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Kuchuk Hanem: The Dancer of Esna

by William H. Peck

 

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Table of Contents

 

 

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The Ghawazee

This article considers the Ghawazee, their expulsion from Cairo by Mohammad Ali, relocation to Upper Egypt, and the subsequent attraction they held for Europeans and Americans. The Ghawazee are described in considerable detail in Lane, and their colonies, especially the one in Esna, are mentioned often in the travel literature and guidebooks of the time. One of the dancers of Esna of special interest is a woman called Kuchuk Hanem, described in two completely separate mid-nineteenth century accounts, by Gustave Flaubert and George William Curtis. She emerges in these descriptions as a distinct personality and remains as a singular example of the Ghawazee.   Her performance inspired a number of passages in Flaubert's work and she obviously made a considerable impression on Curtis. She exemplifies much of the exoticism of the "mysterious East" so much sought after by many (male) early travelers who made their way to Egypt. Sword

“In their voluptuous dances they had an opportunity to display the full power of their charms; and in the favorite Wasp or Bee dance, their arts and fascination were plied with a degree of skill, variety, and indomitable industry, which was worthy of a better cause, but which admits not of a too particular description”.  

Waraga, or the Charms of the Nile, William Furniss, 1850 [1]

“The Ghawazee have been celebrated by Egyptian travelers in numberless chapters; and there is scarcely a book on Egypt that does not contain more or less poetry on their beauty and gracefulness. Most writers follow a tradition, founded on a decree of Mohamed Ali, and locate the Ghawazee at Esna [editor's note: about 433 miles / 697 kilometers from Cairo]; but this, like their beauty and their grace, is very much in the imagination of the traveler; for though banished to Esna when they became too plenty in Cairo, they were allowed to consider Esna as reaching from Cairo to the first cataract , and they are to be found every where between the two places, and chiefly at Luxor”. [Editor's note: the first cataract is at Aswan.]

Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia, William C. Prime 1857 [2]

[Editor's note: Click on this map of Egypt to see more detail.]

Egypt

In Lane’s Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836, he paid special attention to the dance, important then as now in everyday life, and as an art form one that held considerable fascination for Westerners.  He attempted to explain the phenomenon: "Egypt has long been celebrated for its public dancing girls, the most famous of whom are of a distinct tribe, called  Ghawazee'…”.[3] They were different from Egyptians, living apart from the general population, with separate customs, their own social structure, and perhaps even speaking a different language. Lane made clear the difference between the 'awalim, the educated female singers, and the Ghawazee, distinctly a lower class.  This distinction was not always understood by foreigners and the two terms were sometimes used interchangeably in travelers' accounts.

Lane's description of the provocative dance of the Ghawazee is admirable for its restraint. "They commence with a degree of decorum; but soon, by more animated looks, by a more rapid collision of their castanets of brass, and by increasing energy in every motion, they exhibit a spectacle exactly agreeing with the descriptions which Martial and Juvenal have given of the performances of the female dancers of Gades." [4]   In a time when the "unprintable" parts of the classics were rendered in Latin, it is not surprising that Lane relies on the ancient authors for the detail he could not commit to print.  In the Roman Empire, Gades (Cadiz) in Spain was notorious for its provocative dancers.  The passage from Juvenal contains description of immodest dances and song, clattering castanets, "quivering" buttocks, and foul language. Lane continues about the modern dancers,  "I need scarcely add, that these women are the most abandoned courtesans of EgyptMany of them are extremely handsome; and most of them are richly dressed.  Upon the whole, I think they are the finest women in Egypt." [5]

The Ghawazee were hired to perform in the streets before houses on special occasions such as weddings, but were not allowed inside a respectable harem.  They were available for all-male private parties where their performance, as described by Lane, was "yet more lascivious," he makes it clear that they were little better than common prostitutes raised in "the venal profession." [6]

Lane's classic translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1838-40) was an expurgated version, which he excused as omitting those parts not fit for polite society. However he discussed pertinent social issues of the time in Modern Egyptians.  In the third edition, published in 1842, Lane mentioned the prohibition of prostitution and public female dancing, enacted nine years before. Prostitution was outlawed in Cairo in June 1834, as a part of the social reforms of Mehemet Ali. [7] The Ghawazee were exiled as a class to Upper Egypt, especially to the towns of Qena, Esna and Aswan.  The European traveler who sought the entertainment provided by these dancer/prostitutes could no longer find them as easily in Cairo but the facts of their displacement were well known and the determined tourist was only obliged to postpone the satisfaction of his curiosity until his voyage south. 

