Cairo Awwal Thaania: Lennie Experiences Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2004

This year I went with a wonderful group of dancers, led by the famous Morocco of NYC, to Ahlan Wa Sahlan, the Middle Eastern dance festival in Egypt. The festival is held at the beautiful Mena House Hotel. This hotel is right by the pyramids, and was once the hunting lodge of the Khedive Ismail, one of the last of the Ottoman rulers of Egypt.

The original lodge has been expanded by adding a huge bank of new rooms which surround the lovely grounds, sweeping lawns planted with palms and many other beautiful trees and shrubs, and a scrumptious pool. From the grounds, one can see the largest pyramid looming above the landscaping. The individiual stones are visible, it’s that close!

The festival was started about five years ago by Raqia Hassan, an Egyptian dancer/instructor. But guess how she got the idea for it! She attended Rakassah, the famous California belly dance festival, and decided to try something similar in Egypt!

Ahlan Wa Sahlan attracts dancers from all over the world: Europe, South America, the U.S., and Japan, among others. It helps the Egyptian dance community by giving extra work to costume-dealers and dance teachers. It was a very positive international gathering, which really warmed my heart, especially considering the dire world situation at the present time.

Morocco scheduled our arrival in Cairo several days before the festival started, so that we could get some sightseeing in before classes began. During these pre-festival days (from the 23rd to the 26th) we stayed at a cozy little hotel, the Hotel Victoria. This hotel was built in the 1920’s and has a wonderful staff, many of whom are Coptic Christians. The friendly and energetic manager, Hani, is a great guy who speaks English fluently and is always there to help solve any problem, share stories from his years of managing the hotel, and enthusiastically teach a little Arabic.

I’d flown solo from Phoenix, Arizona. Scheduling unfortunately made it necessary to spend the day in the New York airport before joining up with Rocky’s group. However, for most of that time I had the company of a great group of California dancers, a warm and friendly bunch.

When we joined the rest of the group I was so excited to meet Morocco in person. I had been secretly afraid she might be intimidating in person, (some of your “well known people” are!) but Rocky is just a sweetie! Everyone in the group seemed to be so interesting and so friendly.

I also met my room-mate, a very interesting and nice woman (she’s a Presbyterian minister who bellydances as a hobby!). We both snore loudly, so that worked out. The only drawback (to having her as a room-mate) was that we would get to talking and stay up too late! There were several nearby mosques in the area, and we would open the balcony window to hear the beautiful call to prayer, sung from several directions.

I had been to Egypt before, so I’d already seen to the sights which Morocco had scheduled the group to tour. For this reason, I’d made preliminary plans by e-mailing with Leyla Lanty, a California dancer/instructor whom I’d gotten to know through the Middle East Dance List. She had a friend in Egypt whom she recommended as a guide/personal shopper. So while they went to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx and the ruins of Sakkara and Memphis, I made arrangements with him for a day of sight-seeing of the medieval buildings of Cairo. I was so pleased when Leyla decided to come along too. I had spoken to her on the phone as well as many e-mails, so I wasn’t surprised that she was a darling, and Ahmed was delightful.

Most of the old buildings he took us to see are right in the same area as that famous souk, the Khan el Khalili. We toured a restored caravanserai, a restored merchant’s home, several beautiful mosques built in the middle ages. I climbed the Bab Zuwayla, one of the ancient gates in the wall that was built around Cairo in 1092 to protect it from the Crusaders.

Standing on the ancient stonework far abouve the street, looking down and imagining traders and armies coming through…I was transported into history.

Some of the stone inlay work in the mosques was breathtaking. My special favorite is the mosque of the El Ghuriya complex. I’d been to see it in 2002 but it was wonderful to see it again, more beautiful than I’d remembered.

The following day my roommate joined me and we hired the same guide to take us through the Khan el Khalili. Her friend’s name is Ahmed Mohammed, and his usual job is as a shopper for people, he takes a percentage of course, but as he is able to get a lower price in the first place than we would, it’s a win-win situation.

We started at three in the afternoon on our guide’s advice, to avoid the huge crowds of worshippers in the area because that day was Friday. Khan el Khalili is just off the Midan Husayn (Husayn square) which is bordered by the two most important mosques in Egypt, the Mosque of el Husayn and el Azhar mosque. On Fridays all this area is full of worshippers, and many police standing by to watch the worshippers. But Ahmed’s advice stood us in good stead; by the time we got there, mid afternoon, it was “business as usual”.

