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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Shafiqa el-Koptiyya:
The Dancer Whose Horses Drank Champagne

 

Translated from Arabic into English
by Priscilla Adum

 

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Table of Contents

 

This is a translation of an article that was published in the Arabic language, in Kawakeb magazine in 1955. The original article can be found in the Bostah Archive.

 

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Introduction

Not since the days of the Abbasids has the Arabic Middle East seen a dancer who attained such fame, glory and wealth as Shafiqa El-Koptiyya. Shafiqa's life is a wonderful story full of adventure and fun that could serve as the plot for a great movie. [Editor's note: Such a movie was indeed made, released in 1963 eight years after this article was written. Hind Rostom starred in the title role.] Shafiqa's tale began on the very first day that art captured her heart.

In 1871 there was a famous dancer in Egypt named Shooq. That year, Shooq was invited to dance at the home of an upper class Coptic Christian family for the wedding of one of their sons. The women and the girls who were guests at the party were entranced by her dancing. During Shooq's breaks they danced for fun, which was the custom in Egypt in those days and remains so today. One of the guests, a beautiful dark-skinned girl with beautiful facial features, began to dance. Within a few minutes all the guests were enthralled by her dancing. After the girl finished dancing, Shooq went to her and kissed her and asked her, "What's your name Ya 3arousa?" The girl timidly answered, "My name is Shafiqa." Shooq then said to her, "What a loss! Why don't you come to me and I'll teach you to dance?" Shafiqa's mother became very angry. She viewed this invitation as an insult because in those days dancing was an inferior occupation in the eyes of good families and they used to call professional dancers “Ghawazee”. So she took her daughter and left. Shooq winked at Shafiqa, and Shafiqa understood what she meant.

[Editor's Note: This photo appeared with the original article, purportedly as a photo of Shafiqa. There is reason to believe this photo is actually not Shafiqa, but probably Mata Hari. The newspaper appears to have used the wrong photo to illustrate the article.]

Shafiqa el Koptiyya

 

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Dancing for the Emperor's Wife

Shooq was the first dancer to achieve an honorable status for herself among the more important families. She was the only dancer permitted to perform at parties hosted by the Viceroy. When he opened the Suez Canal, Shooq danced among the guests at the ceremony in the presence of the French Empress Eugenie. Consequently, Shafiqa considered herself honored when Shooq showered her with so much praise and encouragement. Shafiqa's family was religious and they would always send Shafiqa to go pray at the church. So Shafiqa would leave the house to "go pray" but instead would go to Shooq's house on Mohamed Ali Street. She went frequently to Shooq's house, where she received her first lessons in dance.

Suddenly Shafiqa disappeared and her family went crazy. They searched for her everywhere until they lost all hope of finding her. Six months later the family learned that their girl was working as a dancer at one of the mawaled (saint’s day festivals) in the Nile delta area. They sent one of the priests, a friend of the family, to advise her to turn away from this path which had shaken up the family’s status. The priest failed to convince her to return, and she set her feet on her first step towards fame and riches. The family had no other choice but to disown her.

 

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On the Throne

The girl didn't care much about being disowned, but she wanted to prove to her family that she was not a bad person. So she put her religion next to her name and became Shafiqa El-Koptiyya (Shafiqa the Copt), returning to Cairo to work with her teacher Shooq and to dance at large parties. Six months later Shooq died and so the field of dance was left empty (open) for Shafiqa. In just a short time she became the top dancer on the throne of the art of dance. Her name began to shine and the prominent families were proud to have Shafiqa el-Koptiyya perform at their parties.

Shafiqa wanted to do new and innovative things in her dance so she invented the VENYARA (candelabrum) dance. She would go into a backbend and place a small table on her abdomen with four sherbet juice glasses on it, then she'd balance a Venyara (shamadan) on her forehead with lighted candles, and sagat (finger cymbals) in her hands. The glasses of juice would not fall, and the shamadan would maintain its balance without slipping.

Shafiqa's fame spread and the owners of the major nightclubs came to ask her to dance at their clubs for a high level of pay. The El Dorado nightclub finally succeeded in signing a contract with her. So began a new life for Shafiqa where much wealth began to pour in.

A new life began for Shafiqa that was reminiscent of the thousand and one nights. During that time she matured and her femininity became complete and she became quite beautiful. She was surrounded by many of the richest and most important people who became her fans. Important foreigners and tourists came to see her. They carried her name and reputation outside the country and overseas. The club where she danced became like a beehive with bees buzzing all over it hoping to get some drops of the honey. But roses know quite well how to give off their fragrance without relinquishing the nectar itself and this fanned the flame of love in the hearts of her fans.

When Shafiqa stood on the stage to dance, gold coins were thrown at her feet as greetings from her fans and admirers. But she didn't pick up any of these coins herself. She had three servants who picked up the gold coins and turned them over to her after she finished dancing. Someone once remarked that if those servants were to keep just a few of these coins they could, in a short time, collect so much money that they'd be able to buy real estate in the Shobra area and retire from this job.

