In June 2002, I accompanied Sahra to Brazil to help translate her dance workshops. I happen to be half-Brazilian & half-Lebanese and fluent in Portuguese, as well as a dancer, which made me the perfect Belly Dance Workshop translator. We spent our days teaching the Sahra style of Egyptian dance and our nights with our Lebanese/Brazilian dancer and musician friends driving through Sao Paulo, listening to Arabic music.
When we returned to our hotel, Sahra received a call from Amira El Kattan, costume designer of Pharonix of Egypt. Her assistant who had helped her run the costume boutique and fashion show for the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival in Cairo, had suddenly fallen ill and was unable to help her. Since Sahra was going to the festival anyway, she agreed to help Amira run her fashion show for the opening of the festival. And somehow she also convinced Amira that I should help her and the next thing you know, 2 weeks later we were on a plane to Cairo.
Arriving in Cairo is always a whirlwind, but add to that meetings with Amira and planning the fashion show it was completely crazy! The way it turned out, I would be the stage manager, making sure the 30+ dancers were in the correct costumes, lined up in the correct order and ready for their que to be on stage. Sahra, of course, she would be on stage to MC the fashion show. Somehow our lifelong archetypal relationship was being lived out here right before our very eyes.
The evening of Opening Night, The Ramses Hilton was a buzz with dancers getting ready, guests arriving and waiters setting up tables out on the veranda around the pool. The fashion show starts and I run back and forth escorting 8 dancers at a time to the stage. Although I was behind the scenes, I made sure to dress the part and those of you who know me know that I would! I wore a deep burgundy crocheted halter dress accessorized by a fresh tan from our recent trip to Brazil. And as it turns out, that burgundy dress turned out to be a divine choice.
The next thing you know as I’m rushing back across the veranda, back to the dressing room from the stage, suddenly a petite Egyptian woman was in my way, standing firmly right in front of me touching my dress, feeling the crocheted fabric between her hands. I wasn’t surprised because Egyptian woman have no problem reaching out and touching a completely unknown female. Frustrated, I was about to shoo her away because she was going to cause me to hold up the show.
Just as I was about to do so this short woman who barely came up to my shoulders, straightened up and leaned back to look up at me with her broad, kind smile. It was then I realized this petite Egyptian woman in my way, who was fascinated with my dress, was none other than Sohier Zaki!
Her energy and smile were so intense I felt as if I was going to fall flat on my back. “Helwa, Ketir helwa” she says to me as she reaches up and squeezes my cheeks.
I try to catch my breath…..
What happens next you ask??? Well honestly the rest is a blur. More fashion show followed by gala dance performances and then I find myself sitting at a round banquet table watching the dancers next to Sahra, Mahmoud Reda, Farida Fahmy and Sohair Zaki with I believe her husband and some other people. I try to express my adoration for her in the few words of Arabic I know and she just smiles at me and nods.
The festival continued over the next few days with every Egyptian master teacher you can imagine. The final day Soheir Zaki would be teaching a workshop and of course I would be there!
The dancers all packed into the ball room and being tall, I typically would go to the back of the room, but not this time-I planted myself front and center. Soheir Zaki begins to dance and got carried away with the music. Then she would start again and do something totally different. Each time she did something completely new and the dancers followed along as best we could.
At this point we all began to sit down on the floor and just watch her. No one spoke a word but we all knew we were in the presence of greatness. She could not break down her movements or teach combinations or choreography but it didn’t matter. She danced from her soul and thats all that mattered.
Our workshop ticket turned out to be a front row seat to watch one of the best Belly Dancers ever. She was retired by this time and this would be her only opportunity to perform and for what turned out to be for an audience of adoring dancers. It was magical-she became lost in the music with that look of enchantment on her face that we all know. And we became lost with her.
When it was over she graciously took pictures with each participant and when it was my turn she took my face in her hands again and said “Helwa” and practically had me sit on her lap. This is the only picture I have with her, but there is no picture that could ever capture that feeling the moment she looked up and smiled at me while adoring my dress.