Tales based on my private journal written in June, 2011: Includes my experiences of daily life in Cairo, attending and teaching at Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival that year, and observations of changes in society compared to my most recent visit in 2010, before the revolution in January, 2011.
June 20, 2011, Cairo Egypt ~ After being here 6 days, I’m somewhat over the jet lag. My brain is almost adjusted to the new time zone, 9 hours later than California. The time difference is usually 10 hours, but this year Egypt did not change to daylight savings time. Like a lot of Egyptians, I stay up a good part of the night and don’t get up until noon or sometimes even later in order to avoid the heat. Those who can, go to bed between 6 and 8 a.m. and get up in the late afternoon. I’m going to have to mend my ways by Monday when Ahlan Wa Sahlan begins. Even if I only take afternoon classes, they start at 1 and 4 p.m. I’m not too far from the Mena House hotel, where the festival takes place, but it takes about an hour to get there, chat with people, get into the classroom after showing my ticket, change shoes and get ready to learn. No more sleeping in if I sign up for a 1 p.m. class, or, heaven forbid, something earlier!
I have moved into the flat I rented in both 2009 and 2010. It’s a clean, somewhat larger than I really need, well-furnished place with more than adequate air conditioning in all rooms. Writing this, I’m in the living room with the balcony door open and the a/c off. It’s 1:30 pm, bright and sunny and probably in the high 80s Fahrenheit. Inside it feels like the high 70s. I have dish TV so I can watch the BBC news and another channel that carries world news. There are lots of movie and music channels so I don’t lack for entertainment at home.
Now a few words about conditions here after the January 25 revolution.
In most ways, Cairo is the same old Cairo – noisy and crazy traffic, friendly and warm people. But there’s something new in the air. It’s the freedom to talk openly about government, social and economic conditions and just about anything anyone wants to talk about. Everyone has told me about this and I can feel it in the air. People are having a really rough time economically, but when they talk about socio-political issues, their smiles are radiant with their newly found freedom to say what they think. There are many signs that Egypt is coming back and that it will be better than ever.
Public safety has been a concern for foreigners, most of whom canceled their trips to Egypt since the revolution in late January, early February. Things have definitely changed since the early days. The police force is back but has been reorganized. Their commission is to maintain public safety, not to be the political police that they were, and they are no longer authorized to shake down citizens on suspicion of being dissidents, looking for bribes like they used to do. Many new people are being trained as police. They have a visible presence in every place that’s popular with tourists that I’ve visited so far.
You probably have been hearing about continuing demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the main square in downtown Cairo. There are sometimes political protests as well as striking workers demanding better working conditions and pay. In the evenings when there are no strikes or protests, families and groups of friends come out and enjoy the grassy areas and the snacks and drinks offered by street vendors who gather there. No one has ever seen the square being used in any of these ways over the last 30-some years. Everyone has remarked about this and is happy about it.
The biggest concern I’ve heard is that the Egyptian people, most of whom have never experienced such freedom, have to sort out where freedom ends and responsibility to others begins. It will take some time, but I’m sure they will do it.
One day while Ahmed’s son Karim was driving me somewhere, we traveled along Pyramid Street (Al Haram St.) where many night clubs are located. He told me about watching a hotel and *all* the night clubs on Haram St. being looted and burned after the revolution. He said it was the criminals that had somehow broken out of jail who did it. He said that to him it was the worst day in Egypt’s history – Egyptians looting and burning, fueled by greed and extremism. Two night clubs are now back in operation, El Leil and El Andelus. One or two others show the beginning signs of reconstruction.
My perception is that travel to and inside of Egypt is now safe. All the tourist destinations are open, operating and anticipating the return of tourism to the country. The tourists are beginning to trickle in, but Egypt needs more – the economy depends heavily on them!
While talking with a young Egyptian woman about the revolution and coming changes in Egypt, I said it would be a “bumpy ride.” She didn’t know what “bumpy” meant so I explained it would be like riding in a hantour (horse carriage) and she laughed, gave me a high five and said “Yes!”
