Notes on the Ghawazee, Assiut,
& The Dark Moon, October 2021.
Inspired by the following passage from De Traci Regula’s Mysteries of Isis, I performed a short ritual dance offering at my altar to a traditional Ghawazee song (chosen at random) entitled “Sagat: Banat Mazin Dance” by the Abu Kharage Mizmar Band from the 1973/1974 album Music of the Ghawazee, featuring original field recordings by Aisha Ali in Upper Egypt:
“Some writers believe that the ghawazee dancers of modern Egypt are descended from a caste of sacred dancers employed in ancient times by the pharaohs and at the temples. Ghawazee music is haunting, using droning instruments and drums that make it very easy to slip in dancing trance.”
The Banat Mazin, are the specific group of Ghawazee that the band plays for throughout Aisha Ali’s recordings. Ghawazee means “conqueror of the heart”; a reference to the indigenous Egyptian female dancers who are said to “invade the hearts and minds of all those they see and touch”.
I became fascinated by this idea of dance and trance as vehicles for ritual possession, which are also significant components of the Yoruba religion. During bembes, misas, and other community celebrations, unique songs and dances are performed to honor and invoke the Spirit of each Orisha, which may result in a person being “mounted”, which is the experience of having that Orisha take temporary possession of the body, in order to communicate its presence, impart guidance, confer protection or share healing messages to devotees.
While this has never happened to me, there are a few occasions where I thought it was about to. To this end, I had a recent dream about preparing myself to be mounted by Oya and remember saying to myself that I needed to be careful. Prior to this dream, during the Rites of Passage Project performances in the “Room of Dissolution”, this past August, I had two such occasions where I felt myself slipping out of my body and into trance possession. First, while I was lying in Savasana (“dead man’s” pose in yogic practice), and then again, while I was in a state of deep meditation sitting on the bench, focusing on opening to the Divine Mothers that were hanging across a clothesline, over my head in the shape of individual black hexagons. I actually felt myself being lifted out of my seat. At these points, I had to seek out the “House Doula” on our floor (a woman who posted herself close to specific entrances in the house in order to provide emotional, mental, or spiritual support to the artists and performers in their respective rooms), to ask that she keep an eye on me, in case I showed signs that I was moving into deep trance. I didn’t feel comfortable or safe enough to move into such a vulnerable state with visitors coming to ‘view the show’ in that environment.
Back to the dance just prior to this October’s full moon! To prepare, I took a long shower with the intention of gently and carefully being loving toward every part of my body. I’ve been really self-conscious about the extra weight I’ve put on since the pandemic, and have had a hard time feeling beautiful and sexually attractive. I decided to make every limb a prayer and an offering as I touched it. I anointed myself with shea butter and lavender oil afterwards, and applied peacock blue kohl liner to my eyes. I painted my lips red. I wore my tiet, an item that initiates are asked to procure in the first three levels of training. The tiet or tyet, known as the Knot of Isis, which symbolizes women’s reproductive organs, and the blood of Isis, Herself. It is the sacred buckle which was used to bind the devotee to Her power and to protect oneself from harm. I closed the curtains, and lit candles at all my altars. I began by ritually cleansing my sistrum and myself, by shaking it in each of the cardinal directions and then over my body from head to toe. Afterwards, I played the music and danced naked with a black belly dancing scarf tied around my hips.
Reminded of Ananda Ray’s Quimera method, an intuitive dancing technique that I learned through fellow Priestess of Isis, Esi Evans, for my practicum film, I chose to move the parts of my body that wanted to express themselves in the moment. I did my best to allow myself to flow with the music I was hearing which indeed, had a slow, sensual, and mesmerizing energetic quality. I was immediately drawn into the rhythmic clapping; the alternate chiming of the finger cymbals, and the thick droning sounds of the arghul (the double reed clarinet) and the mizmar (oboe). Together with the tabla and the rababa (a two-stringed fiddle), these instruments bear striking similarities to those played by Indian Rajasthani musicians such as the Langas, Kabelyas, and Manghanyar peoples. When I began to feel my body opening up even more to the movements, I felt my heart aching and fell down to my knees weeping. I offered my tears to Isis and to my Ancestors. I later felt more rejuvenated and grounded than I had in weeks following this action, which I’ve since repeated. I’d like to offer it once a week to continue to rebuild a stronger connection to my body and my sensual/sexual self.