We had a wonderful time, and shopped quite a lot. Colorful applique wall hangings and cushion covers are very beautiful and very reasonable, an old Egyptian craft which is little known in the west…they are found in the tent-maker’s bazaar, in a covered alley off of the Bab Zuwayla. I also purchased mother of pearl inlay picture frames, a brass camel, a beautiful lampshade with intricate designs cut into the metal, and a shelf made in the style of the mashrabi windows of old Cairo houses.

That evening Rocky took us, on foot, to Alfi Bey’s, a restaurant which is near the Hotel Victoria, and which has been in that area for more than a hundred years. Gleaming woodwork, linens, lace curtains on high long Victorian-style windows—plus wonderful food and conversation. There were really great people in Rocky’s group, all so interesting….!

The next day we all went together, by bus, to Mahmoud abd el Gaffar’s famous shop, four floors of belly-dance costumes! Many of the girls bought the gorgeous gowns rather than the two-piece costumes that most people think of when they think of belly-dancing. They looked so elegant in the long gowns!

While waiting for them to finish all their trying on and deciding, I spoke briefly to Mr. Gaffar. He told me that he used to only have enough business in the winter. But since the festival started five years ago, he has enough business from the dancers attending the festival, to carry him through to his winter season.

After the shopping we all met up with Ahmed Mohammed (he’s known Rocky for years also) and he took us, in five cabs, to the famous Mohammad Ali Street* where we went to a store which sold drums and tamborines and other musical instruments, same store, same family, for generations. Ahmed bargained for all of us. I bought a couple of tamborines, one a heavy aluminum one which was rather expensive, but I love its sound and so does Tish Dvorkin, for some of the songs I play on while accompanying her group.

That evening we went on a dinner cruise on the Nile. After an incredible darwish (dervish) dancer, a belly dancer named Hanadi came out and started getting people to dance. Our group turned into the main entertainment! We really had a wonderful time. I love traveling with entertainers, they seem to have so much fun compared to other people!

Occasionally I looked away from the wonderful entertainment to the lovely scene out the window, of feluccas (the little sailboats in the age-old Egyptian style) on the beautiful greenery-rimmed Nile as the sun sunk below the city skyline. After the cruise, a few of us went with Leyla to a little cafe in the Khan, where a small group of musicians played the most wonderful music I’ve ever heard live. Between songs the announcer called out the names of people who had tipped the band (and in our case, they called out what country we were from!) (as in, “Madame Leni min Amriika”) There was a wonderful singer, an older man, the best singer I have ever heard live. He wore a well-cut galabeya and scarf. There were also an excellent nay player, a wonderful keyboardist, a man on the frame drum, one on the dumbek and a guy who played the large finger cymbals

Later a woman got up and sang, including some Oum Kolthoum songs. The women and couples and children sat in the rows on the side, and single men in the rows near the door. The men in the audience were doing a lot of moving around and smiling and throwing kisses to the musicians. I was in heaven, especially when the leader of the troupe was singing, even though it was hot in there and the air was smoke-filled from the hookahs.

Ahmed made sure we were provided with coffees and waters and anything else we wanted to purchase. He paid for everything and we settled up with him later.

On the day before the festival started, we transfered to the Mena House. That evening was the Opening Gala. We all dressed up, and went up to the ballroom after the “zeffa” on the stairs leading there.

The buffet part of the evening was a disaster because the people were so pushy (and they weren’t the Egyptians!). There wasn’t enough staff at the buffet tables out in the great hall leading to the ballroom. Some of the ladies at our table were very upset as they had waited in line for half an hour, then mobs of people just pushed by. I did end up getting to eat, because by the time those same table-mates did get to the buffet, they really loaded up their plates and shared with the rest of us.

The entertainment was excellent, dancers and a great live band…and waiters brought drinks to the tables. Huge chandeliers made of draped strands of glass beads hung over the ballroom, at least a dozen of them. Moving from one hotel to the other had left me tired, so I drank Arabic coffees, several of them!

The featured dancer that night was the famous Dina. She was really good, and it was exciting to see her perform after hearing so much about her. I would have to say, however, that she is one of the most overtly sexual dancers I have ever seen.

That evening some of the group, including Shira of website fame (who is sooo nice in person!!) went to see the well-known dancer Lucy, at her nightclub, and found it very worth it. The bus driver told them to go straight into the nightclub and not stand on the sidewalk talking, or they would be mistaken for prostitutes!

