No Longer Forbidden Fruit

Tasting Lebanese Treasures

by Nuria Tahan

“Welcome to Lebanon!” The immigration officer handed me back my passport and I looked down at the red stamp with the tiny cedar tree. Only a few short months ago, this visa would have landed me in major trouble with the US State Department, now (in November, 1997) it was as simple as showing up at the Beirut airport and handing over 25,000 Lebanese Lira, about $17. (One US dollar is about 1500 LL.)

I grabbed my bag, passed through customs and headed out to look for a rental car. The MEA airline magazine had been full of advertisements for cheap cars—$22 and up. Surprise! There were no offices in the airport, not even a tourist information desk. I would have to get downtown. I walked out and was immediately surrounded by taxi drivers swarming like mosquitoes. Fifteen dollars to go downtown. Yeah, right, did they think I was born yesterday? Beirut airport is about 5 km from downtown. I kept walking until I spotted the minibuses. Taxi fares miraculously dropped to $5, but it was too late. I paid 500LL (35 cents) for the trip to the Berbir station and the same for another minibus to Hamra, the central hotel/shopping area of Beirut. Still no car rental offices, so I went to the Mayflower Hotel figuring that they must know how to get a car. They did, but unfortunately all the agencies were closed because it was Sunday.

Jihane el Masri at Al Layalli Nightclub, Mammeltain, Lebanon. Photo: Nuria Tahan.

From past travel experience, I know that there is nothing more boring than being in the city on the weekly day of rest, be it Sunday as in Lebanon, or Friday as in most Arab countries. I was anxious to get out into the countryside and see some of the spectacular historical palaces and ruins. The concierge told me to take a service taxi or minibus to Cola station, then a service taxi to Beiteddine.

Service taxis are older model Mercedes Benz, with two passengers squeezed into the front and three in the back. The most comfortable seats to grab, if possible, are the rear window seats. The trip to Beiteddine costs around 5000LL ($3.50) and lasts less than an hour. Lebanon is so packed with historical places and “tourist attractions” that it comes as a surprise how little time it takes to get to them. Lebanon is a small country. I hopped out at Deir al Qamar, a few kilometers before Beiteddine, site of Fakhreddine’s palace and mosque, and a wax museum. It is located in an attractive mountain village and well worth visiting. The wax models show various people from Lebanese history, including the Ottoman empire and international personages such as George Bush and the Pope. A few kilometers down the road, we came to the Moussa castle, which looks like it is straight out of a fairy tale, but is actually very modern and built by a wealthy Lebanese businessman. On the other side of the valley Beiteddine Palace loomed enticingly.

Built in the early 19th century by Emir Beshir Al?Chehabi, the palace has been used as the French Mandatory Headquarters, and the Lebanese President’s summer residence, and now the Druze militias, who control the Chouf Mountain area, have turned it into a museum. There are fountains, stained glass windows, a traditional harem with Turkish bath, and mosaics. The museum has displays on the usual pottery and ancient relics. I found the traditional costumes much more interesting. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed and there were guards posted at all displays. Interestingly, I noticed that most visitors were Lebanese, rather than foreign tourists.

It was getting late, and in winter sunset is around 5 P.M., so I knew I had to get moving. All the service taxis passing through to the main road were full, so I had to hitchhike to Chtaura, the first town in the Bekaa Valley. You may remember this name mentioned in news stories about Hezbollah hostages and Terry Waite. Now, the streets are lined with small restaurants geared for the Beirut?Damascus travelers. I quickly found a service to Baalbek for 4000LL, and it didn’t take long to fill the other seats. We were barely on the outskirts of the town, when all of a sudden gunshots filled the air. I jumped a mile. The other passengers didn’t bat an eyelash. I soon saw why, as the crowd on the road parted and a couple in wedding attire emerged from a building and were escorted to a decorated car.

