Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
13 - 19 August 1998
Issue No.390
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Nagwa Fouad
photos: Al-Ahram

Nagwa Fouad:

Hours of glory

Profile by Soheir Sami

"To be a dancer, a respected, famous dancer: this was my dream since I was about six, when I started dancing, anytime and anywhere."

Nagwa Fouad was born in Alexandria, to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother from Nablus. Her parents went to Jaffa when she was three-months-old. There, she spent the first few years of her life. Her mother died a few months after Nagwa was born and her father married another Palestinian woman, whom the young child loved as her mother and who was to become Nagwa's onlysource of support in the difficult years ahead.

"In 1948, our house was blown up by Zionist gangs, and we lost everything. My father left to Alexandria to arrange for us to stay with his family there, but a few days after his departure the whole of Jaffa was lost to the Jews and we made our escape, like everybody else, by sea. We ended up in Al-Arish, where my stepmother and I lived in refugee tents, queuing every day for hours for inedible food." The only sweet memory Nagwa has of those bitter days is a fizzy drink called Fruit Bowl, which was served for dinner at the refugee camp.

"One day, my stepmother found someone who was going to Cairo. She gave him my father's address in Alexandria and begged him to inform my father of our whereabouts. My father came to take us and we stayed for some time in Alexandria, but then he married again and I left with my stepmother to Cairo, where she worked as a seamstress." No wicked stepmother stories, none at all: the lady was kind and tender-hearted. With no children of her own, she nurtured Nagwa.

Sometime in the 1950s, Nagwa, aged 14, managed to get a job as a telephone receptionist at the office of Orabi, agent to the stars. "When Orabi saw me dance, he persuaded me to rent a belly-dancer's costume for 50 piastres and take to the stage."

Nagwa Fouad began dancing at Sahara City, a famous night-club at the foot of the Pyramids, then moved to the glamorous Auberge des Pyramides, where the armchairs on the piste may still have borne the imprint of King Farouk's ample form. The royal visitor, not so long before, had patronised the night-club assiduously, attracted mainly, although not exclusively, by the pleasures of the roulette table.

She remembers how she trembled while being questioned by the vice squad -- a 14-year-old belly-dancer? -- and her relief when she was finally released, after the owner of the five-star club had convinced the officers to list her age as 16: the minimum legal age for professional belly-dancers. Decades later, Nagwa Fouad can laugh heartily at these inauspicious beginnings.

Back to the real beginning: the first step was her marriage to Ahmed Fouad Hassan, the late musician and conductor. He gave Nagwa Fouad her "first big break", giving her a chance to appear in the popular 1960s stage show Adwaa Al-Madina (City Lights), which had featured such superstars as Shadia, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Fayza Ahmed, and Sabah.

"Hassan was 17 years older than me, but I needed him. He nurtured my amateur's talents... He taught me the importance of studying and working on my talent if I wanted to be a big star. He trained me at the Nelly Mazloum Dance School and I joined the National Dance Troupe to study folklore with Russian teachers." The showmanship and eye-catching techniques she learned, and which distinguished her from the many dancers of the time, were obvious in her performances of Ayoub Al-Masri and Bahiya wa Yassin.

Nagwa Fouad
In 1976, Nagwa Fouad reached the apex of her career when Mohamed Abdel-Wahab composed a special piece for her, called Qamar Arba'tashar (Full Moon). Her performance to this melody allowed her to change the way belly-dancing was presented on stage, transforming it from a somewhat denigrated form of entertainment into a lavish spectacle, all graceful swirls and floating chiffon. "I took the oriental dancing of Tahiya Karioka and Samia Gamal, and created a stage show like a dramatic piece," she says.

Dancing was her only priority. This triggered her divorce from Hassan after six years of marriage: "He wanted a baby and I was not interested at all. We remained friends after the divorce, though. I was starting my career, and I was utterly convinced that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name."

She earned thousands as a dancer, but always managed to spend more, "because you cannot earn money from any artistic career. You have to spend all the time if you want to develop, and keep presenting shows that are always better, always new."

