Thursday, July 7, 2011
DATELINE CAIRO: AHLAN WA SAHLAN 2011 PART ONE
I have just returned from Cairo, and to say that I am absolutely riddled with jet lag is an understatement. In spite of the fact that I’ve woken up all bright and cheery at 3:30 am the past two mornings and been overcome with the desire to pass out cold by noon, I will try to give you my impressions of The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival and Cairo in general in Post Revolution Egypt.
To begin with, I felt that it was extremely important to go to Egypt this year. Earlier, during the Revolution, Zahra Zuhair and I had no choice but to cancel our Eternal Egypt Tour; we didn’t want to be responsible for bringing a group of people into a potentially dangerous situation in a foreign country. However, as soon as things calmed down, I knew I needed to go. On a personal level, as you may remember from my last post, I felt great sadness at the possibility that I might not be able to freely come and go to my beloved second home.
On a more general level, I felt it was vital to support The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival, and in turn to support the Cairo-based dancers, musicians and costume designers (and their employees), who were all seriously impacted economically by the social unrest and the ensuing curfews. In a broader sense, I also wanted to support the economy of a country whose chief “export” is tourism. Being from Hollywood, California, I very clearly remember the lack of tourism- and economic impact that was felt because of it- in my city for over a year and a half after the Los Angeles Riots took place. LA was a ghost town, and suddenly we all sorely wished that all those tourists who had seemed so annoying as they ambled down The Walk of Fame blocking the sidewalk while taking pictures would come back!
Cairo itself was much quieter than usual; even the traffic seemed less insane. The amount of people at the monuments and antiquities was sparser than I’d ever seen it. There were a few demonstrations in Tahrir Square while I was there- a couple I only heard about on the news because I was in Giza, far away from Downtown Cairo where Tahrir Square is located, but I witnessed one myself one morning on my way to Khan Al Khalili. It wasn’t violent; it looked like Muslim Fundamentalists giving speeches to a sizeable crowd.
The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival was very small this year, but that was to be expected; many preferred to sit this year out and see what would unfold. In previous years the attendees have topped 1,500 people; this year it was a few hundred. Everyone’s classes were significantly smaller… but though it might not have been as gratifying for the teachers, that actually made it much BETTER for the students. The list of teachers, was as always, impressive, including Egyptian stars like Dina, Aziza, Zaza Hassan, Magda and Atef Farag, Aza Sherrif, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Mohamed Shahin and Madame Raqia herself, to name just a few. The foreign teachers were also amazing- among many others were Leila Haddad, Aziza Abdul Ridha from Italy, Amir Thaleb, Said El Amir, Sue Jee Choi from Korea, and from Spain Rosadela and Munique Neith. Along with me, those from the USA included Fahtiem, Jillina, Angelika Nemeth and Raksanna. I give kudos to Raqia Hassan for remaining undaunted and going ahead with her plans. She is a brave, strong woman and the festival wound up being even greater than it has been in previous years, and believe me, last year seemed very hard to top! This year, possibly because of the general celebratory and hopeful feeling in the air, or maybe just because there was a smaller amount of people attending, the festival had a freewheeling, anything-goes type feeling.
To begin with, the Opening Gala was held on the elegant floating supper-club The Nile Maxim- Ahlan WA Sahlan had rented out the entire boat! This has never happened before, it was an amazing surprise. The show started on the dock with Saidi musicians and Tannoura dancers and all attendees were directed to the top deck for cocktails under the stars as the boat set sail. After dinner was served, the show inside featured super-stars Dina, Katia, Egyptian Aziza and Sorayya Zayed. Unlike years past, and possibly due to the afore-mentioned free-wheeling ambiance, video and still cameras were permitted inside the Opening Gala and there was such a casual feel that many people were actually sitting on the floor, watching the show, practically two feet away from Dina, videotaping her performance! The whole show had a very intimate feeling, and every dancer took the mic at some point in her show and sincerely thanked the audience members for coming and supporting the Festival and Egypt. Dina’s speech was particularly touching; her voice was choked with emotion. These heartfelt sentiments were something I heard echoed by almost every dancer or musician at every show during my entire stay, as well as said to my face by hotel employees, costume vendors, tour guides, shop-owners and even just people on the street who had absolutely nothing to gain by showing a complete stranger gratitude simply for visiting their country.
