What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see Raks El Assaya or when you dance to it? I´ll tell you mine. It´s Saidi, and the image of Upper Egypt. This was the image I had in mind, when I first heard Upper Egyptian music, that being a long time ago.
I’ll tell you a story. It was winter 2003 and I went to Vienna all the way from Slovenia with a few friends who shared my enthusiasm for dance. We were so excited, because it was our first workshop with an Oriental dance teacher from abroad. So, guess who it was? It was the one and only Aunt Rocky, Morocco from New York. The living legend and human encyclopaedia of Oriental dance. She was holding a two-day workshop and aside from Raks Sharqi, she also taught us Raks El Assaya.
We all bought beautiful assayas for ourselves and were ready to learn it for the first time. I still have that music and I still know how to dance the choreography she taught us. I have to say that it was one of the best Assaya workshops in my dance life (and I have been to hundreds of different workshops so far).
Since then I have seen many different interpretations of this dance. I’ve also heard many different stories about it and its connection to Tahtib, one of the oldest martial arts in the world. I was trying to find out more about all this:
- where the dance comes from
- who performs it and how
- on what occasions
- and the connection with the Tahtib.
I visited many different workshops, read numerous articles on the subject and finally, I went to Upper Egypt a few times, to see it and explore and learn more about it.
What is Tahtib?
Tahtib, as most of you probably know, is one of the oldest martial arts in the world (more than 5,000 years old) and is linked to Ancient Egypt (we can see some engravings in the scenes of Tahtib in various tombs and temples in Upper Egypt). It is a male fight, but it can also be performed as game and can develop into a dance. Men use strong bamboo sticks. “The regular stick used for Tahtib is called the Shouma. It’s about 1.50 m long, very thick and heavy.
When playing it on horseback, they use a longer stick. The Assaya is a bamboo stick, not so long or as thick and is used for Raqs Al Assaya.” (Claudia Heinle, 2019). Tahtib is always accompanied by live music. Typical music for Tahtib is in the form of traditional Tabl Beledi (big, round drum, that the drummer wears around his neck) and some Mizmars (an Egyptian trumpet-like instrument).
My First Lesson
When I had my first lesson of Tahtib in Luxor in 2015, it was very interesting and very informative. However, a little scary. Our teacher, Mohamed, said that we should not think of Tahtib as a dance form, but as a serious martial art where people still get killed. “There are still cases of death because of Tahtib fighting in the countryside.” (Claudia Heinle, 2019).
Mohamed showed us what the real Tahtib looks like. He showed us how to hold it in our hands (and also how not to hold it), explaining the basic concept of how to attack and defend (how not to die in battle). It was a very strong and powerful experience. You can see the clip from our “workshop” in Luxor in link below. When we stopped with the fighting demonstration, we began to dance with the stick to the same music, trying to imitate the moves from the fight.
“Traditionally, Tahtib is a martial art practised in a group or between two men. When practised in the solo form, it is called in Arabic Raqs Al Assaya.” (Claudia Heinle, 2019)
So, whenever I went to Egypt I watched men playing Tahtib and dancing the Assaya. Here, there was a small Hafla at the bank of the Nile in Autumn of 2016, somewhere between Luxor and Asuan. After drinking coffee with dried melted ginger, there was time to dance.
This clip was taken in the Kharga oasis. I was there in February 2018. We were walking with some camels into the desert. After some time, we took a short break to rest and our Beduin guides spontaneously performed the Tahtib for us.
Raks El Assaya
I was told that Raks El Assaya is a male dance and that women never dance with it. Well, as you’ll see, that is not true for the famous Mazin family of Luxor. In this clip you can see the famous Khairiya Mazin using Assaya as a prop. She told me that Assaya – as a dance prop – was already used by her aunts who taught her and her sisters – the famous Banat Mazin. You can see that Khairiya`s dance moves with the Assaya are a sort of imitation of the Tahtib.
Traditionally speaking, stick dancing is a male thing in Egypt, but with the evolution of Raks Sharqi and stage folklore in Egypt, dancers started stick dancing and using it as a prop in Raks Al Sharqi. On the other hand, watching Khairiya Mazin dancing with a stick, I can´t help but wonder, that maybe sometimes women, when they get together in private and have Haflas, that they did and still do some dancing with the Assaya. Well, I guess that is just another interesting theme for me to research – how ordinary Egyptian woman dance when they get together to celebrate something.
- personal field research (Upper Egypt 2015-2019),
- Claudia Heinle: Tahtib, Martial Art in Modern Egypt, Tanz raum, 2017, www.tanz-raum.com