Robert and Lynn Zalot
Robert and Lynn Zalot
By Shareen El Safy
A sign reading “Arabic Drum Lessons” hanging in a Saratoga, California studio window caught Robert Zalot’s attention, and led to his and Lynn Zalot’s involvement in Middle Eastern music, dance and culture. Ishmael, a local musician, taught dumbek rhythms to Bob, who had an early childhood interest in trap drums. Lynn studied dance and performed as “Atech” (see center page poster) at the Safa and Tahia Dance Studio, where student dance parties and music demonstrations were held.
Bob had worked on newspapers in high school and college (University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Tech). In October 1974, the Zalots published their first issue of Habibi, an eight-page tabloid, on a shoestring budget.
Bob and Lynn were married thirty-three years ago. They first met when playing opposite one another in a Sacramento little theater production of “Hello Out There” by William Saroyan (Harry Saroyan’s uncle). “If it hadn’t been for William,” commented Bob, “we may have never met.”
The sweetheart theme runs through the Zalot’s story. “Habibi” is a term of affection in Arabic. Why did they choose that as the title for a publication? “It’s used so much in the Middle East, it just seems right!” The heart-shaped logo naturally followed. Interestingly, the Zalot family name is Polish for “love,” as in “to woo” or “court.”
The Zalot household, which included two daughters and a son (and now two grandchildren), was a center of frenetic activity. “Our children grew up in a madhouse! They grew up with the paper,” reminisces Lynn. “Habibi is our last child. We love this magazine and its readers, and we have ever since it was born. We have watched it grow and mature…”
Lynn, whose background was in theater and costume design, parlayed her Habibi experience into a part-time journalism career for Moffett Airfield and the Menlo Atherton Recorder. Bob worked through the Habibi years as a mechanical engineer for Westinghouse, Chrysler and Lockheed.
Habibi began as a local bulletin for the San Jose and San Francisco Bay areas, but soon grew into an international publication, influencing newcomers to the dance form. “The nicest part,” says Bob, “is that a lot of people were made happy by learning more, by having a source of information. We got letters from all over the world!” A sense of community pervades the lovers of Middle Eastern music and dance. “It’s absolutely unique . . . I’ve found some of the most fascinating people involved, and we’re still friends,” says bob warmly. “So many people have come and gone, and we’ve shared their joys and sorrows.”
Bob wryly describes the coming and going of the belly dance craze of the 60s and 70s as “the big hip circle that went around.” Those who remained committed to the field after that period shared their expertise, and inspired and educated dancers through Habibi. Jamila Salimpour and Bobby Farrah and other knowledgeable contributors were given a voice. “It was a chronicle of the times,” says Bob.
As for the future of this dance, Bob would like to see this form develop basic rules:
We need to appeal to a wider audience, not just the dancers within our own closed community…We need to hold auditions for our dance productions. I would like to see the best of the dancers try out, not just the students. If we could have higher standards, greater numbers of people would become interested. Sophisticated audiences need to see excellence. If you want to appeal to the world you have to go bigger, broader, and upwards!
The Zalots have recently transferred ownership of Habibi to a new editor/publisher in order to devote themselves to assisting Lynn through a serious health crisis. “I am not looking for any grand farewell,” says Bob, “but it’s nice to be known, it’s nice to be remembered…. Lynn has made a tremendous contribution.”
And for those loyal readers of Habibi over the past eighteen years who may miss hearing from this gregarious and philosophical gentleman, here are some parting words: “If I am the ‘gentleman who cannot be found,’ I’ve gone to see what happens when I’m not around.” And with a twinkle in his eye, he adds, “But I’ll be around. I’ll be watching!”
Habibi has been a unifying force in the dance world for many years, and to a large extent was instrumental in helping to form a national dance community. It has been a powerful forum for the sharing of ideas and information, and has been instrumental in helping to shape international oriental dance as we know it today. All dancers today are deeply indebted to Bob and Lynn for their dedication and contributions, and we would like to extend to them our heartfelt thanks and appreciation.