On my first night out, I enjoyed an evening at my favorite coffee house with live music, seeing and greeting all the familiar regulars and, of course, the band and the singers. In the course of the evening, the owner invited me to do a “performance” to “Inta Omri”. Wow, what an experience, like something out of an old black and white Egyptian movie where a dancer performs to an enthusiastic coffee house crowd. The music of the band: keyboard, oud (similar to the lute), riq (tambourine), dohola (bass drum) and tabla (goblet-shaped drum) along with the beautiful voice of the female singer were inspirational!
Next day, I had lunch with Raqia Hassan, director of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival at which I taught 2006-2009, and had a far-ranging talk with her. She’s looking forward to the festival, beginning on the 27th and so am I. It will be smaller this year because of uncertainties following the revolution and the world wide economy, but I’m sure it will be great!
Another little tale is of “my” hall kitty – a feral who had kittens outside my door last year to whom I fed table scraps. She seemed to remember me the first time she saw me. She was the only one of the ferals who make this building their home who didn’t bolt when I took a step or two toward them. I got some cheap luncheon meat, sort of like bologna, to feed to her. Last night when I got off the elevator, I went and looked down the stairwell and saw her. I called to her and she came running up the stairs! I went inside and got a slice of bologna, ripped it into little pieces and took it out to her. She meowed to have it and gobbled it down. Guess I have a little friend.
Housekeeping, Internet, Costume Shopping, Reconnecting with More Friends:
Taking a day to catch up:
During a month’s stay in Cairo it’s necessary to stay home for a day now and then in order to catch up on some tasks, such as doing laundry, catching up on email, writing a new report or “resting up” for the week-long excitement of an event like the week-long Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival.
Many, if not most, households have clothes washers. This one doesn’t and there are no self-serve laundries in the neighborhood, so I hand wash everything, using an oversized cooking pot as a wash basin. The wash is now hanging on the balcony from the backs of the two folding chairs that “live” there and on my stretch clothesline anchored on the iron railing perched on top of the concrete balcony wall. Very few apartments have clothes driers. Most people hang their wash on clotheslines permanently mounted on the balcony, hanging over the sidewalk. When walking along the streets close to the buildings, you need to watch for telltale puddles on the ground so you can step sideways to avoid getting a free shower of drips from newly washed clothes, blankets, sheets, towels, and sometimes drip hoses from air conditioners!
Ahmed’s internet savvy son, Karim, got an internet USB stick and set it up for me so now I’m connected wherever I want to be connected in Cairo. It’s very easy to use. It runs a bit faster than telephone hookup but not as fast as a high speed connection. It’s more than adequate for my needs – email, Facebook, web surfing – as long as I don’t try to download any YouTube videos or other huge files that take a seem to take an interminable amount of time to complete.
When I think of my first trip here in 1977, I can see what amazing changes have occurred since then – most of them for the better. When I came then, I had to carry travelers’ checks for the full amount of money I would need for my whole trip. I could get money from my checking account but only because I had an American Express card. I could go to their office, write them a check and they would give me cash in return. Of course, there was no internet, no email. I wrote my trip diary on the pages of a notebook with a pen! I called home by dialing a local number for AT&T and giving them my home number and the number I wanted to call and a password! It was expensive.
One afternoon, I visited Mahmoud Abd al Ghaffar at his costume atelier “Al Wikalah” in Khan el Khalili (old market area). When I arrived, it was prayer time. At his assistant’s suggestion, I looked around the ground floor and checked out the cases full of gorgeous scarves and other accessories. After Mahmoud had finished praying, we sat and talked for a few minutes until some other customers came in. I went upstairs and found a gorgeous gown with my name on it! It fit perfectly! It is vivid red with black and red beading and sequins in all the right places. It has detached bell sleeves and a matching draped scarf-like belt. The skirt has godets (triangular insets from hemline to knees) of black tulle with red and black beading on them – lovely! The belt and sleeves are trimmed with beaded black tulle, matching the skirt. I can’t wait to wear it when I dance at the festival!
During my stay in Cairo, I visited Houda al Artist, composer and accordion/keyboard master, at the music studio owned by him and his brother, world-famous drummer Sa3id el Artist. Houda composed two of the songs on my CD “Golden Days Enchanting Nights” and played a major role in its production in Egypt. We discussed various topics in music, friendship, etc. and drank tea and yansoon (anise tea).
