Raqs Sharqi - Souheir Zaki


Anwar ElSadat, Egypt's president at the time, called her the "Umm Kulthoum" of dance. Just as she sings with her voice, you sing with your body," he told her.

Umm Kulthoum and Souheir Zaki
Umm Kulthoum and Souheir Zaki

Souheir Zaki was born in Al Mansoura in 1945, where she and her family lived until she was nine years old, when they moved to Alexandria. Her father worked in the construction industry and her mother was a nurse. Music and dancing were not the family's strong suit, but Souheir fell in love with both from an early age and taught herself to dance, listening to the radio. Her natural talent revealed itself early and she was noticed at the birthday and wedding parties of her friends and relatives.

She would go straight from school to the cinema, to watch Taheya Carioca and Samia Gamal. She even cut her hair imitating Fairouz, the little actress from Egyptian cinema. Souheir's desire to dance in public did not overcome her father's disapproval, but perhaps it was part of her destiny, as her father died when she was still very young and her mother remarried. It was her stepfather who gave a boost to her career, organizing her orchestra and becoming her manager.

She worked regularly in the night clubs of Alexandria, where the audience was heterogeneous, with many people from the Greek community that dominated the nightlife scene at that time. In 1940, the number of Greeks was about 250,000. The Greek community in Alexandria lived around the church and sacred monastery of Savvas. In the same area there was an inn, a hospital and a school for the Greek community. The first banks in Egypt were established by the Greeks, including the Bank of Alexandria. Furthermore, Greek farmers were the first to scientifically organize and plan the cultivation of cotton and tobacco. Thus a prosperous trade arose between Greece and Egypt. There were many Greek theaters, cinemas and newspapers. The Greek community in Egypt produced many artists, writers, diplomats and politicians, the most famous being the poet Constantine Cavafy and the painter Konstantinos Parthenis.

Fame and fortune arrived when, in 1962, a celebrity party in Alexandria was broadcast on national television, and the young Souheir appeared alongside other local artists.

She was noticed by TV director Mohammed Salem, who then went in search of the "girl with long hair". She was the only dancer at that time who didn't wear a wig or much makeup. He wanted to make her a TV presenter, but in the audition, he didn't do well. Her voice wasn't good, and besides, she just wanted to dance.

So Souheir went to Cairo, where she performed at weddings and night clubs until the early hours of the morning.

She danced on the show Tholathy Adwa'a El Masrah (Arabic: ثلاثي أضواء المسرح) which was an Egyptian stand-up comedy trio made up of incredible comedians: El Deif Ahmed, George Sidhom and Samir Ghanem. And also on weekly TV programs with dance performances, such as Adwa' Al Medina. She was the regular solo dancer and also danced the tableaux of choreographer Ibrahim Akef, cousin of dancer and actress Naima Akef and choreographer of the best dancers of past decades. He rehearsed the group's dancers; and Souheir came for the last scene. He used to say, "Souheir listens to the song once and dances without rehearsing."

His precise ear for music was famous. In her entire career, she never raised her voice to a member of the orchestra. If someone played a wrong note, she knew who it was even if her back was to him. Afterwards, she would take him aside and remember exactly which part of the song he had made a mistake. Musicians have always respected that."

Although television helped make Souheir's name, it was nightclub performances and weddings that supported her financially. The dancers at that time were the stars of the cabarets, unlike now, when the singers stand out.

The first night club she danced in was L' Auberge des Pyramides, on Al Haram Street. Opened in the summer of 1943, L'Auberge became a favorite haunt of British officers and the cosmopolitan elite looking to have as much fun as possible during the troubled war years. "It had a large outdoor courtyard with a dance floor in the middle," writes World War II historian Artemis Cooper, "and was considered the most popular nightclub in the world, pleasant area of Cairo, becoming a frequent venue for charity galas and... one of King Faruq's usual haunts."

Her contemporaries were Neimet Mokhtar and Zeinat Olwi, and in the next generation Nagwa Fouad, Nahed Sabry, Zizi Mustafa and Fifi Abdou, who danced at the Arizona Club. Although there was a lot of work, the competition was fierce, the dancers trying to outdo each other in the size of the orchestra, the richness of the costumes, and so on.

Their biggest rival was Nagwa Fouad, they competed fiercely. If they were going to dance in the same place on the same night, they rushed to get dressed and take the orchestra to the stage before the other. While Nagwa loved flash and produced both his performances and the Las Vegas shows, Souheir was the polar opposite.

