicants must sincerely commit to completing at least one quarter.  My own experience researching folklore in the Middle East suggests that the presence of a few dedicated and talented folk arts students from the lands of “MTV-Europe and Michael Jackson” would be an encouragement to both local students and their artist-instructors, as well as draw favorable attention from the government and the media.  This in turn would contribute significantly to the success of the school and its raison d’être, the preservation of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

I left my series of meetings with Al-Shaf‘i  in unusually good spirits, affected by his enthusiasm, so rare in anyone associated with Middle Eastern folk arts in these dark days.  Here, at least, a light was not going out, but was being lit.  Whether or not it survived, it was a gallant gesture in a noble cause:  the preservation of a people’s cultural heritage.  Abdel Rahman Al-Shaf‘i , and all of those struggling to keep Egypt’s traditional arts alive, whether ghawazi from Luxor or weavers from Akhmim, whether for reasons altruistic or mercenary, were rendering a service not only to their own people but to all peoples.  For the survival of multiple cultural traditions maintains cultural diversity, and diversity begets creativity;  whereas cultural homogeneity — a world of muzak and grey concrete — begets entropy, which is another word for death.


Those interested in taking classes at “Abdel Rahman Al-Shaf`i ‘s School” may be able to obtain further information by writing to Mr. Al-Shaf`i  at the following address: Manf Palace of Culture (behind Ballon Theater),            Al-Agouza, Cairo, Egypt

A letter with the name and address repeated in Arabic in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope might arrive more quickly:

As there are no registration forms to fill out, it would be quicker and surer to contact Mr. Al-Shaf‘i  by telephone (office 725153, home 728004).  Unfortunately, Mr. Al-Shaf‘i  does not speak English, but can usually get an interpreter when necessary.  He may also be found almost any evening between 8-9 p.m. at the Al-Aa´im Theater on Al-Nil Street in Giza, Cairo’s southern district, a few doors down from the Hamam Casino on the Nile River, or at the more accessible Manf Palace of Culture location behind the Ballon Theater in the Al-Agouza quarter of Cairo.   (The Samer Theater, where classes will be held, is virtually next to the Ballon theater on the same street, Corniche Al-Nil, a broad, centrally-located thoroughfare which runs along the Nile.)

It should be noted that instruction at Al-Shaf‘i’s school will be in Arabic, but this should not be a major drawback for experienced dance students, at least, especially in view of the fact that verbal instruction is not much used in teaching folk arts in the Middle East in any case.

Ghawazi dance enthusiasts should further note that Su‘ad Mazin, première danseuse of the Banat Mazin ghawazi ensemble of Luxor (the names of the younger sisters whom she raised and taught, Khairiyya and Raja Mazin, will be more recognizable to Americans) has tentatively agreed to instruct a course in the Mazin arts at Al-Shaf‘i’s school.  Su‘ad began performing professionally at the age of seven with such legendary ghawazi of the past as Wahida Al-Rikabi and Labiba Al-Kabira, and was for a time married to folk arts researcher Zakariyya Al-Hijjawi who, as her sisters comment, “was always asking questions and taking notes.”  Perhaps Su‘ad’s association with Al-Hijjawi sharpened her own critical faculties;  at any rate, she has a relatively analytical and reflective approach to the ghawazi arts unusual among ghawazi.  This, coupled with her superb mastery of those arts and more than 40 years of experience, qualifies her more than any other to pass on the Mazin ghawazi tradition.  Those whom time or schedule limitations prevent from studying this tradition at the Al-Shaf‘i school may contact Su‘ad in Luxor (tel. 386353) for private lessons, for which she, like her sister Khairiyya, charges L.E. 60 (U.S. $18, approximately).  Show the following address to any carriage driver (fare about U.S. $1.00) to reach her home: The house of Su‘ad Yusuf Mazin, Farouk Shabib Street, East of the railroad near Al-Malja’, Luxor.  It is advisable to bring along a tape recorder and cassette of ghawazi dance music (available for about U.S. $1.00 from virtually any cassette shop or kiosk in Luxor), as the Mazins’ own recorders and cassettes may be on loan to relatives or friends at any give time.

Orientalist/journalist Edwina Nearing majored in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the American University of Beirut, and has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East since 1968.  She was Middle Eastern Affairs Editor for Habibi in the mid-1970’s, writing under the name “Qamar El-Mulouk.”  Her book-length series, “The Mystery of the Ghawazi,” is an important contribution to the body of knowledge on Middle Eastern dance. nasruddinjoha@yahoo.com

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