We talked about the social and political situation in Egypt and he said he thought things will get better in 2 or 3 years but it will be a bumpy ride.
There’s little work for musicians these days other than special parties, engagements, weddings. Many of the Haram (Pyramid) St. night clubs were looted and torched during the revolutions – don’t ask me, I don’t know why. Consequently, the musicians often meet for casual conversation, tea, sheesha (water pipe) and a few rounds of backgammon or other board or card games. Backgammon is extremely popular with many variations on the game. Another popular game is poker and there’s some interest in chess too. When going to one of the ‘ahwat (coffee/tea houses) in the evening, you hear the bubbling sound of the sheesha (water pipe) and the clickety-clack of the dice hitting the boards on the tables. The coffee/tea houses are considered to be “men’s places” and women are usually expected to be accompanied by a male if they want to sit in one and have tea or coffee and maybe smoke a sheesha.
Zizi, my woman friend with whom I visited, is a lot of fun and, lucky for me, speaks English fluently. While we visited, she took some time to help me with Arabic. First we had a great time catching up on our news. Then we watched some dancers on her computer and discussed many things about Egypt and its culture. She and her husband have a new “son” – a beautiful two month old long-haired yellow tiger kitten with a sweet personality. I missed my kitty at home so I got my “kitty fix” by petting and playing with him. She decided to call him “Tiger”, using the English word. She told me that pets cannot have human names but must be named by animal names like “tiger,” “kitty,” or “doggie,” or nonsense sounds or something inanimate like “bouncy ball.”
Fresh Eggs, Dinners at Local Restaurants
On most days, my breakfast consists of a fresh egg, fresh bread, butter and good Brazilian coffee. Because I prefer brewed coffee to instant, I brought a coffee filter cone and enough paper filters for the month with me and bought the ground coffee at the Carrefour store described in Report #1. Sometimes I buy grocery items for myself, but on occasion, one of Ahmed’s sons or the bowab’s (doorman’s) tween-age daughter brings supplies and or a shrimp or chicken lunch that I’ve paid for in advance. Essential supplies for me are “3aish fino” (“fine bread” – hot dog bun size baguettes), butter, bottled water by the case, marinated olives, cheese, cheap luncheon meat for the hall kitties, and fresh eggs.
In one delivery, the eggs arrived nestled in a big “nest” of straw, with a few fluffy chicken feathers and other reminders that the eggs come from real birds, all enclosed in a big sturdy plastic bag. I soaked them in a pot of soapy water for an hour or so and then used paper towels to scrub them clean before putting them in the refrigerator. This is what it means to have *fresh* eggs in Cairo! Yummy but you have to work for them!
For most dinners and lunches, I eat in local restaurants. A typical dinner for two at one of my favorite places in Khan el Khalili consists of beef and lamb kabob, humus, baba ghanoug, pita bread, green salad and torshi (pickled vegetables).
Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2011 at the Mena House =================================
Ahlan Wa Sahlan was a wonderful experience, as usual! I attended every day, going late on days on which I had no class scheduled, to meet with people, planned or not, shop at the booths of vendors lining the hallways, enjoy lunch and dinner with other dancers and discuss dance in general or our experiences in classes with the AWS teachers, from super stars like Azza Sherif, Dandash, Dina, Nelly Fu’ad and, of course Raqia Hassan, to teachers and trainers from the Mahmoud Reda troupe and top teachers from outside of Egypt. Now for the details:
Opening Night, June 27 – Treat for the eyes and ears, oh yes, the taste buds too!
Because there was a much smaller crowd this year than previously, the Opening Gala was held on the Nile Maxim river boat (operated by the Cairo Marriott hotel).
At the hotel there were three big buses ready to take everyone from the Mena House to the boat, about half an hour’s drive. We arrived at the Maxim in good time by local standards, with a full security escort of police cars with their blue lights flashing. Elisa from Australia and I and several others were the last to get off the buses and we found ourselves in a procession into the boat loading area along with the raqs tanoura dancers and a band of drums, rebaba and mizmars – nothing like making a big loud entrance! The band members encouraged us to dance along as they played – who are we to argue against that?!
