In an era dominated by the musical gyrations of the very famous ra’asa, Dina and many lesser known clones, in a now very conservative and Islamic Cairo…many dancers look towards the past for inspiration. However, few dancers understand how history, politics, and social change in the Arab World have shaped el ra’s el shar’i. Dance does not exist in a vacuum but changes with the culture and the people it manifests.
Although she was ridiculously famous at the pinnacle of her career, there is little that can be found about Sahar Hamdi before her career as a ra’asa. And there are but brief mentions of her in print and on the internet. What is widely available is footage of her memorable performances from the 1970s and the 1980s. Fortunately, gaps in Miss Hamdi’s dance career can be filled in by Yasmin, a Washington, DC based dancer who worked with her in London and Egypt during the late 70s and early 80s.
After the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, the oil-rich Gulf Arabs needed another place to spend their vacations. As a result of the sectarian and ethnic strife in Lebanon, the Gulf Arabs brought their appetites for entertainment to Cairo, London, and Paris. Belly dance flourished in these places and many dancers became stars, like Miss Hamdi.
According to the Egyptian tabla player, Reda Darwish he started working for Miss Hamdi because, “I wanted to explore, and I also went with whoever was willing to pay the most. I needed to expand at that time.” Darwish knew Miss Hamdi as a customer who would watch Fifi Abdu perform. Miss Hamdi decided to become a dancer and started her own group. Darwish said she was an overnight success and “became a very good dancer”.
Yasmin of Washington, DC recounts much about Miss Hamdi, including her skills as a belly dancer and entertainer. Yasmin first worked with Miss Hamdi when Mona el Said, the principle dancer of the Omar Khayyam in London went back to Egypt on break around 1979-1980. Later, when Yasmin went to Egypt, she was taken under Miss Hamdi’s wing for almost a year. She accompanied her to jobs and parties and was often invited to dinner.
Yasmin’s first impressions of Miss Hamdi were that she was “larger than life”. She was a true “falaha” (an Arabic term for someone from the countryside) and was very raunchy. Yasmin also mentions her “Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde” personalities when she was under the influence of alcohol. According to Yasmin, Miss Hamdi “got away with being that raunchy because she had such a sweet baby face. Her hands were mesmerizing. I tried over and over to do that with my wrists in the mirror but it never looked the same. She totally lived her music and show. And she lived for the audience. The Saudis loved her… She played right up to them, but only if they showered her with 50 L notes or jewelry…”
It is apparent from video footage that Miss Hamdi was a “riot” to watch. Her rude movements have garnered her many fans as well as opponents. One well-known belly dancer from America (who will not be named) clearly states on her website that she is offended by Miss Hamdi’s dance styling. However, to those who loved her, Miss Hamdi was a good dancer and entertainer. She had wonderful shimmies and the most beautiful oriental hands. She was most known for her tableaux where she lip-synced to perfection. She not only danced but also emoted with the music. Many dancers today have carried on this tradition of lip syncing, particularly Dina.
The year was 1990. A war began in the Gulf and a civil war in Lebanon ended. The Gulf Arabs left Cairo in droves and Egypt slowly plunged into economic oblivion, increased conservatism and general social stagnation. As a result, the dance scene in Cairo suffered. In contrast, Lebanon was rebuilding and slowly attracted the bulk of Gulf Arabs visitors. In turn, the music and dance scene in Beirut flourished once more and the majority of famous singers today are Lebanese.
With the hijab (Islamic headscarf) coming into style in increasingly Islamic Egypt, many singers and dancers decided to retire including Miss Hamdi. It was rumored that Miss Hamdi retired after receiving a very large sum of money by a Fundamentalist Egyptian sheik. According to Yasmin, “If she took the millions of dollars that were offered for her to quit, it was probably because she had little saved and saw no point in continuing the hard work of running around, producing new shows and buying new costumes and wigs”. The life of a dancer can be difficult, especially in a culture where performing in public is associated with prostitution and a lack of morality. Yasmin, in defense of Miss Hamdi concluded that, “Her motives for being a dancer were complicated. Her life was complicated. But to me she was one of the greats, if only because she managed to be over the top and still have everyone love her for it”.