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  • Writer's pictureBadriyah

The State of the Awaleem in Egypt, 1958

Unique and long awaiting source of information on Awaleem in the Golden Era of Raqs Sharqi. Let me introduce you to the article from El-Mosawer magazine from 28 October 1958. You will learn more about Shafiqa El Koptiya, Nabaweya Moustafa, and meet ostas Anous, Aisha and Khokha, who were interviewed for this article. You can read the translation into English below. Thank you Karim for the translation!


This article is a primary source of verbatim accounts of former Awaleem from 1958. These accounts contain racist and misogynist language!

The State of the Awalem in Egypt

The Khedive gets jealous of Shafiqa Al-Qibttiya… and other stories

It is a big country with its leaders and subjects. Their reputation “flew” in Egypt for more than one hundred and fifty years, and gold rushed to them in rivers... And then the storm blew. It overthrew the state, the gold, the leaders and the subjects... And only the body parts remained... pieces of women... and pieces of music..!

El-Osta (The Master) Anous was considered one of the pioneers and figures of Awalem. She used the most beautiful dancers and singers. Her band included a group of well-known musicians… And suddenly, she left the world of “Tarab” and got satisfied with the world of worship, praying and fasting, and making a pilgrimage to the sacred house of God. Nevertheless, her connection to art has not been completely cut off… You can see her watching her daughter (Nabawiya Mustafa) as she dances in front of her to correct her (Nabawiya's) mistakes.

Note: The word “Osta” in Egyptian slang has been passed down from the Mamluk era, and it means the master or the skilled craftsman who stood in a certain industry and was famous for it.

El-Osta Anous says: Those Awalem are obsolete (no longer their time)!

Muhammad Ali Street, it is evening time. It is not easy to penetrate its paths, lanes and ascending and descending alleys without being guided by one of the neighbourhood experts...

While our guide was telling us about the past glories of the street, we saw a structure emerging in the dark from a crooked lane. We could hardly read its name, 'Darb Tobuzadeh', formerly: 'El Awalem'. The structure resembled humane chaff sawdust as if it was a house remaining from a woman… And we asked: "What is the reason for that mortal old woman to leave her residence at this time of the night? When it is more appropriate for her to seek comfort in the last days of her life?"

And our guide replied:

"She is looking for food..."

"Does she not have a family, a son, or money to protect her old age from that question?"

"Everyone has abandoned her, the family, the son, and the gold."

"Gold? And did this woman have gold?"

"She had gold that couldn't be counted... She lived the life of a former princess... She used to bathe with milk and champagne and owned her adornment of gold and jewellery... She was a leader in her state... the state of 'The Awalem'."

She Challenges the Khedive of Egypt

The great 'Alma' sat talking to us about her past and her past glory, and tears were falling profusely from her eyes, which were extinguished by hunger, poverty and disease... She told us about her colleagues, her nights, and her great teacher Shafiqa Al-Qibtiyya...

The street: "Darb Tobuzadeh", formerly: El Awalem"

She said: "My teacher was Shafiqa Al-Qibtiyya, the leader of the Awalem in the whole East. Her popularity rose during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmi II. She was so wealthy that she bought a chariot dragged by six horses, like his cart. The 'Qawasoon' ran around it as they ran around the 'Affendina the Khedive' chariot. Which made him hate her, especially when he learned that people loved her while she was riding and thought she was the Khedive... And when Shafiqa learned of the Khedive's anger because of her cart, she rode it to Abdeen Square. She left it there as a gift to Afendina the Khedive, who satisfied his ego that he seized the second ride in the country... But my millionaire teacher, whose feet were always the kiss of the country's notables, died poor and destitute asking people for money for medicine... And the woman became involved in painful circumstances and refused what we gave her of aid..."

And she disappeared without greeting us or saying goodbye, while our guide said:

"This woman is strange... She does not extend her hand to anyone who knows her or she knows... Instead, she asks for charity from those who are ignorant that she was once sitting on the throne of Awalem in Egypt. Please do not mention her name to not hurt her feelings."

And the guide proceeded to roam with us the ruins of the state that had been overthrown by modern invention and the progress of the city and the arts... the state Awalem.

She told us about her leader, Zanouba Shakhla' and her daughter Gamila, Amira Al-Serafieh, Bamba Kosher, Amina, The Iraqi Fatima, Anous, Zouba Al Metahraka, Khokha, The Egyptian Aisha, and Nafusa Azzam... And she told us about the language they used in their conversations so that others would not understand it. And we kept digging for the remnants of the ancient state.

Those Awalem are obsolete (no longer their time)

In a humble house, we met the 'Hajja' Anous... Yes, the Hajja... El-Osta divorced the life of fun and joy to live in a world of worship, fasting, prayer and pilgrimage to the Sacred House of God.

Anous lives with her daughter, Nabawiya Mustafa. She refuses to have her picture taken on the excuse that "she looks ugly without eyeliner or powder." So we promised to publish only the nice picture...

