Backlash in L.A.

Backlash in L.A.

The Impact of U.S. Attitudes Towards the Middle East

By Virginia McCrum-Bendaoud

Middle Eastern performing arts venues across the globe have been eclipsed by fear of backlash and respect for victims in the aftermath of the U.S. terrorist attacks September 11, although their popularity appeared to be waxing again by year’s end.

Sympathy and solidarity canceled fall performances of the opera Aida set on the steps of the Giza pyramids in Egypt, while fear was likely at the root of forfeits and delays of U.S. tours by superstar Dina and Algerian sensation Cheb Khaled and others from Egypt and Iran.

Several Southern California dance company owners have reported steep declines in their belly dancing business from restaurants, nightclubs, private parties, concerts, dance schools and special events. And at least one state college has canceled a major Egyptian cultural event after the attacks.

“The Middle Eastern theme right now is not very popular,” said belly dancer and Westwood criminal defense attorney Laura Crawford, who founded West Los Angeles-based Flowers of the Desert Arabian Dance Company in 1995. Crawford estimates her company has lost eighty percent of its business since the attacks. “One of my dancers was working at an Afghan restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, and someone burned it down,” Crawford said. “She’s very distraught because that was her main source of income.”

Los Angeles City Fire Department records show that Afghan Cuisine in Encino burned down September 17.

One hate crime delayed until spring 2002 an Egyptian event, “Ra: Eclipse of the Sun,” set to run September 22-23 in Brea, Calif. The program includes a fight scene performed by Brazilian dancers between the Egyptian sun god Ra and his underworld counterpart, Anubis.

Roxanne Shelaby is a Christian Lebanese belly dancer and the spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Ya Amar! Dance Co., which is producing the Egyptian program. On September 15, Shelaby received a call that the Los Angeles Police Department has since classified as a hate crime. “You (expletive) Arab, towel-headed terrorist murderer,” Shelaby said the caller yelled in her ear. “At the time I got this phone call on my cell phone, I was at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills picking out a grave site for my father, who died the day before from natural causes,” she said.

Pacific Division Watch Commander Sgt. Tim O’Gorman said that a lot of people who have experienced backlash from the September 11 attacks “blow it out of proportion,” but that this caller was “a jerk” and the law “will not tolerate” his crime.

Ya Amar! Dance Co. owner Sahra Kent, who goes by her first name, said she would have pressed on with the event if not for Shelaby’s hate call. “I’ve been around terrorists before, and my position would be … not to let them hold my art hostage,” she said. “But that phone call did it.” Sahra, who lived and performed in Cairo, Egypt, for over five years, said fear was the motivating factor. “What we were fearing was frustrated backlashing rather than any planned terrorism,” said Sahra, who lost nearly $1,000 in flier printing and postage costs by canceling the September event.

“It’s very, very sad that those kinds of things are happening,” said Marta Schill Kouzouyan of Sierra Madre, vice president of the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association’s regional chapter and editor of its Cymbal magazine. MECDA’s biggest annual event is a two-day, fund-raising festival that for the past ten years has been held on the first weekend in June at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. The college has about 18,000 students.

The Cairo Carnivale offered 130 performances in June 2001, with 500 entertainers, attracting over 3,000 people, Schill Kouzouyan said. But at the end of 2001, Rio Hondo College’s interim president officially canceled the 2002 event and all future events of that scale on the campus. “MECDA’s Cairo Carnivale was rejected by Rio Hondo College out of fear of repercussions from the World Trade Center disaster,” Schill Kouzouyan said. “Eva Cabral, the college’s facilities services scheduler and our assigned liaison, told me…the interim president ‘just wants to play it safe’ because of September 11.”

Fortunately for MECDA, the show will go on, as the Cairo Carnivale has found a new home for this year. It will be June 8-9 at the Glendale Civic Auditorium. “There are lots of people who are really thrilled by this because of the central proximity to L.A. proper,” Schill Kouzouyan said.

