Nadia Hamdi: Giving Joy to the Heart and Eyes

Habibi Vol 15, No. 2

First Published in Habibi, Spring 96, Vol 15, No. 2
By Morocco

“I don’t understand what the problem is, what they find wrong. It isn’t written we must always be serious to be good Muslims. I’m a good Muslim: I thank my God every day that I am alive. Music and dance make people happy. I like to make people happy with my dance, to give joy to their hearts and eyes. My art is a gift from God. Why did they call me a bad woman if I danced?”

(Nadia Hamdi, Cairo, 1995) 

In l972, at a wedding in the Nile Hilton’s biggest ball room, I first saw Nadia Hamdi. Sweetness, charm and joy were evident from the moment she danced into the room. Before that, the crowd was stuffy, aloof and self-impressed: not a smile and hardly a glance at the two preceding “names” on the Cairo dance scene. Before her entrance piece was over, however, they were clapping, smiling and bouncing in their seats. The atmosphere remained joyful not only through Nadia’s entire “set” of Oriental and candelabrum (best I’d ever seen in Egypt!) dances, it stayed that way for the rest of the night. She had worked true magic.

I asked, but nobody knew her name. She was just “somebody from Mohamed Ali Street,” a “wedding dancer,” bint il-belad, not a “star.” Oh, yeah? Not in my opinion. Describing her to everybody in the dance scene I thought might know who she was got me nowhere: sharqi “stars” and their musicians, agents and impresarios didn’’t mix much with the Mohamed Ali crowd then. Those lines have since blurred and almost disappeared. It would be six years before I saw her again, although I tried to find her every time I was in Egypt. That’’s how impressed I was.

When I led the Secret Egypt tour I (1978), one of our special, private dinner performances took place in “Back of the Moon”, a banquet-tent amid the pyramids. Ali Gabri, the manager, took me aside and said our dancer that evening was somebody truly special, who had finally been convinced to expand her appearances to catered dinners and respectable family restaurants, whereas before she had limited herself to moulids, weddings and other “family” celebrations. He said she was from a musical family going back many generations and, although not yet a “star”, was very much respected, both within and outside professional circles. He was sure we hadn’’t seen her before.

Midway through our main course, a very nondescript 4-6 musician takht (combo) drifted in, dragged chairs from a corner, sat themselves at the far end of the tent, and after minimal and not totally adequate tuning, struck up a typical “dancer’s coming” intro. Without the usual overlong, flowery announcement popular then (especially since there were no microphones or amplifiers in the tent), the dancer entered, giving off pure sweetness and sunshine. It was her! After six years, she turns up at my party, still nameless…

In a simple costume, not one of the fancy high-glitz confections just coming into fashion, with flesh-colored, somewhat baggy cotton tights under her straight skirt, she enchanted everyone with Oriental and raqs al assaya (cane) dances. The music started again. What now? She took my “ex” (the Russki) by both hands and pulled him up. No dancer by any standards, and extremely reluctant to demonstrate it, especially in public, she was so charmingly insistent, even he gave it the old college try.

Ali Gabri, grinning like the Cheshire cat, sneered: “You said your Americans can dance.” “He’s Russian and a civilian,” I shot back, challenged enough to forget my nervousness and tie a scarf around my hips, as she let the Russki go and came for me. A minute into our “duet,” I glanced at Ali, who stood there open – mouthed. Not only had I made my point with him, I had the mystery dancer I’’d been seeking for so long by the hand!

After six years, I had to know: “Ismek eh?” (“What’s your name?”)
“Nadia, bes?” (“Just Nadia?”)
“Nadia Hamdi.”
“La, inti Nadia il Mumtaza!” (“No, you are Nadia the Wonderful!”)

We danced together for over 5 minutes, as if we’’d known each other for years, then she got a bunch of my “ducklings” up to join in. We “jammed” for almost 1/2 an hour, then she looked at her watch, gasped and waved to the band. They disappeared so fast, I almost thought it had been a mirage. Cinderella had left the hall with both slippers firmly on her dancing feet. How could I find her again?

