Yasmina Ramzy — The Summer School of Khaleegy Dance*
(Many factors have come together over the last year that have made me finally put some of my early dance career adventures down on paper. So far, I have come up with over 35 titles from King Hussein's brother trying to marry me, eight machine guns at my head in a back alley of Damascus, being stuck in a war for a few months, to refusing President Hafiz El Assad's request that I dance for his 40th anniversary. Some stories are funny, some are scary, some magical, and some are sad, but most are all of the above.)
The Summer of 1990, I call my Khaleegy Summer. Actually, there is no such thing as a school for Khaleegy Dance so I will tell you how I learned about even the existence of such a style of dance.
In the Spring of 1990, I closed the doors of the first Arabesque Academy in Toronto after three years of endless work. Along with running the Academy, I had been performing Bellydance off and on in Jordan and Syria since 1983, usually in one to three month contracts. The contracts were lucrative, I was still young with few commitments so I decided I would stick to performing in the Middle East and leave teaching for later in life. This meant trading in a rigorous schedule of teaching and running a school and office, for serious suntanning beside a luxury hotel pool by day and performing one 45 minute set by night accompanied with some wicked musicians and to a very appreciative audience.
I set off in May of 1990 with plans to live from contract to contract in the Middle East for a few years until I had a substantial bank account. The brand new Forte Grand Hotel in Amman hired me immediately and kept renewing my contract intending to keep me there until I was due in Dubai in September. Every month a new singer would headline but I was the regular dancer.
Living and dancing in luxury came with a price but one I was willing to pay. Because Jordan is an Islamic society, my moral conduct was closely scrutinized. It was important that my behaviour be irreproachable. Every day, my photo was in the Jordanian newspapers advertising the show at the Forte Grand. I had a very public position at the most prestigious hotel in Amman, and neither the hotel nor I could afford any inpropriety. The Forte Grand is frequented by the very wealthiest Kuwaiti families and royalty. The �moral police� and hotel security watched every move I made. All my phone calls were monitored. I was not allowed to talk to or get into an elevator with an Arab man. When I went out for lunch with Afaf, my Iraqi best friend whom I had known since 1983, what I ate and whom I spoke with was recorded by security. I also needed permission for any venture outside the hotel.
In July, a Lebanese female singer who had just finished working in Dubai for six years came to work at the hotel. She was familiar with the Gulf culture, music and dance. She often invited me to her room for tea so she could practise her English while I worked on my Arabic.
On many occasions, two or three of her Lebanese girlfriends dropped in while I was visiting. After a while, I found out these girls were professional Bellydancers (one being the famous Nariman) from Lebanon who performed in another venue in Amman. I was thrilled but also dumbfounded that no one had mentioned this earlier. Unfortunately, the dancers did not speak any English and were not interested in sharing any of their dance steps. All I managed to get out of them was where they were performing. I planned to go see their show on my night off.
The place where my new Lebanese friends performed did not have quite the same high standards as the Forte Grand nor was their audience families like mine were. Instead, they performed in a cabaret that catered only to men. In the Summer months in Amman, those men were mostly from the Gulf. It wouldn't do for me to be seen at such a venue, however, I was intent on seeing my friends dance. After I begged and pleaded with the kind German hotel manager, I was finally allowed to see the show. I was escorted up the back, through the kitchen and then hidden behind a wooden lattice. I could see the whole room and the stage but the audience couldn�t see me. The Forte Grand was safe from the shame.
The music started but the rhythm and style was not familiar. The three Lebanese Bellydancers appeared. To my surprise and disappointment, they wore high heels, mini skirts and blazers, a little like stereotypical secretaries out of a B movie. I had expected glorious beaded costumes. Adding to my disappointment, these dancers just kind of limped around performing head slides and shoulder jerks. Was this dancing? I kept quiet not wanting to complain after putting everyone through so much trouble to get me there. I liked the finale where another girl with hair to her knees came out and whipped her hair around endlessly but I was mystified by most of the performance.
The next day I visited the singer. She explained that even though the dancers were good Bellydancers, they had been performing the Gulf or Khaleegy style of dance because the audience was from the Gulf region and this music and dance style is what they enjoyed. In their own countries, this dance was only performed in private homes amongst family. To see their style of dance performed in Western clothing was exotic for them. The image of the Western secretary was a huge sex symbol as women were rarely found in the workplace in the Middle East. She offered to teach me. Having lived in Dubai for so many years, she was experienced in the Khaleegy style of dance. Out she pulled some beautiful large silk dresses with enormous sleeves (thobe nashall) and my education began.
About a week later, at 3:00 am, I had taken off my make-up and was winding down from my show. Settling into my nightly ritual of lentil soup, cake, tea and a Farid El Attrache movie, I was disrupted with a call from the nightclub downstairs. The club manager explained that a very famous Egyptian singer was a guest in the club and had seen me dance. He requested that I dance with him while he sang. Back on went my make-up and costume and I made my way down to the nightclub. The singer asked what song I would like to dance to. Knowing that he was Egyptian and having too much confidence in my ease with Egyptian music, I replied, "as you like."
I went out onto the stage with him and the music started. It was a beautiful piece of music, but the rhythm was impossible to dance to. I was all over the place, panicked and embarrassed with nowhere to hide. I prayed for the song to end. Safely offstage I complained to the manager about the music. He explained that this song called Abart El Shat by Khathem El Saher was currently the biggest hit all over the Middle East including Egypt. Khathem was from Iraq, another Khaleegy country. Up until now, only Egyptian music had ever been a hit in Egypt. The land of Oum Kalthoum had a bit of a snobby attitude when it came to music. But soon, the high pitched voice of Kuwaiti singer Nabil Shuwil hit the radio waves and everyone, even Egyptians, were buying Khaleegy music.
The next day I went to Afaf's house and demanded that she teach me Iraqi dancing. I had known Afaf intimately for years but had never seen this side of her. She was so proud that a song from her country was top of the charts and she was eager to show me everything she knew about the dance. It had never occurred to me that she knew any other kind of dance other than Bellydance. Once I was introduced to both styles of Khaleegy dance, I experienced the common thread that is this unique expression of joy. Subtle movements to the naked eye but bursting with spirit. The rhythm was infectious and I was soon addicted.
At the beginning of August, I came down to the restaurant for breakfast one morning and passed by the nightclub. My life-size picture no longer adorned the entrance. The lobby, empty of Kuwaiti families, was very quiet. I asked the maitre'd what was up. He explained that the show was cancelled. Iraq had invaded Kuwait. It was war and I should go home.
In the past, the hotel employees had regularly played pranks on me. I thought this was just another joke and laughed it off. Then I looked into the main restaurant. Arab and non-Arab army generals in full regalia filled the room.
After breakfast, I went back up to my room. I knew it would all blow over by the next day. Arabs are always so melodramatic, I thought. The phone rang. It was the Canadian Embassy advising me not to leave the hotel unless absolutely necessary and then only with an Arab escort. Oh, and I should get out of the country right away. Now I was getting worried.
I couldn't help thinking why Iraq and Kuwait, the two cultures whom I now felt I had an affinity with through their dance and music. Why on earth were they at war? Is this the difficult mission that the American Special Forces guys told me they were off to after being granted a short vacation in the hotel last week?
I soon found out that getting home was not going to be easy. Flights out were booked until November. Everyone wanted to leave immediately. Thanks to Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, Canadians were not welcome in the Middle East anymore. Because of the ridiculous news reports about riots in Amman, my mother was in agony with worry. My Khaleegy summer was over. I never did make the Dubai gig.
Note: Khaleegy Dance is a dance style from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula.