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

Tahtib and Egyptian Raqs al-Assaya: From Martial Art to Performing Art

 

 

by Shira

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

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What Is Tahtib?

Tahtib, written in Arabic as تحطيب , is an Egyptian martial art which makes use of a long stick for battling one's opponent. Many people believe it originated in Pharaonic times, basing this belief on an image found on a tomb wall. (See below.) This sport is particularly associated with Upper Egypt, which is the part of Egypt highlighted on the map to the right. Upper Egypt extends from just south of Cairo to Aswan, and includes such cities as Sohag, Luxor, Assuit, Esna, Qena, Edfu, Minya, and more.

In a tahtib competition, two men will battle each other with their sticks, each seeking to strike the opponent with his stick while at the same time parrying blows from the other. Tahtib may be accompanied in the background by music played on a bass drum known as a tabla baladi (folkloric drum) and an oboe-like instrument known as a mizmar. The sticks used for the martial art traditionally were about shoulder height to the man.

Although tahtib may be accompanied by music, it is not a "dance". See below for a comparison of how tahtib differs from the stick dance that it inspired.

The word tahtib comes from the Arabic word hatab  حطب which means "dry tree branches" or "dried woody part of a plant".

Egypt

 

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History of Tahtib

According to Magdy Amer who holds a Master's degree in Egyptology from Chicago University, Oriental Institute, written documentation of tahtib first appears from the Middle Kingdom (2134 BCE - 1778 BCE. This is the time of the 11th and 12th dynasties. During this period, the seat of the government was at Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt. Evidence of tahtib continues to be found through the New Kingdom, 1550-1153 BCE. Many of the tombs from the era, including the Amana period, feature paintings showing sticks being used for battle, sport and entertainment.

This drawing from a later period appears in the tomb of Kheruef, TT192, which lies on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor, near Hatshepsut's temple. Kheruef was the steward to Queen Tiye during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye were the parents of Akhenaten. Due to the fact this tomb contains images of both an elderly Amenhotep III and a young Akhenaten, it seems likely it was built around 1350 BCE.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo taken by Shira at the tomb of Kheruef near Luxor. Click on the photo to see more detail.

This image appears as part of a scene showing a festival celebration, which supports the idea the stick combat was being done for recreational or exhibition purposes.

Pharaonic

A slightly later tomb featuring images of tahtib is that of Merire II, which lies in the northern Amarna necropolis near modern-day Minya. Merire II was a noble who served as the superintendent for Queen Nefertiti.

Per Amer, Egyptian scholars agree that tahtib started as a method of self defense, progressed to a technique for battle, and finally transformed into sport and spectacle.

The martial art has carried over into modern times. According to Mahmoud Reda(1), a Saidi man would traditionally carry around a large stick.  When he was out in the field, this stick was useful as self-defense against wolves and other predators. If it should become necessary to battle another person, this stick was strong enough and heavy enough to kill.

Tahtib at Amarna

 

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From Tahtib to Egyptian Raqs al-Assaya

Raqs al-assaya, which means "stick dance" in Arabic, is the name of a dance genre that incorporates a stick.

Both Egyptian dancers and Lebanese dancers can be seen performing raqs al-assaya. I have not researched stick dancing as performed by Lebanese dancers, so I cannot comment on how its origins, nuances of technique, and culture compare to Egyptian. All comments below apply specifically to the Egyptian form.

In his book Dancing Is My Life, Mahmoud Reda states that the traditional music for tahtib is played on mizmar (reed instrument similar to an oboe), arghul (a reed instrument with a drone), and tabla baladi (folkloric drum)(2). Lebanese stick dancing normally uses debke music, also played on traditional instruments.

 

Stick Dancing by Men

Men's raqs al-assaya typically uses movements inspired by tahtib. Dancers may incorporate the stick into storytelling or perform mock battles (sometimes as soloists against imaginary opponents). The typical costume consists of a dark-colored gallabiya (men's traditional robe-like garment) and white turban wrapped Saidi-style.

Stick Dances in Movie Scenes

While it is impossible to know who the first man was to pick up a stick and incorporate it into a dance, there are scenes of men dancing with sticks in some of the Egyptian motion pictures from the black and white era.

In the 1957 motion picture Tamra Henna (Henna Flower) (3), a duet scene at the climax of the movie shows the actor Rushdi Abaza dancing with a stick. See the image to the right, which comes from this scene.

Abaza wields his stick with a certain amount of menace, which is appropriate to the story line of the movie.

Rushdie

The image to the right shows a comic scene of men dancing from an older film, the 1947 motion picture Habib el Omr (Love of a Lifetime) (4). The one standing behind Samia Gamal incorporates his stick into his movement.

The scene is interesting because the characters are ordinary people rather than performers of theatrical dance, using dance for recreation and self expression. The man with the stick doesn't specifically seek to do a "stick dance", he just gets up to dance, and utilizes the stick because it happens to be available.

Note that in this photo, the man's stick has a hook on one end. Some people mistakenly believe that men's sticks are always straight and women's always with a hook on one end, but this photo shows that this belief is not accurate.