Although we could see the dancers pretty well, it was not a good vantage point for taking pictures. Dinner was delicious and so was the show! Each star dancer had her own orchestra of 15 to 20 pieces, plus a solo singer or two plus some backup singers. The music was to die for!
First dancer was Katia Sherbakova, a Russian dancer who has been performing in Cairo for several years. Her performance included excellent raqs sharqi followed by playful balady/folk and another balady, complete with tabla balady and mizmar players on the dance floor with her.
Aziza, a rising star Egyptian dancer was next. I very much enjoyed her oriental performance as well as her balady. I was pleased to see that Dandash’s talented sister, whom I met several years ago, is now Aziza’s singer!
Then Soraya, queen of the drum solo, was next. She did an energetic Egyptian style oriental number as well as one influenced by Brazilian dance styles as well as a balady number. She is the best drum solo dancer I’ve every seen!
Dina capped off the evening with a signature oriental show – pure Dina! What more can I say? I love her new woman singer who reminds me very much of Fatme Sirhan, Dina’s former singer, who is now retired.
During the sit-down dinner at the beginning of the evening, we sailed up and down the Nile for a time or two. Then they tied up at the dock for the rest of the party, until about 2 a.m., when we boarded the buses and returned to the festival hotel. It was a wonderful star-studded evening and a wonderful way to start the festival, although I pity those who had 10:00 a.m. classes the next day!
Why do I go to Ahlan Wa Sahlan so often, other than the fabulous opportunities to learn from the best teachers in the world and see the best Egyptian dancers perform?
One of the aspects of AWS that I enjoy most is the contact if offers with dancers not only from Egypt, both Egyptian and foreign-born, but from all over the world. It’s a rare opportunity to find out that our dance idols are real people who are warm, friendly and eager to share their knowledge. Many people come to the festival year after year so each time is a reunion with old friends as well as the opportunity to form new bonds with other dancers. This time was no exception. Attendance was down because of the current state of the world economy and the changes taking place in Egypt as a result of the revolution in late January, but everyone said over and over “insha’allah (God willing) next year!”
Sometimes during the festival with all its noise, hubbub, excitement, one needs some “down” time to relax or enjoy conversation with friends. One afternoon I found a quiet place for this purpose in the first floor lobby – the Mamluk Bar. It was not in operation for the week of the festival so it offered a perfect place for some peace and quiet. There, I found Andre Elbing, one of the two photographers who were authorized to photograph all aspects of the festival. Andre interviewed me on my background, history and philosophy in dance and said he may use it in an article for one of the dance magazines to which he contributes. Later in the week, I met with Andre again and with Denise Marino, the other authorized festival photographer, to make arrangements with both of them to buy some wonderful photos they took of my performance at the evening Summer Show on the 30th.
Every night is a party at Ahlan Wa Sahlan!
If you don’t get enough schmoozing with other dancers between classes or at meals, there’s a Summer Show every night. Each of the evening shows provides a chance to get to know new acquaintances better or to hang out with old friends. On the first two nights, all the dance slots were reserved for teachers who wished to perform. Teachers’ nights give the festival teachers an opportunity to show what they’re going to teach and maybe attract more students to their classes. The other nights are for anybody who wants to sign up to perform and those who want to join a competition for prizes. The dancers range from advanced students to full time professionals. Beside all the lovely women who performed on the two teachers’ nights, Loli and Sherif Ragaey, two young Egyptian male teachers, were real standouts in the lineup. In my opinion, they will likely become well known as dancers and teachers.
On the first teachers’ night, we were treated to a performance by the Amr Abu Ziad troupe. They had all male dancers, including men dancing on 6-foot high stilts through the audience, several raqs tanoura (turning/spinning) dancers, at least two singers and a Saidi band. The last few minutes of their show included audience dancing. Wow! Non-stop excitement!
Again this year, Raqia hired Debbie Smith to be the emcee and general manager of the dancers at the evening parties. Under Debbie’s guidance, the shows ran smoothly from one dancer to the next and from CD dancers to live music dancers and back again to CD dancers.