The rest of the trip passed smoothly, and we reached Baalbek just as the sun was setting. The driver dropped me at the Palmyra hotel, a beautiful old building with loads of character. A single room was $35 and I talked them into including breakfast since it was the off?season. When the first thing you notice in your room is an old fashioned stove, like your great?grandparents might have had, you know you’re traveling in a different era. The veranda overlooks the Baalbek temples, a great place to relax after a hard day’s sight-seeing. Service was friendly and efficient, and the waiter noticed that I really liked the crispy wafer?thin Lebanese toast and garlic laban (like yogurt), and kept refilling it.

The next morning I walked over to the ruins after breakfast. Anywhere else in the world an archeological ruin of this magnitude would be crawling with tourists—think of Greece and Rome. Imagine having the Acropolis or Colosseum practically all to yourself. Lebanon is by no means back on the tourist circuit, and that morning there were only five of us including myself. I kept wishing I had brought a costume for a photo shoot. Most tourists tend to stay in Beirut and make day trips to the various sites around Lebanon so they get more crowded at midday and empty in the morning and evening. The ruins go back to about 60 AD. The temple of Jupiter boasts the largest columns in the world at 22 meters tall. They have been damaged by earthquakes and there are broken slabs of the buildings laying around everywhere. The temple of Bacchus (or Venus, depending on your guidebook) is better preserved, though there is one precarious slab of rock in the doorway that looks as if it could fall at any moment. Back in town, Baalbek has an interesting traditional souk and small snack shops.

The service back to Beirut (7000LL) took a while to fill up, but the trip was fairly quick, passing back through the Bekaa Valley mineral water town of Sofar and the ritzy mountain resort of Aley. Due to heavy traffic it took almost as long to pass through Beirut to the northern service/minibus station called Dowra. Once there it was easy to get a minibus to Jbeil, the modern town located at the site better known as Byblos, and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Excavations go back to the Neolithic period 7000 years ago. The site is entered through a Crusader castle built on a former Roman temple. There are also huts from 500BC, the temple of Baalat Gebal from 2800 BC, royal tombs and an obelisk from 200 BC, various ruins and an amphitheater from the Roman period.

Back in the main town and the 20th century, you will find a tourist bazaar and a lovely wax museum tracing Lebanese history from the Neolithic period to modern times with beautifully costumed mannequins. Nearby, St. John’s Maronite Church competes for your attention with cries from the nearby muezzin in the mosque. Jbeil is a modern upscale town with lots of restaurants specializing in seafood. Be careful. They’re not cheap and dinner can run to $50 and up!

Rain clouds loomed on the horizon, so I hiked back up to the main highway. Even before I had turned around an old man screeched to a halt and offered me a lift. I knew I’d be chatted up, but also knew he was too old and feeble to be any real danger. I had barely hopped in when the rain clouds gave way, so at least I was spared a good drenching. He only spoke French, so I pretended not to understand his advances and kept showing him photos from my guide book and saying Lebanon was “tres belle” and “tres interessant.”

It was only a half hour ride to Tripoli. He dropped me downtown, and I sloshed through the puddles to the nearest budget hotel recommended in my Lonely Planet guidebook. I looked dubiously at the darkened windows and hallway the power was out perhaps due to the rain. The hotel manager gave me a candle and a nice room with a balcony—a mixed blessing because although the view of the city was nice, the traffic noise was horrendous. I paid $15 for the single room (dollars and Lebanese currency are practically interchangeable). The friendly money changer spoke fluent English with an American accent. He was one of the many younger generation Lebanese who had left during the war and grew up in the States. Throughout the rest of my trip, I noticed that if I was doing something that identified me as a tourist—looking at maps, taking photos or video—young people would speak American accented English to me. Older people might approach me in French. If I wasn’t engaged in tourist activities, they tended to presume I was Lebanese and spoke Arabic to me.

Carina at Naher Al Fanoon Nightclub. Photo: Nuria Tahan

The power was still out in most of the downtown area, and I debated whether to go out to look for dinner. A friendly British accent addressed me from a dark corner of the lobby. “Don’t you just hate arriving after dark?” We both were hungry and the rain had let up, so we went to the restaurant recommended by the money changer (which had a generator) and feasted on succulent shish taouk (chicken kabob). It turned out that the British tourist, Ken, was also planning to go to the Cedars the next morning, so we arranged to travel together.

