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Demystifying Muwashshahat!


by Rachael Borek




Table of Contents




Over the past few years I've spent a lot of time learning about traditional Arabic music, beyond what we normally use for dance — listening to songs, reading books, drumming, and even learning to play the oud.

In the course of my study, I’ve become aware of some common misunderstandings about muwashshahat (singular muwashshah) in the bellydance world. Many of these are things I have also felt confused about in the past, so I hope that this article will help clarify things for other dancers struggling to make sense of this subject and where muwashshahat fit in to the 'big picture' of Arabic music and dance.




What We Learn in the Belly Dance World

The standard view of muwashshahat in the bellydance world goes something like this:

Muwashshahat are songs that come from mediaeval Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus), and have survived to the present day. They use the 10/8 Samai Thaqil rhythm. Originally, court dances may have been done to them, but nobody really knows what these dances looked like. These dances were creatively reimagined in the 20th century by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, and this is how we dance to muwashshahat today.

I’ve come to realise that this information is not exactly wrong as such, but it is very incomplete, and somewhat misleading.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Rachael by Phillip C. Photography.




So, What Actually Are Muwashshahat?

Andalusian Roots

The term muwashshahat actually refers to a poetic form, which originally became popular in al-Andalus.

There are several musical traditions based on this poetic form. These include the North African ‘Andalusi Nuba’ tradition (which we don’t tend to dance to, and which I don’t know a great deal about), and the Syrian/Egyptian wasla tradition which incorporates muwashshah poems set to music, along with other instrumental and lyrical genres.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Rachael by Agata Lucka-Ahmed.

Musical tradition

The pieces we use for dance come from the Syrian/Egyptian tradition. Some of these use old poetry from al-Andalus, whilst some use more recently composed poems in the muwashshah form. However, the musical compositions themselves are not from al-Andalus. For example, Lamma Bada is the best known muwashshah. The lyrics are thought to be very old, but the melody used today was composed in Egypt in the 19th century (see AMAR Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research for more information on this song, and some very early recordings). The compositional style was influenced by Turkish instrumental forms during the Ottoman period, particularly by the Turkish samai.

Many Egyptian muwashshahat were composed in the 19th century during the nahda or Egyptian rennaisance, and some in the early 20th century too. The great Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish wrote several, for example. They are an important part of the Egyptian musical tradition, especially before the advent of the ughniyah or ‘long song’ format of Oum Kalthoum et al. Legendary singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab recorded many muwashshahat during his early career. More recently, a huge number of muwashshahat have been recorded by the Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.


A variety of rhythms are used in muwashshahat. 10/8 samai thaqil is certainly popular, but it’s not the only one by any means. Other muwashshah rhythms include familiar favourites such as masmoudi kebir, as well as many based on longer rhythmic cycles which are almost never used in dance. There’s a fairly exhaustive list of these rhythms on the Maqam World web site.

It’s also worth noting that they are not all slow, and some are actually very lively. Even Lamma Bada, which is often played very slowly in recent recordings, was originally far more upbeat!




So, What About the Dancing?

As I mentioned previously, almost all belly dancers associate muwashshahat with the dance style created by Mahmoud Reda in the 1980s. This style is refined, elegant and balletic, with hypnotic spins and arabesques, and as with most of Reda’s dances, almost no movement of the torso. Farida Fahmy, principal dancer in the Reda troupe, wrote this about the Reda muwashshahat style:

In these dances he was not restricted to any specific temporal reference or dance tradition. This gave him a wider range of movement and choreographic possibilities. In his choreographies, Mahmoud Reda relied on his artistic imagination and how the music inspired him, as well as his expertise and rich repertoire of movement vocabulary that he had accumulated for many years.

We can therefore see that it is, essentially, a fusion style, albeit one developed in Egypt for an Egyptian audience.

However, muwashshahat were, at one point, the popular music of their day, and it’s reasonable to assume that dancers would have performed to them in the 19th century (although there were other types of music more associated with dance; e.g., light songs in dance rhythms, and the tahmila, a structured improvisational style). Egyptian films, especially when portraying 19th century scenes, sometimes show dancers performing to muwashshahat in styles not influenced by Reda.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Rachael by Agata Lucka-Ahmed.

Do a web search to see if you can find the opening sequence of the 1960s film about the life of Bamba Kashar. (At the time this article was posted, there was not an online clip to link to.)

Or this scene in the 1960s film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk (Bayn al-Qasrayn), set in early 20th century Cairo, and showing a ‘sahra’ or musical gathering at the home of a professional entertainer / courtesan (the first song is a muwashshah in a 6/8 rhythm):

Click to watch clip

Or this clip of Leila Mourad singing the muwashshah ‘Mala al-Kasat’ with a chorus of oriental dancers in two-piece ‘bellydance’ costumes:

Click to watch clip

So, if you choose to dance to muwashshahat, it’s legitimate to use the Reda style, but it’s not mandatory. Reda’s interpretation was a fanciful re-imagining, rather than a historical reconstruction. There’s certainly precedent for dancers interpreting these beautiful pieces of music in their own styles, and so I think there’s also a place both for trying to recreate the style of the late 19th century, and for applying your own original interpretation using your knowledge of present-day Egyptian dance, as well as for the Reda style.




Further Reading



About this Article

Rachael originally published this article on her own blog on August 19, 2015. She graciously granted permission for it to be republished here on Her blog features many additional interesting articles, and is well worth visiting. It can be found at .




About the Author

Rachael Borek is an Egyptian style belly dance performer and teacher based in Oxford, United Kingdom. She has been studying belly dance since 2008, and has a particular interest in Arabic music, and in musicality and expression in dance. Her dance mentors are Gwen Booth and Josephine Wise.

Rasha is a geek by nature, and she loves researching and writing about the background of the dance, including its history and wider cultural context, when she isn't performing, teaching or taking classes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Rachael by Spooner Studios Photography.

She has completed the JWAAD ‘Safe delivery of Belly Dance classes’ course, and is working towards the full JWAAD teaching diploma. She is also a full member of Equity, the entertainers' union.

Rasha Nour



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