The resettled Ghawazee of Esna were those best known to travelers. Accounts of them turn up regularly in nineteenth-century travel memoirs and in some of the popular guidebooks.  The earliest published reference to the Ghawazee by a contemporary Westerner I have been able to discover is in Eliot Warburton’s The Crescent and the Cross, published in 1844, only ten years after the women were expelled from Cairo. Exile was tempered, he said, by a subsidy. "(they) were sent, by way of banishment, to Esneh, five hundred miles up the river, where they are allowed a small stipend by the government to keep them from starvation.  This reformation in the capital produced frightful results which I can not allude to here". [8] In Murray's Handbook for Egypt for 1875  (41 years after the displacement) it is noted that: "The usual mooring place at Esneh is at the upper end of the town, close under the numerous coffee shops adjoining the separate hamlet inhabited by the Ghawazee or dancing girls, who have a numerous colony here". [9]

The romantic East had become a popular destination, partly influenced by the publications of Denon and other members of Napoleon's expedition at the beginning of the century. Encouraged by the policies of Mohammed Ali, by the 1850's a trip up the Nile as far as Aswan was becoming relatively common.  It was safer and easier and the number of tourists was increasing.  Of the European travelers to Egypt at mid-century, the account of Gustave Flaubert provides one of the most vivid records of the male European in pursuit of a preconceived romantic notion of exotic Egypt. Flaubert's descriptions echo the work of "Orientalist" painters such as Vernet, Fromentine and Gérôme, equally romantic in conception, and as exquisite in detail. 

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted circa 1863, is titled Dance of the Almeh.

Almeh

 

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Flaubert & Du Camp

Flaubert was twenty-eight in 1850 when he went to Egypt with his friend, Maxime du Camp. As two young Frenchmen in Egypt, with a quasi-official "archaeological" mission for the French Ministry of Public Instruction and a commercial mission from the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, with documents to prove them, they journeyed with ease and a fair degree of comfort.  They kept journals and wrote letters and Du Camp later published his account of the journey. Flaubert did not. Du Camp was also responsible for some of the earliest dated photographic views of the monuments.

In 1972, Francis Steegmuller compiled a continuous narrative from the published and unpublished works of Flaubert and du Camp. Derived in part from material never meant for publication, Flaubert in Egypt [10] gives a rather different view of Egyptian life from the works of other travelers of the time. More intimate detail, drawn from unpublished material, describes an aspect of travel in Egypt rarely documented in print.  Flaubert had long wanted to experience the "Orient". He had prepared himself by reading Herodotus, The Arabian Nights, and  Victor Hugo's Les Orientales. The two friends covered the same ground the army of General Desaix had fought over fifty years before, but in comparative safety, and were generally received with hospitality. It is clear that from the time of their arrival in Cairo that the two friends pursued their Egyptian adventure.  They donned their notion of native costume, frequented the Turkish baths, and arranged liaisons with native women.  One of Du camp's photographs shows Flaubert dressed in an Arab cloak posed in the garden of their hotel. In a letter to Louis Bouilhet, Flaubert explained that they had seen no really "good" dancing girls in Cairo because they had all been exiled to Upper Egypt.

Virtually no critical account of Flaubert's Orientalism omits a reference to Kuchuk Hanem, the woman he later encountered in Esna, "a tall, splendid creature, lighter in color than an Arab." She was the central character in his accounts of his sexual experiences in Egypt and very much a symbol of his romance with the East. In Esna Flaubert and du Camp arranged to be entertained with music, exhibitions of dancing, and sex with the dancers, particularly Kuchuk Hanem. The name Kuchuk Hanem is, in fact, not a name at all.  In Turkish it translates as simply 'little lady', a term of endearment that might be applied equally to a small child, a lover, or a famous dancing girl.  The various critics who have commented on Flaubert's experience with Kuchuk Hanem have often taken it to be a proper name, not an unusual mistake in that many of the early authors or travelers in Egypt often understood Turkish titles and terms to be proper names and repeated them as such in their accounts of their travels.

