Bel Air, Beirut, and Beyond
By Zein Abd Al-Malik
Los Angeles has been a pivotal point for me for the last fifteen years, my departure gate for numerous trips to Europe and the Middle East. However, the most exciting and rewarding of these journeys began, not at LAX, but in a quaint Tunisian restaurant off Sunset Boulevard. The year was 1981. Four nights a week for over three years I had danced at this bit of Tunisia in Hollywood.
Mr. Ibrahim Farrah once said, “Don’t call me a male belly dancer!” But to most of the patrons of this Tunisian restaurant that is what I was. There were “ladies” nights and “men’s” nights and then there were “normal” nights and “celebrity” nights too numerous to mention.
During the 1984 Olympics, there were nights hosting and honoring the various participating teams from 28 Arab countries. One night the whole restaurant was booked by the Jordanian basketball team. I am 6’5″ tall, so I felt at home among these athletes. They were terrific and everyone was dancing and having a great time.
Then there were the “Mystery Tour” nights when whole busloads of people would file in for an evening of exotic dining and entertainment.
On an evening I’ll call “royalty night,” I noticed four gentlemen sitting at a corner table in the more secluded back section of the restaurant. They had that “from someplace else look.” After my second show, the waiter brought a note inviting me to join them for a drink. I normally don’t socialize with customers, nor is it encouraged at this restaurant as it is by some club owners. But in this case, I was too intrigued to decline the invitation.
Introductions were made and a fresh round of Turkish coffee was ordered. The gentlemen were curious as to my background…where was I from and where had I learned to dance? Abdullah, who spoke the most English, said they were on holiday from Bahrain. Conversation was a bit awkward as my Arabic is limited, yet an invitation was extended for lunch the following day at their leased house in Bel Air. I accepted.
The next afternoon, I pulled up to the gates of a large estate in my “vintage” Chevy pick-up truck. I flashed on a re-run of “The Beverly Hillbillies!” The two guards (one of whom was “Sami” from the night before…dark-skinned with tribal scars on both cheeks) were amused as I entered the driveway and parked next to the Mercedes, the Lincoln Town car and the Cadillac. A lavish lunch was served poolside catered by a well-known Lebanese restaurant. I realized that my host was more than a tourist by the way everyone stood when he entered or left the room, the abundance of guards and security, and a sense of wealth and power which permeated the atmosphere.
As the weeks passed, there were more lunches and dinners, evenings at Arabic and Persian nightclubs, and short jaunts to Laguna Beach, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. By now I had been included in most of their plans and had become a part of the “entourage.” It was Abdullah, the chauffeur, who eventually told me that our host was not really from Bahrain at all, but was His Royal Highness, the brother of the ruler of another Gulf country. This ruse was their way of getting to know people and discovering if they could trust them. Now things were beginning to make sense!
After about a month, His Royal Highness (HRH for short) asked if I would make arrangements for a party to be held at the house, to honor his nephew who was arriving from London. There were to be two dancers, myself and a female artist, a full band and about 20 guests. I hired musicians, a caterer and ordered flowers, with an unlimited budget to work with. If I needed anything, Abdullah seemed to have an endless supply of hundred dollar bills. The party was a huge success, lasting until about 5 a.m.
As time passed, HRH became bored and restless and decided to go to Spain and London. Another invitation was extended. Would I care to join them, or perhaps go to the Gulf and visit another of HRH’s brothers? It was all happening too fast, and since I had done London, I was excited at the opportunity to visit the Gulf. I knew how difficult it is to travel to certain countries unescorted. A few days later, I made a quick trip to Washington, D.C., with a letter to the Ambassador, and within 24 hours I had a new passport and entry visa valid for three months.
When I returned to Los Angeles, I was given a ticket and a letter in Arabic addressed to HRH’s brother, who I refer to as HRH#2. I made arrangements for a temporary replacement at work, sub-let my apartment, and booked a flight. I wanted to go via Beirut and visit a friend who I had not seen in years. Getting a visa for Lebanon was not easy due to the deteriorating situation there because of the civil war. I managed to get a transit visa for Beirut.