On a personal note, I was surprised by the number of people who asked why I was not dancing on one of the teachers’ nights. I have taught finger cymbals (sagat, zills) at four previous festivals, but did not teach this year because of the reduced attendance and teacher staff. Insha’allah I will teach again next time.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan – Classes, Performing with Safaa Farid Band, Closing Gala
Classes at AWS
On June 28, the work and play program of the festival began, with classes at 10:am, 1:00 pm, 1:30 pm and 4 pm. Super Star and Master classes were 3 hours long. Folklore and beginner classes were 2 hours. Throughout this blog I mention my interactions with some of the big stars who teach at the festival as well as my famous musician friends. I include these experiences not to brag but to show how most of them are very approachable and really appreciate us as students of the art of raqs sharqi.
Azza Sherif taught her 3-hour Super Star class by the traditional “I lead, you follow” method, keeping her eyes on the students and making corrections as needed. I felt honored that she remembered me from last year and greeted me with a warm hug and kisses.
Her first number was an oriental choreography in her classic style to a song by Warda. It included sensuous, internalized torso moves, then some sweeping moves with unusual turns using the length and width of the stage, then back to more torso moves and level changes, expressing the meaning of the love song. Second, she did a new (to me) take on “Alf Layla Wa Layla”, treating each of the many stops in the music with its own unique movement, change in direction, focus, quick level changes, etc. She continued the session by teaching a cute and playful melaya leff – much more appealing to me than the “come on” style I’ve seen done by many dancers. Then she finished off the teaching part of the class with a cane dance filled with a variety of cane moves that were playful and fun. At the end, she had a real treat for us. She performed a short oriental number in her classic style for us to watch and enjoy.
After class with Azza I was inspired to start writing an outline for a course in how to listen to Arabic music, interpret it and dance like an Egyptian, or any other Arab for that matter. I’ve wanted to teach a course or on-going class on this aspect of the dance for a long time and now, inspired by legendary dancers and choreographers of Cairo, I feel I have finally devised a method to do so.
Dandash’s Super Star class was a happy three hours of soaking up Dandash’s sweet sassiness. First she taught an oriental number with her signature flat foot landings on certain movements along with moves on upbeats in addition to downbeats and some of her other original dance accents. She added some moves reminiscent of Suheir Zaki, to whom she is often compared, and even did some floor work with a few sassy, cheeky hip moves. Then she performed it for us –wow a mini show! She has retired from performing so this was a rare occurrence that all of us enjoyed thoroughly.
Raqia’s Super Star class concentrated on a choreography to a popular song in sha3abi (of the people, the street) style. It was full of surprising weight changes, moves on upbeats rather than downbeats, many level changes (ball of foot to flat with knees bent). In giving guidance to us, she said “Oriental is small moves, folklore (including sha3abi) is bigger moves.” She gave examples of how a move would be done in oriental and folk styles. Her sha3abi is crisp but subtle, NOT flashy or balletic or athletic. It is cheeky but not sleazy, teasing but not promising. If she’s teaching in your area, don’t miss her!
Performing with Safaa Farid’s band!
Thursday night, the fourth night of the festival, was the night for which I’d signed up to dance with the Safaa Farid band, who play for Cairo dance star Leila Farid. The first time I danced with them, at AWS in 2010, was a fantastic experience. This time would be even more fantastic. Before the show, when signing in for my performance, I talked with Debbie Smith about adding a short drum solo with a “call and answer” with the drummer. Later, after consulting the lead drummer, she told me he asked “was she here last year and she did Saidi?” When Debbie said yes, he said “definitely ok.” When I danced, it was apparent that the other band members who played last year remembered me too. Nice to be remembered by the musicians!! My show started with a long keyboard taksim introduction and was incredible fun – Saidi Cocktail (medley) plus drum solo with call and answer. I received compliments afterward from several of the Egyptian teachers. Three little Egyptian girls who had watched me said they liked it too – could it be because, unlike many other dancers, I directed some of my dancing toward them? What beautiful memories!