Madame Raqia Hassan, renowned teacher and choreographer who took Souheir to the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival, reaffirms her popularity:

"Souheir Zaki epitomizes the 'natural' dancer. Her simplicity stands out: she translates the music with precision and naturalness, without excesses and extravagance. Her steps have a lasting mark and are still taught today. She was always herself in front of the public - never acted. Just as you see her, face to face, now: calm, soft-spoken and polite, that's how she was on stage."

The cliché image of the oriental dancer - sensual, seductive and impetuous - conflicts with this description. And, perhaps because of this, it explains why Souheir Zaki has remained in the controversial world of dance with his reputation practically intact. She danced at the weddings of the daughters of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat; and she was constantly chosen to entertain distinguished visitors. US President Nixon called her "Zagharit," when she learned that this is an expression of joy. She received praise and medals from the Shah of Iran, the president of Tunisia and Egypt.

One night, she was walking from one show to another when Umm Kulthoum's Inta Omri came on the radio. She thought it would be beautiful to dance to that song. Its rhythm, its complex melody, made her want to get up and dance. Despite fervent objections from her group, she put her foot down and went ahead. It happened that Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, who ran the newspaper Al Ahram, was in the audience that night, and he wrote about it in the newspaper. They were soon called to perform at an elite party in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo. As soon as they started playing the song by Umm Kulthoum, Souheir came across this lady herself among the audience! Souheir and the musicians were terrified, they prayed for an earthquake to come and the earth to swallow them. But when the show ended, Umm Kulthoum came to them and congratulated them. She said they had been wonderful and that she was delighted with the band, who had played the song so well, a song that she herself had sung a few weeks earlier, requiring many rehearsals with the orchestra. It was the greatest compliment they could ever receive. After that, Souheir became famous for dancing to Umm Kulthoum's songs on television, and that's what really spread her fame throughout the Arab world."

Of course, cinema also helped. Souheir made more than 100 films throughout his career, alongside screen stars such as Farid Shawqi, Shokoukou and Shadia. Unlike previous dancers like Taheya Carioca, Naima Akef and Samia Gamal, she never really enjoyed acting. Her roles were generally small; she was going to dance. But it is a real fact that if they put her picture on the movie poster, she would draw crowds. Of the films she participated in, we can highlight Tamn El Hob from 1963 (The Price of Love), the fun comedy Elmaganin Elteleta from 1970 (The Three Crazy Ones), Abna' Lilbey3 from 1973 (Children for Sale), Sultanat Eltarab from 1978, about the life story of Mounira AlMahdeya, considered the main Egyptian singer of the 1920s.

She also danced in series produced for Egyptian TV, such as 1969's El ragl dul khamsat uguh (The Man with Five Faces).

She met her husband, Mohammed Amara, a photographer, on a movie set. It was a happy marriage, as he was from a family accustomed to the pressures of the artistic world. Her father-in-law, Ibrahim Amara, is credited with bringing Abdel Halim Hafez to the screen in his first film, Lahn Al Wafa' (Song of Fidelity), his brother was renowned director Hassan Al Seifi.

Her husband, being an artist too, understood her. They had a lot in common. However, married life had to be squeezed in between commitments to night clubs, TV and cinema, and it took a lot of effort to form a family.

Souheir became pregnant several times, but always suffered a miscarriage, perhaps because of the pressures of work. She only managed to have a son, Hamada, in 1987 when it was starting to get too late. And that makes him even more important to her.

At the end of the 80s, the dance scene began to change and Souheir began to think about saying goodbye with dignity. Big changes were already being made in the way society viewed dance.

One of the saddest days for her was when the dance was taken off television. When she heard the announcement on the radio about the television birthday celebrations and that there would be no dancers, she cried a lot. She had attended that event every year since it started.

There were other reasons, too, why Souheir decided to retire. The look of the dancers was changing. In their time, they wore voluminous chiffon skirts and looked like princesses. Suddenly everything became lycra. For Souheir, being a dancer is not about showing your body and posing on stage. It's showing the art of dancing. The influx of foreign dancers into the market - which only started when Souheir left the scene, also didn't impress her, for her Egyptians have a personality and humor that are difficult to imitate.

When she was invited to participate in the festival by Mme Raqia Hassan, Souheir was reluctant to accept. But she was persuaded by colleagues, who said it would be good for her and for dancing. Mme Raqia was impressed by the impact Souheir's presence had on scheduling. They all wanted to take classes with Souheir.

Souheir said:

As a famous song by Umm Kulthoum, Fat El Ma3ad (Time has passed):

"So you want to go back to the old days? Try asking them to go back to the way they were.

Those days will never come back - the atmosphere, the guests. Where are they now?

Oriental Dance was my life. I have my son, my husband. But the best memories of all are dancing."

Claudia Cenci