Despite her organ-ization’s own troubles since September 11, what really brought the tragedy home for Schill Kouzouyan was the death of an Egyptian-American and longtime MECDA friend killed in a suspected hate crime September 15. “The last time I saw Adel Karas, who owned International Market in San Gabriel before he was killed, was when I stopped by to give him some brochures and a couple of tickets to the Cairo Carnivale­­­,” she said. “I returned to place a candle there and saw his funeral arrangements. That was the first time I realized he was Christian.”

Another show canceled this fall was the “Desert Roses and Arabian Rhythms” concert slated for September 29 at the Greek Theater. It was to feature singers Algerian-born Cheb Khaled, now a resident of France, Hakim of Egypt and Andy of Iran, accompanied by belly dancers. The musicians were to complete a ten-city U.S. tour, including New York and Washington. A new date in February for the Los Angeles concert is yet to be solidified, event performer Crawford said.

Egyptian superstar Dina also canceled her U.S. tour that was to be launched in November.

Most of the Los Angeles region’s major Middle Eastern restaurants, which also have been hit hard in the aftermath of the U.S. attacks, have canceled at least some of their regular performances since September 11. Among eateries that have displaced belly dancers, musicians or both are Burger Continental in Pasadena, The Kabob Room in Monrovia, Wahib’s Middle Eastern Restaurant in Alhambra, Carousel Restaurant in Glendale and the Middle East Connection Restaurant in Burbank.

At the same time, belly-dancing class venues in the Pasadena area have reported up to a 50 percent drop-off of students, creating a double-edge sword for displaced performers good enough to teach. “I would like to see people go out and patronize these places just as they did before the attacks, as we cannot live in fear as a result of this,” Crawford said.

Wahib Wahby, owner of Wahib’s, estimated in mid-October that he had lost half of his customers since the attacks. He canceled all music and dance programs on September 11 and didn’t resume them until December, when business was starting to normalize. “This is not the time for parties and everything,” he said after the attacks. “Everybody was sad about what happened.”

The assistant artistic director of Crawford’s dance company, Kim Mischook, who teaches belly dancing and performs throughout the region, was slated to dance under her professional name, Kamala, in both the Greek Theater and Brea programs. She also has been dancing at Burger Continental for the past twelve years. The eatery canceled all of its belly dance and music performances from September 11 through September 28 and then again in October after the United States attacked Afghanistan. “We canceled out of respect to our brothers and sisters who lost their lives (in the twin towers),” restaurant manager Levon Mattossian said of the first closure.

“We’ve seen a fifty percent decrease in yoga and belly dancing,” Tirzah Shagagi­­­, owner of Yoga Kingdom Sanctuary, said in October. “I had expected an increase in yoga classes because it’s so good for stress and coming to terms with any issues, but it’s not happening.” Not wanting to think ill of any of her customers, Shagagi refused to entertain the worst. “My husband, Naader, is from Iran, but you can’t really draw any conclusions,” she said. “I’m not going to assume that people are staying away for any racial or ethnic reasons. I think people just want to be quiet and by themselves.”

On the other hand, business was not hit too hard at Arte Flamenco Dance Theatre, which doubles as a dance school, said Clarita Corona, founder and president. “Most of the dancers returned right away because I think they needed it,” Corona said. “Performing is such a creative experience that it allows a lot of emotions to be released, so it’s good therapy.”

Whatever the motive for the major drop in business at many outlets this fall, displaced artists and their employers hope there are not permanent effects, especially if there are future terrorist attacks associated with Arab Muslims. “Directly after the attacks, I didn’t feel like dancing because it was more of a time to mourn,” Kamala said. “But I would just hate to see long-term ramifications for this dance form and the Arab music that gives it rhythm.”

Kamala said the United States is one of the last places where belly dancing is appreciated, and she feels Americans should embrace rather than shun the expression. “I just don’t want to see this dance form lost in this country,” she said. “In the Middle East, it’s already been stopped in many countries because the fundamentalists are opposed to women dancing in public. That’s exactly why we should not stop.”

