One of the women I am most grateful to for her general kindness, welcoming spirit and active interest in my research is my dancer friend Lorna. She always invites me along to dancing events, always allows me to badger her guests and friends and herself about dancing. She is always interested, always willing to help with my research and any other things that come up living here in Cairo. When people react so enthusiastically to my research, it always inspires me to really work hard and do a good job to honor the contributions they’ve made.
On Wednesday Lorna, myself and three guests staying with her went to two dance performances: the first a zaar at the Makan cultural center in Garden City, and the second a folkloric dance show at the Ramses Hilton Hotel.
We got to Makan a little after nine and the Zaar performance had already started. According to the information sheet we got, Zaar is “a community healing ritual of drumming and dancing whose tradition is carried mainly by women (men have the secondary roles) and whose main participants are women.” They go on to note that Zaar is currently diminishing in Egypt.
I first came across the idea of Zaar in a class on Sufi mysticism I took at Sarah Lawrence in my junior year. It’s a healing ritual, sometimes compared to excorcism in that it is supposed to rid a person of bad spirits (though the information sheet we got from Makan disputed this idea). It can be used to help the sick but also just to generally lift the spirits and as a sacred space in which to escape the daily frustrations of social convention and ordinary life.
This Zaar is held every Wednesday for a mixed crowd of local Egyptians and visiting travelers like ourselves who snuck in a few minutes late – the first song was already under way. Zaar songs are long, starting slow and building to a climax with a sudden shift in rhythm near the end of the song. Sometimes the performers will dance, especially as the song shifts into a faster rhythm.
On an academic note, the information sheet also told us that the group sponsoring the event, the Egyptian Center for Culture and Art, “was founded in 2002 to record and promote traditional music in Egypt, increasingly in danger of being relegated to the status of an exotic and de-contextualized tourist curiosity or to a place on the shelves of academic archives far from the daily lives of its dwindling practitioners.” It goes on to describe how ECCA wants to revive traditional music and the strategies they use. I think this is a good mission and it makes me happy to see an effort being made to preserve arts like the Zaar.
But! But the ECCA makes a sizeable chunk of their money from the tourist trade, as evidenced by the number of non-Egyptians in the audience Wednesday night. So to imply that tourism always and inevitably exoticizes and decontextualizes local culture is a bit of a contradiction. A contradiction that gives me lots of writing material!
As part of the show, one of the women began a solo. From the way she was addressing the audience it appeared she was pointing out particular people and singing about them, gently mocking the way they were sitting or their movements. Lorna translated some of the singing for me loosely. The singer addressed one young unfortunate, making fun of him for being bald (he clearly shaves his head because he thinks it’s cool, it’s not a natural state of baldness.) Lorna told me she was singing about beautiful young girls, that the singer was flirting with the audience, that she was making fun of Mr. Baldy. And he, when her attention focused on him like a spotlight, blushed and squirmed like a teenager.
The second half of the show began with some different instruments: a tamboura, according to my information sheet, which is a six-stringed lyre. It’s very large with a frame and the strings are spaced apart. More interesting to me were the mangour, a leather belt worn by two of the men who stood at opposite sides of the stage at first. It has goat hooves and cowrie shells sewn on it, and the men shook their hips to make a sound like maracas. Some of the audience giggled at the sight of these two wisened men with pot bellies shaking their hips. I lapped it all right up, but sadly we had to leave early to catch the other show.
When we arrived at the Ramses Hilton, it quickly became apparent that we were seeing the end of the show. After much back-and-forth with the waiters and the manager it turned out that the show starts at ten, not ten thirty. But we still got to see the end of the show. After the dancers left a three-piece band began to play. After a little while Lorna got up and treated us to a dance to much amazement from the crowd behind us (there were only three or four other tables in the restaurant). We cheered and whistled and I gave a rather feeble zhigureet (I usually do it in a group, trying to do it alone always sounds a little lame.)
The musicians, upon realizing Lorna was a skilled dancer, kept trying to get her up again but our food came and we all sat enjoying it for a while. Then one of the women in the audience got up herself and soon had a microphone in hand. Us women joked with each other that now it was amateur night; we were all going to have to come up with a talent to demonstrate; this was just like Karaoke. The woman then complimented Lorna on her dancing and proceeded to sing a fifteen-minute song about love, the night, a full year kept apart and so forth. The moment she opened her mouth it became obvious that this was no amateur! Here was a professional singer, treating us to a free number.
We all told Lorna the woman had only got up because Lorna had already done so; Lorna demurred but I think it was true. I think the singer was repaying a great display of talent with a performance of equal quality.
Happily for me, while she was singing a man in a suit jacket got up and began dancing on the octagonal stage, shimmying, swinging his hips and swirling the edges of his jacket around. We all clapped and whistled. Lorna did one more dance for us after we ate, though clearly regretting doing so on a full stomach!
All in all, who could have asked for a better evening? Photos from the zaar can be seen here, at the end of the others.