After the tour was over and the group left, I stayed for an additional month for my version of R, R and R: Research, Remember and Record when possible. Now I can look for Nadia: at least I had her name this time. I called Ali Gabri. He said he had reached her through one of the musicians, who had since left for Paris and he was also trying to find her again. I asked nightclub managers, hotel concierges, avid sharqi fans, miscellaneous musicians. Fat lot of good it did me – the answer was always: “Nadia meen?” (Nadia who?) The fact that it had been far too dark in the tent to film her dance was an additional downer. It was as if, like Cinderella, she had returned to the scullery to wash floors in obscurity. Would I have to wait another six years?

In typical Egyptian fashion, the eve of my departure I got a last minute invitation to an inner-city wedding party in Sayyida Zeinab (a working-class district in Cairo) from a friend of the groom-to-be. At first, I said no. I had to pack, sort my notes and films, it’s very uncomfortable being a total stranger: the usual reasons … “Come on. It’ll be great. It’s going to be a big crowd, the whole neighborhood plus all the relatives and friends. You’ll blend right in. There’s going to be at least two, maybe three dancers from Mohamed Ali Street, tannoura (Dervish) and a dancing horse. “Dancing horse!?” “What kind? One with four legs or two guys in a horse suit?” He didn’t know and there was only one way to find out.

A whole street was turned into a three-sided tent by heavy fabric panels. Large spaces on two adjoining streets had been appropriated for additional tables and chairs, all of it lit by bare bulbs on frayed electric wiring, haphazardly (definite emphasis on the “hazard”) strung on anything high and near enough. A rickety wood stage was set up half in/half out of the open end of the tent, visible from inside and one of the streets. My acquaintance explained that the tent’s other side was closed, even though there were tables and chairs on the street behind, so the “conservative religious element” could still attend the celebration and not be “offended” by the show. (It didn’t all start with Khomeini!).

By some miracle, we arrived at the perfect moment. The procession was only a few blocks away, tars,mazhars and zaghareet audible throughout the neighborhood. They were slowly wending their way to the tent, our excitement and anticipation mounting with each second. Finally, we could see the dervish leading the zeffa, his cohorts right behind, providing the driving rhythm: dum-da-da-da-da dum-da-da. Every few yards, he would stop, whirl a couple of minutes and proceed.

Between the “band” and the happy couple, with her back to us, was a dancer with the tallest candelabrum I’d ever seen on her head. They got closer and she turned around. NADIA! I thought I would faint!

It’s really Nadia, turning up again, when I’d almost given up hope of finding her. Is it Kismet or what? This time I’m getting an address or phone number before she can escape. As the zeffa passed, she saw me and without missing a beat, took my hand, pulled me to her and kissed my cheeks.

Blend right in, huh? Since my “cover” was blown anyway, after the main procession passed I grabbed my escort’s hand and “maneuvered” us to the front row of chairs in the tent. Nadia, candelabrum still blazing, led the bride and groom to their traditional dais at the side, then danced through and around the carpeted tent, executing splits in the aisles from time to time, before mounting the stage and doing the rest of her dance: the best Raqs al Shemadan I’d ever seen in Egypt.

When she left to change her costume in the bride’’s family’’s apartment, I followed, explaining how hard I’’d been trying to find her and thought I’d never see her again when she showed up at the tent, only to disappear. I insisted she give me her address and phone number then and there and asked why she wasn’t starring in deluxe Cairo hotels: she was certainly better than a lot I’d seen there.

She said mail in Cairo was unreliable, and gave me her mother’s phone number, because mama was retired and almost always at home, while she, herself, was often out shopping or at work, but made sure to stop by and see umi (mama) almost every day. (Egypt still had not caught on to the idea of answering machines!)

I told her I was leaving later that night, but at least I had a phone number and would return to Cairo in the not-too-distant future. I promised to call from New York before I left for Egypt next time, in’sha Allah (God willing), and went back to my hotel to finish packing.

I didn’t see the dancing horse that night, amount of legs notwithstanding, but the evening had been a smash success: I had Cinderella’s mother’s phone number!

I called several months later, before my next trip to Egypt, but she was away, filming “Sah el Nom”. (Her too-short dance scene is on Trytel Video #222: I think they’re out-of-business.) I finally reached her during the trip after that and invited her to my hotel for lunch. She came with one of her sisters, for propriety’s sake.

With my minimal Arabic, but a lot of gestures and enthusiasm on both our parts, her story began to emerge at last and continued with very many subsequent visits and conversations over the ensuing years.