Service from Tripoli to Becharre, the beautiful mountain town which serves as gateway to the Cedars, was 5000LL. Ken insisted on the front seat and soon came to regret it as the car climbed the steep, twisting road to Becharre. We had several near misses, as Lebanese service taxi drivers consider it a duty to drive like maniacs, which includes overtaking on blind curves. We enjoyed the spectacular scenery, but were still relieved to arrive at Becharre in one piece. Ken would be staying the night and checked into the Palace Hotel, normally $25, but I bargained it down in Arabic to $20. I was returning to Tripoli for the night.

While having coffee, we were surprised to hear an Australian accent wishing us “G’day.” It seems that many of the people in this predominately Maronite Christian area immigrated to Australia during the war. This was corroborated by a shop called “Kangaroo,” a scenic restaurant called “Golden Nights” after Sydney’s top Lebanese nightclub, and a nearby village boasting “Parramatta Road.” As Ken and the Aussie chatted, I picked up a newspaper and was shocked by the front page story—58 Tourists massacred in Luxor. Meanwhile, Ken had negotiated with the Aussie to drive us up to the Cedars, wait one hour and take us back to town.

The Cedars was once a prestigious ski resort, and is full of charming hotels fallen into disrepair during the war. The world famous Cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible once covered most of Lebanon’s mountain areas, but were cut down over the centuries by the Phoenicians and even King Solomon. Now they are limited to small forests such as “Arz ar?Rab” (Cedars of God) near Becharre. They are protected as a national monument and visitors are restricted to a designated path. It’s a peaceful walk through the Cedars to the famous one with carvings by Lamartine of Jesus and various other faces, and the chapel. We finished up the trip by munching on freshly baked zaatar bread and a visit to the Khalil Gibran museum in town.

Back in Tripoli, I was relieved to find the power was back on, and enjoyed a stroll through the traditional souk, which is largely undamaged by war. The rain was starting up again, so I barely had time for a quick peek at some 14th century mosques and medrassas (religious schools) before being forced to seek shelter.

The next day, I got an early bus to the seaside town of Jounieh, which is famous for its night life. I figured this would be the best place to look for good nightclubs with raqs sharqi. Jounieh is a much more pleasant place to stay in, as it’s much quieter than Beirut and without the traffic problems. I checked into the St. Joseph Hotel on Rue Mina in the old part of town. A single room in this charming small hotel was negotiated down to $50 for three nights. I set out to search for raqs sharqi.

At first the prospects seemed very promising. There were “super nightclubs” on every corner. A closer look at the few which had posters outside revealed them to be predominantly Russian cabaret shows—complete with G?strings! There were several photos of European girls in cheap, tacky belly dance costumes, but somehow I knew there had to be something better than this. Like a hunter on safari, I kept walking towards Mammeltain. Where were Lebanon’s “Big Five”— Samara, Amani, Houeida Al Hashem, Dani Bustros and Nariman Aboud? At last, in the Middle Beach Hotel, I spotted a more conventional poster of a singer and dancer at a nightclub called “Al Layalli.” I was told that the dancer, Jihane Al Masri, was the first place winner of “Studio al Fann.” I had no idea yet what “Studio al Fann” was, but she seemed worth checking out. She only performs on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, so I booked for the next evening, Thursday, and kept walking towards the huge Casino du Liban on top of the hill. I had heard they also have a good nightclub. They do, but unfortunately it was closed for renovation. I learned that the “Big Five” mainly do special festivals and overseas contracts these days. Enough reconnaissance for one day; It was time to head to Beirut for some shopping.

