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Fadil plays for Asmahan at the Casbah
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North Beach Memories
My Adventure B
by Asmahan

Attending the Renaissance Faire was an experience that was to change my life! After finishing my university studies I worked as a designer, and lived in Marin County, California, where I had a beautiful shop, “Aquarian Princess”. I designed and made couture clothing, jewelry, and bridal gowns. Even shops on Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills were showing my clothing in their windows. My life was fantastic. I was nearly engaged to a fabulous man who supported my artistic career, and had a wonderful house in the country. I had a great circle of friends and a terrific social life.

In September, I helped a good friend of mine with her booth at the Renaissance Faire. At 9:30 on a Saturday morning, I saw a performance of Bal Anat. The first dancer I saw was Jamila Salimpour, then Meta balancing a tray, Aida performing a veil dance, Rebaba dancing with a pot, and Rhea dancing with a sword. Galya danced the finale playing sagat, doing floorwork and a drum solo. The backup dancers all played authentic instruments.The sound of the drums, santour, mizmar, sagat, def, and accompanied by vocal zagareeting was the most exotic sound I had ever heard. The costumes of asuite, coin belts and bras, jewelry, veils and beautiful flowing fabrics enchanted me. This was the first time in my life I had seen Arabic dancing and heard Arabic music. It was like a religious experience.

I walked up to Jamila after the show and said that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She took my hand and said “You look like an Egyptian; come dance with me.”  I saw my future. I was going to use all my designing skills to make costumes and become a dancer. It was like running away to join the circus!

I sold my shop and moved to the city to study with Jamila. I was in class with Masha Archer, whom I knew from the Alameda Flea Market, where I used to go every Sunday to buy the fabrics for my clothing design. Dance class was very hard and competitive. We had to play sagat (or zills as Jamila called them from the Turkish language). Our style was the Classic Turkish Arabic style, with veils, playing finger cymbals, doing acrobatic floorwork, and drum solos. I attended three classes a week and practiced at home every day. One day I told Jamila that I wanted to be a professional dancer, she said, “Then you must have a name!” In an instant she said, “You will be Asmahan.”

I asked Masha to find me Arabic coins for a costume, Asuite fabric, and lots of Turkamen jewelry. It was hard to get Middle Eastern coins at that time, so I bought some English coins from her just to get something. I painted them to make them look like they came from some exotic Middle Eastern country! My dancing idol was Galya; I used to go and see her at the Greek Taverna in Oakland. She was always so gracious, helpful, and supportive. She gave me her business card which had the most wonderful photo--I still have it, and had a large color copy made from it. Aida was always very helpful as well. I had a lot of difficulty understanding the music and the complexity of cymbal rhythms, hip patterns and footwork all working together in a kind of opposition. Aida, formerly an opera singer, played the mizmar, so she understood so much about music. She gave me some private lessons. I made her a skirt and veil which she loved.

In 1973, I went to the Casbah to see the show many times. When I auditioned, Fadil said I could start in a few months whenever he had an opening. At the Bagdad, Yousef hired me on the spot and said I could start immediately, but I declined. I was offered a job at the Greek Taverna for four nights a week including one night each weekend. It was a lovely family style restaurant and a great way to start getting stage experience. The tips were fantastic, and I could shop every week for new fabrics and jewelry.

Jamila had a style which she called Pre-Napoleonic; this meant Arabic materials before the influence of western culture.

I made a coin belt and bra of Moroccan brass coins which I purchased from Masha. I worked for the Lion and the Sun, which was a Persian import shop. They had wonderful Persian fabrics and jewelry. I obtained Persian coins there to make a silver belt and bra. I designed belts for them to produce and made costumes for them to sell.

After a few months Fadil gave me a few nights at the Casbah. It was so competitive! There were about five dancers a week coming in for work. The atmosphere was fantastic, the music was wonderful. Fadil has the most beautiful voice. He did such good versions of Abdul Halim Hafez, Om Kalsoum, and Farid el Atrache. He was always singing the latest songs from the Gulf with the ayoub rhythms that I loved. I took drum lessons with the tabla player from the Bagdad, George Dabai. This helped me to become a better dancer as I learned the rhythmic patterns. He taught me to play def as well, so I played on the stage with the musicians for the first set. This was a dream come true. Jalal and Salah were wonderful musicians; they were playing Persian, Turkish and Arabic songs. The clubs entertained many Arabs, including Saudi Arabian princes (who all seemed to be studying at Stanford). One of the favorite customers was Prince Musab al Saud. On my first night, he complimented me and said I looked like an Egyptian. He wanted to buy me a drink. I had never had any alcohol in my life. I asked Musab what he was drinking, he said a beer, so I had the same.

My first drink was a beer with the son of the King of Saudi Arabia! 

At the Casbah at that time, the dancers: were Aida, Raina, Safia, Selwa, Rhea, and Princess Samia Nasser. I was costumed in the Pre-Napoleonic look, which with three shows a night, (I had to have three different costumes) were too heavy to carry. Aida told me where to get a carrying bag with wheels. These were rare to find at this time.

