Saturday, June 8, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part II

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger! The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt. This week's post is Part II. You can read Part I here.

After the long, cold night ended, I awoke to the beautiful sun shining outside our window and I took in the view.  We could see part of the Saqqara pyramids from the home, just on the other side of the village trash heap.  Each morning I awoke, I would sit and watch various villagers bring their trash to this heap and burn it.  I would also witness other people, several children, and many dogs go through this trash looking for what treasures and food they could find.  Though occasionally the wind would blow the wrong way and fill the house with a unique aroma, it was a humbling experience to see every morning.  Morning prayers rang out from a van that traveled through town.

We dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.  Each morning it was held on the second floor around the Dome at 8am.  The Dome is a breathtakingly beautiful room built by the host family.  Perfectly round, painted a calming bright blue, gorgeous wood floors, two alcoves for holding items, and a roof vent that extends above the Dome and is inlaid with lights, this space is truly unique and special. The acoustics alone are amazing.  The shape of the room causes voices to be tossed around, bouncing off walls and floor.  I could not hear the person standing two feet from me speak, yet I could hear someone whisper from the other side of the room.  There is no secrecy in this room.

For breakfast we sat on cushions lined up along the wall and ate from giant silver tables, engraved with many markings.  We had fresh fruit, cheese, bread, and, most importantly, homemade falafel!  According to what I’ve eaten in American restaurants, I don’t like falafel.  This, however, was amazing!  The men of the house made it fresh every morning; I could have eaten a bucket of it.  Perfectly crisped, salted and seasoned just right, it really brightened my morning and I looked forward to it each day.

Let’s Dance?
After breakfast we prepared for our first day of training.  Everyone met in the Dome and there were light introductions with names and where each person was from.  We began warming up by singing.   Those of you who know me know very darn well I’m not a singer, unless of course margaritas and karaoke are involved (Lady Marmalade anyone?).  I thought it an odd thing for a dance retreat, but what the heck, let’s try.  Everyone gathered into a circle, joined hands and began singing.  What, you may ask, did we sing?  Whatever sound moved you.  No chanting.  No song.  Just voices.  It was a neat experience, though not really my thing.  It lasted for what felt like 20 minutes and would be repeated throughout the dance retreat.  I was ready to dance.

Dancing had to wait.  After singing, we were then taught a routine that would happen before each class and at the end of each class.  One by one we went around the circle chanting to each other and mimicking moves that each person created on the spot.  There are 15 people.  It took a long time.

Finally, we get to dance!  I can’t wait to hear some heavy beledi, get into my hips and let loose!  Only, it wasn’t quite time for dancing.  Instead we were taught about the skeleton and we moved according to each part of the spine (cervical, thoraci, lumbar, sacrum).  As a former Biologist, I’m very familiar with the spine (heck, I’ve seen the darn thing first-hand).  I really appreciate when people take the time to educate dancers about the body and how to use safe technique.  This was becoming a bit much though.  The lessons lasted at least a full hour, maybe longer.  I came to belly dance.  Let’s dance already.

Several more activities occurred in the Dome throughout the day, and we did have a break for lunch and bread making (more on that later).  Finally, we got to the Beledi.  We trained for 6 hours and only the last hour was dedicated to what I’d traveled thousands of miles and paid thousands of dollars to learn.  Though I was sorely disappointed with the lack of beledi dance, I was not disappointed when it was taught.  Maria is a very good beledi dancer.  Earthy, grounded, really in the hips.  It was wonderful.  We danced and then ended with our long circle chant/mimic routine.

“Optional” Sightseeing
Before coming to the retreat, each attendee was given a breakdown of activities, what is included in cost, what is not, what to expect, etc.  We knew our fee paid for accommodation, training, some of the meals, the Saqqara pyramids, and to hire a Beledi Band and a Sufi Group (which we learned on arrival was canceled).  We knew if we wanted to do the extra group activities we would need to pay for them.  What we did not know was that we would not be allowed to leave the house.  Once again, this information would have been useful BEFORE we arrived in Egypt. 

Why could we not leave?  That was never fully explained.  A few times Leilani and I stepped just outside the front door to wait for the group, but we were quickly pushed back inside either by Maria or our guide.  Whether this was for our safety or some other reason, we still do not know.
In our PDF it was stated “there are a number of things you can do [in Abu Sir]; horse riding around the Abu Sir pyramids, going into the Abu sir Pyramids, they are closed to the general public, but the care taker will take you in for a price.”  I love horseback riding and would have gladly done this.  However, we were not allowed to even walk through the village on our own.  I had really looked forward to meeting the villagers, wondering through the streets, shopping, seeing daily life, taking everything in at my own pace.  I feel these outings are when people really take in culture and meet new friends.  Instead, we had to stick to what the main group wanted to do or be stuck in the house.  Leilani decided to opt out of one of the forced-optional activities; she was tracked down by Maria and told she HAD to pay.

So, we paid for all the ‘optional’ activities up front, something I later learned one should never do. 
Bread-Making with Mama and Sewing

Weirdness aside for now, during our lunch break we got to see how the local women make bread every day.  We traveled as a group through part of the village to a small structure with a giant oven inside.  There we met Amar’s mama (Amar* is the eldest son of our host family and our guide throughout the trip).  She had dough prepared and showed us the way they roll it with their hands then slide it to the back of the giant oven.  Of course we all devoured the bread afterwards.

One of the highlights of this mini excursion was meeting the family donkey!  She was right next to the small bread-making building, grazing on greens.  Apparently she’s a bit cranky, so we didn’t get too close, but she was a beauty!

We also stop by a local woman’s house who has agreed to make custom galebeyas for those of us that brought fabric.  She measures the fabric using the line from her nose to her hand.  She sews on an old hand-crank machine.  It’s amazing to see and it only took a few days to have the dresses finished.
Khan el Khalili

After lunch, a little more touchy-feely with Maria, and the one hour of beledi, a small group of us traveled into Cairo for the market.  Maria did not want us to go, but go we did.  It was after sundown and several shops were closed, but several were open.

I enjoy bargaining when I travel and shop.  Occasionally I bargain in the US.  I think it’s fun and creates a great repartee between seller and buyer.  I very much enjoyed Cairo’s world-famous bazaar and picked up some great items.  Lots of sights and smells, a giant mosque, pushy Egyptian men trying to sell you junk for triple the price.  It was awesome!
We also stopped into a local café for a cup of coffee and shisha.  Egyptians love their Nescafe and their sugar.  Every time I asked for tea or coffee with no sugar, I got strange looks. 
We made our way back home, showered (this time it was hot!) and slid into bed.  Goodnight Egypt.

Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

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