I took the minibus to Dowra and another one to Hamra, the shopping area. Clothes were very expensive and out of the question. There are a few tourist souvenir shops and I added a group of dolls in debke costumes to my collection. 1 was more interested in music and videos, and snapped up a copy of the recent Fourth Mahrajan Raqs Sharqi, which was recorded live via LBC TV (Lebanese Broadcasting Company). This seems to be the norm for Lebanese dance videos. They were all recorded from TV from various programs, a nice convenience for those of us without access to Lebanese TV (though I do have the LBC Satellite channel in Kuwait). Be warned, though: you will need a multisystem TV and VCR to play them in the States unless you buy a converted copy.

Maya at Naher Al Fanoon Nightclub, Jounieh, Lebanon. Photo: Nuria Tahan.

The next day, I went back to being a tourist and sightseeing. I had read a book called “Crescent” by Laurie Devine, which chronicles the lives of four fictitious girls who are friends at college (AUB) in the late fifties and early sixties: Camilla, a Maronite Christian; Fatima, a poor Shia Muslim; Leila, a wealthy Palestinian Sunni Muslim; and Anne, a nonreligious American Jew. This is a tactic I often use on my travels, as it really brings a place to life. I could imagine Anne’s home on Rue Bliss near the University, Camilla’s luxurious home with her new husband in the prestigious Mt. Lebanon, and Leila’s villa in Aley. I could imagine the four girls eating at the Horseshoe Cafe in Hamra, and as I approached the former Green Line which divided the Christian East and Muslim West, I could imagine Camilla being escorted across the line by Fatima’s son in the Amal militia to rendezvous with her friends.

The journey grew more ominous as I walked down the “Green Line” towards central Beirut, now a ghost town in the process of restoration. The bombed out buildings and bullet holes seized my imagination, as I pondered what this place must have been like during the sniper attacks and fighting between the various factions. It was too creepy! I jumped in the first service back to the lively Hamra district and walked down to the corniche at Ain Mressie for a pleasant seaside stroll. The fresh air cleared my head, and I relaxed watching the ever resilient Lebanese enjoying a pleasant day jogging along the corniche, munching snacks and chatting on the obligatory yuppie accessory, the mobile (cellular) phone. Overall, the impression I had of the Lebanese was of an attractive people, clever and business?oriented by day, party animals by night—as I was soon to discover.

I walked down to the Al Layalli nightclub, the 15 minute stroll only spoiled by the harassment of rowdy teenagers. The nightclub itself was very deluxe and the people beautifully dressed. I had gone as a journalist doing an interview with Jihane, not to eat, but the normal price is $35 for dinner, show and soft drinks; alcoholic drinks being extra. Jihane doesn’t speak much English, and preferred to have her manager, Sana Iskender, translate, so we made arrangements to do the interview the next evening along with two other dancers, and I settled down to enjoy the show. The audience was very appreciative of Jihane’s talent, and she seemed to whet their appetite to dance. When the singer broke into a lively debke there was a stampede as everyone rushed up on stage and joined hands in the traditional dance. I was also dying to dance, but as the singer did several popular songs I noticed that everyone was dancing in couples, and I was there frustratingly alone. This was new to me. In Dubai, it is usually only a few brave women who will go up and dance with the singers. Everyone sits around dying to dance, but afraid to be the first one. Even the old classic, “Gana al Hawa,” had odd couples of women doing sharqi movements and men doing some sort of disco hybrid while encouraging their partner. Luckily, a Saudi at a nearby table heard me speaking English and invited me to join him. He wasn’t interested in dancing himself but he certainly wanted to see me dance. I scribbled “Weheshtini” in English on a napkin, and the Saudi took it up to the singer. The singer grinned bemusedly as he realized I was some kind of foreigner, and beckoned me to come dance. At last I had the stage to myself, and one of my favorite songs to dance to. I was so into the music that I didn’t even notice that I had gashed the side of my knee on a rough edge and was bleeding profusely until I sat down. There was no first aid kit so I scotch-taped a napkin over my wound, and the Saudi dropped me back at my hotel where I managed to patch myself up.