She formed a group of 12 dancers and 35 musicians and singers, one choreographer and one costume designer. "It was a sort of a small-scale mobile theatre, we toured the country and gave performances everywhere."

Fouad was always testing the limits of her art form, always pushing for more spectacular events. One of her best-remembered performances featured a horse named Thunder. The words she uses to describe her shows -- "renovation, development, glory and distinction" -- are sufficiently resonant not to seem out of place in a victory speech.

Nagwa Fouad
Nagwa Fouad has had to fight for recognition that belly-dancing is worthy of respect. In a world where many entertainers have to put up with the bad name their craft has acquired, she insists on the importance of dance. If she waxes a little lyrical -- "you can smell the perfume of the East and experience one of the Thousand and One Nights" -- it is only a reaction to those who would see in her no more than a pretty face or an attractive "artiste".

Her four marriages were, perhaps, the inevitable by-products of a life lived at night, of hard work devoted to making it all look easy. But it is her marriage to Sami El-Zoghbi, the manager of the Cairo Sheraton Hotel at the time, that she remembers most fondly, as "the best time of my life".

Indeed it was: for by the mid-1970s, Nagwa was the top belly-dancer in the Arab world and beyond. One night during those dazzling years of success and fame, her then husband, Sami El-Zoghbi, received a call enquiring where she would be dancing that night. He said Nagwa had a party in Alexandria. He was told Nagwa had to cancel or finish up quickly and come to the Sheraton before midnight. When he asked why, he was informed that Henry Kissinger was leaving Cairo the next day, and wanted to see her dance before he left.

"That night, I returned to the Sheraton at midnight and danced. Kissinger was so pleased that he rose from his seat and danced with me." Those were the days of shuttle diplomacy for Kissinger: between 1974 and 1975, he visited Egypt 11 times. "After that night, whenever he came he would insist on watching me dance. When he married Nancy, he brought her to watch me, and she said, 'Henry is very fond of your dancing'."

Nagwa Fouad
Nagwa Fouad
Nagwa Fouad
The many faces of Nagwa Fouad: from vamp to wholesome country girl, she's danced it all
When President Carter, in turn, came to Egypt with his wife, he, too, asked to see Nagwa Fouad. "He told me, 'You are truly magnificent. Everything Kissinger said about you is true.' The last time I saw Kissinger was at the party President Sadat held in Ismailia for the signing of the Camp David Accords."

There was much gossip, at the time, about how close her friendship with Kissinger really was. It would have made quite a few lurid headlines: 'The dancer and the president', that sort of thing. But Nagwa Fouad is adamant: "I could not have had anything to do with him, nor with any pro-Zionist or pro-Israeli. I never met Kissinger in private, nor did I invite him to my house. How could I? In my house, I become my true self: Awatef, a simple, half-Egyptian, half-Palestinian woman. Both of these two halves abhor Zionism."

Her first role in cinema was a tiny part in Shari' Al-Hob (Love Street), starring Abdel-Halim Hafez. A major role followed in Malak wa Shaytan (Angel and Devil). "I was trained vocally for this film and I learned how to act as well." Since then, Fouad has acted in over 100 films and danced in over 250.

Today, she sees no reason why she should retire. "Art is not linked with age or nationality... it is linked with creation and presence and if the artist can give and enjoy, she must continue to perform," she says.

Fouad is the only dancer of her generation who is still performing. The others fell along the way, retiring for fear of forgetting that they were over the hill, gaining or losing too much weight, succumbing to illness or the pressures of competition and the hard work and harder temptations that riddled their lives. Those who survived unscathed took refuge in the familiarity of domestic life.

Although Fouad no longer dances in night-clubs, she still works in theatre and on television. In the serial Zizinia, she plays Badia Masabni, the meteoric dancer who owned one of Cairo's most famous clubs, Salet Badia, where Tahiya Karioka and Samia Gamal, as well as singers like Farid El-Atrash, started out in the 1940s. There is more in common between Nagwa and Badia than one would suppose at first glance: the legendary beauty, of course, and the willingness of self-made women in traditional times to acquiesce to the illusion of male protection. But most important, perhaps, is the staying power: the refusal to recognise that one can go down any way but fighting.