The Ghawazee Dancers + Thoughts on the Romany
This experience led me to the 1982 documentary: The Romany Trail: Gypsy Music Into Africa and Euorope directed by Jeremy Marre which offers an in-depth focus on the Ghawazee of Egypt, a nomadic Romani tribe whose roots have been traced back to ancient India, Persia, and Kurdistan. In 1835, Edward Lane published The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, one of the first sources of information that introduced the Ghawazee to Western audiences. He writes:
"Egypt has long been celebrated for its public dancing-girls; the most famous of whom are of a distinct tribe, called "Ghawazee." A female of this tribe is called "Ghazeeyeh," Lane began. "Their dancing has little of elegance; its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side. They commence with a degree of decorum; but soon, by more animated looks, by a more rapid collision of their castanets of brass, and by increased energy in every motion, they exhibit a spectacle exactly agreeing with the descriptions which Martial and Juvenal have given of the performance of the female dances of Gades. The dress in which they generally thus exhibit in public is similar to that which is worn by women of the middle classes in Egypt in private, that is, in the hareem; consisting of a yelek, or an 'anteree, and the shintiyan, etc., of handsome materials [yelek-- tight-fitting, floor-length, long-sleeved vest, worn over a qamis -- wide-sleeved gauzy blouse and shintiyan, voluminous pantaloons tied around the hips. A red tarbush, or cap, was worn on the head with a bejeweled turban, and a convex filigree gold disk, the kurs, was worn on the cap. A shawl was tied around the hips. -ed.) They also wear various ornaments: their eyes are bordered with the kohl.and the tips of their fingers, the palms of theirs hands, and their toes and other parts of their feet, are usually stained with the red dye of the henna . . . In general, they are accompanied by musicians (mostly of the same tribe), whose instruments are the kemengeh or the rabab [a sort of violin -ed.] with the tar [tambourine - ed.); or the darabukkeh [goblet drum -- ed.] with the zummarah or the zemr (an oboe-like instrument-ed.] . . . They dance (with unveiled face) before the men, in the court, so that they may be seen also by the women from the windows of the hareem; or they perform in an apartment in which the men are assembled, or in the street, before the house, for the amusement only of the women [on the occasion of a wedding or birth -ed.] . . .
The Ghawazee being distinguished, in general, by a cast of countenance differing, though slightly, from the rest of Egyptians, we can hardly doubt that they are, as themselves assert, a distinct race. Their origin, however, is involved in much uncertainty. They call themselves 'Baramikeh' . . . and boast that they are descended from the famous family of that name who were the objects of the favour, and afterwards of the capricious tyranny, of Haroon Er-Rasheed . . . they probably have no more right to call themselves 'Baramikeh' . . . perhaps the modern Ghawazee are descended from the class of female dancers who amused the Egyptians in the times of the early Pharaohs. From the similarity of the Spanish fandango to the dances of the Ghawazee, we might infer that it was introduced into Spain by the Arab conquerors of that country, were we not informed that the Gaditanae, or females of Gades . . . were famous for such performances in the times of the early Roman emperors. However, though it hence appears that the licentious mode of dancing here described has so long been practiced in Spain, it is not improbable that it was originally introduced into Gades from the East, perhaps by the Phoenicians.”
I have always felt a close affinity for the Romani people, perhaps because of the ways I feel my hybrid birth marked my identity as a “black sheep”, or an undesirable (non) Indian belonging to a “low caste”. I was always told this is why we came to America: so that my siblings and I would not be considered “second-class citizens”. Similarly, I have been called a “lost African” due to how removed I’ve been from the indigenous cultures and practices of my Bemba ancestors, as well as to the ways my interests and identity as a bisexual woman and artist have seemingly conflicted with, or stood in opposition to Black American (and usually heteronormative, cis-male-centered) agendas for liberation in the Black community. My place often seems to be in no place, and in that way my spirit has always felt nomadic. Throughout my life, even as I’ve anchored myself in the beloved black and brown communities that have embraced me and the complexity of my “Black Americanness” or “American Blackness”, I struggle with feeling like an outsider, who never quite belonged to any community fully, and who may never be fully accepted by any community either. In my undergraduate study of cultural anthropology, I was quite taken by the book Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, by Isabel Fonesca, where I learned how derogatory the term ‘gypsy’ actually was. I became more aware of how this term has been woven into all that we think we know about individuals of these ancient lineages, through the continuous commercial exploitation and sensationalizing of Romani culture as reflected in various images and stereotypes popularized by the West.
Interestingly etymonline.com defines the terms “gypsy” and “Roma” as such:
also gipsy, c. 1600, alteration of gypcian, a worn-down Middle English dialectal form of egypcien "Egyptian," from the supposed origin of the people. As an adjective, from 1620s. Compare British gippy (1889) a modern shortened colloquial form of Egyptian.
Cognate with Spanish Gitano and close in sense to Turkish and Arabic Kipti "gypsy," literally "Coptic;" but in Middle French they were Bohémien (see bohemian), and in Spanish also Flamenco "from Flanders." "The gipsies seem doomed to be associated with countries with which they have nothing to do" [Weekley]. Zingari, the Italian and German name, is of unknown origin. Romany is from the people's own language, a plural adjective form of rom "man." Gipsy was the preferred spelling in England. The name is also in extended use applied to "a person exhibiting any of the qualities attributed to Gipsies, as darkness of complexion, trickery in trade, arts of cajolery, and, especially as applied to a young woman, playful freedom or innocent roguishness of action or manner" [Century Dictionary]. As an adjective from 1620s with a sense "unconventional; outdoor."
While getting lost inside this Youtube Playlist on the Ghawazee, I saw several videos on Khairiyya Yusuf Mazin, one of the last descendants and dance practitioners of the Nawari Ghawazee lineage which is one of Egypt’s most well known Ghawazee families. The Nawari Ghawazee refer to themselves as Domman. It is these dancers that have served as the inspiration for traditional styles of Egyptian belly dancing widely practiced today. Dancer and journalist Edwina Nearing writes:
“The Ghawazi are the famed female dancers described so often in Western travelers' accounts since the 18th century, and probably the major wellspring of Egyptian danse orientale. A hundred and fifty years ago, professional female dancers of both Cairo and the countryside were called "Ghawazi;" now the term Ghawazi is used in Egypt to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform in the traditional manner, who had not added anything to their repertoire from ballet, Latin American or modern Western dance as the "oriental dancers" of Egyptian city nightclubs have done.
For the usual sad litany of reasons -- Islamic fundamentalism, economic pressures, Westernization and official opposition -- the old Egyptian custom of employing Ghawazi to entertain at weddings and other celebrations in the villages is dying out. The Ghawazi of Lower Egypt, an area bounded on one end by Cairo and on the other by Alexandria, have long been going into these cities to work, where they have been influenced by the dance as practiced in the cities. Thus the style of Lower Egypt's few Ghawazi, probably due to this intermingling, seems to be fairly homogeneous at present.”
These factors, among others, have made it difficult for the authentic Ghawazee to economically sustain the traditional customs and cultural practices from which their distinctive identities have been cultivated for thousands of years. In a letter to Edwina dated from October of 2012, Khairiya Mazin herself writes:
"...I want you to know that Raqia Hassan of the Cairo Festival has made a deal with Mahsoub the rababa player, Musa's brother. He brought her someone named Hanan from the family of Muhamed Abdel Rahim, the rababa player. They had Hanan say 'I am Khairiyya's cousin and Khairiyya was my teacher.' Mahsoub did all that to cut off my living from the Cairo Festival, and also Raqia Hassan, as you know, is greedy for money, wants someone cheap in order not to part with the amount she was paying to me. And I beg you, my dear friend Edwina, by the life of our friendship and the sanctity of bread and salt, to make an announcement in the newspapers and inform all the foreigners who undertake the trip to Raqia Hassan at Mena House that Raqia Hassan has hurt Khairiyya in her work and thrown Khairiyya out in order to get someone cheaper than Khairiyya, and that she [Raqia] falsely advertises that she [Hanan] is from the Mazin family in order to make her [Hanan] look famous to the foreigners. And I ask you, my dear, to write in the magazine that she [Hanan] is not of the Mazin family and not related to Khairiyya in any way. And my dear, as for news of my work, there is no work -- work is extremely scarce . . ."
“There is history between Khairiyya and the rababa players of the Luxor area. Some of the rababa players are racketeers, led by Muhamed Murad, the leader of the rababa band who disrupted Khairiyya's workshop at the 2003 Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival (see Shira's report of this incident in a Gilded Serpent issue for that year). Murad had long pressured Khairiyya to participate in his prostitution ring.”
Photos from left: the Mazin sisters Khairiya and Raja Mazin in front of their home, Khairiya dancing, and Edwina Nearing and the Mazin sisters dancing, from Pepper Alexandria’s Archives at The Mazin home in Luxor, Egypt, January 1979.
Assiut: The Cloth of Egypt
As I reflected on these rich and complex narratives, I thought of my practicum film, and realized that the costume I wore for The Dance To The Sisterhood of the Hive ritual performance, was heavily informed by those worn by the Ghawazee women of Egypt! I ended up choosing a black Assiut dress with gold embroidered patterns that I bought from a vintage Assuit shop on Etsy called “Desiree’s Treasures”. Assiut is a single stitch embroidery technique worked on a ground cloth of Egyptian cotton tulle. Assiut shawls were sold to Westerners traveling up the Nile in the last quarter of the the 19th century, which in turn, created a demand that has been sustained into the present. For Western tourists, possessing a piece of Assiut cloth distinguished one as a wealthy aesthete. In the early 20th century, Assiut shawls became a must-have item present during traditional Egyptian weddings. This cloth was then worn by various dancers, actresses, singers and postcard models, and its popularity eventually grew to include women of all classes.
Of further interest to me, is the stitch itself, which is a variation on a traditional cross-stitch. The front side of the stitch has a ‘Z’ shape and the back, an ‘X’ shape. The cotton cell grids into which the stitch is sewn are hexagonally shaped, which reminds me again, of the beloved Bees; it’s almost like sewing gold or silver patterns onto a honeycomb. My Assuit robe features flower motifs which represent all things beautiful and fragrant. The border has triangular diamond and pyramid shaped patterns which are believed to contain the mystical power to ward off evil. At that time, I hadn’t thought about these connections, but in retrospect, I feel they are profound.
In the book, The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut: Assuit-Asyut-Tulle-Bi-Telli by Dawn Davine~Davina and Alisha Westerfeld, the origins of the name Assiut are described:
“Assiut can be spelled in many ways. It is the name of the Upper Egyptian town that was known by Cleoptara as Lycopolis, it’s Greek name. Before that, the ancient Egyptians knew the town as Sout. This ancient name was preserved by the Indigenous Coptic peoples whose language, Coptic, is now extinct, preserved only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church...The name Assiut was derived from the Egyptian word for guardian or Sauty due to its location as the middle point of the Nile, separating North Egypt from the South.”
The Dark Moon
Between the rituals, the dancing, and my study of the Ghawazee, I’ve been enjoying reading Mysteries of the Dark Moon: The Healing Power of the Dark Goddess by Demetra George. Demetra George powerfully unpacks the dark phase of the moon and its connections to cyclical cosmology. This includes seasonal and plant cycles as well as personal cycles, where we may go into varying periods of dark phases initiated by closure phases in our lives. The weeks just before our birthday (mine is coming up on the 9th of November); during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause; in the process of aging and death; or through personal loss or trauma, we experience the power of the dark moon. Demetra explains:
“The new, full, and dark phases of the moon’s cycle mirror the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction as seen in the beginnings, middles, and endings in all of our life endeavors...the waning part of the lunar cycle corresponds to destruction. What was wanting to happen has happened, the purpose has been accomplished, the function of the form has been fulfilled..It is at this point that we enter the dark moon phase, the transition between the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. This process is called transformation, a process that occurs whenever any life form has fulfilled its purpose and used up its store of vital energy. It then becomes necessary for that form to be broken down in order to liberate the contained energy so it can be revitalized, recharged, and made available again to be infused into a new life form...The matter then breaks up, dissolves, and is reabsorbed back into the formless state of nonbeing “from dust were you made and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19) much in the same way that the universe falls back into the black holes.”
The chapters end with journal reflection questions which I’ve started answering. I was on the train when I began, and didn’t have my journal so I wrote down some of my initial thoughts on some random receipts that I had in my purse.
I again return to “The Room of Dissolution” for the Rites of Passage 20/20 Vision performance installation, as this is the very phase; this dark moon time, that I’ve been investigating for over a year now; an intermediate state of formlessness.