Friday morning I had planned to visit the south of Lebanon. When I woke up, my wound was still a little sore but not infected, so I carried on with my plan. I used minibuses to go to Tyre (2000 LL), which is the furthest south you can safely go in Lebanon. There are still occasional incidents between Israel and the Lebanese army stationed in the south. This makes Beaufort Castle near Nabatiye also off limits. The ruins in Tyre (a.k.a. Sour) are from the Roman era, roughly 2nd century AD. There’s an extremely well preserved hippodrome that seated 20,000 spectators at chariot races, lots of tombs, including Queen Elyssa’s, and a triumphal arch sometimes attributed to Alexander the Great. On the other side of the modern town there are more ruins, including a theatre, and a cathedral with a marble stone which legend says Jesus sat upon during his visit to Tyre. Heading north again, the attractive seaside town of Sidon (Saida) has a fascinating old?style souk, the Great Mosque built on a former Crusader castle, and the lovely Sea Castle out in the harbor.

In the evening Sana picked me up to take me to Naher Al Fanoon Nightclub, a wonderful nightclub near Jounieh, where I interviewed three rising stars on the Lebanese dance scene, Maya, Jihane and Carina, with the help of their manager, Sana Iskender, as translator. They all spoke some English, but felt more comfortable expressing themselves in Arabic. They are with “Studio Al Fann”, an organization owned by the top Lebanese star?maker, Simon (pronounced Simone in French) Asmar who manages some of the best singers and dancers in Lebanon. He is not a dance instructor; rather he takes talented young dancers and makes professional stars out of them. He produces several programs for LBC TV where the artists gain exposure and experience, and he also gets them contracts in top Arabic nightclubs all over the Middle East and Europe. He is the owner of Naher Al Fanoon Nightclub, which has the friendliest atmosphere of any place I’ve been in the Middle East. Each night there are three or four dancers and loads of singers, each doing roughly a half hour show. No one is shy about getting up to dance, and foreign tourist?dancers are very welcome to join in the fun. Much of the audience consists of the artists and their friends, who are always in a partying mood and are very friendly. It’s a great place to party with the locals. I would definitely recommend this club to visiting foreign dancers as a way to see Lebanese dancers, and to find out who’s performing and where. Admission is $10. Food and drink is available a la carte with none of the absurdly high prices and 2 am mandatory dinners like Cairo, and none of the inhibitions of customers getting up to dance like Dubai. I had died and gone to raqs sharqi heaven! But first I had some interviews to do.

Jihane Al Masri, Flower of Lebanon

Despite her name, which means “Egyptian,” Jihane Al Masri is pure Lebanese. She is the only dancer I saw perform before the interviews at the prestigious Al Layalli Nightclub in Mammeltain. On first glance, she appears very delicate and fragile with her petite body and exquisite face. But this flower of Lebanon has a surprising strength—shimmies overlaid on a deep back bend, sharp body locks, Turkish drop and a cute move where she does a deep back bend, reaches behind herself, and picks up her cane from the floor. Her music was very diverse—classical Egyptian, khaleeji, Lebanese pop for the cane, and a dynamic drum solo. Her style was somewhere between the coy sensuality of Dina, sophistication of Samara, and her own youthful enthusiasm.

As usual for Lebanese girls, Jihane grew up with the dance as a hobby. I asked her where she got some of her more difficult movements, such as shimmying in a deep back bend and the cane trick. She said that she just practices them at home. She has always loved dance as a small child and there was never any doubt that she loved the raqs sharqi style above any other dance style, like ballet or Western dance. She took classes from Nada Al Saab, and will soon be studying with Dani Bustros, one of the top dancers in Lebanon, who is currently doing a stage play. I noticed some of Dani’s signature movements, like the way she sweeps her head and arm to the side. Jihane chose her music last night with a view of “something for everyone,” using songs that express her feelings. She has performed in Switzerland, Austria, Syria and Dubai as well as her homeland, having been launched as a professional dancer two years ago. Here’s the shocker: Jihane, who has already had a career that would be the envy of any professional dancer, is only 16 years old! I voiced concern that when she travels abroad, there must be lots of men dying (especially knowing Dubai so well) to take advantage of her youth and innocence. These men can be very persistent. How would such a young girl handle this? She assured me that her mother always accompanies her, and she is never left alone. Also, she presents her dance as an art, not like a striptease. (Probably a reference to the so?called “super nightclubs” which feature Russians and other Eastern Europeans in G?strings).

