March 19, 2012

Nagwa Fouad and belly dancers in Cairo | Travel To Egypt Story 9

During my stay in Egypt, I had the opportunity of meeting Ms. A. Said, editor-in-chief of the influential women’s weekly Al Hawa and one of Egypt’s strongest advocates of the women’s movement. Thirty years ago she was the first female student to enter Cairo University. Recalling her days as an undergraduate, she told me that she had eggs thrown at her while she was playing tennis because her arms and legs were exposed. Today, educated women in Egypt have strong ideas about women’s rights. Sekina Sadat, a journalist and a daughter of President Sadat, visited Japan; she told me she strongly resented it when, at a sukiyaki party she attended, the Japanese hostesses served the men first. She believes that women in Japan are not treated fairly.

Egyptian Culture
Generally speaking, it is difficult for young Egyptian men to mingle with young women. However, a visit to the departure lounge of Cairo International Airport or Cairo Central Station can be quite startling. Men and women as well as men and men, and women and women embrace and kiss each other repeatedly. For foreigners unaccustomed to seeing men hugging each other so enthusiastically, it is a bizarre sight.

But bizarreness aside, the magazine Sabah-el-Khayr revealed that some of the heterosexual couples publically displaying their affection are not travelers. The magazine explained, “Since they would be arrested if they were seen kissing in the center of town, young couples pick up a suitcase and make for either the Central Station or the airport.”

The Middle East would not be the same without its belly dancers, but in a region where it is thought unsuitable for women to expose their bodies, it is easy to see that belly dancing is definitely not considered a genteel occupation. Nevertheless, belly dancers perform in most of the big hotels and nightclubs in Cairo. I have seen many of them, but my favorite was Nagwa Fouad.

Nagwa Fouad was the regular dancer at the Al-Hambra nightclub in the Sheraton Hotel. My preference for Nagwa was supported by the fact that she was also the favorite of the great majority of Egyptians who considered her to be the top belly dancer in Cairo. The symmetrical beauty of her dance held the audience spellbound, as if she had caught them in a spider’s web and there they hung helpless.

A Palestinian by birth, she left her homeland during the Palestinian War. She lived in Beirut until her father discovered she had been secretly taking ballet lessons. He disowned her and she moved to Cairo. She heard favorable reports about belly dancing and decided to try to make a career out of it. It was a good decision because she was an immediate hit. Twelve years later, when she was reunited with her father for the first time since she had left Beirut, he was the first to break down and weep, confessing, “I couldn’t wait to see you any longer.” It is said that after thirty years of dancing, the soles of her feet have been worn completely smooth.

Belly dancers seem to lead sad lives. In the past they were the playthings of the influential, and now they are showpieces for wealthy Egyptians and overseas visitors. They are made of stem stuff, but they still have an aura of sadness about them.

I managed to make an appointment for an interview with Nagwa Fouad towards the end of November, 1971 was to have met her after her performance, but on the afternoon of the same day, Wasfi Tal, the Jordanian prime minister, was assassinated by a Palestinian in the main lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, where his blood sank into the carpet leaving a brownish red stain. The show for that evening at the Al-Hambra was cancelled. A few days later, I flew out of Cairo to cover the outbreak of the Indo- Pakistan-War and remained out of Egypt for two months. I was never able to reschedule my interview with Nagwa Fouad and I shall always regret not having heard the story of her life from her own lips.

The other woman I regret not having met is Madame Gaddafi, wife of the President of Libya. On the opposite bank of the Nile, directly across from the Sheraton, is the Semiramis Hotel. The Semiramis takes its name from the queen in the Assyrian and Babylonian legend who is said to have created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When I heard that the wife of Colonel Gaddafi, chairman of the Libyan Revolutionary Council, was to cut the tape marking the opening of an exhibition to be held at the hotel, I dropped what I was doing, grabbed my camera and rushed over to the Semiramis. Waiting in the lobby for the chance to get a picture of her, I was approached by a man who appeared to be a plain-clothes security officer, and was asked not to take any photographs. “Madame Gaddafi does not wish to be photographed,” he explained. He added that an interview with her would be out of the question. Madame Gaddafi’s reluctance to have her photograph taken was no doubt due to Libya’s strict adherence to Islam. Without my photograph and without the chance of an interview, all I was able to do was to catch a glimpse of the hem of her long yellow dress, decorated with a black and brown motif, fluttering in the breeze as she passed in front of me, leaving a slight perfume lingering in the air behind her.

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