FROM THE SALA TO THE STAGE TO THE SILVER SCREEN
Following the trail of the awalim and the ghawazi from the 19th to the 20th centuries.
“From the Sala to the Stage to the Silver Screen” was a workshop and evening performance organized by Sherifa Zuhur and Amina Goodyear on March 25, 2018 in San Francisco. The workshop was followed by performances and vignettes relating to the period 1800 – 1952, including the Aswan Dancers.
Summary of the Lecture presented by Dr. Sherifa Zuhur
The point of this workshop was to highlight themes and personalities in the transition from the art of the ‘awalim (from 1798) to the world of solo performing dance artists in Egypt up to 1952. Why study dance, music and theatrical history? Perhaps if we all seek the absorption in music, dance, speech, humor and theater that the awalim exemplified, our art as performers and teachers would grow.
Transformations in performers’ identities, venue, format, the purpose, and audiences affected dance and music. These were affected by the political circumstances during and following Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt and included cultural clashes, efforts at establishing theater, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha and his descendants’ efforts to tax female performers, resistance to British hegemony, the use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic and the inclusion of women in public life.
I described what we know about dancers in medieval Cairo (Abd ar-Raziq) in private households and outside of them, where they were organized for tax purposes (Franken,; Tucker; Baer) before and by the time of the French invasion.
Cultural clashes between the French and Egyptians were pronounced and dangerous to women who consorted with the French (al-Jabarti; El-Turk) Those in charge of his troops were said to have beheaded 400 women and thrown their bodies in sacks into the Nile – some sources say these were ghawazi, others, prostitutes, to punish them, or to prevent venereal disease, or more probably, the plague. (Cole) Kathleen Fraser dismisses this incident as myth (2015: 151-157) but she does not deal with the Arabic sources mentioned, see Evgeniya Prusskaya’s discussion of them, nor recent Western sources.
While drama was part of the performances of the singer of the epic poems, the sira, puppet show (‘aragoz) and ‘readers’/storytellers (hakawati), Napoleon’s army wanted French-style theater. This had an impact on public performance expectations, as did touring commedia del’arte troupes, and Egyptian muhabazin troupes (only males performed) all of which predated the establishment of Arabic theater onstage before the turn of the century.
I discussed the differences between ‘awalim and ghawazi and other performers, the argument over the ghawazi’s gypsy origins (and Upper Egyptian musicians/poets, Hanna, 1982 ) and that certain ‘awalim families of Egyptian background continued on in the field of entertainment although the 1834 ban on public female dancers displaced the ghawazi dancers and some ‘awalim.
By the end of the 19th century, performances moved from private, sex-segregated homes and palaces or and special occasions like weddings and moulids, and also ordinary coffeehouses to nightclubs (salat) dedicated to public entertainment, where audiences watched theater, comedy, music and dance. (Mikhail in Zuhur; Ward 2018). This followed the construction of an entertainment district bordering on a red-light district and through which Muhammad ‘Ali street became a locus for musicians and dancers.
Formats changed from duets and group dances to include longer solos and dance “choruses” or back-up dancers. After Great Britain’s invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1882, resistance and nationalist sentiment grew and performances reflected this and included Egypt’s vernacular language and humor. Musical synthesis could be seen in the Hasaballah band’s organization, and in transitions in formats from the waslah to the taqatiq. This process was amplified by the growth of Egypt’s film industry which legitimized entertainment and gave it context and human interest within Egyptian experience and national struggles and glamorized and professionalized the role of entertainers. Night club owner/organizers introduced other non-Egyptian styles of music and dance and synthesized them with Arabic music both to entertain and to evade a new (and temporary) ban on raqs sharqi in the 1830s.
Western dance historians have taken the majority of their information from travelers writing in Western accounts for the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there are many problems with this due to the travelers’ cultural baggage, and the historians’ lack of awareness or non-use of Arabic sources. Also we have only artistic renderings of dance – often painted using European models, as opposed to photographs, film and video for later periods. Recent scholarship using Arabic sources has only touched the surface of this history by looking at court records, theater, the impact of zajjalun (street poets, Fahmy) and accounts of prostitution thus far, and not focusing much on dance itself. There’splenty of room for more research.
From the pre- World War I years, through the 1920s, important entertainers gained experience in the theatrical troupes of Aziz ‘Id, Naguib Rihani, Ali al-Kassar, Munira al-Mahdiyya and Salama Hijazi and others. Rose al-Yusuf starred in hits and later established a newspaper that promoted entertainment. Sayyid Darwish composed for these troupes and his songs and the plays they featured in were wildly popular. Darwish immersed himself in the subject of common people – what the stonecutters said and sang, or what the Sudanese who lived in Cairo said and sang – which he found by hanging out with them in a buza (a bar) (Fahmy 159).
I covered what we know of the lives and careers of dancers from Safiyya to Bamba Kashar, Shafiqa al-Masriyya, Munira al-Mahdiyya, Badia Masabni, Tahia Kariuka, Samia Gamal Laila, al-Gaza’iriyya, Naima Akef, and many, many others. And the careers of great musicians and actors who were a part of this era, and the ways in which their musical innnovations affected dance. In doing so, I pointed out the many marriages of entertainers to each other, particularly those who grew up when Muhammad ‘Ali street was still an entertainment nexus.
The status of dance fell, in part due to the red light district activities adjacent to the salas, the presence of foreign soldiers in the two world wars, and that of foreign prostitutes and brothel owners. Overall, this was a reflection of women’s exit from the protected space of private homes into the public sphere which men dominate. Women contested this through nationalist activities and by acquiring education and professions alongside men. Still, dancers’ display of their bodies, or work in clubs which profited from their consumption of alcohol with patrons (fath, van Nieuwkerk) affected their reputations.
As the “sala” and the Muhammad Ali street milieu was captured on the silver screen, writers and directors made much of this social tension, so the cinematic biographies of leading ladies of entertainment were connected in public opinion with tensions concerning honor, immorality and social class divisions.
Amina Goodyear discussed the many ways in which raqs sharqi as she learned it from Fatma Akef and others (Nadia Hamdy) was connected to both the Muhammad ‘Ali street traditions and the Sombat ghawazi styling. And she showed numerous examples from cinema, which powerfully demonstrated the transitions in the dance. In a segment of my lecture and in our evening presentation, we also explored some ways that Turkish and Persian dance had influenced raqs sharqi, one of the influences discussed by Heather Ward (2018, 94) or how musical and performance forms influenced each other (Gedik, 2018).
We then played samples of the earliest existing recordings of dance music and I taught the refrains to three songs, and a choreography to one of them “Ya Ward ‘ala Ful wa Yasmine” and Amina taught movement improvisation and choreography to Raqs al-‘Awalim (the original title of Raqs al-Hawanim).
Here's a trailer from the show at Al Masri. Hope you enjoy.