When she travels, she likes to include songs that are popular in that country, such as popular khaleeji songs in Dubai. Her costumes are designed especially for her by either Madame Boustani or Ghada Jamie. There again, she has different costumes for different countries, preferring to use beledi dresses in Dubai and the traditional but more revealing “bedla raqs sharqi’’ in Lebanon. She hopes in the future to dance in Egypt and Australia, and she enjoys working in Dubai for the great shopping opportunities. Her big dream is to be an actress, playing a character who is a dancer, like Fifi Abdou or Sherihan.

And what does Jihane feel sets her apart from the other dancers? She has some very difficult and unusual movements, especially with the cane. She advises foreign dancers to try to live in the Middle East to absorb the music and understand it better, or at least to study with a teacher from the Middle East—words of wisdom from a sixteen-year-old prodigy who has her whole life ahead of her. Remember the name, Jihane Al Masri. She will one day be the top dancer in Lebanon—my fearless prediction!

Maya, the Free Spirit

From the moment Maya burst on the stage at the Naher Al Fanoon Nightclub in a sunshiny yellow, floral costume, she was nonstop energy. Vivacious and high spirited, she effortlessly executed tight shimmy combinations, sweeping back bends, a Turkish drop and a lively cane dance. One minute I was trying to catch her relatively still for a candid photo, the next thing I knew, she had handed me her cane and was bringing me up on stage. While no match for her youthful energy, we danced together briefly. She did a “Samara butt bounce.” I managed one without slipping a disc, and laughingly handed her cane back. Maya is so unique, that it is hard to liken her to any other dancer—perhaps Nabila Metwalli, who is also a dynamic and wild dancer.

Maya had always loved dancing as a hobby at family parties. She only began to consider dance as a profession when she joined the “Studio al Fann” program. She was attracted to raqs sharqi by the beauty of the Arabic music, which is part of her country’s heritage, and feels more deeply for this music than any other. Maya never took dance lessons—it was always something she just did for fun. Her technique has come with practice all on her own (two hours every night!). She doesn’t have any particular role model; rather, she admires many dancers, especially those who have their own special feeling for the dance. Maya uses all kinds of music in her show— everything from Om Kulthoum and Abdelhalim to Wael Kfoury. Her current favorite song is “Bahia,” but her favorites change with her moods.

Maya is a confident young lady, well able to put together all aspects of her show—her make up, costumes, music, technique and presentation. Of course now she enjoys having her make up and costumes done professionally, but she always gives her own ideas.

Then I asked my favorite question, ”What sets you apart and makes you different and special from the other dancers?” Maya didn’t hesitate to answer, and Sana translated. “It’s her very dynamic and energetic style. She moves very rapidly and doesn’t slow down. She is very different from the more classical dancers, very athletic. She has a very flexible body.”

Maya has big dreams for the future. she hopes to be an internationally known and respected artist. She has a good head start, having danced in Jordan, Syria, Dubai, Egypt and, of course, Lebanon. She would love to visit the USA and perform there. She has seen a few foreign dancers, and thinks they dance well (technique-wise) but they don’t understand the music as Arab dancers do. Her advice is that foreigners should try to understand the culture and traditions of the Middle East as well as understand the music.

Carina, Classical Elegance

Everything about Carina, from her luxurious mane of chestnut hair to her lavishly beaded peach colored costume, is elegant and classy. And that’s even before she starts to dance. Carina loves the old classics, and she dances from her soul, completely giving herself to the music. Her style is fluid and soft, though she’s no slouch on technique, as she demonstrates in her drum solo—tight Amani shuffling shimmies, and the de rigeur Turkish drop. (Where do Lebanese girls get those back muscles anyway? It can’t be the water. I drank the water and I still can’t do a Turkish drop!) Carina’s style most resembles Amani or Nadia Jamal—poetry in motion.