 

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Curtis

Kuchuk Hanem had some fame in her own day. This is attested by a reference totally unrelated to that of Flaubert and Du Camp.  George William Curtis, an American journalist and friend of Emerson and Lowell, traveled in Egypt in the same year as Flaubert.  Like Flaubert, he had prepared himself for his experiences in Egypt by reading, including Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh and Warburton's The Crescent and the Cross as well as works on the antiquities of the country by Belzoni and Wilkinson. Curtis published his Nile Notes of a Howadji (foreigner) in 1851. His description of his visit to Esna borders on the poetic: 

"Frail are the fair of Esna.  Yet the beauty of gossamer webs is not less beautiful, because it is not sheet iron.  Let the panoplied in principal pass Esna by. There dwell the gossamer-moraled Ghawazee.  A strange sect the Ghawazee - a race dedicated to pleasure." [11]

Curtis described Kuchuk Hanem as "a bud no longer, yet a flower not too fully blown." He ended his book with a final page that included the wistful line, "the graceful Ghawazee beauty that the voyager so pleasantly remembers," suggesting that Esna was one of the more remarkable stops on his tour.

Flaubert and Curtis both visited Kuchuk Hanem within a short time of each other, and both left written accounts of her suggesting either an amazing coincidence or that she must have been one of the most sought-after entertainers in Upper Egypt. There is no doubt that the two writers visited the same woman.  A comparison of the two narratives shows a number of parallels making this conclusive, including a house with a courtyard, a dilapidated stairway to an upper room furnished with two divans, a young attendant named Zeneb (Xenobi), an old man who played the rebaba, an old woman who kept time on a tar (a tambourine-like drum).  In both accounts the old woman is described as once a dancer who could not resist showing her skills, according to Flaubert, "by marking time and showing the proper steps" and by Curtis, "advanced upon the floor and danced incredibly."

 

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Enduring Legacy

As to the dance of Kuchuk Hanem, Flaubert described "a marvelous movement, when one foot is on the ground the other moves up and across in front of the shin bone - the whole thing with a light bound" [editor's note: it's possible this refers to the Saidi step-lift that dancers still do today] and Curtis: "she advanced, throwing one leg before the other, as Gypsies do. But the rest was most voluptuous motion."  The most obvious difference in the two accounts, is the omission on Curtis’ part of any stated intimacy.  He actually used the phrase "whereupon here the curtain falls" to suggest those aspects of the entertainment at Esna which he could not describe in print.

Flaubert's encounter with Kuchuk Hanem made a lasting impression on him and it was not the venereal disease some writers allege he contracted from her; it was actually more likely that he infected her, given the variety of his experiences to that time.  The Orientalism of several of his works is very much dependent on the first-hand experiences he had in Egypt. The proprietors of the Hotel du Nil in Cairo were named Brochier and Bouvaret; it is possible that the latter name might have been the basis or inspiration for the naming of Emma Bovary.

Two descriptions can be directly traced to the influence of the Dancer of Esna.  In the novella Herodias the dance of Salome evokes the memory of Kuchuk Hanem.  In the longer Temptation of Saint Anthony the Queen of Sheba actually executes a dance called "the bee". 

Warburton described what must have been a popular pantomime, but he called it "the wasp", probably the same dance that Flaubert had heard of and demanded of Kuchuk Hanem.  Warburton observed that:  "Generally the representation is more simple; the "wasp dance" is a favorite of the latter class: the actress is standing musing in a pensive posture, when a wasp is supposed to fly into her bosom, her girdle, all about her; the music becomes rapid; she flies about in terror, darting her hand in pursuit of the insect, till she finds it was all a mistake, then smiling, she expresses her pleasure and relief in dance. [12]