Lebanon was beautiful from the air as we made our final approach, but I was not prepared for what I experienced on the ground. My Lebanese seat-mate helped me through customs. No one was allowed in the terminal. There were soldiers everywhere. I caught a glimpse of my friend waving in the crowd behind the chain link fences. The ride into the city was frightening…numerous checkpoints, militias, Syrian soldiers, bombed out buildings. A nightmare was beginning.
I stayed at the villa of my friend in West Beirut in a neighborhood that was relatively safe at the time. All the hotels were either in ruins, taken over by militias, or otherwise not recommended for foreign guests. The violence preceding the June invasion escalated almost immediately and it was impossible to leave the villa. We did have one day of relative calm and drove around West Beirut dodging machine gun fire. My nerves were shot at this point. In spite of the violence and mayhem, there were moments of tranquility; a forced, determined joy. Eventually the airport re-opened, though no one knew for how long, and I was able to get a flight out because a friend’s cousin had a sister, who was married to, who worked for, who knew someone…and so went the story of survival in Lebanon.
I was in a daze throughout the short flight to the Gulf. As we landed, I checked my jacket pocket to make sure that my passport and the letter of introduction were still there.
After the chaos and danger of Beirut, the airport terminal was tranquil…beautiful, simple yet grandiose, clean and orderly. I hadn’t thought of who would meet me or how they would recognize me, or I them. I had forgotten that my Lebanese friend had managed to get a call through to the Gulf giving my flight number and arrival time, and that I was probably the tallest person on the plane. A young man wearing the standard white thobe and red and white checked kaffiyeh (head scarf) approached and introduced himself as the secretary to HRH#2. I was whisked through customs and outside where my bag was being put into a waiting car. Everything seemed to be under control, although I am not so sure I felt the same! It was about 115 degress and very humid, but under the circumstances refreshing in a strange sort of way.
We drove from the airport on a freeway absent of the gridlock I was accustomed to in Los Angeles. As we entered a residential area, I noticed that all the homes were on a grand scale…lots of white marble and high walls. We pulled up to two large gates that opened as the car approached. Once inside, we parked and I was told to wait while the secretary took my letter to HRH#2. A few minutes passed before I was taken up a grand staircase and into a receiving area decorated in Louis XIV style.
HRH#2 looked very much like his younger brother, and I was warmly received with the customary handshake and kisses on both cheeks. After a brief, somewhat formal exchange of introductions to those seated in the receiving area I was taken to my room by a tall Sudanese servant. My “room” was a suite with sitting room, large bath and kitchenette. There was a knock at the door and I was surprised to see a prim English woman standing there. She was “Mrs. Justin,” the governess/nanny for the three young sons of HRH#2. She made sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed, including bottled water, biscuits, snacks and cigarettes. After she left, I fell on the bed, exhausted and grateful.
About 1 a.m. Thursday, I awoke to the sound of music and laughter coming from some distant part of the house. I showered and put on the new thobe folded on the chair, and went into the hall where I was met by one of the servants who took me to the grand salon on the second floor. There were about 25 men sitting around singing, clapping, talking and laughing. It was the start of the weekend and the night for parties and festivities. I later learned these soirees sometimes began on Wednesday evenings and were held two or three times a month. This was Arabia, and the women were sequestered away in the “harem,” in this case a separate palace across the street, undoubtedly having their own party. “Ahlan Wa Sahlan!” “Welcome to Arabia!” This was my introduction to my year in the Gulf.
Rather than go into a dissertation on palace life, I want to focus on dance, which is, after all, what brought me to the Gulf in the first place. It is the dance that is like an invisible thread, at times a missing link, which gives us all a shared and collective experience.
I observed and participated in basically two styles of dance there, the first being the indigenous “khalejji” style. I saw only men doing these dances, most of which were either in a line or in duos, consisting of a kind of back and forth heel-toe footwork with shoulder shimmies and at times a side-to-side head movement, with accenting hand clapping to the 4/4 rhythm. There is also the more formal “Adha,” done in a line with swords held aloft, on the occasion of victory or great celebration.
