Monday, November 4, 2013



 I wrote this story in Cairo, in 2009 as an exclusive for  belly dance publication The Chronicles. Since that was the only place it had ever been published, I thought I’d share it with you, dear readers...enjoy!

 Madame  Eman Zaki is one of the top costumers in the world of Oriental Dance …or perhaps, in the world, period. The name Eman means as much to dancers as   Dolce  & Gabbana or Prada does among a group of serious fashionistas.

 Her designs are fabulous, opulent, and well constructed. Whether the design is a forward-thinking, daring trend-setter or something classic that harks back to the glamour of bygone era, Eman’s costumes are works of art that are uniformly glorious. They are not cheap, but considering the workmanship and beauty, are worth every penny!

Eman today, photo by Tracy Gibbs
Eman’s works of art feature sumptuous hand work, gleaming Swarovsky crystals and amazing draping, which follows the contours of the female body, moves well in performance, and flatter dancers of all shapes and sizes.
Mentioning Eman’s name to a group of belly dancers is likely to start an hour-long conversation full of wishful sighs  and covetous declarations; even dyed-in-the-wool Tribal and Fusion dancers have been caught  red-handed in the act of drooling over one!

Always a fan of Eman’s designs, I owned quite a few before I actually met her. Over the years, we have met at festivals In Egypt and The UK, but belly dance events being what they are, we basically exchanged pleasantries, guzzled coffee and talked shop. It was only a few years ago that we really shared some quality time and got to know each other.

Through the “belly dance grapevine” I had heard  that Eman  and her sister Hoda      ( also an amazing costumer) had been performers before becoming costume designers. In 2009, at Ahlan WA Sahlan in Cairo, Eman broke her “dance silence” and taught a workshop on Golden Age technique and choreography. Intrigued, I signed up for the class immediately and was literally blown away. She bloomed, she shone, and she lit up the entire room and looked so beatifically happy that her enthusiasm was contagious. Her obvious love of the dance, her musical interpretation, innate talent and artistry were so completely evident, that I became totally obsessed with finding out more about her life in general as well as her previous dance career. We made a date to chat at her Dokki atelier, a place I’d already visited numerous times as a customer.

 There is no way to accurately describe the glittery chaos that is Eman Zaki’s atelier, but I will try. The moment the door opens, one is met with a splendid, sparkly sensory overload. Bolts of shiny fabric are lined up against the walls and stuffed into crevices behind doors, dressmaker mannequins draped with material stand in corners; costumes in various states of completion cover every available surface. Finished pieces with dancers names and addresses pinned to them sit in plastic bags piled on the floor.  There are usually at least three dancers being fitted simultaneously, as well as someone waiting for a wholesale order. Little children run through the atelier shrieking, as older kids working as runners arrive, delivering bottled water, soda and cigarettes. Groups of veiled women work at long tables...and couches... and the floor, furiously beading and sewing rhinestones to costume pieces. Eman’s brother and business manager Ali wanders around, the land-line phone glued to his ear; Eman’s sisters Hoda and Nadia are cutting fabric.  Sara Farouk, an English ex-pat and Eman’s trusted right hand, fields numerous cell-phone calls with a mouth full of pins, as she types furiously at the computer.

Eman Zaki in the 1970's
Eman leads me into her parlor, closing the French doors to signal Do Not Disturb and she, Sara and I sit down to chat over a light lunch and some very strong tea, trying to stick to a chronological order.

Eman quite literally has dancing in her blood- and not just because she is Egyptian!  She and her sisters Hoda and Nadia grew up with Oriental dance- their mother, Samira Zad, had been a well-known performer in the 1940’s.     

“My mom was famous” Eman says,

 “She traveled all over to dance! When we were children, we watched old movies on TV, and she would tell us about Samia Gamal, talk with all her love about dancing, then get up and show us a step. She advised us about training.  She was very happy when Hoda and I became dancers, she told us about the importance of training and advised me. My mother told me to hold the music into my heart, and also that the positions of the arms were very important.  She was especially proud when we performed in front of her and did well.”

  Following in their mother’s footsteps, Hoda turned professional in 1975, and Eman, using the stage name Mayssa, (because, as she says,  “My name Eman is something about religion”) began her career in March of 1977.

 “My first contract was in Syria, I was 18 years old. Hoda had started in Egypt, already, and when I began dancing, we would travel together, dancing all over the world.”
Hoda Zaki onstage, 1975
Eman’s career dancing abroad ended when she divorced her husband, who had a hotel in Dubai. Her agent didn’t want to make her ex-husband angry, and so she returned to Cairo.

“In Cairo,” Eman says,

“ I worked at the Grand Hyatt (now the Meridien) and was contracted there to replace Nagwa Fouad there for six months.”

 She decided to make the transition to working as a costumer in the late 1980’s, after she had been dancing for about a decade.

“During that time, I wasn’t happy”, Eman remembers,

 “ Because dancers need to hire their own bands, provide the uniforms, transportation…in the end I came up with no money.  I did one last contract in new Delhi on new year’s Eve in 1990… but I had already an idea about making costumes- I had already made costumes for Amani, Sihan Al Amir; and Badi’a, Samraa El Nil… so I decided to build a career.”          
Eman Zaki, 1970' the Farrah hair!

 The rest, as they say, is history… she not only built a career, but also set a new standard in the industry, becoming the costuming legend she is today. The entire Zaki family is involved; it is truly a family enterprise. Ali handles the business end, Hoda also has her own line of costumes, and Nadia works in the atelier as well.

Eman’s clients include the top names in Oriental Dance, from around the world. In addition to her ready-to-wear costume line, she also does commissioned work for legendary Egyptian stars.

 “Dina,” Eman says, “Knows exactly what she wants…she tells me, and I make it.  Randa has to see them, she cannot imagine, and Fifi Abdou is like Randa!”

And as for Eman’s gradual transition back to dancing?

“Oh, I missed it all the time!” she replied, very sincerely.

It was actually Sara Farouk who spurred her on to dancing and teaching again, booking a UK workshop for Eman in  May 2008.

“I was very nervous and full of stress!” Eman says,

 “I trained and trained for it!”

That workshop was such a resounding success, it lead to her master class at Ahlan WA Sahlan in 2009.

Seeing Eman in action, dancing and interpreting the music is a joy to behold. She seems to become the music, and, like her costumes, her physical movements are both elegant and playful. She taught Golden Age-style technique and choreography, to the music of a classic  Farid El Atrache song.

  “ It is only Farid El Atrache! I love Farid El Atrache so much!” Eman says,
Wearing a glorious Eman at The Mena House
Cairo, Egypt, 2009. Photo by Aleya Bellydance
 her eyes sparkling.

 “He mixes in something Western, his voice is full of love…. it’s also a little bit sexy!”

 When I ask Eman what sort of observations she has about Oriental Dance today, she is full of opinions.

“You show yourself inside when you are dancing! You have to search for music that fits your character, and dancers today, many of them just copy other dancers… you have to care about what you are doing, and be true with yourself!”

 Sara adds,
“There are no rules in Egyptian Oriental Dance, it’s all about being honest or dishonest with yourself!”

 Eman heartily agrees. And though thankfully she isn’t about to stop making costumes any time soon, she does plan on doing more dancing.

“ Dancing makes you happy…" Eman says,

“It’s something beautiful, dancing-it feeds your soul!”


 Eman’s Website:

The Belly Dance Chronicles  is now available online as well as in hard copy:

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