It´s funny how the same person can mean different things to different people.
Mahmoud Reda is known as The Father of Egyptian Folklore, a pioneer and a creative genius who introduced the folklore of his country in the international arts scence, for the first time in History. He did what people claimed to be impossible, a word visionaries, such as Mahmoud, never carry in their dictionary.
He used elements of Egyptian culture nobody thought had artistic value on the stage. He explored the beauty of the bedouins and their desert routines; he showed London, Paris and New York fancy crowds how Upper Egyptian men fight; he transformed the charm of “baladi” (Egyptian term which means “from the homeland”) women into iconic choreographies which brought Egyptian Dance to a level it had never known before.
Dancers, in Egypt and beyond, celebrate him as the face of the revolutionaly “Reda Troupe” and the main source for Egyptian Folklore. Those are fair associations. But, for me, he represents a whole other, intimate & magical, world.
The story of how we met, became teacher and student, at first, then friends and collaborators is beautiful but way too long for this post. I´d rather jump ahead, for now, and hit the goodies.
Mahmoud Reda may have taught me everything I know about Egyptian Folklore but, most importantly, he taught me about life, friendship, the innate love of art in the shape of music, dance, cinema, theatre, literature, painting, you name it. There was no artistic expression we wouldn´t pick at and from. But he went further: he offered me the luxury of having a companion – no name for it yet; I´ll eventually find it – with whom I could talk about anything and everything, even the most embarassing, hurtful subjects.
More than 50 years separate us, age wise, but I talk with him with the same honesty and easiness I use when talking with myself.
His studio, recently sold, in downtown Cairo was my second home during the 8 years I lived and performed in Egypt. I choreographed, rehearsed – with and without my musicians -, studied and prepared dances – his dances, my dances – there. Some times, he would deliver groups of dancers into my lap – “You teach them oriental better than me.” He´d say, with unbeatable generosity.
More often than not, I´d go there just to talk with him, have lunch (he made a point on ordering the fish I liked from my favourite restaurant), watch a musical, listen to new or old music, see a new piece of dance he was preparing or showing him a piece I was preparing for my show or laugh. We laughed and joked a lot. A LOT.
And we sang. In the studio, on the way home, between workhops we taught in and outside Egypt. We sang Cole Porter repertoire, Billie Holiday, Sara Vaughan, Etta James – the good stuff.
Aside from learning and teaching with him – as his assistant -; sharing art and life as a common interest that made us wake up in the morning with shining eyes, he offered me life lessons, delivered with genuine humbleness, which have never left my table. Here´s one I cherish, probably above all others. I call it “The Zoo”.
In one of the many occasions when I was complaining about the corruption and the prostituted business of Oriental Dance in Cairo, he (kindly) asked me to shut up and told me:
-Look, Joana: life is a zoo. – Here he stopped to take a deep breath and take a sip of tea from the cup standing on the table, in front of us. I followed him, attentively, as he drank the tea, suspending my breath. Then he continued:
-People are like animals who live in the zoo. Some are snakes, others are bears or elephants; birds, crocodiles, dogs, cats, lizards, monkeys, you name it. Imagine an animal, there is a person whose nature matches it.
I started getting nervous, my attention wandering around, landing on old photos hanging from the walls.
-Come on´! – I thought. I was not in the mood to hear about people in the zoo. I wanted us to yell – no, not yell, howl – in unison, how unfair, dishonest, crazy and mother f
T%#T&# that and this person had been. All I asked for was sympathy for the suffering and chronical astonishment I was going through. Was that too much to ask?
Mahmoud thought so. He continued, as cool as they come:
– Each animal has its own nature and you cannot change it. If a snake bites you, it´s your fault, not the snake´s fault. Before interacting with her, you must observe, check who she is and what´s her way of living. Ask yourself: what´s natural to her? Not to you – to her! Then you´ll realize how to deal with her. If you know she´s a dangerous, poisonous animal and you insist on sticking your head in her mouth, whose fault it is when she bites you? And she will bite you because that´s what she knows and believes in. Naturally. Not because she´s evil, or good – those are labels. For her, there´s nothing wrong with it. It´s her nature and your judgement, or denial, won´t change it. You have to learn how to deal with the snake. If you don´t want or cannot do it, stay away from her, simple as that. But don´t point your finger – a snake is doing justice to her character. You´re the one who has to learn to deal with it, if you don´t want to get hurt. The same applies to every other animal: if you sleep with a bear, expect to wake up without a leg or an arm. He´s not wrong, he´s being true to himself and his innate impulses. You´re the one who´s trying to deny it (him) by expecting a bear to behave like a dove. And even doves can bite! Prepare to be surprised.
The last thing you want to hear, when the whole world seems to attack you, is that it´s your fault and you better learn how to deal with it. Responsibility was weighing on my back and I didn´t like it.
That talk about understanding people´s nature, as if they were animals, accepting it and moving around/with it made little sense to me. My pointing finger was addicted to judging. It felt good to complain and keep asking why, why, WHY did he/she do it?
As time went by, I got it. And I still do with a depth of understanding that makes life, and my gratitude towards Mahmoud, too precious for words.
To know more about Mahmoud Reda, follow the link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_Reda