When I think about the beginning of my career in Egypt, the first thing that comes to my mind, and the one I miss the most, is not the external success, the daily appreciation of Egyptian audiences or the pride in the glory achieved through my sweat, tears and love.
I think, before anything else, about my musicians. After them, only Om Kolthoum comes to mind.
For me, success is what remains invisible to the public – the moments, crossroads, decisions and character affirming turning points that made me who I am today. The times I said NO to money, mainstream stardom and comfort in exchange for my body or, what´s probably worse, my soul. The occasions when I was alone with my musicians, in rehearsal, listening, taking notes, appreciating the world each instrument, and artist, brought to my life. The afternoons I ´ve spent, sitting still, drinking tea and listening to the radio with strange men in coffee shops – places where I, as a woman, wasn´t supposed to be.
Nothing would make them respect me as the common love for Om Kolthoum. They´d ask my name, where I was from, what was I doing in Egypt – the whole diplomatic protocol. I´d half-answer, leaving my profession, one they´d associate with prostitution, out of the equation. But I´d make sure I´d hit the wound, the strategical point, the door to their soul: Om Kolthoum.
The instant I mentioned I loved her, I became Egyptian. Not in my passport – who cares about passports, anyway? – but in my heart.
Om Kolthoum is deeply ingrained in Egyptian identity. From where I stand, I cannot separate her music from Egypt. For me, as for the men with whom I gathered in street coffee shops, her music and their life is one and the same.
In a country – I´d say world – where people aren´t allowed to feel, dream and follow their heart, Om Kolthoum is an oasis abundant in water, palmtree shadows, fresh, sweet dates ready to be devoured and hope. Hope in love; hope in beauty; hope in humanity.
She represents The Dream, The Heart that is often silenced, The Soul of Egypt.
Once the ice was broken – “Do you really love Om Kolthoum, miss?” -, I became one of them. And, by God, I felt the sweet taste of success.
One of the inner struggles foreign Oriental Dancers deal with, especially the ones who choose to become professionals, is making justice to the culture they´re representing, incorporating, at least in their dance, Egyptian Identity. This is not a question of rejecting one´s culture and trying to copy the gestures, and expressions, of people from another culture. That´s nonsense. It´s a question of getting into the Core of the culture which gave birth to the dance we´re representing and honouring it. Understanding the craft so we can serve the craft. For that, as for so much more, there was no better Master than Om Kolthoum.
I´d sit with the men, lost in eternity, sipping tea, our eyes closed, united in one single ecstatic experience. For a while, they were me and I was them, linked through the unifying – religious – voice of Om Kolthoum and the life stories her repertoire explores.
She got us, man! She really did. She knew how it felt to fall in love, have our heart broken, go through hope, despair, jealousy, kindness, empathy, rage and light. She was The Mother – Om Dunya – who embraced us, the listeners, in her endless, cozy lap.
Her singing remains, in my head, dangerously close to the call for the prayer a good Muezzin will pour out of a mosque´s minaret; the Coranic training of her childhood and her peasant – earthy – origins come through in every note.
The truth contained in each word reminds me of the truth each of my movements must contain; the freedom contained in each silence reminds me of the freedom each of my dance step must contain; the open sensuality, the soul and the humanity in her voice reminds me of what I have to aim for: becoming human. Fully human.
When dancers ask me about Om Kolthoum, why they should study her life and music and dance to it, I´m always shy. Speechless. A little bit embarassed. I wonder how they don´t know the answer to those questions. How can they not want to study with the biggest Egyptian Dance Master?
Studying Om Kolthoum is studying Tarab, Interpretation, Musicality, Classical & Modern Music, Technique, Egyptian Culture, Identity, Hopes & Dreams, conscious & unconscious mind; studying Om Kolthoum is studying ourselves, our lives and how those two can meet in Art, elevating the dance where it´s supposed to be: at the altar, next to the Goddesses and that old, forbidden fruit called Love.
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