Habib

Reda Troupe

Many people believe that Mahmoud Reda "invented" stick dancing as part of his development of Reda Troupe. This, however, is incorrect. Reda Troupe made its debut performance in 1959(5). As noted above, movies were showing sticks incorporated into dancing prior to this.

This photo shows Mahmoud Reda performing a stick dance in a scene from the 1965 motion picture Gharam fi al-Karnak (Love in Karnak). Reda is the one on the left with the white turban(6).

Although Reda was not the first man to incorporate a stick into a dance performance, his implementation of raqs al-assaya for Reda Troupe has certainly served as the greatest, most enduring influence on men's stick dances being performed around the world today, including such performances by men in Egyptian dance companies.

Reda

Following the 1959 debut of Reda Troupe, Mahmoud Reda and some of his associates toured Egypt to observe traditional music, dance, and culture of each region, with intent to craft dances representing the many faces of Egyptian life.

This photo shows Reda (on the right) being trained in tahtib by an instructor in Aswan.(7) Reda tells the story of how he sparred with this instructor to learn the techniques. At the end, the instructor hit him sharply on the head with his stick. When Reda asked the instructor why he did that, the instructor replied, "Someday you will be famous. When you are, you will remember me."(8) The man was absolutely right — Reda is now over 80 years old and still tells the story!

After gaining a solid foundation in how to play tahtib as a martial art, Reda then developed stick dance choreographies for Reda Troupe that incorporated the moves.

Reda

Stick Dancing by Women

Women's raqs al-assaya as performed by Egyptians usually does not utilize movements from tahtib. Instead, the overall tone is more feminine, more girly-girl. A woman dancing with a stick is playfully teasing the men in her life.

While the message underlying a men's stick dance is a variation of, "I have a weapon and I know how to use it!", the message underlying a woman's stick dance is more likely, "Look, you're not so manly, I can dance with a stick too!"

There are two styles of women's stick dancing in Egypt: the Oriental style seen in Cairo, and the Ghawazee style seen in Upper Egypt.

Oriental Style

The sticks used by women are usually shorter and thinner than those used by men. Often, women's sticks feature a hook on one end, but some dancers prefer to use straight ones.

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

In solo Oriental dances, the Egyptian women's flavor of raqs al-assaya uses the stick as a frame for regular raqs baladi movement. The dancer will also incorporate twirling the stick or balancing it on her head into the performance.

Ghawazee of Upper Egypt

For several decades, the Banat Maazin (Maazin sisters) were the leading performers of Ghawazee dance in Upper Egypt. Today, Khairiyya Maazin still offers instruction, although she no longer performs.

The Banat Maazin incorporated their own flavor of stick movement into their performances. They would borrow a stick from a man in the audience, then slowly circle it above their heads as if winding up to strike an opponent. Another thing they did with a stick was to place it horizontally between two of them, at abdomen level, held in place by the pressure of their bodies. They would then dance in a circle with each other with the stick in between.(9)

What About Women in Folk Troupes?

Ensemble stick dances by Egyptians are usually done as part of a folkloric performance that includes both men and women.

In the Reda Troupe dance style, the women don't do extended dancing with sticks. Instead, a woman may briefly borrow a stick from a man and play around a moment before handing it back to him. Reda explained this in an interview saying, “The women’s dance is an imitation of the men’s dance. In Reda Troupe, we had men available to do this dance, so why not have them do it?”(10)

Reda Troupe never incorporated the Banat Maazin Ghawazee style of stick dancing for women. However, Firqa Qawmiyya did.

Shira

 

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How Tahtib Differs from Raqs al-Assaya

 

Tahtib

Raqs al-Assaya

What is it? A martial art. A sport. A game. A performing art. A dance.
Who does it? 2 men. Could be either solo, duet, or ensemble. Could be men and/or women.
What are they doing? Competing in an athletic match. Telling a story, developing a character, interpreting music.
How would they describe it? "I'm go to play tahtib." "I'm going to dance."
Who watches? Sports fans, friends and family of the combatants. Arts aficionados.
How long is the stick? Usually about shoulder height. The men's stick is often about 4 feet (122 centimeters) long. The woman's stick is about the height from the floor to the top of her hip.
Straight stick, or hook on the end? No hook. Could be either hooked or not. This is true for both men and women.

 

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End Notes

  1. Mahmoud Reda, interview with Shira held in Tiffin, Iowa. July 31, 2006.
  2. Mahmoud Reda, Dancing is My Life, Alexandria:Bibliotheca Alexandria, p. 66.
  3. Hussein Fawzi, director, Tamra Henna (Tamarind), 1957.
  4. Henry Barakat, director, Habib el Omr (Love of a Lifetime), 1947.
  5. Reda, 2006 interview with Shira.
  6. Ali Reda, director, Gharam fi al-Karnak (Love in Karnak), 1965.
  7. Photo provided to Shira by Mahmoud Reda for use in illustrating articles based on the 2006 interview.
  8. Lecture by Mahmoud Reda during U.S. tour in Seattle, Washington in August 2010.
  9. Workshops taught by Khairiyya Maazin in Egypt in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, attended by Shira.
  10. Reda, 2006 interview with Shira.

 

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