Cairo Caravan is one of the largest- and oldest -belly dance festivals in America. For the past thirty five years, The Middle East Culture And Dance Association (known as MECDA) throws the gigantic party every year on the first weekend of June, with non-stop performances, workshops and a gala show… and over four thousand belly dancers, drummers, fans and aficionados in attendance.
Personally, I hold a large and very mushy soft spot in my heart for this event… back in the days when it was called Cairo Carnival, it was the first belly dance festival I ever attended.
The festival has taken place at many different venues over the decades, but for the past few years, thanks to MECDA president Blume Bauer, Cairo Caravan has made it’s home on board the grand ocean liner The Queen Mary, which is permanently at port in Long Beach, California. This unique location is perfect; not only are there plenty of ballrooms on board for the workshops and stages for the performances, there is the added advantage of participants being able to stay on board in the darling Art Deco cabins, many of them furnished with the ship’s original accoutrements. This adds a whole new dimension - or shall we say “ another dimension”- to the festivities, because The Queen Mary is seriously haunted! But more on that later…
The theme for Cairo Caravan 2012 was “ A Moment In Time”, which was just a teensy bit ironic, because this year, there was so much to do during the festival, I seriously doubt anyone had a free moment! I know I didn’t- and neither did any of the other headliners. In fact, some of them, I didn’t even get to see, on or off stage!
Cairo Caravan always offers a wide range of workshop instructors, from cabaret to tribal, from dancers and musicians extremely traditional to envelope-pushing postmodern. This year, CC featured cabaret artists Zahra Zuhair, DeVilla, Amara from Texas, Sandra (who was seven months pregnant) Penny Collins, and yogi/masseuse/dancer Lori Edwards. Fusionistas included Onca O’Leary and The Mezmer Society, Samantha Riggs, Marjahni Bella Morte, Sooz, and from Mexico, up and coming star Alejandra Escarcega, who dazzled everyone. Rounding out the line up were musician Raquy Danziger and Liron Peled of Raquy and The Cavemen, deejay Amar, and musician/dancer Karim Nagi, who doesn’t really fit into any genre unless you count “exceptionally talented” as a category.
Backstage, things were incredibly hectic and silly as usual; that’s always where the real show is. Liron from Raquy & The Cavemen warmed up his throat for singing by bellowing into a drum case while DeVilla tried not to get gold body paint all over her fellow performers. But, depending on how you look at it, things either rose- or sank- to a new level when all the lights went out backstage in the middle of the show. As volunteers valiantly tried to get the power back on, Karim somehow started everyone singing a rousing a Capella version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the pitch black, substituting the Arabic word “gallibaya” for “Galileo”. The song, getting so loud that it’s shocking the audience didn’t hear it, got almost to the end before the lights came back on! The unanimous vote backstage was that Karim needs to include this as a cover version on his next CD.
The parts of the “Moment In Time” gala show on Saturday that I did get to see were spectacular, what a display of amazing talent, all in a gorgeous Art Deco ballroom. Each act was so different; it was hard to look away. Zahra Zuhair was elegant, fluid and classical; Alejandra staggered the crowd with her power and flexibility, and Karim Nagi brought the house down with his outrageously fun stage presence and tireless, energetic dancing…all while playing spot-on tabla! DeVilla and her Isis-Siren-Sekhmet troupe did a really cool 1960’s period piece. The gals in her troupe completely hid her with their gold Isis wings, then revealed her, completely covered in metallic gold as she danced on top of a tabla, as a statue of Isis come to life! Sam Riggs is one of my favorite Bollywood dancers; she almost looks animatronic as she hops up and down, with incredible stage presence. Amara did a fusion piece with pre-planned audience participation: she got on social media and had a number of people bring flashlight to artistically light up the audience as she danced her way to the stage. My piece was a tribute to Egyptian Golden Age cinema, and also included a pre-planned surprise… to the delight of the crowd Karim joined me onstage for a live drum solo. Our rehearsal that morning had been fun, but onstage it felt electric. As a baby dancer, I cut my teeth dancing to live music in Arabic clubs, and I have to say that there’s still absolutely nothing like dancing live to a great drummer!