Nadia Hamdi was born Aisha Ali Mohamed Mahmoud, one of five daughters, The family’s main profession was music and dance. Her great-aunt was the famous Najia el Eskandrani. Najia and her sister, Dawlett, Nadia’s maternal grandmother, both learned candelabrum directly from its reputed originators: Zouba el Klobatiyya (named for the klop or lantern that she wore on her head when she did her “specialty” dance and who also taught Nazla el Adel) and Shafika el Koptiyya (she was a Copt).

Her paternal grandfather, Mahmoud Azmy el Aleyti, was a respected kanoun player. From the first, little Nadia demonstrated a real interest in dance and would jump up at home whenever there was music, so when she was only six, he started taking her to weddings with him, to watch the dancers. Beautiful and charming even then, she dazzled those around with her innate talent, feel for the music and overflowing joy.

Speaking of those times, Nadia says: “It was wonderful to have had the opportunity to watch all those dancers, to observe their different styles, to learn something different from each one, every time, no matter how often I saw the same dancer. My favorite was Zouba el Klobatiyya, one of the most famous candelabrum dancers of all times. She wore a klop that, to my child’s eyes, was as tall as the sky. Oh, how it dazzled my eyes – and her costume! I still remember her charm and originality of style. In the last thirty years, different and new fads and styles have come and gone, but I still think that for the most part, the traditional dances were the most difficult, the most beautiful, the best — the ‘Golden Age’ of Raqs Sharqi.

Dawlett thought Nadia was too young and wanted to wait a year or two, but grandfather Mahmoud said she was ready – to start teaching her in earnest. They worked at least an hour or two every day, after morning prayers, before school. She learned to play sagat (finger cymbals), do splits, balance the assaya (cane) and an ever-heavier shemadan. If she made a mistake with the sagat, Dowlett would slap her hand gently. If her step was off the music, she had to start over. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know.

Fascinated by all dance forms, she started taking ballet when she was eleven to improve her turns, arms, stage presence and spatial awareness: things that weren’t so necessary in most of the much more contained and space limited styles at moulids and beladi weddings and, therefore, not part of Grandma Dawlett’s teaching repertoire. However, some Western influences crept in and Nadia noticed that dancers often had large stages or banquet hall dance floors to “cover” and realized she needed to be much more “space conscious” if she were going to be a big name in the Oriental dance field.

Unfortunately, not everything was sunshine and light: the family’s provider, her beloved grandpa Mahmoud, had a problem. He began to stay out all night after his jobs, spending everything on drink and cards. The women in the family formed their own “troupe” and performed at night to earn the money for life’s necessities.

Often, Nadia went to school in the morning with little or no sleep after dancing till the wee hours at weddings and moulids, which lead to one of the most traumatic episodes of her adolescence.

One morning, when she was I4 years old and in high school, Nadia fell asleep at her desk — again. This time the teacher noticed, strode up and angrily awoke her. Noticing traces of lipstick on Nadia’s lips, the teacher pulled her to her feet and, in front of the whole class, demanded to know: why couldn’t Nadia stay awake through class and what else was going on? Good high school girls never wore makeup!

Nadia tried to explain that she, her mother and sisters had performed all night at a wedding, to make money for food and clothes. The teacher, a strict conservative, was shocked and horrified. She screamed at Nadia that she was a fallen woman, a whore, that she would most certainly go to hell and wasn’t fit to mix with “good girls” like those in the class. The rest of the class crowded around and started calling her names.

Why wouldn’t they listen? Nobody wanted to understand that she was doing nothing wrong: she was with her family, creating beauty, earning a legitimate living, a job like any other, a good girl, not a loose woman. Nadia ran sobbing from the room and never went back.

Because she was a “good girl” from a family of good repute, very shortly after puberty she was engaged to be married to Salah Mohamed, an extremely handsome young sharqi and folklore dancer and choreographer, also from a well-known and respected musical family. He made Nadia’s unique (and extremely heavy) shemadan by hand, as a gift to her. Salah and Nadia made a beautiful couple. His brother, Abdel Wahab Mohamed, composed such classics as “Fakarouni”.

For a while Nadia, her sister, Mona and Salah performed together as a folk trio, until Mona felt her three children needed her at home and stopped performing. All Nadia’s sisters stopped dancing after they had had several children and lost their figures, the usual custom in their circles. Besides, they didn’t love performing the way she did. The family understood Nadia was gifted, the exception, and would surely be a star one day.

