Characterized by colorful dresses, rapid hip movements, and brass finger cymbals, the Ghawazi were once a group of traveling dancers who roamed the regions of rural and upper Egypt. Having gained notoriety by the first half of the 19th century, these indigenous dancers, whose nomadic lifestyle informed much of their artistic practice, eventually made their way to the nation’s capital before being banished on account of impropriety in 1834. Having evolved both in style and practice over the course of their shortlived existence, the Ghawazi eventually adopted a technique that mirrored that of the Sa’idis, who were known for their use of the mizmar flute and tulle bi telli; a traditional texture made from cotton or linen, and strips of metal. While exceedingly hard to find in present-day Egypt, dancers of the Ghawazi, at the height of their popularity, were much more than a group of performers. In distinguishing themselves from the raqs sharqi, or traditional dancing of urban Egypt; which was informed by formal and classical Western styles, the group, through their portrayal of gender identity and body politics, challenged the practice of tolerance, acceptance, and curiosity within early Egyptian society.
While often credited for having formed the foundations of modern belly-dancing, the Ghawazi were not frequent recipients of recognition during the time of their existence. Criticized for their “low-class dancing,” by the likes of Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha, Egypt’s de facto ruler from 1805 to 1848, the group were disregarded by much of Egyptian society on account of their perceived immorality. With their kohl-laden eyes and henna-printed fingers, palms, and feet, the group; which often comprised both male and female dancers, were rejected from respectable harems across the country, thus being forced to perform in rural streets and lowly ranked neighborhoods. With most of their criticism arising from religious officials and the upper echelons of Egyptian society, it is speculated that the Ghawazi was indeed well received by both men and women outside these ranks. However unable to navigate a changing cultural landscape brought on by urbanization and modernity, the group eventually made their way out of Cairo in 1834.
With expressionist dance having evolved significantly across not only parts of the Middle East, but much of the Western world, it is somewhat difficult to conceive the accusation of immodesty that was once bestowed upon the Ghawazi. Comprising long ottoman coats, typically ankle-length but sometimes shorter, costumes of the group were something of a nod to conservatism, especially in contrast to that of modern and even traditional belly-dancers. Bearing skin in the slightest regard, the dancers were exposed through slits known as Yelek or entari that trailed down the coat’s middle, showing off brightly colored harem pants that were worn underneath. Complimented by elaborate headdresses and small metallic cymbals, the costumes were rich in color; alluding to the richness of the stories told by those wearing them. Bearing tales of culture, tradition, and history, the Ghawazi were often accompanied by musicians from their tribe; whose traditional songs and instruments further enriched their overall performance.
Following their banishment in 1834, the Ghawazi continued to gain notoriety in French and European Orientalism. However, being met with criticism, on account of having essentialized the Ghawazi in service of imperial power, cultural studies have since evolved their view of this intricate cultural phenomenon in a manner that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced outside the context of Western society.
As cultural discourse of the East continues to expand beyond its characterization by the West, Middle Eastern artists, creators, and creatives are reopening and reimagining the archives of their heritage. Among them is Bassam Allam, an Egyptian photographer, and surrealist whose latest work revives the Ghawazi in a postmodern, fantasy context. Inspired by the way in which these dancers have been portrayed in classical Egyptian cinema, Allam’s project celebrates the aesthetic of the Ghawazi in a contemporary, modern-day context. A fashion story housed upon construction sides, landfills, and other unconventional nods to everyday life, the photographer tells a story that is infinite in its interpretation. A poignant reimagination of what could have been the alternate ending, or indeed beginning, to the story of the Ghawazi, the project hinges on a reality in which each character is normalized, accepted, and tolerated.
With most outfits created by Ahmed Serour, an Egyptian designer redefining trash couture and deconstructing Arab masculinity, the project imbibes tradition through an obvious lens of modernity. Combining different pieces from his work alongside other Egyptian designers such as Farah Abdelhamid, Jayda Hany, and Mohanad Kojak, Serour constructs a bricolage of attire, merging millennial Egyptian kitsch aesthetics alongside traditional belly-dancing costumes. In a bid to celebrate the varied and versatile union of old and new, tradition and modernity, the project is not only a celebration of the Ghawazi, but a reconsideration of what they might have been.
Photography and art direction: Bassam Allam
Model: Sherouk Farid
Style: Ahmed Sorour
Makeup: Kiki Beaute Boutique
Assistants: Yasmine Allam and Khaled Allam