Hajja Anous stood up to show us how she used to dance when she was an Osta… Alma!

"Is it true that Awalem is obsolete?" Anous licked her lips and answered:

"Of course...After the men entered the market and started supplying dancers and monologues for weddings...there weren't any ostas left for the likes of us...

We used to live in glory and grace, and we, the ostas represented the real state of tarab. We celebrated great weddings in large houses and elegant palaces. Our singing and dancing parties were all manifestations of art at one time. A new bride believed that the greatest wish for her was that the dancers give her a "Zaffa" on her wedding night. All of us "Awalem" used to establish our own state on Muhammad Ali Street. We have an alley officially in our name, in the direction of the "Weapons Market", called "Harat Al-Awalem" (The Awalem Alley)."

"How did you join the state of 'Awalem'?"

"My aunt was an 'Alma' who worked with Zanuba Shakhla', mother of Nabaweya Shakhla' and Gamila Shakhla'. She took me with her often. Then I got married when I was young and had my daughter (God bless her) Nabaweya... But my husband died and left me without a certainty, so I started working with my aunt. I had mastered the job from her, so I soon became an osta. I used in my work a musical group whose one of its members was the talented artist Mohamed Abdo Saleh... The wedding parties rained down on me, and I sang and danced for the bride in front of the kosha while I was wearing the golden belt that bears my name."

"And where is that belt?"

Anous laughed and said: "I sold it along with the jewellery that I had so that I could spend its money on my life."

Anous said: “Where are the old days, when the pound had its great value and the life was a real life?”

"How much did you get paid at the party?"

"Five pounds on average, excluding tips... I remember that at a wedding party in "Mensafis" town in the governorate of Minya, I collected around three hundred pounds in gold. I distributed five pounds to the band and kept the rest for myself... and I remember that the least amount I collected at a wedding was no less than eighty pounds... I always performed at the weddings of Sirag El-Din and Rifaat and Al-Badroui families... The most beautiful bride I took care of at her wedding was married to Doctor Kateb."

Then Anous sighed: "Ah... Those were the days."

Note: The word 'Zaffa' means the procession made for the bride and the groom during the wedding ceremony. 'Kosha' is the stage where the groom and the bride sit.

El-Osta Khokha, daughter of Hafiza

It felt normal when we went to the home of Osta Khokha, the Alma, to ask her why she chose the name Khokha. She laughed and sat on the sofa, adjusting the handkerchief around her head.. and she said:

Khokha is still laughing about singing to the bride “Etmakhtary Ya Helwa Ya Zeina” while the bride was very ugly.

"My real name is Zeinab, but the name Khokha was given to me by Siti Umm Ninti (grandmother)... and (my mother) was a great professional Alma... Her name is Hafiza... I received the basics of art from her... I got married thirty years ago... I got married twice. And my first husband was Brada, who worked in the water company. The second was Qumsungia, and he is my current husband..."

In the conversation of memories, Khokha told us:

"I tell you the truth, I am 'Baladi', and I love the 'Baladi'... I only like to ride in horse carts and wear 'melaya laff' (rolling sheet), and I used to go to the wedding wearing the sheet and the burqa. Until I approach the wedding venue, I take off the sheet and put the cap and the diamond crown on my head..."

"Do you remember the most beautiful bride you performed to at a wedding?"

"I performed for many beautiful brides, so I don't remember them... But I don't forget a certain bride who was ugly, and my job forced me to sing to her: 'Etmakhtary Ya Helwa Ya Zeina' and 'Enzor ba Ainak Ya Gamil, Beida ba Shaa'r Asfar Gamil', while the invited women almost killed me for this obvious hypocrisy.

Osta Khokha was keen to adjust the handkerchief around her head, as she still retains the beauty of her face and her smile, and says: “I like being”Baladi”... And horse carts riding”.

Zooba “El-Kloubatieh” carries the “Shemadan” (Candelabra) on her head!

The Moving “Zooba El-Kloubatieh”

The Moving Zooba or Zooba El-Kloubatieh… People’s eyes almost ate her when she danced the “Shamedan” dance…

At the end of Muhammad Ali Street... close to the Al-Rifai Mosque, we sat in an old house, waiting for the madam. The moving Zooba, or the Kloubatieh. She was called 'The Moving Zooba' because she used to dance in a serpentine movement. She was also called the 'Kloubatieh' because she used to dance while carrying a huge candlestick on her head. And the madam, the moving Zooba, came in. She came in the form of a fat lady, big body, wearing a nightgown that featured large flowers on it. She sat on a sofa, extravagant in greetings and salutations. And we asked her:

"Why did you quit working?"