For the next five days there were several classes a day, upstairs in the divided ballroom. In the anteroom area they had a buffet table service which was available all of the days of the festival, set up with Egyptian “fast food” favorites such as shawerma, falafel, etc. I often ate there instead of in the dining rooms downstairs; not only was the price less, but the people-watching was great. Dancer sitting on little seats and tables covered with bright fabric, all around the room, and the teachers and musicians were hanging out with their friends and families at the tables along the wall—they seemed to all come for the entire day, and they would stop in at each other’s classes to yell encouragement. It was like a party atmosphere. Outside in the city streets, 99% of the women walking down the street were covered with headscarves and long loose clothing.

One evening, Zora and I went on a horse and buggy ride through the streets of the village of Giza. We had a great time, as the open air buggy allowed us to see so much of the lively gathering of people, that went on in the village streets at night!

Shira and Glee, her roommate, went on a camel ride around the great pyramid. They came back sore and tired and hot, but said it was worth it.

One of the aspects of the festival I enjoyed was the opportunity to strike up conversations with dancers from many countries, which was so interesting. I made a good friend of Teresa from Belgium (born in Spain) whom I’d corresponded with before the trip, when she had answered a request for sight-seeing companions. We went out to dinner several evenings, at little places near the hotel and had a great time. She teaches Middle Eastern dance in Belgium.

I found people as a whole to be very friendly in Egypt, as I had on my first trip. The Egyptian staff at both hotels was fun and helpful. Several times I complimented a dance teacher on their class, and they were so gracious, sometimes the women would hug and kiss me!

Every evening there were dance performances in the ballroom, admission was free of charge. The dancers were mostly attendees of the festival. A lot of Egyptians showed up for these shows, including (no surprise) many young men, but quite a few young women and older couples also. There was a party atmosphere.

On the third evening, Morocco’s troupe was scheduled to perform. I was blown away by the quality of the dance performances of these women (and one man, Tarik Sultan!) whom I’d been traveling with. Besides the wonderful solos, there were some great group routines by Morocco’s troupe. they really shone! After the performances were over the band kept playing, and people started jumping up and dancing all over the room, here and there, mostly young men. It was something else.

One evening we went to an incredible dervish show at the Citadel, the huge fort/castle built by Salah al Din to guard against the Crusaders. An incredible musical ensemble, a dramatic drum ensemble with a star drummer who was fiery and dramatic, incredible dervish dancers…..

During two of the days of the festival I’d arranged more sightseeing with women whom I’d corresponded with before the trip. (Thanks to the Middle East Dance List). I spent a day with list-member Shelby Pizzaro (again we were guided by Ahmed) and it worked out great. I loved the experience of going through the Khan, all the sights and sounds and smells, ducking through little alleys because Ahmed knew a shortcut to this destination or that…

My fun ended before the rest of the group, when on a morning walk with Shelby and Teresa toward the great Pyramid, I fell and broke my ankle. I’d been standing with a crowd waiting at the entrance, and a bus came rushing through. Everyone instinctively moved to the right and I stumbled and fell.

It was quite a devastating experience sitting there in shock, being asked to sign letters that stated the cause of the accident (“I just fell,” is basically what I wrote.) An ambulance came and took me to a little hospital in the small town of Giza near the pyramids. There was no lift into the ambulance, and I’m to heavy for someone to carry me, so I dragged myself into it, my foot dangling behind. The last thing I heard as the ambulance pulled away was Teresa’s stubborn heavily-Spanish-accented voice demanding, “I must know where you are taking her.” (Teresa, si estas leendo esto, eres mi angel!)

I was in a wheelchair in a little room, when Morocco came bouncing in. Teresa (to whom I will be eternally grateful) had gone back to the hotel and found Morocco (whom she did not know personally). Morocco bluffed the little hospital and insisted I be taken to one of the best hospitals in Cairo. (We both felt that the doctor at the little hospital seemed excellent, but that there was more chance to be exposed to bacteria which I’d had no resistance to, in a small village hospital.)

I must interject here how important it was that (a) Teresa was with me and went to fetch Morocco and (b) Morocco dropped what she was doing and made sure that I was transfered to the larger hospital. She also fronted the money for the whole thing (in Egypt, operation and hospital stay were $2000 total). The Peace Tours agent was always there and always concerned also.

Having had this experience, I cannot stress more strongly how important it is, when traveling in a third world country, to go with an experienced leader and an experienced travel agency.

