Between the Desert and the Sea: Bambouti
By Cathy Paveley
We are the Bamboutaya
No one resembles us
We are the sea traders
Working in the Canal
Lyrics from Friends of Bamboute from the album of the same name – El Tanbura
The Nile River flows through Egypt from South to North, starting in East Africa and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Besides leaving nutrient-rich silt deposits along its banks, it was and is an important transportation and trade route crucial to the development of Egypt. In Cleopatra’s time many canals were built connecting the Red Sea to the Nile and she likely traveled on some. They wound through Lower Egypt, creating trade and military routes that led indirectly to the Mediterranean, and were certainly faster than the overland routes of the day.
The Ottomans, as their rule in Egypt (1517-1867) was waning, envisioned the creation of a direct route between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but it was during a brief interruption in their control, when French forces occupied Egypt (1798-1801), that exploration began in earnest. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s surveyors determined that the construction of a canal would cause massive flooding of the Nile delta, so the idea was abandoned.
By 1847 Egypt was back under Turkish control. France wielded considerable influence and commissioned new studies which indicated that a canal might be feasible after all. The building of the Suez Canal got underway in 1859, and took ten years to complete. A site on the Mediterranean at the east end of the Nile Delta was chosen to be the canal terminal and main commercial port. A city was built from scratch on uninhabited scrublands resting on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It was named Port Said after the Turkish-backed ruling Pasha who granted consent to France to dig the canal. Materials and labourers had to be brought in, and people from nearby towns and surrounding countryside flocked to the city to find jobs. An estimated one and a half million people worked on the canal, including forced labour. Isolated and without resources, many thousands died from cholera and other diseases.
The construction and operation of the Canal was a joint venture between the French and Egyptian governments, and was intensely opposed by the British. However, in 1875, when the Egyptian government was forced to auction off its shares due to financial difficulties, the British administration snapped up a forty-four percent stake. Seven years later, British forces used the seaway to take full control of Egypt.
The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and has been at the center of conflict ever since. Eventually Port Said became a major trading port for commercial and passenger ships needing permission to cross the canal. While they lined up and waited in the harbour, bumboats ferried goods between shore and ships. The bumboat workers became known as Bambouti.
The Bamboutaya (plural) rowed out to the ships, laden with supplies and souvenirs, to sell to the sailors or passengers. Sometimes these transactions would be two-way, with the Bamboutaya buying or trading for goods from the sailors such as cigarettes or other hard-to-find items that could be resold in the city.
Being a bambouti could be very lucrative. Although they required a licence to work the canal, they often earned more money that a Canal Authority employee. They were respected for their nautical skills, knowledge of trade and commerce, and their ability to learn other languages. They were envied for rubbing elbows with foreigners and Port officials.
Life was good.
Port Said was a modern city, designed to accommodate its visitors. The colonial architecture sported cafés, souvenir shops, restaurants, casinos, bars, and hotels; all intended to serve foreign sailors and tourists who would be a captive audience while they waited to cross the Canal. It was also the gateway for African and Asian travelers, and many pilgrims passed through on their way to Mecca. The city grew quickly, and many languages, religions, and political ideologies were accepted.
The city was divided into two districts: one for Westerners (foreigners) and one for the Egyptians, and they socialized separately. In the Egyptian district people, men, met for dammas (gatherings) to sing and play simple instruments like the tabla, tambourine, and spoons.
Before long, the dammas began to feature a “new” instrument, the Simsimiyya, an ancient five-stringed Bedouin lyre. It was likely brought to Port Said by migrant Egyptian workers, and it became very popular. Performers played the Simsimiyya and, inspired by Sufi traditions, sang of religion, love, and the sea.
The Simsimiyya became a symbol of port lifestyle. Its name came to represent the whole genre of canal district folk culture – and a new style of music was born.
Eventually the much-older six-stringed lyre, the Tanbura, appeared in Port Said, and today there are many modern versions of both with numerous strings.
The city thrived, and the inhabitants spent their spare time singing and dancing to the strains of the Simsimiyya. The music united the people living in the Egyptian district. Over time, a completely unique dance form evolved, inspired by the Bamboutaya and influenced by the many cultures that sailed through. Movements portraying the daily work of Bamboutaya, fishermen, and port workers were injected into the traditional dances from the surrounding areas. To the people of Port Said it was just dancing, but it became known to the rest of the word as the Bamboutaya.
The famous movements we still see today include scanning the horizon for ships, climbing in and out of bumboats, rowing to the ships and back, tossing ropes, bartering with sailors or tourists, counting money, casting nets and reeling them back in. The real flavour of this dance, though, lies in the hops and jumps that fill in the spaces between the stylized movements. Dancers are agile and light on their feet, moving quickly through sequences of steps. Although representing hard work, the steps are cheerful and express joy. Modern performances are almost always a tableau.