 

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Champagne for Horses

Two of Shafiqa's most well-known admirers were among the richest men in Egypt. One of them spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on her. He spent all his money without ever getting anything from her other than the touch of her hands. The other one was so rich that his income was 300 pounds per day. He admired Shafiqa so much that he ordered champagne bottles to be opened for the horses that pulled her carriage to drink.

Shafiqa went on to dance at the club called Alf Layla. She wore clothes embroidered in gold threads and wore shoes with heels covered in a layer of gold and decorated with genuine diamonds.

Shafiqa's fame spread even further and a French company that made decorative items began putting her picture on its products. Perfume bottles, fans, and makeup kits began to appear with her image on them, and they spread around the world. There were head scarves with Shafiqa's image on them which pretty women would snatch up. Shafiqa received many gifts sent to her by tourists who had seen her in Egypt. Among these tourists was a French businessman who fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, but she refused. He then asked her to come with him to Paris to perform her art there. This appealed to her, so she travelled there and danced. She mesmerized Paris — at that time it was hosting a large International Exhibition and Shafiqa captured the attention of most of the visitors.

Shafiqa then returned to Egypt and continued attracting wealth and glory. The capital of fashion (Paris) had refined her taste and made her more elegant. Her clothes and jewelry became fashionable for upper class ladies. Shafiqa felt that she was the Queen of Dance and she wanted to appear like royalty. She owned three luxury carriages and dozens of thoroughbred horses. If she went out in the morning she would ride a Combel carriage, in the afternoons she'd use a Latino Carriage and on summer evenings she'd go out in a Veton (open) carriage. Each carriage was pulled by four horses, surrounded by two coachmen, and preceded by two servants who would call out "Clear the road! Clear the road!" One day she was in her carriage in an area called El Gaziera at the same time that Prince Hassan Kamel was there. When he saw this carriage he thought it belonged to another prince.  When he discovered the truth he became very angry and went to the Viceroy and complained that there was an Egyptian woman competing with princes and that she was practically competing with the Viceroy himself in grandeur. The Viceroy quickly issued a decree that stated that no coach owner was allowed to use footmen or coachmen and that this would only be permitted for the Viceroy or for royalty.

The grandeur that Shafiqa El-Koptiyya, the Princess of Dance, lived in was such that she had Italian servants whose clothes were made by the two most famous tailors of the time, Clacot and Bryan Davis. These were the tailors that also made the minister's clothes. When she travelled from city to city she rented a special train car for herself and her servants.

Shafiqa was a humanitarian almost to the point of madness. Once, when she saw a fight between two men she asked what was the cause. They told her that one of the men had rented a store from the other and hadn't been able to pay the rent for several months. So Shafiqa paid the rent money and also gave the man additional money. Another day she heard about a fabric trader with whom she had dealt before and who was facing bankruptcy. She hurried to provide him with the money to prevent him from going bankrupt. She never refused to dance at the wedding celebrations of poor people but would often dance at no charge and would give the newlyweds money to spend on their honeymoon.

Despite Shafiqa's excessive spending habits and extreme generosity she was still able to amass a fortune and she owned many buildings in Bab el Bahr, in Shobra, and in Haret el Saqaeen as well as several palaces. She had been able to achieve everything in life except one thing. She wanted to become a mother but this had not happened. So she adopted a child named Zaki whom she showered with affection. He grew up being quite spoiled and constantly demanded things which she never denied him. All of this spoiling caused him to grow up to be an alchoholic and a drug addict.

She wanted to feel happy for him so she arranged an early marriage for him. She arranged wedding celebrations that lasted six days where she participated in the parties along with a large number of singers. But his addiction to drugs became worse and he died shortly after his marriage. Shafiqa was devastated with grief.

 

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The Arid Desert

Shafiqa began to age, and the lines of fans began to decrease. They began to abandon her one by one. She looked back towards them but could no longer find them, she called to them but they did not respond, and she began to pay the price for having lorded it over them. She handed out money to poor deprived young men who would enjoy her money but only give her a thin veneer of affection in return. They became increasingly stingy with their affection and she responded by giving them more money in an attempt to buy a dose of love to quench the thirst of her feelings. But the desert was arid and the hot climate was in need of an unending stream.

The wealth began to wane after the magic ended and the youth had faded. The only things that remained for Shafiqa of all this glory were just memories. Only one of the buildings in Shobra remained and she rented out some of the rooms. But she fell in love with a young man who forced her to sell it. She then opened a store in Shobra where she sold liquor but she sold the store as well to satisfy a new young man who later abandoned her. She was forced to work as a dancer in her old age to earn a bit of money for food.

People turned from Shafiqa to three beautiful new girls who appeared in the world of dance - Ma3touka, Zouhra el Arabiya and Nafousa Gharam.

But they did not reach the heights that Shafiqa had reached, though their beauty was enough to overshadow her.

Every lamp is bright when it's full of oil, but then it fades when the oil is finished, and in that same way the bright light of Shafiqa faded. She began to beg in the streets and ask for help from her old admirers. In 1926, the last drop of oil in the lamp burned out and Shafiqa closed her eyes. She left the life which had been filled with glory and applause for more than half a century. She had reached seventy five years of age.

 

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About the Translator

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 

Priscilla

 

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