There are plenty of people who have considered the idea of coming to live in Egypt, and some have taken the steps to make it a reality. Few however, have been as successful, prepared, or suited to the transition as Sara Farouk, whos contribution to the world of oriental dance here has been rich and varied. Performer, teacher, mentor, guide, director of both stage and film productions, her presence behind the scenes has bolsted the success of many (including myself through our joint production of Journey of Desire). Her organizational work at both Ahlan wa Sahlan (four years running) and Raqia Hassans teachers seminar (two years running) has been invaluable. She was the first teacher from the UK to bring dance enthusiasts on tours of discovery to Egypt, and continues to do so successfully. Her work on the stage musical Memories of the Sphinx has brought into play not only her directorial theatre and dance background, but also her skills at marketing and production. She was the! first UK dance teacher to introduce trainers such as Raqia Hassan to a hungry UK market, and also discovered Khaled Mahmoud, facilitating his introduction to the UK dance scene. The list goes on and on, as is often the way with people whose skills are varied but remain behind, rather than centre, stage.
But before getting to any of the above, it is interesting to look back to Saras roots, and observe how the seeds of her current life were planted very early indeed. Born Maureen OFarrell (which is still her working Equity name) to extremely working-class Irish parents and brought up in London, her father was the school-keeper at her primary school. They lived next door, a situation which enabled her, she says in hindsight, to know more about the inside workings of the place than most of the teachers, and gave me a very different attitude towards authority. Lets just say, school was never an intimidating place.
She did well there, and went on to a girls grammar school. By this time my parents had split up. I was rebellious, and used the fact that I came from a broken home to my advantage. I ended up head girl. (To those who know Sara, the title rebellious head girl still fits her to this day!)
Sara was always a step ahead of her age. At fourteen she was London Area Secretary of the official Beatles Fan Club. At sixteen she left home to live in the house of her music teacher, but says that circumstance, not any particular person, was her main influence.
Two things happened to me when I was eleven, which were to have a lasting effect on me. The first was going to see the film Lawrence of Arabia and deciding I wanted to learn to ride a camel. Secondly my history teacher, who was an Arabist, taught us about the history of the Fertile Crescent and the rise of imperialism in the Middle East. The anti-imperialist subtext of Lawrence attracted me, and I still think its a great movie to this day.
I decided then and there, that as soon as I had enough money I would go to the Arab world and see it ! for myself. But at the same time, my whole background at school was in the arts music, literature, dance and drama. So after A Levels I went to art school in Hull, but combined my interests by studying archeological drawing. After two years I applied to Dartington, where I shifted to drama and dance. I then went on to qualify as a dance, drama and English teacher at Rolle College of Education.
After a full five years of further education I ended up almost bankrupt, and took a job as drama teacher at a comprehensive school in Bow, East London. It was during this time that I teamed up with other actors to be a founder member of a theater company. Those other actor/dancers in Helen Jives, have become integral members of Londons theatre community
In 1978 I stopped teaching altogether to concentrate on my acting career. Although I loved dance I never wanted to be a professional dancer because of how I saw dancers treated within the industry. Nevertheless I continued teaching dance – mainly Cunningham technique, and release work.
In 1981 I got the job on the TV drama Widows (which, she modestly omits mentioning, catapulted her to national stardom), and the first thing I did after signing my contract was to book a holiday in Egypt.
In true Sara style, she describes her first experience of Cairo as F***ing amazing!
My early involvement with the Beatles had fueled an interest in Indian classical music, so when I came here the music really drew me. I went to see a dancer at the (long-since defunct) Sahara City night club. The atmosphere was electric. There she was with her enormous, poe-faced orchestra, but she was having a ball – and so were the audience. I thought, I want to do this! This is a form of professional dance that I could actually enjoy. I returned to London and took classes with Wendy Buonaventura and Suraya Hilal – who back then was still known by the name Selwa Raja. It was through Wendy though that I met Leila Haddad, and that was actually a much more meaningful connection for me. Through being taught Tunisian dance by a Tunisian, I realized that the only way I was ever going to learn Egyptian dance was in Egypt. So I came back here as often as I could, and had classes with Ibrahim Akef – but mainly just watched and watched Egyptian dancers Mona Said, Nagua Fouad, and most of all Fifi Abdou.
