Almeh (Arabic, عالمة, plural ʕawālim عوالمعوالم [ʕæˈwæːlem, -lɪm]; from Arabic: علمعلم ʻālima “to be wise, learned”) was the name of a class of courtesans or female entertainers in Arab Egypt.
Women who were trained to sing and recite classical poetry and witty speeches, associated with the qayna (Arabic, عالمة) or slave singers of pre-Islamic Arabia. They were girls of good social standing, trained in dancing, singing and poetry, present at festivals and celebrations and also employed as assistants at funerals.
In the 19th century, almeh came to be used as a synonym for ghawazi, the ethnic Dom (Gypsy) erotic dancers whose performances were banned in 1834 by Mehmet Ali. As a result of the ban, ghawazi dancers were forced to pretend that they were in fact awalim. Transliterated into French as almée, the term became synonymous with ‘belly dancer’ in 19th-century European Orientalism.
Source: Souvenirs d’Egypte par Alexandre Bida et Prosper Barbot. Paris: Lemercier, 1851.
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