She and Salah limited themselves to one child: their son and treasure, Mohamed. She continued working, improving, sure success would come with training, practice, honesty and creativity. As she put it herself: “A professional should first love his profession; fame will always take care of itself. When I dance, I can feel the love and warmth of the public, as they clap to the music. It gives me all the energy I need.”

Though Nadia was asked many times to sign extended contracts with five-star hotels, Salah was suspicious: he knew many were hired because they were “friendly,” and he feared for Nadia’s and, as a result, his reputation.

She convinced him that many others danced in the deluxe hotels, made good money and kept their good names. After all, even the Arts Police knew that Nadia only danced and never expected baksheesh from her or harassed her. He relented, with one condition: that her photo wouldn’’t appear on billboards or in ads in the papers.

At long last! Nadia Hamdi began dancing “for the public” (as Cairo Today put it) at the Airport Concorde and the Heliopolis Sheraton hotels in 1981. The crowd loved her. They hadn’t seen anything so sweet and lovely since Soheir Zaki, and Nadia had the added element of overflowing joy.

January, 1982, was Cairo’s coldest winter in 100 years, but its hottest for great dancers in the better clubs, theaters and hotels. At the Concorde, Nadia enchanted my Secret Egypt II group with her Oriental and Candelabrum dances. It was Thursday, wedding night, and she invited a newlywed couple in the audience to join her on stage, turning her raqs al shemadan into a zeffa for them. (I have it on super 8 sound movie film: no really portable video cameras then. I transferred it to video in l984.)

By popular demand, Secret Egypt III saw Nadia’s show twice in 1983. The first time was at the El Salaam Hyatt in Heliopolis, where she did an Oriental and assaya. I’d finally convinced my extremely “straight,” costume supply – making “brother,” Mahmoud abd el Ghaffar, to come with us to a night club for the first time in his life, so he could see the beauty of Oriental dance for himself and why we were so impressed with Nadia. (I promised him there would be no liquor at our table.) The first live Oriental dancer he’d ever seen.

Of course. Like everybody else anywhere she has danced, he was enchanted and surprised: sharqi wasn’t any of the terrible things he had heard. Now he understood why so many of us danced ourselves and came all the way to Egypt to see dancers.

The second time was our private tent dinner party. I had told the tent caterer not to tell her who it was, but that we had asked specially for her, to surprise her. She started her Oriental. When she got to my side of the room and saw me, she stopped in mid hip-drop, ran over and tried to pull me up. “No,” I said, kissing her, “we’re here to see Nadia Hamdi. Once is never enough!”

She did an extra-long Oriental for us and milaya lef. It was the first time anybody in my group had seen milaya lef. They loved its “LaVerne and Shirley” sauciness, gum chewing, and all. She took off the armful of thin plastic bracelets that were part of her costume and gave one to each woman in my group, as a souvenir. Already much loved by Cairo’s dance fans, Nadia’s American fan club was growing by leaps and bounds.

When I gave my Cairo tour agency the itinerary for my Secret Egypt trips, Nadia Hamdi’s name was always right there with Negwa Fouad, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdou. She appeared regularly at the Mena House, starred at the Nile Hilton for seven years and at the Sheraton Gezira in 1988.

Often the subject of feature articles in magazines and newspapers, including Cairo Today, Nadia was invited to dance at two galas in Paris, with full orchestra. Of course, Salah went with her. He did most of her choreography and arranged for her special music. Together, they were a successful team.

Tragedy struck: her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Egypt has no health insurance, Social Security or Medicare. Her siblings all had large families of their own and were barely making ends meet. Nadia spent every cent she had managed to save on her mother’s operations and medical care, only to lose her, after all. She misses her mother to this day, and cries whenever she talks about her or looks at her photo.

Dance was a big consolation, something Nadia felt she still shared with her mother, if only in spirit. Umi had always been very proud of her talented daughter and encouraged her.

Nadia’s son, Mohamed, was studying opera and organ at the University of Music. “Fundamentalist” influences were growing stronger, with militant student activists on all college and university campuses. They harassed him daily, calling him ibn ra’assa (dancer’s son) even in the classroom! The way they meant it, it was a serious insult.

