My relationship with that wonderful, talented, unbelievably patient woman goes back over 40 years, to the mid 1970s and went from ”Who is this crazy American? How did she find me?” to a deep and longterm friendship.
It started in 1974, when I saw Bahiga (who is no longer dancing - our loss!) in a NYC club and noticed that her dress was a real, made-in-Cairo thobe beledi – nothing she could have found then in Khan el Khalili. I asked where she got it, thinking it was second-hand from a dancer in Cairo. Bahiga said: “Mme Abla custom made it for me.”
I heard about Abla from both Negwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki - she made their costumes – but when I got up the courage to ask where/ how I could find her, they pretended not to hear me. OK - the secret costumer of Cairo’s biggest dance stars and I didn’t know where she was!!! I was on a mission.
”Please, please how can I find her? I’m going back to Cairo in 2 weeks and have been trying to track her down literally for years!” Wonderful, generous Bahiga not only gave me her address and phone number, she told me exactly how to find her – necessary because her factory was an apartment in a dark, dilapidated residential building on a narrow, dirty, unpaved darb - an alley - next door to a store that made toilets and bathtubs, a stone’s throw from the Islamic Museum. When I first met Abla (1974), I was amazed at how young she was - or at least looked - but she already had four children … and about 10 constant beaders working for her + Haga Tawheda, her diminutive sister-in-law (not to be confused with the other Mme. Tawheda, Abla’s cousin, who also made costumes of nowhere near the same design/ workmanship).
I had four costumes in my then signature vest/ bra with straight skirt/ belt style made that first time, and extra meters of beaded fringe. (When Mahmoud abd el Ghaffar saw the fringe, he asked me if I knew how to make it. I showed him/ his sisters. The rest is ME dance goodies history.)
Abla said: When you come back I’ll make you a real Egyptian style bedlah like Negwa, Soheir, the others. An offer I couldn’t refuse! So from 1976 till this day, I wore her marvelous creations all over the US (then Europe, etc.) in the concerts at my seminars. Dancers flipped over my costumes and wanted their own. Who, outside of Cairo, had ever seen the like?! Nobody had her talent for unusual, complex, classy designs and color combinations. She basked in our appreciation of her creations.
Over the years I brought so many dancers to meet and be costumed by her. Among them: Scheherezade Imports/ Lucy Smith - they formed a great business relationship – the rest is costume history. (Lucy can vouch for my fave story about Abla, me and Negwa’s seafood costume!), Cassandra (of Minneapolis) was amazed when Abla just looked at her, held her hands about an inch or two from Cassandra’s waist and hips and when we went back the next day, she’d made an entire beledi dress base that was such a perfect fit, even the length, it only had to be taken in an inch at the waist & not a tape measure in sight!!!
Many highly skilled beaders Abla trained from scratch went on to work for the many other merchants, who eagerly sought to imitate her success and cash in on the dance goodies for foreigner’s business, but most of them did not have anywhere near Abla’s design genius.
Abla strove to please everybody, so she often accepted more work than she could finish, with the result that the last night of my trips there, I’d be at her apartment till 4 or 5 am, with all the beaders frantically working to finish my costumes, while I drank 800 cups of tea and coffee and had a whole herd of cows over whether or not it would be done before I had to go to the airport. Looking back, it was a big part of the fun of it all!
Come what may, Abla always took time for her prayers - five times a day (she was really Haga, having made the Pilgrimage to Mecca over 10 times) and never worked on Fridays: that was when she’d invite her favorite customers to her home in el Agouza for a humungous, delicious real Egyptian family dinner – that guaranteed we’d never fit in the costumes she’d just made for us.
Sadly, Haga Tawheda, who had worked with her from the beginning, died suddenly of a heart attack. Then Abla needed knee replacements. She never truly recovered from that operation or the loss of her beloved sister-in-law, but she kept producing work of the highest caliber.
How/ why she got into the dance costume business in the first place is a story I’ll leave for another time. It suffices that she did and made consistently fabulous, glamorous costumes for so many dancers when Oriental dance was at its height in Cairo.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end way too soon: on December 28, 2006, my dear friend and the best Egyptian Oriental dance costumer ever, Mme (Haga) Abla died of cancer. It was a huge shock when I found out and a great loss to the Oriental dance world. I’d literally just been in Cairo – for only 5 days – teaching at Raqia Hassan’s Winter Teacher’s Workshop. My schedule was so tight and the hotel so far from downtown Cairo that I never made it in to her atelier on Darb el Emary. Had I gone there, I’d’ve at least known that she was in the hospital and could have sent her my prayers. She’s gone, but I have so many memories and a closet full of her unequalled creations. Still, I will think of her every time I am there or even think of Egypt and miss her terribly!!!