Raks Baladi – Tradition and Mystique
by Jihan Jamal
I had mixed feelings about the unfamiliar religious ritual scene I was witnessing from our apartment on the third floor of our rented space in Maadi , which has become one of my favorite burrows in Cairo, after marrying my Cairene (with a Saiidi upbringing) husband, Ahmed. It was my first winter in the City Victorious – El Kahira! Wow! I was tickled pink that I was experiencing the land of the Pharaohs as a “native”, or so I thought! I had embraced Sufism (the esoteric branch of Islam) many years prior to becoming involved in Middle Easter dance, and prior to converting to Islam. It was not expected of me, but I chose to become Muslim, especially to be embraced by my new family. Ahmed didn’t care one way or another (at the time). It’s quite different converting, than being born into any religion and culture … but that’s material for another article.
I had I had never experienced the actual preparation for our Muslim celebration of the Eid el Adha - (The Festival of sacrifice, in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, as an act of obedience to God, but then was able to sacrifice a ram, instead). A few days before, I had arrived in Cairo to visit with Ahmed, and his family, after celebrating Christmas in Miami, with my son, Sanan, and the rest of my family and friends. I love Cairo in the winter, as it is unexpectedly cold, and I truly miss the cold winters I used to experience in Miami, as a child – cold enough for a jacket, but without the mounds of snow, like in the northern regions. Our flat (as the eastern hemisphere refers to apartments) was cozy, as it is the tradition to keep all windows and entries closed, protecting the tenants from the weather, the dust and dirt of the desert, and the curious eyes of the neighbors. Modesty and privacy are very much part of the baladi tradition. The flat was rather spacious for the two of us, as it is also tradition to have larger families, and more than one generation under the same roof. Although Ahmed embodies the new “modern Egyptian” generation, he doesn’t trust the electric heater. He reminded me so much of my Mom in many ways. I was preparing hot milk and instant Nescafe, prior to cooking a hearty breakfast, enjoying my Egyptian stove – Half gas, half electric! What a cool concept, although quite hard to keep clean. I was trying to replicate the words to one of ’Um Kolthoum’s songs, which played softly on my portable CD player, wearing my pom-pom scarf, which I use when I dance Milaya Liff, thinking I was being a “native” …. I was later educated to the fact that women in Egypt stopped wearing those back in the 1950’s. Who knew? Until this time, and prior to being part of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, I only had videos, books, friends and articles to instruct me as to the correct attire for Baladi. All this time, I had been portraying the past generation of baladi dance. I don’t care. I still like my pom-pom scarves! Some things should never go out of fashion – It’s Baladi Vintage!
Before the milk boiled and the Egyptian style pita bread was warmed on the stove, I was taken aback by a sound that was not akin to the sounds of the city - I thought I had heard the sounds of a cow’s mooing, and I thought for sure I was hearing things. Maybe it was a new car horn? It was more subtle than the sound of the weird night birds (I have yet to know what they are?), which kept me awake for many nights; until I accepted they were not going to fly anywhere else. I ignored it, as I did the birds. I heard it again. I was totally in awe, and I couldn’t resist my curiosity to find exactly where this sound was emerging from. I followed the next mooing sound to the door leading from the kitchen, out to the adjoining balcony, outside the flat, and in amazement, I discovered that there was indeed a young cow, tied to a tree in the courtyard, just below our “balkona”, as it is known in Egyptian Arabic. I was so humored, that I called Ahmed to see this, and asked if this was a common practice. I know in Miami most “sophisticated” people “have a cow” (American colloquialism for getting upset), if anyone keeps chickens in their backyard! And here I was in “El Kahira”, the land of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and bling-bling Bedhlas (Raks Sharqi costumes), and someone literally had a cow on the ground floor of a private courtyard! I figured it was a temporary place, until the cow would be taken to a barn on the farm, as I had seen some cattle in transit from Cairo to Giza, on the roads before.
Ahmed just smiled, and begged for his hot milk and Nescafe, without further explanation, and suggested I come in from the cold weather, and before the neighbors would notice I didn’t have on my hegab (Muslim head scarf). Yes, this is part of “baladi” – the people’s tradition and code of conduct and attire. If one is to be like the people, one has to embrace the whole package!
Now, three days later, I was being witness to the carcass of the “sacrificed” heifer being sectioned in cuts and distributed amongst the owner of the building, his family and neighbors, and the few employees who cared after the apartment building. The latter were ecstatic with joy and praising God! Ahmed would later offer a full detailed explanation of the event, in-between belly laughs, amused at my ignorance and the circumstances which were to teach me about the real “baladi experience”.
