With a grace and a suppleness that is becoming in the uncontested diva of Egypt’s 20th-century folkdance, Farida Fahmi emerges onto the shiny wooden floor of a room for visitors decorated in a style compatible with a householder for whom any exaggeration is not permissible.
She has a welcoming smile and holds out her hand to walk her guest in.
The scene is in Cairo in August this year, 60 years almost to the day since Farida Fahmi made her first appearance on the stage of the Downtown Cairo Metropole Theatre for her first performance with the Reda Folkdance Troupe.
“I remember it so well. It was 6 August 1959. We were all set for the show. We had rehearsed it so many times, perfected the costumes and decided on the makeup. We had put our hearts into the launch, and we were hopeful, but also of course anxious,” Fahmi said.
She talks about it as if it had been yesterday, not something six decades ago. The troupe carried the name of the two founding brothers, Mahmoud Reda, the leading male dancer and choreographer, and Ali Reda, manager and art advisor to the troupe.
Ali, who died in the early 1990s, was the spouse of Fahmi. She lost him in the same way that she lost her sister Nadida, the spouse of Mahmoud and designer of the early costumes of the Reda Troupe performances, to a heart condition in the early 1960s.
It was these two Redas and these two Fahmis who gave life to Egypt’s legendary folkdance troupe that took the gems of the country’s traditional songs and dance to the world and catalogued through its performances the variety of music and dance that existed from Lower Egypt to Upper Egypt and from Nubia to the Bedouin and the Amazigh (Berbers).
“It was Mahmoud who went through the many dance styles to design the performances, a hard and innovative labour that was done with passion and sincerity,” Fahmi recalls.
The music of Ali Ismail, a composer and conductor of the time who was introduced to the troupe by Ali Reda, still holds fascination and was “crucial to our success”, she says.
“It was not just crucial. It was a cornerstone,” she adds.
“There was something almost magical that connected all of us together: the choreography of Mahmoud, the costume designs of Nadida that my mother Khadiga executed to turn artistic drawings into dance costumes, and the inspirational art direction of Ali. There was also the unending support of my exceptional father Hassan Fahmi, a professor of engineering who shrugged off the disapproval of his own class in allowing his daughter, a graduate of the English Department at Cairo University, to become a dancer,” Fahmi said.
Farida (meaning “unique” in Arabic), the beautiful and graceful lead dancer of the troupe, forgets to credit herself for a success that has survived the years of forgetfulness of the glory of folkdance in Egypt.
She smiles, and says “Oh, me? I just wanted to dance.” She leaves her chair to reach a small silver photograph frame. There is a black-and-white photograph of a little girl in a fallaha dancing costume, the girl posing with a radiant smile.
It is Fahmi as a child. She was photographed after having taken part in a performance at a summer camp she had attended.
“I wanted to dance. I was lucky I could dance, and I was lucky to have parents who loved and appreciated art. I was lucky to come across the Redas at the right time,” she said.
EGYPT’S DANCE: Farida is convinced that her talent and dedication and that of the other 12 dancers who set up the Reda Troupe, together with the talent of Mahmoud Reda and Ali Reda, were only part of the success of the Reda Troupe, however.
Another part was “the Egypt of the time”.
“We are talking about Egypt in the 1960s, when art was valued. It was valued by a society in which the middle classes were still interested in producing and consuming art,” she said.
While crediting the “momentum of art and culture” that lingered on from the pre-1952 years, probably granting Egypt its leading names in cinema, music and literature, Fahmi is unequivocal in crediting former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser with “truly championing art and artists”.
“He attended one of our very early performances, and he liked what he saw because I think he appreciated good art. He took pride in the nation’s history, and he believed in art as an essential part of the country’s soft power,” Fahmi said.
Though it was under Nasser in 1961 that the Reda Troupe lost its independent identity and was placed under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, turning the dancers into civil servants and leading to the troupe’s demise, Fahmi is still convinced that the Nasser years “were the years of enlightenment in which art was as appreciated and as promoted as it should be”.