The thing that really struck me about coming here was how at home I felt. It had something to do with the outward appearance of this being a fast and crazy mess, but once youre in it realizing that everything actually goes along quite slowly. Also I loved the way that people here have a very natural relationship to music. They dont just expect to be entertained, they become part of their own entertainment. There was a recognition of what from the outside looks like a very hard life, but actually involves having an enormous amount of fun. People here are good at improvisation. They have to be, whether they work as a dancer or a car mechanic.
Back in London Sara, who was by this time bringing up her son Thomas on her own, went on teaching dance – including her new found love, Egyptian dance. I found teaching short once-a-week classes very dissatisfying on all levels, she says, because I couldn’t cover what I wanted to in enough depth, so instead, I taught four hour workshops every three weeks. I have always taught people to dance because I love to share with them my passion. I never wanted it to become a business. I preferred making my living through acting.
In 1991, events in the Middle East coloured the direction of Saras life. I watched on TV the invasion of the Gulf, and the bombing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – places Id spent so many painstaking hours drawing in my history books at age eleven. I decided I wanted to leave England, and go and live in the Middle East. And Cairo was the place I most wanted to be.
Being the kind of person she is though, Sara first enrolled at the University of London School of African Studies, and did a three year degree in social anthropology of the Middle East, followed by a
M.Phil and study for a PhD.
She also began bringing her dance students on trips to Egypt to discover the dance connection she loved so much. I believed that if you were really interested in Egyptian dance you had to experience the country; not just the dance scene but the way people behave. On one of these dance trips – to Luxor – in the spring of 2000, I was offered a job teaching dance in a hotel there, which I did that summer. I met Sherif, who was the DJ at the hotel, and we ended up getting married.
So Maureen OFarrell became Sara Sherif Farouk, and converted to Islam to make the transition complete.
I had studied the Muslim faith at university and in many ways it made perfect sense to me, she explains. It is a religion that is relatively new, yet recognizes the older religions. It is practical to be a Muslim, living here. And at that time, I also wanted to distance myself from what was happening in international politics.
I sold my house in London and moved to Luxor, where I realized that mizmars sound fantastic played outdoors!
In other words, real life in Egypt was all she hoped it would be. At least, she qualifies, as good as it can bealmost 450 miles from Cairo. Actually, the best thing about Luxor was really realizing the worth of Saeedi music. Its fundamental to the Egyptian sound.
Sara and Sherif lived in a village on the outskirts of Luxor for three and a half years while Sherif finished his studies in tourism, and Sara herself took a job working for up-market travel company Abercrombie and Kent. They had other things in common Sherif had twice won the Best Actor in Upper Egypt Award, and performed with a local drama group.
But the couple moved to Cairo as soon as they could, in 2003, where Sara quickly established herself within the dance community, and lost no time putting her diverse skills to use. Her first job, apart from working with Raqia Hassan on the annual Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival, was with a French theatre producer, as assistant director on a large dance extravaganza due to launch in Sharm el Sheikh. Memories of the Sphinx, as it was titled, featured a cast of 80 performers, mainly Egyptian, but included twelve dancers recruited by Sara from the UK and Europe.
One of the nicest things to come out of that experience, she comments, was seeing Tara from England and Shafeek, one of the folklore dancers from Cairo, meet and get together.
(In fact Shafeek is not the first male dancer who can credit Sara as providing him with a UK connection. Khaled Mahmoud was a friend of her husband Sherif in Luxor, when she first observed his love for dancing and gave him a shot at teaching a group she was hosting in Cairo. They enjoyed it so much she arranged a workshop for him in the UK – and the rest is history!)
Despite monumental production efforts, Memories of the Sphinx foundered after one season due to sponsorship difficulties. (It is due to be re-launched in the near future how! ever, in Luxor, with the support this time from the Ministries of Tourism and Culture.) While it was still being staged, Sara contracted breast cancer, and on her return to Cairo from Sharm, fought and won her battle against the disease with help from an unexpected source.
I have to thank the wonderful people in the UK, Tracey Gibbs, Anne Kingston, Shirley Lewis, Caroline Affifi and Kay Taylor, who raised money for my treatment through dance events within their communities.
