Yasmina Ramzy — First Mid-East Gig – Part One

(I will get to the actual performance in part two but the trip getting there was also an adventure. This story is told from the eyes of a 22 year old whose life up until this point was very sheltered being brought up in the exclusively WASP Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto and then spending the teenage years in a Buddhist Monastery with celibate men.)

I had only been performing in Arabic night clubs for a matter of months and I was a terrible dancer. One day, the phone rang. It was a call from Lebanon. On the other end was a singer named Joseph Salama. I remembered him vaguely as being a fair-haired Lebanese singer from Ottawa who had performed once in the Toronto night club where I danced called The Sheikh. Joseph said he was on his way to Amman, Jordan, for a singing contract and wanted me as his warm-up act. Apparently, he was marketing himself as The Canadian Singer, thus I was perfect for this gig, being Canadian, blonde and obviously not of Middle Eastern descent.

By now, I had never thought about this Bellydance thing becoming a career but because of my deep interest in the mystical Middle East, and in particular Egypt, I would give anything to have the chance to visit but I was afraid to go under these circumstances. I didn't really know the singer, I hadn't been overseas since I was two years old, I was a beginner dancer, I could be kidnapped or sold into slavery. So many things tossed and turned in my head. Finally, I asked my spiritual teacher if I should go. He said he would do a divination and get back to me. When he did, he said I should definitely go but on the condition I took my mother with me. At the time, I had no idea of the huge difference having my mother as "chaperone" would make, even on the future of my career.

After my mother got permission from her work and permission from a grumbling singer and management of the hotel that housed the night club I'd be working in, we waited for our plane tickets to arrive. The management had booked us on Royal Jordanian Air. My main impetus for this trip was Jordan's proximity to Egypt so we changed our flights to leave a week earlier and booked a connecting flight to Cairo.

I quickly forgot all about the work I was supposed to do in Jordan and eagerly waited to see the pyramids and the famous dancers Sohair Zaki and Nagua Fouad. It was late in the evening when we left. Both my mother and I were so excited and giddy, we could not stop giggling on the way to board the plane. And then, in a moment of almost hysteria, we both wet our pants. The first half of the long flight was quite uncomfortable. Thank God airplanes are so dry.

Once we landed in Amman, we were greeted on the tarmac by solid lines of soldiers on both sides leading to the doorway of the airport, machine guns pointed towards the passengers. I don't recall ever seeing just one Canadian soldier in the flesh and blood, let alone a gun, let alone so many big guns and pointed at me. I don't think I blinked during that endless walk. We were clearly not in Hawaii.

The airport was like a huge Arabian palace of my fantasies. Everything was in white marble with beautiful gold trimmed arches, clean and extravagant. It was the newly built Queen Alia Airport. With the desert just outside, the experience was other-worldly and judging by the gaping stares, we must have looked as if we had just landed from Mars. We were getting giggly and excited again and quickly looked for a washroom so as not to repeat our boarding accident.

The washroom was gorgeous with very shiny gold fixtures. We were overcome by the beauty, richness and sophistication. After lifting my jaw back up, I proceeded to open a stall door expecting a gold toilet and there was NOTHING. "Maybe they were still renovating and had not installed all the toilets yet." I looked down to find a hole in the floor, a tap and a hose. Finally, my mother opened a stall door as well. And that started the next giggle session which resulted in the second wetting of our pants. Toilets or not, we didn't need them any more. We had to get to our connecting flight to Cairo. Of course, I eventually learned that this was the norm in toilets. Twenty four years and hundreds of flights later, I always have an extra pair of pants in my carry-on luggage.

When we showed up at the boarding counter, many worried looks and discussion ensued and we were led to a small private room to wait. The staff was very polite and friendly making sure we were comfortable and offering us tea, coffee and sweets. Finally, it was boarding time so we re-emerged and were led past a long lineup of men in what appeared to be full-length dusty nightgowns. There was much grumbling among the men and some even spat in our direction. Our guide tried to speed us up and placed us at the front of the line. Then the grumbling turned to a loud roar and we were pushed forward to board the plane.

We sat alone in dead silence for a while on a large empty plane in our centre seats. Then suddenly, our dusty and fragrant friends from the lineup rushed on board and were roaming everywhere holding brand new toasters, blenders and microwave ovens. This image really ruined my fantasy that they had just dismounted camels in the desert. The electrical appliances baffled me for years to come until I was told these men were workers returning home from the Gulf states where these state-of-the-art items could be purchased easily. The only other female on board was the flight attendant carrying a big basket. She came down the middle aisle yelling something in Arabic. As she passed each row of seats, the restless men would obediently sit down for which she then rewarded them by throwing a handful of candies in their laps.

The commuter flight was short but I soon found myself busy. Once everyone was seated and we took off, the flight attendant handed out landing cards to be filled out. I filled mine out and then the very tall guy beside me indicated that he could not read and write and asked if I could fill his form out. I was thrilled to have a chance to help and possibly make a friend from the land of my fascination. So with his passport in hand, I graciously did so. Once I was finished I looked up and found there was a lineup. Apparently, they all needed help. I was about to object when both my mother and the flight attendant gave me a smile and I had sense that peace would be kept if I obliged. My hand was very tired once we landed in Cairo.

The Cairo airport . . . all I remember was a blur of cats on broken counters, Coca-Cola written in Arabic, minimal fluorescent light on unpainted, broken cement walls, passports spewed out on the floor by security, and amongst wall to wall people, three different porters asking for "baksheesh" to carry our bags. We gave each of them money but they just walked off. Finally, we carried the luggage ourselves, found a cab and ended up at the Sheraton Heliopolis. I couldn't sleep, I was in the land of Isis and Osiris and somewhere out there, Sohair Zaki was dancing.

To be continued...