Cairo Caravan also featured non-stop free lectures and seminars on a wide range of dance –related topics, including everything from injury prevention to embroidering sheesha mirrors, to Arabic culture to reading Tarot cards. There were continuous shows on The World Of Wonders sideshow stage, the ShimmyThon competition (won by Turkish dancer Nilay Elgin) a Friday evening concert, and of course dozens of vendors.
A cool feature just started recently is Cairo Kids, an entire area deep in the ship's belly that was full of children’s activities, like arts and crafts and tyke-centric dance classes, all run by MECDA’s amazing staff of volunteers. I wandered through Cairo Kids a couple of times and the tots were having a blast- it seems so logical to have a safe and fun place for children to go to at a festival where ninety-five percent of the participants are female, but I think Cairo Caravan is the only festival to offer this!
Another thing MECDA offers is full and partial scholarships to their events, which is magnificent not just for those wishing to attend but being short on dollars, but also for building a healthy dance community. Again, more festivals should take a cue from this.
In sync with the “Moment In Time” theme, there were some spectacular highlights which focused on the history of Oriental dance in America.
First off, Los Angles-based dancer Suzanne McNeil - aka Jenza- organized an incredible Vintage Costume Fashion Show, which featured gorgeous hand-made creations created by dancers “back in the day” and modeled on a runway, to retro music. I had the pleasure of shimmying down the catwalk for this event, but also got a close-up view of these stunning works of art backstage…legendary dancer Helena Vlahos, who also modeled one of the costumes she made, constructed my two favorites, a golden serpent -embellished costume and a stunning blue and silver masterpiece. The intricate beadwork and attention to the tiniest details on her costumes was seriously mind-blowing: I have always bowed down to her as a performer, but she is a true artist in the design department as well!
The second historical event was the Q & A panel entitled Tales of The Golden Age Of The Night Club Dancer, featuring dancers from the 1960’s and the 1970’s, including Kamala Almanzar, Nabila, Tonya Chianis, Lee Ali (who runs the 1970’s Belly dance page on Facebook) Marguerite, and the afore-mentioned Zahra Zuhair, Helena Vlahos and Jenza. These women- many of them still actively continuing their performance careers, were not only full of knowledge and nostalgia, but also had the audience in stitches.
Lee Ali’s tales of the Philadelphia clubs where she danced as a teenager were hilarious. One story involved drunken Greek sailors brawling and throwing rocks outside a club, another was a long-winded and hysterical epic about a famous dancer who used typically used to hide on top of the commode in the ladies room to get out of doing her last set…until the night a bit of her costume hung down below the stall door and the club owner discovered her trick!
Another thing that makes Cairo Caravan so unique is the fact that many ghosts that call the Queen Mary home. The Queen Mary is considered by many to be one of the world's most haunted places. Forty-nine souls died under mysterious circumstances on board, and there are allegedly over 150 spirits in residence. Full apparitions in vintage clothing, clouds of colored mist and balls of light have been reported frequently, as well as scents and sounds, including clanging metal, rushing water, muffled screams, and ringing telephones… with no one on the other end of the line.
In 2010, I lead an all-belly dancer paranormal ghost tour on the ship, and I repeated that again this year as well. Before you go thinkin’ I’m some sort of nut, there’s plenty of history, lore, legend, and confirmed eyewitness sightings- not to mention youtube.com videos to prove this point. Just ask any of the ship’s crew- there are even memorial/historical plaques placed around the winding corridors, where phenomena has occurred regularly, and been witness often, on many occasions. The ship’s staff used to keep it quiet, but more recently, have been prominently featuring the paranormal aspect as part of The Queen Mary's appeal and charm.
The ghost tour itself was cool, and a wonderful way to explore the creepiest parts of the grand ship- of which there are many. My two co-leaders were Samantha Riggs, a tall-ship sailor as well as dancer, who recited interesting historical maritime facts, and dancer Crystal Ravenwolf, who is a paranormal investigator in addition to her dancing- and she brought all her equipment along.
But the stuff that happened to me personally, at random times during my stay on the ship – all witnessed by other people- was what really blew my mind.
