#CAIRO 1870: DANCING GIRLS IN THE ROYAL #HAREM
Luise Muehlbach’s account of her visit to the Sultan’s harem, continued:
There were twelve dancing girls, and I had never seen such rich and beautiful costumes in our theatres as these dancers were wearing. The lower part of their body was covered by long and voluminous dresses of purple velvet with wide gold-embroidered panels in front and down their thighs. One might call these garbs wide trousers, but they were not quite like trousers. They were open in front but tied to the closed back part, so that they gave the impression of trousers at first, while seen from the back they looked like wide, pleated dresses. They appeared trouser-like only from the front and were gathered at the ankles with golden bands. Gold-embroidered shoes of purple velvet were on the dancers’ feet, and the pleated dresses were tied around their waist with a golden belt. Their upper bodies were covered with a transparent silk garment. Above it they wore a short jacket with wide, open sleeves of purple velvet. Their hair was long and uncurled and tied together with a golden ribbon ending in a bow…
The music began. Flutes and violins first, then the clashing of tambourines, then shrill tones of the fagot could be heard together with the murmur of the bass. The Egyptian music gladdened the hearts of the Egyptian ladies, while it was a somewhat strange pleasure for us.
After the introductory music, the dancers stepped up. At first these beautiful women twirled slowly in a circle, then the music became louder and the dancers moved faster. They whirled in ever more turbulent and denser circles, they no longer held hands, but with wonderful vibrations bent forward, then thrust their head and whole upper body backward. It was precious to see the full, beatific smile playing on their lips, and the light in their fiery eyes was wonderful. Their faces became ever more enraptured, their movements more passionate. The movement of their arms and the vibrations of individual body parts became more vehement. The Egyptians do not dance with their whole body, as we do. It is not the whole figure that rises or whirls around dancing. Rather, it is sometimes the arms that dance while the rest of the body remains quiet, at other times the feet, occasionally only the upper body, resulting in a marvellous swaying and vibrating of the whole figure. At one point it looked as if they wanted to throw themselves on the floor in their rapture, then they jumped up again in a vehement movement, lifting up their whole body, then their upper body swayed forward blissfully, then backwards. Finally the whole figure seemed to rest after a tumultuous happiness and rapture. This is accompanied by music which whirls and intones and complains in a very strange manner, and the dancing is so passionate and rapturous that the singers and musicians exult and the princesses clap their hands enthusiastically and shout “Allah! Allah!”.
At last, breathless and panting, not from exhaustion but from rapturous bliss, the dancers sank to the floor. They rested on their backs in picturesque poses, with their head leaning back, their mouths half open, and a blissful smile on their lips. While they rested, the musicians started a different strain…
Then a human voice rose up, shrill and loud, in a strangely vibrating tone, which is regarded as beautiful among Egptian singers. They began to sing in this way, accompanied by soft musical chords.
Of course I could not understand the words, but I saw from the expression on the faces of the princesses, from the sweet quivering and trembling of the dancers, who slowly rose from the floor and stretched out their arms high with yearning, that it must be a love song, and when the first stanza ended, the singers fell silent and the soft chords of the musicians trembled in the air…
When that stanza ended as well, a loud jubilant cry issued from the lips of the princesses, and they gave loud praise and thanks to the singers…
Since I could not understand the words, I was not as affected by the somewhat monotonous melody and the shrill singing. As far as the Egyptians are concerned, however, the melody is unimportant compared to the exact enunciation of the words and their declaiming, to which music is subordinated.
All Egyptians greatly venerate poetry; music is only an accompaniment, going along with the verse. Our music and especially our operas seem to them completely unnatural. When I talked to the princesses about this, for they often attended the Italian opera sitting behind a golden screen, one of the ladies answered with a smile: “But no one could be emotionally touched by an opera, even if people pretend to be touched, for it is always clear that the pain is not real and it would be quite impossible that dying people sing on and act like that.”
(Translated from Reisebriefe aus Aegypten)
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