THE GHAWAZEE OF EGYPT

by Jasmin Jahal, April 1999 (back)


Who are the Ghawazee? The Ghawazee were one of the most famous dancing tribes in Egypt. Female Ghawazee were called Ghazeeye, and male were called Ghazee. The name Ghawazee was generally thought of as referring to the female dancers. Although they professed the Moslem faith and spoke the same language, they were not really Egyptians, but members of a distinct tribe. The Ghawazee were said to be different in appearance form the rest of the Egyptians and were considered by many to be the most beautiful women in Egypt.

When were the Ghawazee popular? Western writers reported Ghawazee dancers flourishing as an accepted part of the Egyptian society in the 1700’s. This lasted until about 1834, when they were banished due to religious pressures. The primary reason for the banishment was because they did not wear face veils.

Where did the Ghawazee live? In every large village of Egypt, particularly in Upper Egypt, and in the delta towns, the Ghawazee lived in settlements of tents and huts. They prized girl babies and considered a son to be an economic misfortune. Ghawazee females, without exception, were raised to be prostitutes and dancers. Before a Ghawazee girl married, her father would sell her favors to the highest bidder. She would then usually marry a man of her own tribe.

Where did the Ghawazee dance? The tribe always traveled around from city to city, attending fairs and going to troupe camps. Ghawazee women danced in the streets, usually passing the tambourine after their shows. While the men of the tribe played instruments, the women danced either singly or with a few other girls, accompanying themselves with finger cymbals. Often they danced for festive occasions in the harem, at marriages and at births. They had the prestige of being the most well-known dancers in Egypt.

How did they dress? They were among Egypt’s most fortunate citizens. Their economic structure allowed their women to acquire considerable wealth, fame and good marriages. The rich Ghawazee dressed in silk and wore necklaces, anklets, heavy gold bracelets, and coins across their foreheads. Sometimes they wore a nose ring. Usually, their dress was almost identical to that of Egyptian middle class women. Both men and women blackened their eyes with kohl and hennaed their hands and feet as was the custom of the Egyptian middle and upper class. Some Ghawazee acquired considerable wealth and rich homes, slaves and cattle.

What are typical dance movements of the Ghawazee? Theirs is an earthy dance, rather heavy, quite voluptuous, and definitely not graceful. Shimmies, bumps, and spins are a commonality of all forms of belly dance, but their hip shimmies usually twisted forward and back, parallel to the floor, rather than a vertical up-and-down hip movement. They included many shrill cries and zaghareets, some floor work and backbends, an occasional head slide, all the while playing the finger cymbals. The gestures most often implied a calling to the audience to participate and clap with the music, as well as to acquire money.

Some resources: If you are interested in acquiring authentic Ghawazee music, Aisha Ali of California has produced an excellent CD entitled Music of the Ghawazee. Also Aisha Ali produced an outstanding documentary videotape, Dances of Egypt. It shows actual footage of Ghawazee dancers. For an excellent pictorial and narrative reference of Middle Eastern Dance, pick up a copy of Serpent of the Nile, Women and Dance in the Arab World by Wendy Buonaventura.

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©2000 Jasmin Jahal