I did see some videos of women dancing at wedding parties in a style we have all seen in nightclubs in the United States or Europe. It must have been the influx of Saudi and Kuwaiti visitors to the clubs in the seventies that led to the popularity of dancers, half way through their show, throwing a sequinned abaya over their cabaret costume and doing a jerky, unconvincing imitation of this dance, head and hair flying from side to side. It takes a great deal of understanding and feeling to execute these movements properly.
The other dance style I saw was the popular raqs al sharqi common to Egypt and the countries of the Levant, and seen in Middle Eastern night clubs worldwide. It is the Egyptian and Turkish influences over the years that have given us our dance “vocabulary.”
At the Thursday night Gulf parties, two young Tunisian men often performed an extremely suggestive, somewhat bawdy version of rags al sharqi. They usually wore all or at least some elements of women’s costumes…almost a “drag” parody and a great source of amusement to the guests, a bit of comic relief and all in good fun. I, on the other hand, wore a simple thobe and hip sash, or sometimes a silver hizam with coins and bells which was given to me by a guest from Yemen. I must admit that I was more than a little embarrassed at the exaggerated sensuality of the movement of the Tunisian boys, and was reminded of the “dancing boys” I had seen in the raunchy clubs of Tangier in 1976.
Other nights were spent watching countless movies on video, the only source of entertainment since there are no public theaters. We watched everything from the classics of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, Egyptian films starring Farid Al-Atrash, Asmahan, Tahia Carioca, and the concerts of Om Kalthoum and other megastars of that era, to the more modern releases with Abdel Halim Hafez, Suad Husni, Fifi Abdo and others. By far the most popular actress, dancer, star was the incomparable Samia Gamal! She was the all time favorite and highly revered. I must have seen every one of her films at least twice. The numerous titles from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s featuring Farid singing and Madame Samia dancing are truly classics. She was and is adored by all, and it was this adoration and respect that led to an incredible evening.
I was told that film stars and popular singers and dancers are often invited for visits to the countries of the Gulf. It was one of these occasions that brought Samia Gamal to the palace of HRH#2. An envoy had been dispatched to Cairo to extend the invitation in person after a preliminary telephone call. A date was set after Ramadan, less than a month away. Everyone was counting the days.
Finally the designated night had arrived. The palace was filled with new faces. It was obvious this was to be a special evening.
The festivities began in a formal salon on the main floor, a room that was seldom used. The decor was elegant, with European furnishings. After drinks, the Tunisian boys danced to “warm up” the guests. Around 1 a.m., Madame Samia arrived. She was wearing the customary black abaya with her head wrapped in a turban of emerald green fabric. Under this she wore an elegant evening gown with long sleeves, high neck, and lots of beautiful, tasteful jewelry. She was very sophisticated and had that “star” quality about her that famous people have. Everyone made mention, and was very impressed by the fact that she was such a “great lady.”
Madame was seated in the place of honor, to the right of HRH#2. After several hours, the dancing resumed. I was to be a surprise attraction! I must admit I was shy in the presence of such a great artist, but when HRH#2 asks you to dance, it is difficult to refuse.
The music began in a wahad wa nuss tempo. After a brief moment, I began to dance. Madame Samia burst into a big smile and began clapping in time to the music. She was totally amazed that I could dance, and was very complimentary. I truly felt honored. A delightful, rather humbling experience.
After much coaxing, Madame Samia consented to do a short number. It was “Ya Binti Beledi,” and she danced exquisitely. She is perhaps most well-known for her beautiful arm movements, and watching her dance was like watching a prima ballerina. Suffice it to say that the words “awe inspiring” do not do her justice in person.
Later, the festivities adjourned upstairs to the “Disco.” This is a large room on the third floor with banquet seating and the proverbial mirrored ball spinning in the center of the ceiling. I had a chance to chat with her and she told me how she had once lived in Texas. I wish I could have had more time to interview her and ask specific questions about her life, but she was in great demand that evening. Perhaps at a later date, on my next trip to Cairo, “Insh’ Allah.”