I was there at the Salaam hospital for a couple of days, operated on to have two screws in my foot, pinning on the knob of the bone which had been broken off, by the excellent osteopathic surgeon, Dr. Shireen. The little bone at the other side of the ankle was left to heal on its own.

It was rather bleak being there, but I was mostly incredibly grateful to be in that hospital and know I would be taken care of. The nurses all spoke some English, but I ended up using some of my Arabic because the attendants did not. Also, as it was a hospital where the middle class and upper middle classes went, the other people in the room were able to help me, as they all spoke English.

Leyla and Ahmed came to visit and brought flowers and some paper money to tip the nurses. It was good to see them. Rocky and the tour guide came several times also. I can’t say enough about how much I owe to them.

The other people in the room all had family members with them most of the time. One of them, a teenage girl, was watching a station which had all American TV shows. I remember thinking, “This is like adding insult to injury” as I hate most American TV except PBS.

Rocky and her tour guide from Peace Tours were wonderful; as I said before she fronted the money to pay the hospital bill (I’d taken out travel insurance but that wouldn’t get reimbursed until later) and she acted as if it were no trouble! (Two days and two nights in hospital and the operation were around $2000.)

I got out just in time to fly home with my group. The flight wasn’t bad, probably because I was still on pain medication at the time!

I wrote the above article in December 2004.

I shall begin a much longer, detailed account of the trip.

1. On the Way to Egypt Again!
Sitting on the airplane from Phoenix to NYC, it seemed I was already entering a territory much more cosmopolitan than Phoenix. All the different ethnic groups of New York city seemed to be represented on the plane: a family of conservative jews, a mother and teenage daughter from Jamaica, a group of jovial young businessmen who included Indians, Caucasians, Asians, and one guy who looked arab. A Rastafarian guy with fake looking braids. I’d entered the plane following a very attractive light-skinned black girl and was amused at all the guys giving her hopeful smiles. (New Yorkers are nothing if not direct!)

After a long flight with little sleep, (though the circular pillow I’d ordered from Magellan’s did help) I was sitting in JFK airport, blearily writing in my journal:

6:10 AM June 22

I’m sitting in the food court at Terminal 4. the old rickety busses I remember from two years ago are gone, instead there’s a BART-like “Air Train” that goes from terminal to terminal,way up in the air, like something out of that cartoon about space that we used to watch as kids in the 50’s. The others in the “Air Train” were four conservative Jewish guys, all wearing hats….big stiff hats.

Still went up and down several times before I found the food court. There was a map of the terminal but it didn’t seem to have a “You are Here” on it. El Savadorenyas at the next table: several generations of women, abrubt machine-gun voices, the kids totally Americanized.

Jamaicans with littling voices in front of me at the coffeeshop counter, and also behind the counter. “A cran—(voice going up)berry (voice going down) muffin….”.

So tired, a dull persistent ache in my left hip, knee hurt during trip, neck pillow wonderful but didn’t sleep much. delicate sleeping Asians on either side of me, little smooth brown feet of a young girl curled up against the window…”

I can’t open my new face powder, to heck with all of these “new & improved” products.

The Jamaican women seem so gentle and playful with their mothers, saw several examples of that on one plane…
Several loud jocular airport employees sitting lunching at the counter one says to the others, “I can’t drink alcohol; I’m allergic to it – I break out in handcuffs!”

CALIFORNIA GROUP: Rose Adams/ Mesouna Rose, Glee (No dance name), Gloria Torres (Rajah), Yolanda (mother), Audrey (daughter) Lulu Amelia –Najwa Tony: Talia Robyn & Demetrius

JOURNAL In about an hour we shall be in Cairo. Stiff with aches in left hip and knee, slept for a while, the neck pillow really made a difference. They are about to serve us continental breakfast and coffee/tea. It is cold in the plane cabin

JOURNAL June 23 this goes after Victoria Hotel bicycle part stores, hardware stores, bike parts, car parts stores, etc. All men, nobody helped us except one guy, food stalls for people who work there, lemon juiice places, bread (sunbread), cook not hostile but we felt anxious, not afraid. Really Third World. Zora: evening social event, families welcome, mall, souk

JOURNAL. 7 AM June 23 i’m sitting in a dining room built in the 20’S I thnk, parquet floor, aqua walls with raised pattern (paneling) on walls, old prints of 1800 etchings, except for the lack of being able to see out of the windows (dark green velvet curtains, pale filmy linen table cloths, upholstered chairs in same velveteen) perfect

Actual buffet not open yet, an animated trio of Japanese the only others in room, both men tall expressive dark booming voices.