It was during the 1960s that the Reda Troupe performed across Egypt and almost across the world to be met with standing ovations. It was also in the 1960s that the troupe made two famous films, Agazet Noss Al-Sana (The Mid-Year Vacation) in 1962 and Gharam fil-Karnak (A Love Story by the Karnak Temple) in 1967.
Six decades down the road, these films still receive very large audiences. They are perhaps now the only introduction to the Reda Troupe, as it declined in the late-1980s or early 1990s.
By then, Fahmi had stopped performing. Her last performance was in the early 1980s, after which she pursued an academic career with a PhD in the ethnography of folkdance from UCLA in the US. Mahmoud Reda, “just like any other civil servant, had to retire,” and Ali Reda lost his battle to cancer.
However, Fahmi insists that it was not just these factors that brought about the demise of the troupe. There was, she said, also the fact that the Infitah (the free-market policy introduced by Nasser’s successor president Anwar Al-Sadat in the 1970s) led to a decline in the audience appreciation of art.
“The middle classes were shrinking under the new economic system, and so were the values that these classes held,” Fahmi lamented. The victim of the new policies was not just the Reda Troupe, but also a good part of art and culture across the board, according to many.
“Of course, it was not an overnight decline. It took a while. Artists resisted, but eventually the demise of some arts was inevitable,” Fahmi said.
Unlike the cinema industry, which for the most part is still quite intact, the recordings of the performances of the Reda Troupe are hard to trace today despite the fact that they are supposed to be in the state TV archives.
The founders of the troupe never had a full collection themselves. When Farida needed some recordings for her PhD in the early 1980s, she had to purchase them just like any other researcher. Mahmoud Reda, whose health is frail these days, never had the full recordings either. He did not even have enough pictures to include in a book that Rose Al-Youssef put out for him in the 1990s on the history of the troupe.
“Don’t ask me about the archives, because this is one of the saddest stories for me,” Fahmi said, her facial expression carrying the same sense of grief that came with her story of the too early loss of Nadida, her failed attempts with Ali to have children, the loss of Ali and that of her parents, and the declining health of Mahmoud.
But with every stroke of sadness, Fahmi raises her head, straightens her back, and reaches out for a selection of tea infusions to offer to her guest along with French pastries, or to her pack of cigarettes, while being apologetic for the last.
She is certain to find a smile, with the affectionate clinging of three Brussels Griffons dogs that she so fondly looks at.
THE REDA HERITAGE: Fahmi is “not thinking of starting a dance academy that could carry the Reda name”, however.
“I have never thought about it. I have never thought about doing anything without a clear purpose. What would be the purpose of this academy? There is no room for another Reda Troupe in today’s Egypt. The tempo of life is too fast now for this kind of mood,” she said.
Fahmi is not in the business of glorification, either for herself or for the troupe either. “We did what we did because we loved it. It was out of hard work, faith and passion. We would have loved for it to last longer, but there is no grievance and no regret. Some will remember us — maybe not for very long, but oh well,” she said.
The conversation starts to come to a close, and Fahmi looks ready to relax. Her routine includes reading, cooking, and reflecting on her career. “I don’t like to go out often. There is not much that excites me really these days, and it hurts me to see the decline of the neighbourhoods I loved,” she said.
Fahmi was born in the 1940s in Heliopolis, where she lived until the mid-1960s before moving with Ali to Zamalek. It was in the family house on Beirut Street that she started to dance. It was also there that the Reda Troupe had its very early rehearsals.
But this house of her childhood and early youth is no longer there. It was knocked down and its garden was dug up to make space for a new apartment building some time ago.
“Sometimes in my dreams I see the old house as it used to be, beautiful with the sun shining on it. And sometimes in my nightmares I see myself lost on the street and not finding the house that I grew up in,” she said with a sigh.
This largely hidden sadness is perhaps part of the grace and beauty of Farida Fahmi today. “I am not sad. It is just this streak of memories — the remembrance of days and things past, beautiful and painful. I am turning 80 next year,” she said with an uncertain smile.
She has no plans to write her memoirs, however. In fact, she feels she has “nothing interesting to say. What would I say other than talk about the Reda Troupe,” she asked.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly