Friday 27th June
And so to Cairo for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, organised by Raqia Hassan. I’m here with Josephine Wise, who’s teaching at the festival, and we’re lucky enough to have a room at the Mena House Hotel where the activities are all taking place – and a view of the Pyramids. Every so often as I write this I look up, and there they are, in all their glory. It’s heaven.
I came to the very first festival, which was held in Sharm El Sheik, but haven’t been back since. It’s certainly grown in size in the intervening years. There are a number of big names from Cairo teaching, including Dina, Randa, Soraya and Mona El Said. And the British, Europeans and North Americans are definitely outnumbered by the Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Brazilians and Venezualans.
The first person we saw when we arrived at the Mena House was Zaza Hassan, who’s now something of a mega star, being a judge on the Lebanese Star Academy (for dancers).
In the course of the next few hours, at the opening gala, we bumped into Leila Haddad, Jillina (Belly Dance Superstars), Nabila (from Berlin), Yasmina, Morocco and, of course, Raqia herself (pictured here with Jo. I realised just how long I had been doing this dance, thinking back of the number of workshops I had taken with them, many of which I had helped organise, either independently or for MADN. I suddenly felt very old. At the time there was no Ahlan Wa Sahlan, nor many other international festivals. It seems like a lifetime ago now.
I used to stay at Nabila’s when I did Horatio and Beata’s intensive but hadn’t seen her for several years. She’s a very warm, generous person and it was great to meet up with her again. She’s got a stand here to promote her festival and international dance magazine, Belly Divas.
We also met new faces, including Viraj, a Canadian male bellydancer, who was here with a British film crew in tow. In fact, along with Caroline Alfifi, who was helping with the festival organisation, we seemed like the only Brits there. As the MC welcomed each nationality, there was a load roar from the relevant tables. Except when he mentioned the United Kingdom, and there was a deafening silence. But that may have been due to the fact that those that were there weren't sitting together and were reluctant to stand up and cheer on their own. So the MC moved swiftly on to the US...
The opening gala tonight was packed and it was a challenge to find anywhere to sit. Such was the organisers' desire to ensure that no photographs were taken that bags were searched and cameras had to be handed in. It wasn't that reassuring to see them then piled in a corner.
On the bill were Soraya, Randa and Dina, all big international stars. We hadn't seen Soraya before and were really impressed. Soraya, a minuscule Brazilian powerhouse with huge energy and a style which incorporates plenty of Latin moves and spirit. She did a great set which included the Nagwa Fouad piece, Set el Hosen, and a Persian semai, followed by a famous Farid El Atrache Spanish influenced number in which swished her skirt in a suitably flamenco manner. She ended with an absolutely fabulous drum solo. It was playful, cheeky and dynamic, incorporating samba steps, a Brazilian shimmy and lots of bottom flicks. It was refreshingly different from the usual modern Cairo style.