All the other dancers wore beaded costumes. I was shocked that the only Arab dancer, Samia Nasser, wore the most outrageous colors, was very pale, wore high heeled shoes, had short orange-red hair, and a look that can only be described as "Plastic Fantastic."

George T

Samia was very sweet and used to give me advice. I often asked her to tell me about the dancers in the Middle East. She told me all the professional dancers wore beaded costumes and were very glamorous. Also, she told me I was not making the most of my looks. I was still attending class, which I continued to do the whole time I danced professionally. I felt there was always something to work on and more to learn. I watched all the dancers and learned so much! Raina, Safia, and Selwa were really beautiful and wore very sexy costumes. I could tell that my coins, metal bracelets, antique fabrics, Turkamen headdresses were not as attractive to the customers. We had to go to the tables for tips and of course we were expected to make good money, and of course, it was the tradition to give half the money to the band. George the doorman was such a character; he wore a fez and did really entertaining barking and dancing to bring customers in the club. Haroun the bartender looked like a character out of a film.  In fact the atmosphere at the Casbah was like being in a film (like "Casablanca"). I was in love with my new life: dressing in Arabian inspired evening outfits, painting dramatic black lined eyes, wearing lots of heavy jewelry, packing costumes, seeing all these amazing characters, and being surrounded by this fabulous music!

Aida sang Om Kalsoum songs with the band. I especially remember Inta Omry. I became very good friends with Selwa. She was so beautiful, made amazing pearl costumes, had hair that almost touched the floor and was a fabulous dancer. I talked Fadil into allowing me to redecorate the dressing room. Selwa helped me. I got carpet squares for free and did a new floor cover. We painted the door and woodwork, and stuck silver and blue shiny paper on the walls and ceiling, which made the room luminescent. Then, I talked him into letting me redecorate the widow where all the publicity for the club was viewed by the public.  I draped purple velvet, got all the dancers to give me their best publicity photos, which I framed in gold leaf, and did a nice layout. This must have been in 1974. When I came back from London to see everyone in 1984, my photo was still in the widow and the same display with some different photos in the other frames. My photo was displayed for ten years on North Beach. I took it out of the window and still have that faded print.

Aida was always busy producing Bal Anat. She was Jamila’s most loyal supporter. She was rehearsing the musicians, helping dancers with costumes, working on props, helping dancers with their performances. I had bought a sword from Lion and the Sun and was practicing my balancing. I was hoping to be a sword dancer some day.

Jamila was invited to be a featured artist at a Belly Dance convention in Las Vegas. She was bringing some of her dancers and asked me to do a fashion show with my costumes. I had to dress about seven dancers; we each changed once so there were fourteen different outfits. We were dancing instead of the catwalk stroll. The fashion show was to live music, and it took quite a bit of organizing to get all the dancers changed and dancing. It was very successful.

Aboud Abdel Al came to San Francisco with his orchestra. He had come from London, where he had been performing after leaving Beirut because of the Civil War. Fadil had arranged for this world famous group of musicians to record an album with him. The music they were playing was very different than the music with which we usually danced. They did an album with George Elias as well and the entrance music, Siqa, was beautiful, but I did not know how to dance to it. Aboud said that I should come to London to dance. He said that I could dance at Omar Khayyam. I then knew that I was going to travel and eventually go to the Middle East. Then I knew that I had to make some beaded costumes and become more glamorous. I started my collection for a new career.

I had been dancing in San Francisco for three years. It was now 1976. I did not want to dance anywhere else in the US, and all I could think about was getting to the heart of the Middle Eastern culture. I had been saving my money and now began the process of preparing to dance in London. I made a jet-black and silver beaded belt and bra, bought sequined fabric in black and in silver that I sewed into circle skirts. Then, I made a peacock colored solid rhinestone costume, a gold stone beaded costume. I also made several skirts for each to make many combinations. When I had six costumes, I thought I was prepared. I went to New York to dance at my sister’s wedding. While I was there, I had a photo shoot with a famous fashion photographer. Back in San Francisco, my final months were spent selling my possessions and car, buying all my traveling gear, getting my passport, organizing publicity and portfolios, winding up all my business affairs. My last night at the Casbah was very emotional. Fadil made a lovely speech when he announced me for the last time. I used to make tapes of my shows, and I have this one. My last weekend, North Beach Leather threw a going-away party for me at Bimbo’s and 350 people came. I brought the Casbah band with Fadil, and Aida sang. It was really a great send off!

On the morning of my departure, Aida came to say goodbye. She gave me a hand of Fatima which was a present from Jamila, which she said was to protect me. I left for London with my tabla under my arm, my sword in a case over my shoulder, a carry on bag with my three coin costumes, Asuite, and sagat. There were four suitcases of clothes and costumes. My baggage was seriously overweight.

Selwa drove me to the airport and I left the United States with my heart filled with anticipation, my spirit flying with the joy that I was doing what I was meant to do. I was creating my life as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!

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