To put it mildly, I was peeved at Ahmed’s lack of sensitivity to my unfamiliarity to this event, but to avoid our first fight in the short time we’d been married, I just pretended to ignore his jokes and silliness and I continued to gaze out the screened window. By this time, the men were done with the distribution of the meat, and they washed off the blood from the pavement in front of the building. The blood that ran down the street would eventually dry up, or vanish, if it would rain. It rarely rains in Cairo, I’ve been told. The Cairenes are proud of this – They claim not to need the rain, for they have the Nile River, supplying all the water they will ever need. For days, the smell of animal blood would linger, and the people would rejoice with their bellies full of meat, and I would learn to be in gratitude for this rare experience, which I now miss terribly, when I’m not in Cairo for this festival, which has become to me as dear as the Ahlan Wa Sahlan, yet would separate me from the latter.
I was then distracted, as I caught a glimpse of a woman, as she walked out of her gated entrance, on to the street, balancing a huge basket on her head, hands free and rhythmically swaying at her sides. She was dressed in the traditional black hegab and abaya (loose-fitting full length dress), which left any indication of her body’s shape and curves to the imagination, exposing only her face, hands and sandaled feet, as if she were going to prayer. She walked with a sinewy, yet tempered gait, while her hips undulated, side to side, in a voluptuous way, although not garishly so, nor calling much attention to her presence, as it is socially expected. She was large and statuesque. From my perspective, she moved as if she floated, effortlessly, which is quite an achievement on the rough and uneven street surface, common to most streets in this area of Cairo. I was concerned that her abaya’s hem would soak the blood that collected parallel to the edge of the sidewalk. She didn’t seem to care, and walked on the street in lieu of the sidewalk. I soon learned that in Cairo, most locals avoid walking on the sidewalks. I soon copied the same curious practice. Her features were not discernable from my window, but I decided that she was as beautiful as she moved, and I imagined that she had Pharaoh-like, kohl rimmed eyes and full lips, like many of the “baladi” (local; native) ladies I observed, admired and mimicked. I wanted to “fit in”, and would “borrow” their “look” when dressing and applying make-up, in an effort to blend in as another “bint el balad” (girl from our country) in the neighborhood. Ahmed would have preferred I wore no makeup at all –but I convinced him that the woman he married had makeup on when we met! It’s hard to deny yourself of who you are, and harder when you feel you belong in both worlds. Everything we do in life is a learning experience, and to gain knowledge, we often trample on our traditions, or someone else’s, and it all results in change and in consequences. Well, I’m not a girl, but a woman, and I’m not a native Egyptian, but I am an artist and choreographer of Egyptian dances, and I assimilate what I need to, very well, and I’m provoked to learn quickly all that can be beneficial and add to my dance technique, inspired by common, everyday experiences and observations. Back to my Baladi woman - I continued to observe her moves, that I may somehow incorporate her voluptuous walk into dance moves. Her sway and swagger seemed to be in perfect timing with the local sounds of the neighborhood, and with the music which now emanated louder from my portable CD player, as I intended to drown out Mr. Ahmed. I watched her, until she disappeared beyond the limits of my view, and I thought about how she moved, as if she owned the street. Her walk was to become my stylization and added to my technique and interpretation of Raks Baladi, the traditional women’s dance of Egypt. Baladi is the dance that each Arab female seems born with - Inherits genetically, or seem to assimilate by osmosis. It is one of an Arab woman’s legacies which doesn’t get much accolades, but which we, as performers, work so much to learn and duplicate. I remember when I took a class in 1996, with the late and Dance Master, Bert Baladine, and he said to me, “You move like an Arab woman moves.” I was thrilled. I guess some assimilation did trickle down to me, past a couple of generations, from my paternal great-great-grandmother!
The Arabic word “balad” and/or “baladi” can have several meanings. It is an all in one translation, depending on how it is applied in context; “of the people”, of our “town”, “country” or “region”. Baladi also refers to that which is native, local, colloquial, familiar, as well as geographic, cultural and social (in terms of economic status; baladi defines lower middle class, in Egypt). Baladi is not exclusively used by Egyptian, as it is a legitimate word in the Arabic language, and there are 21 Arabic speaking nations. But in terms of Egyptian dance, it signifies traditional and folkloric dance, from which Raks Sharqi (Dance of the East) has emerged.