In fact, the fund-raising proved so successful there was a surplus of money, which Sara insisted be used to set up Just Because, an on-going charity aimed at helping Egyptian women with breast cancer. Its main target is to provide a mobile screening unit for women here who cant afford hospital fees. I wanted to pass on the generosity I had received to other women, in the country which has become my home, she says. Having breast cancer is a daunting experience anywhere in the world, but Sara insists she is glad that she went through treatment here and not back in the UK. Here’s why
I felt I had an enormous amount of support throughout my experience, while still being able to deal with it very privately. Within five minutes of meeting them, both my surgeon and oncologist had given me their mobile phone numbers, and were on call at any time. The process from diagnosis to the operation took four days. Throughout my treatment I was always told the truth, not bluntly but with kindness.
Having been here during much of Sara’s treatment, I can testify to the fact she is the kind of person that concentrates on recovery, while never making her ordeal a burden to others. On the contrary, she was still receiving treatment when we began work Journey of Desire A foreign Dancer in Cairo, a protracted project which could never have come to be made without her input.
Film has been my life, she says, when I ask in retrospect why she took on the job. The opportunity to combine that with the dance was something I couldn’t miss. Also to work with someone who feels as passionate about it as I do.
Working with a blundering, less-than-qualifiedfilm crew who at times had us tearing our hair out, it was often only Sara’s calm professionalism that saved the day. We also had fun in the edit suite – as anyone who knows her wicked sense of humour can imagine.
Cash limitations (which were serious!) pushed us to achieve more than we might have done, if everything had been easy she remarks. If wed had a bigger budget wed probably have made a more polished, but less interesting film. It all comes down to the fact that in Egypt, one has to be resourceful. Its one of the great things about being here.
To live successfully in Cairo you learn to cope with, and dismiss where necessary, the stress you routinely impose upon yourself in the West. You learn to improvise. You cant make excuses for your behaviour because there’s very little pretence and nothing to hide behind. You don’t have to save other people from your emotions – you express them! And these are all! things which Ive been able to do, because I’m a performer -things which, as performers, we must all address.
After living here for seven years, Id find it very hard to move back to Northern Europe. When I go there I see the pressure on people to spend money they haven’t got, and get stuck in a controlling world of debt. Egypt is still a bit like living in England 50 years ago. There’s still a mentality of mending things that break. Its a cash economy. Despite the fact the country has been under martial law since the time of Sadat’s assassination, one doesn’t feel controlled – on the contrary, you have a sense of being in charge of your own destiny.
The other thing I love about Cairo is its creative chaos. There’s never a no here – because there’s always a way round a no. The majority of Egyptian people are well versed in how to carry on regardless. Its not that they expect something new to be around every corner, but they are open to it. The expression inshallah! makes perfect sense to me. Because its so true, when you make an arrangement, anything can happen between now and then!
On an even more personal note, she imparts one more secret of living successfully in the city that never sleeps. I’m a smoker, so I don’t get stressed about pollution. I didn’t come here to live in a clean environment – I’m a city girl!
Sara does return each year to the UK to teach workshops, and goes in the winter to remind herself, she says, why she enjoys Egypt’s warm climate. She also teaches privately here in Cairo, and has a number of devoted students. With her emphasis on feeling and living the dance, not just on technique, she brings a unique slant to her classes which is hard to find elsewhere.
I love teaching, and I especially enjoy teaching Egyptian dance, because I think its quite a revolutionary thing to do. Its up to the students how much they take on, but it can be a truly life-changing experience. There’s nothing about this dance that diminishes people; the results are immediately rewarding. And the whole point about it is that its about individuals and not clique. Everyone is different, and it allows each person to discover and extend themselves.
Sara is an unashamed believer in Cairo as the source of true learning about Egyptian dance, and endlessly encourages those with a love of the dance to come here.
This is a solo woman’s dance which is actually expressing the heart and soul of this country. Considering the way many Europeans view the position of women in this society, that is really quite something. When it comes to foreigners coming here to perform or to visit, in essence I think its a good thing. There’s an enormous emphasis on learning about the dance and even about the history of Egypt, but not enough about just being here, and feeling the spirit of it.
If you want to have integrity and achievement as a performer you never stop learning about your art, and never think you are good enough. Egyptian dance changes all the time, and there is so ! much to know. The more often you can come and the longer you can stay the better.
She adds, with a straight face but a twinkle in her eye Besides, where else in the world could you be walking down the street and pass a woman with a cooker balanced on her head!