A meticulously suave and usually articulate member of the Egyptian embassy staff groped for an analogy to describe Nagwa Fuad's effect on his countrymen. How to describe the belly dancer as superstar?
"There is nothing like it in your country," he said grasping at air. "She is like the Beatles . . . She is like baseball! Like football!"
Yesterday morning Egypt's national pastime sat quietly with her husband in a Sheraton-Park suite. As long as she sat, letting her husband do most of the talking, there was only the slightest hint of the allure that sometimes causes small-scale riots in the Cairo streets, little to reveal the charms that would attract 1,000 Arabs and Washingtonians to watch her dance last night for $100 a ticket.
She and her husband wore the air of the well-traveled, comfortable rich - in the bedroom her sable coat and blue jeans were thrown over a chair, the breakfast dishes were ready to be cleared by room service.
She dressed in the clothes of London and Paris, her henna-auburn hair falling just to her shoulders around dark, hard and angular features - 35 years old, she says. Maybe older.
But as she walks down the corridors to rehearsals, swinging her arms freely, tapping a sharp rhythm with the high heels of her plum-colored boots as she waits for an elevator, her body picks up the moves that she has been cultivating since she was 13.
"I've got this in my blood," she ventures in her own haltin English.
As the rehearsal gets underway - her directions having been given with the authority of a field commander - and the beat surges from the darabakkas, carried through on wailing violins and the chilled scream of Arabic singers, she takes off the boots to dance barefoot. The diamond pendant is tossed to her husband, stains of perspiration spread out across her designer tunic as a smile of exhilaration fills her face. She dances with a wildness no less abandoned for all its careful rehearsal - a sensual, sexual, cosmopolitan barbarity wrought from the mixed, sometimes conflicting cultures of modern Egypt.
It is a blend that is as much a part of her system as the music itself - in the history of her life, in her marriage, in her makeup and perfume ("Havoc") and ambitions.
She was born in Palestine, but then fled with her Egyptian father when war broke out in 1948. In elementary school in Alexandria, Egypt, she started to study French ballet, but soon was attracted as well to the classic dance of the Middle East - and the voluptuous sway of Rita Hayworth as she saw her in America's movies.
By the time she was 14, against the adamant wishes of her father, Fuad had left school to dance professionally, performing at weddings, then in a nightclub built in the deposed King Farouk's old palace, then in the slick Western hotels of Cairo.
The Cairo Sheraton, where she now dances nightly, is run by her husband. Half Lebanese and half Swiss, Sami Zoghbi spend his time intent on building hotels that will someday float down the Nile full of tourists. "I have always lived the good life," he says casually.
"The Egyptians know how to live," Zoghbi expounds over a beer while his wife rehearses. "The Tunisians know how to live; the Lebanese know how to live - all the rest," he said, meaning the other countries of the Middle East, "you can throw in the wastebin."
Fuad has grown used to evenings when men shower her with gifts, sometimes valued in scores of thousands of dollars, to evenings in London for the theater ("Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Chorus Line," a couple of favorites). She is even accustomed to having her husband say for her that she is a liberated woman.
At times, with a shy, warm smile she is almost girlishly romantic. The most extravagant gift she has ever received? She grins and nods toward her husband. And next to that? The letter she received from President Sadat after she performed at his son's wedding a few weeks ago.
After 20 years, after all, what matters is the dance itself. "I think," she said yesterday morning, "the most difficult part of my life is now, because now I am at the top, and I have to keep myself there." There was a rare frown.
But as she moved to the music last night the smile came back - she set every muscle in her torso vibrating, her head and hair tossed through the savage rhythms of the music, her fingers worked delicate gestures as old as the Song of Solomon, and her shoulders quivered in a gesture to draw in the world.