Flaubert said Kuchuk Hanem did not enjoy dancing "the bee" and it was not one of her best efforts. However, she agreed to do it. The musicians were blindfolded, and as she danced, she shed her clothes in the manner of a provocative striptease.  As Warburton concluded his description: "These dances are certainly not adapted for public exhibition in England, and would be considered too expressive even at the opera; but they display exquisite art in their fashion, and would surprise, if not please the most fastidious critic of the coulisses. (behind the scenes)." [13]

That Kuchuk Hanem made a vivid impression on Flaubert is evidenced by the fact that she was later the subject of a poem by Louis Bouilhet, inspired by Flaubert's accounts in letters and doubtlessly from his descriptions after his return to FranceFlaubert must have spoken of her to Louise Colet, for a time his mistress, because she is supposed to have sought out Kuchuk Hanem while on a trip to Egypt at the time of the Suez Canal opening and described for him the dancer's aging. 

The Dancer of Esna, the "little lady", has become a part of history through the writing of the American journalist and the French novelist, probably beyond any place or time that she could have imagined. The remarkable nature of her story being preserved illustrates, in part,  the poverty of resources available to Westerners who attempt to examine the spirit of personal contacts in Egypt and the Middle East.  Travel narratives written from the narrow perspective of adventure-seeking tourists, guided by preconceived notions, can provide little insight into the life of the people for which broad histories only provide a background. Even considering the sensational nature of the limited accounts left for us concerning this Egyptian woman there remains some sense of substance and character about her.  

Twenty-five years after Flaubert and Curtis, Charles Dudley Warner, American journalist, editor, essayist and sometime collaborator with Mark Twain, left the record of his Egyptian experience of 1874-75. In  My Winter on the Nile  he described the Ghawazee not only in Esna, but also in Asyut, Farshut, Aswan and Luxor, suggesting an unrelenting interest in the type. He quotes Lane and had probably read Curtis as well because there are echoes of both writers in his accounts. He characterized the women as: “…bold looking jades who come out and stare at us with a more than masculine impudence.... They claim to be an unmixed race of ancient lineage; but I suspect their blood is no purer than their morals. There is not much in Egypt that is not hopelessly mixed.... their profession is as old as history and their antiquity may entitle them to be considered an aristocracy of vice.... But whatever their origin, it is admitted that their dance is the same with which the dancing-women amused the Pharaohs, the same that the Phoenicians carried to Gades and which Juvenal describes, and, as Mr. Lane thinks, the same by which the daughter of Herodias danced off the head of John the Baptist.  Modified here and there, it is the immemorial dance of the Orient.” [14]

 

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End Notes

  1. William Furniss, Waraga, or the Charms of the Nile, New York, Baker & Scribner, 1850, p.203
  2. William C. Prime, Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1857, p 400
  3. Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, p 347.There are many editions of this classic work. The one I have was published by Ward, Lock and Co., London, in 1890, a reprint of the third edition of 1842. Page numbers here refer to this version.
  4. Lane, p. 348
  5. Lane, p. 348
  6. Lane, pp 348, 350
  7. Lane, p 347, an additional note to the first edition
  8. Eliot Warburton, The Crescent and the Cross or Romance and realities of Eastern travel, London, H. Coldburn, 2 vls.,1844, however the edition I used was published by Edgewood, 1 vl.,no date. P 221 
  9. A Handbook for Travellers in Egypt, John Murray, 1875, p 452
  10. Francis Steegmuller, Flaubert in Egypt: a sensibility on tour, a narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s travel notes and letters, collected and translated by Steegmuller, Chicago, Academy Chicago Limited,1979 all Flaubert quotes are drawn from this source.
  11. George William Curtis, Nile Notes of a Howadji, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1851, p 117
  12. Warburton, p 222
  13. Warburton, p 222
  14. Charles Dudley Warner, Boston, My Winter on the Nile: among the mummies and the Moslems, New York, Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1881, p 354 (There are numerous other references to the Ghawazee in Warner’s work, I counted about a dozen)

 

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About the Author

William H. Peck is an Egyptologist, art historian, author, and lecturer based in Detroit, Michigan. He has performed archeological research on location at three different sites in Egypt. He worked as a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1960 through 2004. From 1977 through 2005 he has conducted numerous lecture tours on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America. His extensive publication credits include numerous academic journals, contributions to books, and articles.

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