As Crystal and I rehearsed the ghost tour route during the daytime by ourselves, her equipment picked up numerous entities and an EVP recording of a voice saying “Major”- which was apropos considering that The Queen Mary had served as a troupe ship during World War Two.
That evening, as I prepared for the ghost tour, I was in my cabin by myself running the facts and anecdotes out loud, and as soon as I got to the part about a brutal wartime incident (where the ship’s cook had been stuffed into an oven in the galley and literally burned alive) the fire alarm went off! I almost hit the ceiling before dutifully leaving my cabin and filing outside, the way everyone else on board did. False alarm…. But for me, anyway, the timing was extremely odd.
Later on, when I finished the ghost tour, I tried to call my boyfriend since I hadn’t spoken to him all day. I dialed and it started to ring, then the screen on my iPhone came up like this:
PRINCESS FARHANA AND TWO OTHERS ARE CALLING HOME
I’d never seen any message like that before, and I’d had the phone for over a year. I showed it to the gals standing near me, and they too stared in disbelief.
As I was getting ready to turn in for the night, I saw a gigantic pearl on the floor of my cabin… that hadn’t been there just minutes before. Mystified, I rationalized that it had probably rolled into the center of the rug, but upon closer examination, the pearl was the decoration sitting on top of a six-inch long vintage hatpin. I put it on the bureau and went to sleep. The next morning, I asked my roomie Onca O’Leary if it was hers, thinking I’d seen something similar in her bouffant nest of dreads.
“Never seen it before...though I have five that are similar,” she said casually.
I ventured that it might’ve fallen out of her hair, at which point she showed me the five she had…which were safely tucked into a make up bag in her fully zipped, not-yet-un-packed suitcase.
“Well, here’s another one for you,” I said, handing it to her as I left for my classes.
Standing at the elevator, I happened to look down…and there was another pearl hat-pin at my feet!
That afternoon, two strange things happened at the Vintage Costume Fashion Show. The first was a cold draft in the dressing room; something that wouldn’t seem odd except for the fact that it was just in one spot, and there was no air conditioning vent or fans anywhere nearby. Since spirits sometimes manifest as cold spots, all the gals getting into costume back there kept making jokes about the voyeuristic ghost!
After I walked the runway, I went into the crowd for photo-ops…and as I took pictures, my camera-started smoking! Everyone close to me saw it, a thin but very visible stream of smoke was steadily issuing forth from my camera…. I guess the pix I was taking were smokin’ hot! The camera itself didn’t feel hot, and it didn’t affect the pictures or the camera itself. My friend tried to take a video, but though the smoke couldn’t be seen on video, though lots of people saw it as it happened.
Later that afternoon, walking to my cabin on one of the ship’s endless corridors, I stepped through an area of the hallway that fairly reeked of tuberose perfume. Suddenly, I realized that there was no one at all in the hall ahead of me, and since I was midship, no cabins on either side where the fragrance could be coming from. Slowly I turned around, and nobody was behind me, either. I walked a few paces forward and stepped out of the scented area, then realized that I may have been experiencing another manifestation of a spirit. Like a crazy bag lady, I walked around in a small square, sniffing avidly like a bloodhound on a trail. Self-consciously, I realized that someone might be watching me, so I had a paranoid look around to make sure that no one was! The smell was contained to one area, just a few feet in diameter! Hmmmm….
Anyway, the whole festival was over way too soon, and it was time to go home. This year was the best Cairo Caravan ever, but then I say that every year!
I’m urging you to think about attending next year, from May 31-June 2, 2013. I’ll be there again, and other confirmed instructors so far are Rosa Noreen and Amani Jabril.
And of course, the ghosts (who now know every word of an Arabized “Bohemian Rhapsody”) will be very happy to see you!
For more information on Cairo Caravan or any of MECDA’s other incredible events, such as the second professional Dancers Conference and Retreat in October 2012, please visit:
Golden Age- Karim & me backstage; Vintage Costume Fashion Show backstage: IrinaXara & Helena Vlahos; Madame Onca and "The Queen" herself; "Hey Sailor!" emcee Laura & me on The Red carpet before the Gala