Almah (Egyptian dancer)

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The Almeh of Egypt, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1873

Almah or Almeh (Egyptian Arabic: عالمةʕálma  IPA: [ˈʕælmæ], plural ʕawālim عوالم [ʕæˈwæːlem, -lɪm], from Arabic: علم ʻālima "to know, be learned") was the name of a class of courtesans or female entertainers in Egypt, women educated to sing and recite classical poetry and to discourse wittily, connected to the qayna slave singers.[1] They were educated girls of good social standing, trained in dancing, singing and poetry, present at festivals and entertainments, and hired as mourners at funerals.[2]

The Awalim were first introduced as singers not dancers-cum prostitutes, according to Edward William Lane's book, "Manner and Costumes of modern Egyptians " and its description of the profession of the Almah/Almeh, the Almah didn't display her self at all but sang from behind the screen or from another room at weddings and other respectable festivities. Consequently, the Awalem were not subject to exile in Upper Egypt.[3]

In the 19th century, almeh came to be used as a synonym of ghawazi, the traditional erotic dancers of Egypt whose performances were banned in 1834 by Egypt's king Mohamed Ali; as a result of the ban, the ghawazi dancers were forced to pretend that they were in fact Awalim. Transliterated into French as almée, the term came to be synonymous with "belly dancer" in European Orientalism of the 19th Aentury.


  1. ^ Stavros Stavrou Karayanni (2004). Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-0-88920-926-8.
  2. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Alme" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 713.
  3. ^ Debating Orientalism, Anna Bernard, David Attwell.