It began to affect his studies. In addition, Salah was getting worried about attacks on some female performers, others making a big show of “taking the veil”and retiring. They badgered Nadia, until she agreed to stop performing and adopt hegab (Islamic dress). She even changed her passport picture to one with her hair covered. But I could see that she was miserable. If she didn’t dance, she felt like she was dying inside.

Years before, when I suggested she try teaching and asked her to do some workshops for my groups, she refused, saying her son needed her to be there when he came home from school: days were for family, nights for dancing and the public.

I really got on her case this time: “Mohamed’s in college, not a kid anymore. You’re going to start teaching classes and seminars. Tell Salah it’s during the day, for women only, in a closed dining-room and you can stay in hegab. It’s good money. I won’t let it rest till he says yes.”

She laughed and promised to ask. We were both thrilled when he said OK. Nadia’s natural talent for teaching improved with each workshop. She gave her all and then some. Mahmoud abd el Ghaffar offered a room at his shop for small classes, if students didn’t have a place.

When I taught in Europe, I told my students to get in touch with her for lessons if they were in Cairo and wanted real sharqi from a dancer with generations of experience behind her. Everybody who did, loved her teaching.

I wanted to bring Nadia to America for a seminar tour. It would be her first time away from Salah since their marriage, so I assured him she would never be left alone. I — or one of my unindicted co-conspirators — would be with her at all times and take her from one location to the next.

He was difficult to convince, but nowhere near as frustrating as the myriad and unimaginable bureaucratic technicalities from both governments that followed. In fact, if it were not for the tremendous help of Arthur Smith, lovable Aussie manager of the Victoria Hotel (my “home-away-from-home” in Cairo), it would not have been possible.

Originally planned for May, 1995, conflicting seminars in two of our cities mandated we change schedule. Meanwhile, through a friend of mine, Nadia did a well-received seminar tour in Germany. Much closer to Egypt and easier to get to, Salah went with her and even taught a couple of classes himself. A total success. A Turkish impresario there booked Nadia for a subsequent series of concerts. Nadia was performing again!

Finally, it was time for her U.S. debut and tour. Nadia’s plane arrived at JFK in New York at 6:00 a.m., September 28, 1995 and Tarik and I were there to meet her. Her first seminar and concert held at my studio in New York were sold out. Then she was off to Richmond, Madison and San Francisco.

She taught Oriental to “Mashaal” and milaya lef at all four seminars. The only small “fly in the ointment” (and who could have guessed?) was that when there were no explanations beforehand about the flirtatious, gum-snapping tradition of Mohamed Ali Street dancing, and what/who bint-il-balad really is, a few misunderstood the “character” elements of milaya lef and asked why Nadia was “chewing gum” on stage or during the seminar.

However, most just enjoyed the dance for what it was: pure fun. The others caught on after I explained. I won’t bore you with the details: you have already read the ecstatic revues. I’m still getting calls, asking when she is returning.

It was a pleasure showing her all the typical tourist sights and she wanted photos taken at every one to share with Salah and Mohamed when she returned. Like the Pied Piper, she charmed everyone within range, even on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty!

During the tour Nadia called home and got the news that Salah was seriously ill and had been taken to the hospital. She was distraught to be so far away from him, but Mohamed said he had the situation well in hand.

Nadia totally conquered all four cities and was thrilled to be performing again: she had not realized quite how much she missed and needed it. When it was time for us to part, we both cried like babies.

Upon returning to Cairo, Nadia learned that Mohamed had not been totally forthcoming with her: Salah’s kidneys were in very bad shape and he needed dialysis treatments twice a week. Now it’s up to three times. The good news is Mohamed is almost finished with his education and he hopes to be able to help his mother pay for the treatments soon. Nadia thanks God that the money from the seminars, classes and concerts have been able to keep him going thus far.

The great news is, although for the moment her stage career in Cairo is still “on hold,” she has a whole new horizon before her. Nadia Hamdi is dancing again and will be back in America for a more extended tour in Spring of 1997. Who knows if or when it will happen again after that. After all, the pumpkin might arrive at any moment to take Cinderella home from the ball.

Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu) has performed and taught seminars in the United States, Canada, Europe, Morocco, Israel, Turkey, China and Egypt. Her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, was created in New York City to present Mideastern and North African dance in concert and school settings, and has been awarded numerous choreographic and cultural services grants. She has spent over thirty-two years researching on-site the music, steps and styles of regional dances in the Middle East.