Almah (Egyptian dancer)

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 Almeh of Egypt, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1873

The Awalim were first introduced as singers, not dancers-cum-prostitutes, according to Edward William Lane's book, Manner and Costumes of modern Egyptians. Lane additionally wrote that the Almah didn't display herself at all, but sang from behind a 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 to all the erotic local dancers who usually came from very poor backgrounds and sometimes contributed in sexual acts in return of money, hence why the traditional erotic dancers of Egypt got all their performances banned in 1834 by Egypt's king Mohamed Ali who viewed such acts as unclassy. As a result of the ban, all the dancers in modern Egypt became Awalim, which was officially classified as an Egyptian job. Transliterated into French as almée, the term came to be synonymous with "belly dancer" in European Orientalism of the 19th Century.


From the last decades of the 19th century until the 1920s, there were some of the most notable and last "awalim" of Egypt:[4]

  • Shooq
  • Bamba Kashar
  • Chafika Al Qebtiya
  • Mounira Al Mahdiya
  • Badia Masabni
  • Beba Ibrahim
  • Nabawiya Al Masryia


  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., 13 June 2013, ISBN 9781137341112
  4. ^ Cairo cafes: A century of music and coffee – Folk Arts – Folk – Ahram Online