The closing gala, held at Abu Nawas, the Mena House night club, was a fine way to end the festival! There were several dancers, including some of the AWS teachers and stars from all over the world, all of whom did beautiful performances. I shared a table with an adequate view with Elisa from Australia, Rosadela from Spain (one of the AWS teachers) and her daughter and friend. All performers danced with Safaa’s band and then Leila Farid did her whole show with them. The leader Safaa Farid is her husband and she regularly performs with them in Cairo. After that, Jillina did a 3-costume show with another local band that was excellent. Safaa’s band had 12 pieces plus 2 singers, the other had 15 pieces plus a singer.
Then Ahmed el Khatiib, an up and coming star, sang, accompanied by his own band and we all danced. I left at 2:30 am but I’m sure it continued at least until 3:00, or maybe until dawn.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2011, although somewhat scaled down this year, was a great success and a beautiful experience.
Report #5 – Weddings, Visiting Raqia Hassan, Some thoughts about Egypt’s future
Wedding at a club (NOT a night club):
On the evening following the closing night of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, I attended a wedding at an engineer’s club in Nasr City, one of Cairo’s suburbs. There are many such clubs all over greater Cairo, places where members of various organizations can meet or have weddings, anniversary and birthday parties and other celebrations. I went as a guest with Ahmed and his son Osama. Once inside, I sat with some women I’d met earlier in my stay here while Ahmed and Osama sat at a table full of men nearby. Many if not most of the tables were mixed with both men and women sitting at them. Later, Ahmed and Osama joined us. One of the ladies took me by the arm to go congratulate the newlyweds at the beginning of the party, after the zeffa. At our table, our conversations “hobbled along” in broken Arabic and English.
As the evening progressed, there were the usual wedding traditions, such the first dance by the newlyweds as husband and wife, dances of the husband with his friends and family, dances of the wife with her friends and family and so on. This was all done to Arabic disco music spun by a deejay. Later a sha3aby singer and his band arrived. If I thought the deejay’s music was loud, this singer’s music was LOUDER!! We left after the singer had sung for less than half an hour – all we could hear were the 5 large duffs (hand drums) – not the 2 keyboards, not the trombone or other melody instruments. Probably just what the young couple wanted! Kids these days!!!
In the photos – first dance as a married couple and two little girls celebrating while a little boy looks on, dreaming of their own weddings?
Street Wedding – Henna Party:
A few days after the club wedding, Karim took me to join his family at a street wedding in central Cairo. His brother, Mohammed, was waiting at the entrance of the side street that had been decorated for the wedding. He took me through the area where the men were seated to the women’s area, the short leg of the L-shaped enclosure, where I sat with his mother and his fiance. His mom and fiance explained to me that this was the henna party and that tomorrow the wedding party (farah) will take place. The more extravagant Arab weddings have three nights of celebrations. On the first night is the family party for close members of both the bride and groom’s families. The much larger henna party for extended family and friends, held on the second night, is when the bride and groom get their palms painted with red henna. Often the bride’s hands are elaborately decorated with intricate henna designs. On the third day, after the marriage papers are signed, the wedding party is held with family and friends as well as many invited guests.
The men sat in the long section of the enclosure which was set up in the street. The wall drapes, hung on a pipe structure, were red and white satiny cloth, made to look like drapes hung at floor to ceiling windows. The women’s section had drape walls of satin-like blue fabric with appliquéd oriental designs of many celestial shapes and colors. The ladies sat at the side of the band, which was set up in the corner of the “L” shaped space, so we couldn’t see the stage well. No problem, they supplied a large flat screen monitor so we could see everything the men could see from their vantage point. Of course, there was NO problem hearing the band(!): tabla, duffs, sagat, mazhar, keyboard. Walking through the men’s area, the sound was painfully loud. One advantage of sitting with the women on the side was that the speakers were aimed at the men so the sound level was just loud, not **LOUD**!
In the photo – view from the women’s section, band on the platform to the right, flat screen TV monitor on the left.
The men had tables supplied with fruit baskets in the shape of ancient reed boats wrapped in aluminum foil. The women didn’t have tables but were served wrapped fruit trays to be shared by people sitting together, same contents as served to the men. All were served bottled water and sodas.
