Ode to a shimmy

Youssef Rakha , Tuesday 15 Feb 2022

Popular Dance and Music in Modern Egypt
Popular Dance and Music in Modern Egypt

Sherifa Zuhur, Popular Dance and Music in Modern Egypt, Jefferson: McFarkand and Company, 2020. pp276


Back in 2006, I had the good fortune to meet the great American dancer Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu). A towering figure in Oriental dance, properly so called – “belly dance”, she explained, was “an insulting misnomer made up by a man named Saul Bloom, in 1893” – she first came to Egypt in 1964, and made friends with such Golden Age legends as Samia Gamal and the then up-and-coming Nagwa Fouad.

Morocco had come to the form via Flamenco as a young woman in 1960, and her story was especially inspiring for being one of emancipation. She is a gypsy by blood, her American parents being of Rom descent. She was born and spent the first five years of her life in Romania, where they had been trapped while helping family escape from the Nazis, returning to New York only after World War II ended in 1945. Balancing performance and teaching with travel and research, her career was coloured by that particular search for identity. Both Flamenco and Oriental dance have strong gypsy connections, and under the broader category of popular dance Morocco would discover and enact ways in which dance pushes back against all kinds of sedentary oppression from patriarchy to colonialism.

Last week I finally met the American scholar Sherifa Zuhur, whose new book "Popular Dance and Music in Modern Egypt" I had the honour of picking out of her own hand. I did not realise until I started reading it later that evening that the first endorsement on the back cover was by none other than Morocco: “Closes a multitude of holes in our understanding, eliminates the need to rely on colonialist wish-story.”

I’ve been aware of Zuhur’s work on – and her passion for – Arab culture since she edited "Images of Enchantment: Visual and Performing Arts of the Middle East" (American University in Cairo Press), which I reviewed in 1998, the year I started work as a cultural journalist. By then she had already broached the post-1980 phenomenon of hijab in "Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt" (State University of New York, 1992). On a Fulbright scholarship, she would go on to produce a remarkable biography of the Syrian Druze princess-turned-phenomenal Egyptian singer Amal Al-Ahrash, better known as Asmahan, who died at the age of 31 in a car accident widely suspected of being a covert assassination, "Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War, and Song"  (University of Texas Press, 2000).

Zuhur’s father is of Lebanese descent, but it is mostly in Egypt, where she lived for many years, that she has connected with Arab heritage. “Enchantment” being her spot-on term for the concept of tarab, in that far-reaching collection of essays by a range of scholars and experts she shows how a culturally specific mode of response to music can be extended to visual and narrative experiences. Though in fact a national security scholar of the Middle East and the Islamic world for much of her career, Zuhur – a performer herself – has written some of the English language’s most pertinent research on Arab music and dance.

Here too she shines exquisite light on gender-specific concepts like dall’a, “a very complex quality imparted by a dancer, singer or actress… flirting in a feminine rather than a sexual manner”. A whole chapter, the third, explores this quality not only in relation to dance practices but also through changing social norms and history. “The degree of sexiness varies. Some performances go well beyond folklore groups’ standard of providing family entertainment.” Closely analysing specific performances, she discusses the careers and perceptions of almost every important name in the field from household names like Tahia Kariuka, Fifi Abdu, Dina (Talaat) and Safinaz to somewhat lesser known figures like Nadia Hamdi, Nelly Fouad and Dandash. What is remarkable, however, is that Zuhur’s discussion of dall’a begins and ends in her concerns as a practitioner, which come up again in the eighth and final chapter, “Globalization of Egyptian Dance”.

“With the international adoption of raqs sharqi [or Oriental dance] as a competitive dance form serving as the draw for commercial festivals, the increase in the numbers of foreign dancers in Egypt, the exodus of some Egyptian dancers from entertainment, and the fact that others make more money teaching outside of Egypt than they do performing there, the changes in nightclubs’ practices, song styles, and performance formats, criticisms have mounted of dancers as being ‘too sexy,’ ‘too sleazy,’ ‘too suggestive,’ and ‘too foreign.’”

To Zuhur as much as Morocco, popular dance in this part of the world is not only a potentially emancipatory art form but also a way to understand the dynamics of power and change. In this sense the book doubles as a history of Egypt. It discusses both the dance’s possible connections to ancient Egypt and its various relations with Islamic practise and history. Frowned on if not prohibited by the religious establishment, it nonetheless thrived in Sufi practices at such settings as the mulid or saint’s anniversary. Through this and other social and political topics Zuhur follows the country’s story from before its first, painful encounter with modernity through Bonaparte’s French Campaign (1798-1805) to the moral and social debates surrounding mahraganat, the recent electronic urban folk music associated with working-class delinquency and engendering its own dance practices.

This is an essential geographic and historical survey of Egyptian dance, a fact to which Chapter Six – dealing with regional variations and the way folk tradition was codified, notably by the Reda troupe, whose principal dancer Farida (Melda) Fahimi was among Zuhur’s own mentors – bears ample testimony. It contains a true wealth of information on any number of relevant topics from song lyrics to artist biographies and from performance spaces – the sala or cabaret hall, the silver screen, the festival competition – to post-2011 Revolution TV. The dancer and contentious public figure Sama El Masri, for example, receives her share of social-political attention, and her brushes with power further illuminate the issues surrounding the perception of women’s bodies today. Peer-reviewed, indexed and referenced to the highest standards, the book nonetheless remains eminently readable.

And so it is also a kind of testimony, one that does Morocco proud: Zuhur’s condensation of over 50 years of first-hand experience informed by deep and broad knowledge of the surrounding landscape. But perhaps more than anything else "Popular Dance and Music in Modern Egypt" is an ode to an art form to which the author is clearly in thrall. “To Egyptians,” she writes in her dedication, “who shared their joy in music, dance, and conversation with me…”

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