Western influence can be seen with Charleston steps and the Schuhplattler (Bavarian slapping dance). Egyptian influence can be seen in the arm and hip movements, and syncopated clapping, perhaps vestiges of Bedouin styles, and the playing of spoons. Although we often think of spoon-playing as having originated in the British Isles, they have been played in Egypt, Greece, and Turkey for millennia. Bamboutaya dancers tap their feet, hips, shoulders, and mime the tapping of the side of the boat to attract fish. Occasionally they play complicated rhythms as a call and response.
There is no specific ethnic or traditional costume for the Bamboutaya. Early on, there were no costumes as such, because people danced at dammas, weddings, and other social events and people wore their regular clothing. Men had the sserual (or sherwal); pants that are baggy in the crotch but tight-fitting on the calves, and women wore long, loose-fitting dresses. Later, costumes took on the look of boatmen, coastguards, or port workers, and eventually became more and more modern.
By the 1950s, many Egyptians had come to resent the foreign ownership of the Canal. It was easier for a foreigner to get a job at the Canal Authority than an Egyptian, and foreigners earned more money. A resistance movement began to form. Britain still occupied Egypt and the canal was operating as a neutral zone under their protection. In 1952 the revolution came, and the Egyptian monarchy was abolished. When Gamel Abdel Nasser came to power four years later he nationalized the Suez Canal Company and closed the Straits of Tiran, which links Israel to the Red Sea, to all Israeli ships, triggering the Suez Crisis. A coalition of British, French, and Israeli forces attacked Egypt, and Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, but not before the Egyptian army scuttled forty ships in the canal, blocking it for more than six months.
An interesting sidenote: Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson (later Prime Minister), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for de-escalating the situation by establishing the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to ensure safe access to the canal for all countries and allow the Israeli army to withdraw from the Sinai. The Suez Canal was left under Egyptian control.
The revolution and crisis renewed interest in Egyptian identity and culture. In the late 1950s the now-famous Reda Troupe and the National Folklore Troupe of Egypt started exploring Egypt, going into small villages to learn about their traditional music, dance, and clothes. They created stylized choreographies from these movements and began performing throughout the country, and eventually around the world. The Bamboutaya was one of these dances, and the jumps, sailor caps, and spoons that we associate with them became famous. The performances and music were strictly non-political but it was during this time that resistance songs started to emerge in Port Said, and the Simsimiyya became its voice.
In the Fifties and Sixties dancers sported stylized outfits inspired by foreign sailors and Hollywood movies. Men started to wear bell-bottomed pants and women capris with scarves tied on the hips. Both wore striped shirts and sailor’s or fishermen’s caps. Most of the costumes we see today are reminiscent those days.
Another Arab-Israeli war in 1967 resulted in the complete closure of the Suez Canal for eight years. Many residents of Port Said fled the area voluntarily, but later there was a forced relocation of its citizens. Most of the homes in the Suez were destroyed, and the inhabitants were not allowed to return until after the next war in 1973. Deprived of their way of life, their communities, and their culture, the people turned to the music of the Simsimiyya to keep them united. After their return, they wanted to revive the old songs and dances of Port Said. Most of the Bambouti were not able to resume their old way of life, but they found new ways to sell and barter in the city. Cafes were once again full of bands and people singing about love, the sea, and now nationalism.
Performers took on a more authentic, yet modern, style, and the bell-bottomed sailor pants and striped shirts were replaced by jeans, caps, and sneakers. They still perform a tableau of rowing out to the ships and bartering, but the movements look natural and spontaneous.
Despite this evolution, it’s the dances and costumes of the early 1960s that are still the most famous, and the most emulated. They were created as performance art and not to preserve heritage, but they do contain traditional steps, and they are fun. You can find thousands of Bamboutaya videos on YouTube from all over the world.
On a personal note, I received Bamboutaya training from several Egyptian teachers, but I have only performed it twice. The steps can be learned, but it’s the flavour and feel of the dance that are difficult to master. Without it, the performance is empty.
Sites of Interest:
The Seagoing Cowboys – Bumboats of Port Said
9 Fascinating Facts About the Suez Canal
Capturing a Vanishing Spirit - Documentary with El Tanbura
Layali Simsimiyya Show – Choreographed by Mohamed El Hosseny (Spoon Dance)
National Folkloric Ensemble of Egypt – 1960s
Cathy began her Middle Eastern dance training in 1977, studying with several world-renowned Egyptian dance masters, and went on to perform professionally as a soloist for many years. She also
trained and performed with various Egyptian and Lebanese folkloric dance troupes in the Ottawa area.
Cathy moved to Lebanon in 1981 and lived there for seven years, exploring the music, dance, culture, and language. After returning to Canada, she resumed
teaching and performing. Her first passion is folklore and she is committed to preserving and sharing traditional dance.