The music was mainly sha3abi with two “street wedding” dancers on stage throughout. The dancers both wore dark brown costumes, one a bedlah (bra, belt, skirt) with an over-flowing bra and a long skirt with a high slit over her left leg, the other a bedlah with a revealing bra and mini skirt with an attached waist band. Each of them wore a shebaka (net or tulle midriff cover). The mini skirted dancer could shimmy well and actually danced to the changes in the music but the other one just flounced around, “phoning it in” – both were what I call “street wedding dancers” who are in it mostly for the money, not necessarily the art. They were obviously there to entertain the men. They rarely looked at the women.
As usual, there was an emcee calling for money gifts by rapping about the couple and those who already gave money. Many men came to the stage to throw money over the emcee, dancers and singer. As far as I know, all of that was destined for the newlyweds.
Karim’s mom kept telling me to get up and dance for the ladies and I declined for a while, but finally said “O.K.” and danced. Almost all of the ladies smiled and danced in their chairs and seemed to enjoy watching me more than they did the hired dancers on the stage. I did special hip moves and shoulder shimmies with several of them, leaning back and forth with them, even though they stayed seated, dancing in their chairs. It was hard to dance on the lumpy compressed dirt surface, but after a couple of minutes I got my footing and danced to one song. Later, after his mom called him to say “let’s go!”, Karim came to escort us through the men’s section out to the street and to the car.
Gunfire in the streets! No, nothing to worry about, read on.
One evening, while I was watching TV at home, there was a lot of “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP-BEEP-BEEP”, celebratory honking and what sounded like a lot of gun shots outside. I did NOT go out on the balcony to check! I called Karim about it and he said yes it really was gunshots, “don’t worry, ya Leyla, only a wedding!” Whew!
Get-together at Raqia’s:
Party time at Raqia’s! At the AWS Closing Gala, Raqia invited me to come see her a few days later and of course I accepted her invitation. It was a parade of stars, teachers, students dropping in all afternoon into early evening. To name a few: Khalid Mahmoud, Nourhan Sherif, Do’aa, Soraya, Ahmed el Khatib, then Nelly Fu’ad, Mohammed Shaheen, Loli, Lorena from Spain, who won 2nd place in the AWS competition this year, Dana from Chile, Katia Sherbakova, who performs regularly in Cairo, and three of her Russian friends including Darya Mitskevich who won the AWS competition in 2010, Abdo from France, Tamer Yehya. Later when we were all leaving, Katia hugged me and told her Russian friends “She is really Egyptian lady, the Egyptian sagat lady!”
More about Egypt’s future:
I went to see my close friend Shadia again. It was stimulating to talk about a wide range of topics, Egyptian politics and societal issues included, such as the continuing trend for Muslim women and girls to wear scarves – many, if not most, to make a fashion statement, others because of family/husband/peer pressure, some to make a political statement. The factors behind the current scarf-wearing trend are many and varied. She also remarked that many, many facets of society, law, procedures, etc., have to change in Egypt to make the new-found freedom work for everyone. It’s going to be a long haul but I think, along with all my Egyptian friends, that the result will be good for Egypt and Egyptians in the long run.
Report #6 – Last Round of Visits, Family dinner party, Wrap-up:
More About the Feral Animals:
Many Egyptians have cats and dogs for pets and love them dearly, but life for the street cats and dogs is hard. People give handouts to the feral cats, but feral dogs seem to be considered more of a nuisance than cats. Regardless, I saw bowls of water, usually near shops and entry ways of large apartment buildings where both cats and dogs quenched their thirst. My “adopted” hall kitties are part of the group of feral cats that live in the halls of the 11-story building where I rented the apartment. Those that came to my door on a fairly regular basis are two adult females and two two-month old kittens. Once in a while a black cat, probably a year old, joins in for the food. The kittens want to follow me back inside the apartment. Even the young ones know where the food comes from!
A Note on Public Accommodations (blush):
Everyone always carries a packet or two of facial tissues for various purposes. The Egyptian version of facial tissues is very thick, more like a paper napkin than our sneeze catchers. Most restaurants put boxes of them on the tables for customers to use as napkins.