She hit her chest with her hand in astonishment and said:

"I quit working? Who said this? I co-starred in 'Rommel's Treasures' Film. Then I was invited to dance in 'Fatwat al-Hussainiya' with my candelabra. But when I went to the studio, I found that they wanted me to teach this dance to one of the girls using my own candelabra, so I refused and went back to my house. I thought they wanted me. They were satisfied with presenting dance with a candelabra that weighed about two pounds, while my candelabra weighed ten kilograms. I also teach the dancers you hear about, like Katy, Liz and Lynn."

Political Parties at Weddings

And Glory be the changes of the conditions… She told (El-Mosawer): “Only I could dance with the candelabra on my head.”

Zooba told us a funny story that happened to her at a wedding that she went to perform at in Upper Egypt. She said:

"You know that we depend mainly on tips at weddings that get collected from the invited guests and the friends of the new couple. When I went to celebrate a wedding night in a town in Upper Egypt, I noticed that the invitees were divided into two political parties. There was rivalry and competition between the two parties... That competition became clear when I was dancing, so if one of the members of this political party paid a pound, someone from the opposite political party paid two pounds. So I intended to lure this political party to toughen up the competition for my benefit to collect a good sum of money. And when the evening ended, and I was ready to return to my house, I searched for my 'tabla'... It was the old custom to put the tips in the drummer's 'tabla'... But I was surprised by its disappearance... Someone stole it, and it contained a huge amount of money... And I went back home with nostalgia."

The Bride Satire

At a demolished house in the Bab El-Wazir neighbourhood of the citadel, we went to seek the Osta Aisha El Masreya, the alma who was the talk of the gatherings of tarab twenty years ago.

There we were greeted by an old woman with a thin body. You could almost see her bones from under her clothes. We glimpsed in her features of a man before assuring that she was a female... She introduced herself to us, saying: "I am Aisha El Masreya (Aisha, the Egyptian)."

Aisha sat telling one of the funny stories which she encountered while she was performing at weddings and parties... She said:

"The ululating ululated in the bride's house, welcoming my band, which I used to send before me to herald my arrival... and when I arrived at the wedding venue, the baladi drum blew to greet me, as the custom followed among the people of art... I sent my girls to the upper floor of the house to accompany the bride to sing and dance around her until she sat in the "kosha" in the midst of the wedding attendees... But a long time passed without the bride or the girls attending, so I got annoyed and started losing my nerve. Suddenly I heard laughter and hustle, and curiosity led me to catch up with the girls... In the bride's room, I realized the reason. I saw my girls almost fainted from excessive laughter as they pointed to the bride... the poor woman was a genius of ugliness. She put pounds of powders and colours, made her black face like a colourless monster, and she became closer to a goblin than to humans… My anger became intense... I excused myself to take over the wedding of this ugly woman. I was only used to beautiful brides. And when it was time for the bride's wedding, I improvised among the invitees the following song, performed by the band and their music: "Oh, you black as the blackness of coal, your hand is like a meat cleaver, your husband said to the other grooms. Oh, I'm disappointed with this mud."

Once upon time, this broken human used to fill people's ears with singing and their sight with beauty... By the name of Aisha El Masreya... A lot of fans were flowing around her like gold.

Osta, in terms of service

The woman sighed sadly, recalling the past. She made a desperate attempt to hide the corroded sides of her old black dress and said:

"I was a dictator of my time, and the sultanate of a large flock of dancers, and everyone who aspired to be a student on my hand would go to my house to serve in it and sweep, wipe and wash... and then master the job and join the troupe, and keep advancing the degrees of (Al Awalem) art until she becomes an osta like me. As for me, I was taught by Zanouba Shakhla' and Amina Al-Sarafieh."

The Egyptian Aisha hesitated somewhat before asking us in shyness:

"Will you give me something in return for taking a picture of me? ... Do not think that I am a beggar, but my son's illness and disability made me look for money by any means. I used to own three big houses, living from their income. Then my daughter died, and my heart broke. My son got sick six years ago, so I spent on him everything I owned... My house was a gathering place for friends, I started looking for any of them, but they all ran away from me… My kitchen was full of a variety of food, meat, whiskey and cognac bottles. Now, I can't find my daily sustenance…"

In the corner of the room, the wreckage of a man, who was lying on a mattress on the floor, moved, so the woman rushed to him... She ran to her sick son, asking him what he wanted... But is there anyone answering?

The Dancers School

Here our tour ended, among the ruins of the state of the Awalem... The state that was like a school in which all the artists who excelled in dancing graduated... in the past and the present. The state that is full of the most wonderful and interesting adventure stories… Its heroes are the beautiful girls who rose to its throne once. The youth turned away from them and gone, everything was taken from them, and they became destitute. Many of them could not find their day's food!

If you would like to support the Raqs Sharqi Museum, in searching for antique & vintage items, buying them, archiving them, preparing scans & translations, and publishing them online so everybody can see them for free, you can become museum's PATRON. Thank you for your help!

1 Comment

Selma Pezza
Selma Pezza
May 11

I"ve cried a lot reading their stories.But I think their magnetic soul will live forever in aur steps and in your dance. They came before us, I honnor them!

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