Candy Fisher of Gassel Park in Los Angeles, near Eagle Rock, is one of Kamala’s students. “I think the people who are canceling these programs are not giving the general population enough credit to separate an art form from what happened in New York City,” she said. “Belly dancing is an ancient art form that predates Christianity.”

Because of all of the performance cancellations, Crawford said dancers organized their own show, “Belly Dance for Peace,” on November 4 at the Electric Lodge in Venice. MECDA also organized a fund-raiser show for United Way’s September 11 telethon in New York on November 14 at the Sheraton in San Pedro.

Not every U.S. state’s belly dance industry has been negatively impacted by the September 11 attacks. “Business here is better than ever,” Shadia Dahlal, president of MECDA’s Texas/Oklahoma chapter, wrote in response to an e-mail inquiry. “We have not had any repercussions from 9-11. “Seems like folks here aren’t even associating it with belly dance.”

But Alabama belly dancers are among those who have lost many shows. “I am a promoter for R.J. Reynolds Camel Gigs,” Connie Parrish, MECDA’s Alabama chapter president, wrote in her e-mail response. “These gigs were going strong from March up until Sept 2001. After September, the gigs were being canceled not only by the R.J. Reynolds Co., but by the local promoters as well. People just weren’t sure what way to go, and safety was the first concern.” Parrish said her dancers lost jobs at several large concerts in the state after September 11 because local organizers said there was not enough security available “and that dancers would have to be postponed until further notice,” she said.

“Fortunately, by the time this had happened, the season was almost over anyway,” Parrish said. “The season ends in October, … but it was scary!” For a couple of the concerts that went on as scheduled, the rules were revised, she added. “In the past, it was only one dancer and an escort, but after the 11th, I had two dancers go and had two escorts as well,” Parrish explained. “The dancers really didn’t want to go alone to these shows. They were afraid for their own safety, so they were more comfortable with having another dancer with them.”

Other changes included removing Arabic references to event names, as was done in the early eighties during the Iran conflict. “You change the name from Middle Eastern Dancing or Cabaret or Raks Sharki to just plain ol’ American BELLY DANCING!” Parrish said. “And dressing a tad more conservatively helps, too. These were all the things the promoters changed in their little rules for the entertainers, and by doing all these changes, we keep our fingers crossed they will continue to hire us for the Camel promotions this spring!”

Time will tell if the belly dancer becomes too big of a public risk to keep on as the entertainment, Parrish pondered. “I personally feel that if they don’t keep the belly dancers on that the Taliban wins, you know, so I personally want the dancers to be kept on the program for as long as R.J. Reynolds has this promotion!” Being a vendor/shop owner of Middle Eastern wears, in addition to her promoter and MECDA head hats, Parrish has another perspective to offer. “My business on the Internet has actually picked up, and the business in the shop is virtually dead! so that is interesting,” she said.

She added that since September 11, her dance classes have really taken off. “I find that people are trying what they have always wanted to try,” she said. “It is like we all realize that time/life is precious, and that there might not be a tomorrow, and so we are living today for today, which really is the way to be, I feel,” she said.

Parrish categorized the entire conflict within the dance community as typical of Middle Eastern culture­­—a double-edged sword. “As with everything Middle Eastern, there is no clear answer, and there is always more than one answer, just the way of the desert I suppose!” she said. “I feel that our dance community, and the belly dancer, could not be anymore caught in the middle than we are right now. We are loyal, faithful Americans with Arab friends, which makes us suspicious to most of our other American friends who, let’s face it, never really understood why we were belly dancers in the first place. That double-edged sword again!”

Virginia McCrum Bendaoud is an award-winning journalist with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, a former associate editor with Whole Life Times magazine in Malibu, Calif., and an international free-lance writer. She also edits and designs for her group of eight Southern California newspapers that includes the Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram and Pasadena Star-News. She is a two-time winner of the Carl Greenberg Prize for her in-depth investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. She has won a Hearst Award and honors for her breadth of reporting from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club and the American Business Press in New York.

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