Sometimes on the way to some activities, I feel a need to “pee” and that can be a real problem. Most retail stores do not usually have toilets for either customers or staff. Where people “go” I don’t know for sure, but I have sometimes found myself using an ancient form of toilet that I call a “squat toilet” where you place one foot on a raised foot rest on each side of a ceramic or concrete square on the floor with a hole between the foot rests and squat. Sorry, no photos! Needless to say, when I’m out and have to go, I look for an American or European style restaurant and use their toilet. No one seems to mind. Shopping malls and museums also usually have very nice public restrooms. McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants always have super clean bathrooms and some of them even have toilet paper! I always carry some facial tissues just in case.
Visits with Musician Houda al Artist:
During my stay in Cairo, I visited Houda al Artist, composer and accordion/keyboard master, at the music studio owned by him and his brother, world-famous drummer Sa3id el Artist. Houda composed two of the songs on my CD “Golden Days Enchanting Nights” and played a major role in its production in Egypt. We discussed various topics in music, friendship, etc. and drank tea and yansoon (anise tea). We had a nice long talk about dancing with the music and about the “dance like an Egyptian or any other Arab” course I’m planning. According to him, I’m on the right track. I got the same reaction from Raqia when I discussed it with her, so I’m going to go ahead with my plans and offer it mid-winter. We talked again about the social and political situation in Egypt and he said he thought things will get better in 2 or 3 years but it will be a bumpy ride.
Party with Madame Shadia and Family:
A few days before leaving, I met with Ahmed and his family at their flat (in the same building as mine) and we walked about 5 blocks to the home of Ahmed’s daughter-in-law-to-be. I walked with the ladies, a 2-year-old girl, Habiba, and a 3-year-old boy. I’m glad the kids were with us, forcing us to walk slowly, because the unpaved street was difficult to walk on, with lots of potholes, rocks and ruts. We got to the building and the elevator came when called but the car was about 1.5 feet above where it should have been! In apartment buildings, the bowabs (doormen) know how to fix them and building’s bowab adjusted it, but I wasn’t about to get into it in that condition! The elevator was just big enough for 2 adults, 3 if they’re slim, and the misalignment combined with the claustrophobic size did not appeal to me, so up the 3 flights I climbed.
While waiting for dinner to arrive (delivery from a nearby seafood place), we had grapes and freshly cut melon and there were many animated conversations among the dozen or so people who were present. It was great fun to watch Karim and the other young men playing with the children, teasing, gently pinching then hugging them then “bench-pressing the toddlers,” lifting them like weights and swinging them around. I’ve seen this often here, that men and boys will readily play with the little ones in a way that is affectionate and endearing.
After dinner of delicious shrimp, grilled fish with special spices, salad, brown rice, followed by tea, yansoon (anise tea), karkady (hibiscus tea), Mdm. Shadia and her niece May pulled me into the back bedroom for some real partying with the ladies. We took turns dancing solo and dancing with each other. Following Shadia’s intricate sha3abi-sharqi moves was difficult at times but was a real and wonderful opportunity to learn that style of dance. We danced to a new sha3abi song. All four of us women took turns to show how we dance to this song. Each one had different ways of interpreting it and each version fit the music beautifully!
Next evening, I met with Mdm. Shadia at her and her husband’s household items shop in the Sa3ida Zeinab district so we could have some private time to sit, drink tea and chat. We did just that for almost 2 hours while customers occasionally stopped and shopped. It was less than a month before Ramadan would start and like many other shops in the area, her shop offered for sale Ramadan lights that people use to decorate their homes for the 3eid, the celebration held at the end of the month of fasting.
Last Evening in Cairo:
I spent my last evening in downtown Cairo shopping for myself for a “bling-y” abaya, the long loose robe that many of the women wear sometimes on the street and often for special occasions. I found one with an unusual asymmetric design of sparkling rhinestones on black fabric – plenty of “bling” and elegant, gorgeous! On the way home we stopped on a side street close to the home neighborhood for delicious kofta (ground meat kebabs). What a yummy way to wrap up my stay in Cairo!
Back in California:
I have mixed feelings about being back – glad to be home but would love to have stayed in Cairo longer. Maybe someday…