Carina, like the others, has always loved dancing since she was a child. She was encouraged by the Studio Al Fann program to make it her profession. She grew up seeing films of Nadia Jamal, who became her role model. She decided that she had to make her dance a fine art, like Nadia; otherwise she wouldn’t do it at all. Carina is fluent in English, and most of her interview was direct, with only a few translations for more difficult concepts. She is very easy going and friendly, and her passion for the dance showed all over her face as we talked.

She finished the Studio Al Fann program in 1992 with a gold medal—that is, she was the best dancer in her group. This program is done every four years. Each dancer performs several times on LBC TV, then the directors award the dancers for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.

Carina chooses her own music, and does her own choreography. She dances the way she feels the music, and she has had several pieces of music written just for her. Her favorite music is definitely classical music, because she can prove herself as a dancer: it’s more of a challenge, and the music has more emotion.

Carina’s show is very unique, and she likes choreography to tell a story in her dance. For the Fourth Mahrajan Raqs Sharqi, last summer, she chose a snake theme. This surprised me, knowing that most Middle Eastern people dislike and fear snakes. Why a snake? Carina likened the movements of the snake to the sinuous undulations of Oriental dance as her inspiration, and the snake charmer’s music to Arabic music. She has never danced with a live snake. She would like to, but “they” haven’t given her a snake. I saw the ultimate wisdom of “they.” Carina might not be afraid, but the audience certainly would be! I told her that several American dancers specialize in snake dancing, and she said she would love to see them!

Saving me the trouble of asking her what sets her apart from other dancers, Carina went on to tell me about other stories and themes she has presented in her dances—a princess, a Bedouin, a Spanish Gypsy style dance. We talked about the trend of Lebanese singers giving a Spanish flavor to their music, such as “Nour al Ain.” Carina likes this kind of fusion. She has studied flamenco dance with a view to incorporating some of the movements into raqs sharqi. She also loves Indian music and dance. I mentioned that Dubai is an excellent place to practice this kind of fusion, since there is a large Indian population there. Carina has been to Dubai many times and enjoys it greatly. When she notices a certain nationality in her audience, she will try to use music to please those people. She likes to connect with the audience. She danced three months in Egypt, and there again, her show was very different from what she was used to. She had two singers and a group of backup dancers, and she followed the Egyptian style (Fifi Abdou, Hindeya) of talking and joking with the audience.

She said that she might be going to America for a short tour in a couple of months, and someone had approached her about teaching, like Amani, but she doesn’t think she will be there long enough. In addition to Dubai and Egypt, she has also performed in Syria and Jordan, but her favorite place is her home, Lebanon.

Her dream for the future is to have a unique identity, and one day to be a legend like Nadia Jamal. Only now in her twenties, Carina is well on her way to making a name for herself, and has a good chance of making this dream come true. Any advice to foreign dancers? “Be yourselves. Dance with feeling! Dance as an art, not as job!”

Carina’s gorgeous costumes are designed by George Wanoon, who is also Samara’s designer. He also designs lavish wedding gowns for high?society brides. Lebanese costumes are always custom made—there aren’t any Khan al Khalili type shops. They are not cheap, starting at around $500, but they are unique, and the designers take pride in creating one-of-a-kind designs. No cookie cutter costumes here, and you won’t have to worry that everyone at Rakkasah will have the exact same thing. I think they’re worth it.

Regarding dance instruction, many Americans were fortunate enough to study with Amani last spring during her U.S. tour. I have heard that Nabila Metwalli and Dani Bustros are other dancers who take private students. A few inquiries at Naher Al Fanoon should help to locate them. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this place until my last night in town, so I had no time to investigate further. But now I have journeyed to Lebanon and have tasted the no?longer-forbidden fruit, and I know I’ll be back for more!

Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She is an inveterate traveler, having been to every country in the world except Libya. She currently resides in Kuwait, where she performs dance and recently had an acting role in a Kuwaiti theater production. tara@emirates.net.ae

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