But back to the show… it was, of course, off the hook! The dancers’ various bands sounded terrific, and the volume was cranked up high. Katia started the evening off entering to her signature magencey (entrance piece), “Amar El Laily”. Her pastel costumes always seem belie her sheer power- she is an extremely strong dancer with dynamic movement and ridiculously deep backbends, which she drops into suddenly and effortlessly. Her Alexandrian dance was naughty, funny and adorable, ending with her in the arms of one of her male dancers.
Sorayya Zaed (with a new blonde page-boy hairdo) was adorable in a minimalist black and neon polka-dotted costume. Lithe and light on her feet, her Oriental opening was precise and nuanced, and later in the show she did a traditional Saidi which was full of feeling; bouncy and energetic but really passionate. In the many times I’ve seen her, I’d never seen her do Saidi and it was a joy to watch.
Dina closed the show, and was, as usual, smashing. Her first costume was just outrageous and risqué - even for her. It was tomato red, with giant red beaded flowers on each bra-cup, and a mermaid skirt with black lace panties sewn on the hips - and a black garter belt complete with red and black lace garters hanging as fringe! The crowd practically lost it when she did “Tahtil Shebak”.
Although I adore Dina, and in twenty years have never, ever seen her put on anything less than an incredible, high-energy live show, I have to say that my new favorite dancer is Egyptian Aziza.
I saw her for the first time last year at Ahlan WA Sahlan and was completely blown away.
During that 2010 show, Zahra Zuhair, seated next to me, kept saying over and over, almost robotically,
“Oh…. this is fabulous! Oh, how is anyone going to follow this?”
By the end of her set, we were both sitting dumbly with our mouths open.
But this year’s show was even better. Aziza has it all- the slow, gooey, laid back oriental sensuality and the languid almost lazy movements that almost seem to bend time. She also can pull up on command her piston-driven hips, turns on a dime, and has stage presence to burn. In short, she’s just fabulous. She opened with “Akdib Alek” in a turquoise and silver Mamdouh Salama costume, and moved through a set that was just breathtaking. Last year, Aziza appeared with a singer whose voice was so sublime that I got goosebumps and all my hair stood on end the moment she opened her mouth. The singer was blind and had to be led onto the stage...and I never found out who she was. This year, the singer appeared again, and was just as amazing. Cairo-based dancer Caroline Evanoff told me the singer's name was Nour....and that she is famous dancer Dandash's sister!
Aziza's show-stopper was her second to last number, which began with a male dancer dressed as a desert mystic, swinging an incense burner, wandering across the stage to a hypnotic mizmar. He was joined by four Sufi Dervishes, dressed traditionally in white skirts with satin over-vests, who whirled, as the music got increasingly more droning and trance-like. Aziza appeared in a simple white galabiyya with a bell-shaped hem, and danced among the Sufi dancers, who surrounded her as the music switched into a Zar beat, and a cleansing, healing ritual began. The tableaux became increasingly more intense, until Aziza started whipping her neck around, slowly at first and then....well, all I can say is that it looked like she didn't have a spine, her head was cranking around on her shoulders like those New Year's Eve noisemakers that whirl around in your hands...and it went on....and on...and ON. People in the audience were gasping and literally screaming, it was nuts!
Finally, Aziza collapsed on the floor in a mock faint…at which time her Dervishes lickety-split ripped off her white robe, revealing a fire engine red bedlah... as though the devil had won out this time! She jumped to her feet and immediately began a frenetic, high-energy drum solo, and just as quickly, her show was over.
The evening ended at almost 4:00 am, with many audience members clutching their high-heels in their hands as they staggered up the gangplank to the street- many of them passing out on the buses back to the Mena House.
After I got back to my hotel room, I turned on the television to come down from the high of the evening’s festivities, and while watching the news, learned there had been a large demonstration- with violence- in Tahrir Square. I emailed my family to let them know I was OK and sank into bed, excited for the festival’s first day of classes, including the one I was teaching. When I realized I was also performing the next night, the reality hit me that I would be getting-if I was lucky- four hours of sleep.
....TO BE CONTINUED!
Photos, top two:
Aziza in her Zar tableaux, with Sufi dancers
Aziza's Oriental magency
Photos, bottom two:
Princess with Cairo-based dancers Caroline Evanoff and Astyd Farah on The Nile Maxim
Katia's Oriental magency