In my dance vocabulary, I separate all three, although they are all identifying equal parts of a dance trinity in the Egyptian tradition. The folklore is defined in its association in character and execution of movement by regional geography, topography, fauna and even flora, and by work and trade, such as Saiidi (Upper Egypt; horse trainers), Fallaheen (farmers), Bambutiyya and Simsimiyya (fishermen; the latter being also the name of an Egyptian harp). In Egypt, folkloric dance is usually performed only by men, unless presented by performing families, such as the Ghawazee tribe’s world famous Banat Mazin and the prestigious Firqat Reda (AKA, The Mahmoud Reda Troupe), who united two artistic families, that of its past principal dancer, Farida Fahmy, and founder Mahmoud Reda, and artistic director, the late Ali Reda, Farida’s husband. I am very fortunate to have studied with both Farida and Mahmoud, and I first sponsored Mahmoud Reda in 1991. I asked him, “What do you consider to be the difference between folk dances and Sharqi?” His answer was plainly, “Costuming, attitude and venue”.
Raks Baladi is what I refer to as “home grown” and “free style”. The dance that is not choreographed, but rather spontaneous, inspired and motivated by the melody, with transitional breaks from the sinuous undulations, into syncopated accents of the hips, responding to the underlying and basic rhythmic patterns in the music, whether Baladi, Folk or Sharqi – all, but never religious and sacred music. The “homespun” Baladi dance is not restricted by structure or stylization, but with moves which comes naturally, and with the deep, imbedded in the DNA, understanding of the music. - The dance that every Egyptian woman performs, since childhood, but which she will probably never perform in public, as this would be considered dishonorable. It is also usually performed in a small space, no bigger than a square foot tile, as opposed to the folk and Sharqi dances, which are highly choreographed for the performance stage. When I perform Baladi, I usually choose music whose predominant rhythms are 4/4, my favorite being Saiidi. For folk and Sharqi, the choice in rhythms depend on the composer.
There’s a very distinct difference between a lady who performs at home, or at ladies’ events, and doesn’t make a living from her dancing, as compared to the professional dancer, who supports a family with dancing, yet her trade, or craft, is not viewed as desirable or decent, which poses many a conflict and are a social prejudice. Every dancer I know, including myself, belief that this talent is from God. Go figure! In America and Europe, it may appear more tolerable by society, but even for non-Muslims and non-Arabs, a profession with the stigma of the evils of the night life, is unwelcomed and shunned.
In the east, and in the homes of easterners who have moved to the west, Raks Baladi is part of most social events, and a woman is not scorned by her peers and family, as long as it is practiced in the privacy of a familial audience, where only family men are present, otherwise it is executed only among women. In some cases, as part of the celebration, if unrelated men are present, one of the young men or children in the family will be asked to perform solely for the guest, so that the celebration is not stunted. It is not acceptable that a woman should perform for men outside of the family nucleus, whether Muslim or Coptic, and this applies to all Arabic cultures; Egyptian, Maghreb, Levantine or Khalegee (The Arabian Gulf countries). The only times I’ve experienced these attitudes to be a bit more relaxed, is at the Lebanese and Syrian festivals, where many of the ladies will get up and do their “Church Lady” dances, as I refer to it, with much restraint and modesty, and the unmistakable hand movement, the “windshield wiper”.
Raks Sharqi is a sophistication and expansion of the other two elements. Raks Sharqi has, and is evolving as a separate, unique and bona fide performance dance genre, which has been influenced in movement, structure and costuming by dance styles of other countries of the Middle East and beyond, and has been embraced by many different cultures, enjoying great popularity among women, throughout the world. For many women, Raks Sharqi is a sole source of physical and conditioning exercise, which is deemed fun and leads them to discover their own femininity and in some magical way, develops self-esteem. It also has elements of special choreography, corporal and movement structure taken from Ballet and other classical dance forms, and is not particularly “owned” by any one country or culture, anymore. The basic movements are those of Baladi; sinuous undulations, hip syncopation, shimmies and the artistic addition of flowing yards of silk veils, to embellish the choreography. You never saw veils in Egypt before the East started to borrow from the west, except as a decoration to enter the stage with. I attribute the addition of the veil in Raks Sharqi, to the sensationalism of the Dance of the seven veils, from the Bible, by Salomeh, and further emphasized by the use of veils and yards of fabric by Isadora Duncan, the mother of Modern Dance. Now, even without Red Bull, we have wings! I was surprised and amused to see our beloved Randa Kamel using them in her performance! How modern of her! We all borrow from each other! This is how dance evolves, and hopefully so will attitudes towards our dance.
It has been said that every generation must rewrite and reinterpret its own history, in the light of its own experience and knowledge. I believe that in the same manner, each generation of ethnic dancers must each interpret and transform its dances, in light of its own cultural and environmental development.
The one reality in life is impermanence, and the dance styles follow suit.
Do you dance, and do it well!
Originally Published on www.yallahmagazine.com on July 12, 2010 – Miami, Florida