Rhea's Adventures by the Nile
By Rhea
part 1

I guess every belly dancer's dream is to dance in a five star hotel in the Middle East. I had long had my eye on the job of dancing at the Athens Hilton, then at the top of the line insofar as hotels in Greece were concerned, but another American girl had the job, which her agent held onto for her with an iron fist for years until her husband bought a yacht and they decided to sail the Aegean in the summers. So I landed the coveted job and danced at the Athens Hilton for some years ('77-'82), getting pool privileges and many other perks, even though the job wasn't every night like my other jobs on the Athens By Night circuit were.

In those days the Hilton presented traditionally garbed Greek folk dancers, a trio of girl bouzoukie players, Samson, the strong man who laid down under wooden boards and had a car driven over him and had 20 men at one end of a rope and him at the other pulling (he always won) and performed any number of other death-defying feats too numerous to mention, for such groups of tourists which booked a "Greek Night".

Oh, I forgot the wedding party which would be included if you had a really liberal amount of largesse, which included not only the bride and groom and the wedding entourage, all in traditional dress, but a horse and carriage to pull them around in a stately manner. (There is a trick to getting a horse to not relieve himself but I will not reveal that here). These parties would always be attended by men dressed as soldiers from the time of Pericles (not many clothes, but lots of breast plates and big helmets with amazing decorations and nice legs) and the guests, who stayed at the Hilton, would all be issued plastic vine leaves, sandals, a white toga, and would all be served seated on the floor, reclining on cushions drinking from goblets, while about twenty chefs would bring the roasted animals to be eaten on spits and parade them around the guests before carving them in front of their eyes, to mound their parts with the rest of the delicacies too numerous, again, to be mentioned. The kitchen at the Hilton was as large as a high school auditorium, and went all around the two banquet areas so that they could be entered from all sides.

But I always longed to dance in a real Middle Eastern Hotel in some Arabic country, hopefully mingling my dance talents with those of real Middle Eastern musicians. A bouzoukie can only take you so far, and I longed to dance to a Kanoon, an oud, a darboka, a rek, etc. and be sung to by singers warbling in a more mellifluous and ululatiing manner than most Greek singers were capable of. So when the foods and beverages manager was transferred to the Khartoum Hilton and requested me to dance for the Reveillon, the period of two weeks including Christmas and New Years, I jumped at the chance. Athens in
those days usually didn't have too many tourists in Winter and the big nights to dance and make any money in the middle of what was, for a dancer, the down season, was only Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, and this was a contract for $150.00 a night in 1983 for two whole weeks. Plus, Athens can sometimes even have snow at that time and Khartoum was pleasantly hot. I decided to jump at the chance to dance at this beautiful hotel located just next to the bridge to Ondurman where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet each other in angry clashes. (No, they are not blue or white but unfortunately muddied with pollution. At least they were in 1983). I packed my best costumes and my trusty sword (which, in those days before large scale terrorism, got to ride in the cockpit with the pilot) and my best evening dresses and glittering high heels and set out to dance in the first Middle Eastern hotel I had danced in since I had visited Egypt in 1977 and decided that it was too crazy for me to stay. But that's another story.

Arrival in Sudan
A representative of the hotel who had to bribe the airport officials to let me have my luggage met me at the airport. I found out later that you had to bribe everyone to do anything, and even the government had to buy foreign currency on the black market. But at least we had a minivan from the hotel and went there forthwith without further incident. As I walked into the lobby, I saw posters everywhere advertising my show, along with a mélange of other artists. But I had top billing because everyone loves an oriental dancer in the Middle East and she is usually the star unless a famous singer is on the bill.

My friend Gerald, the international lawyer at The Hague whom I had met on the Greek island of Zakinthos in 1981 was there and we marveled at how small the world is as he filled me in on some of the sights one could see and events one could attend (I found out later that a man alone and a woman alone cannot always do the same things in an Arabic country). I was shown to my room and came down later to meet the other artists and to meet with the D.J. (alas, no live musicians) to arrange rehearsal time. I subsequently met with the manager and his wife, the assistant manager and his wife, the foods and beverages manager and his wife, the assistant manager etc. etc. until I had met everyone.

The one who was to prove most invaluable to me was Simon, the Ethiopian, who ran all the electrical goings-on at the hotel by reading Popular Mechanics down in his office in the bowels of the hotel. If the elevators stuck, which they invariably did, Simon could soon have them running. If the videos in the hotel rooms (there was no television in Ethiopia at the time, and even in Cairo in 1977 when I was there, the most one could see on television was two hours a day if there wasn't a brownout and that was the government channel) failed to function, Simon would soon have things running smoothly.

Yes, it was a luxury hotel, but in the middle of a very poor country. In fact, in back of the hotel lived all the employees and the hotel gardens, replete not only with fruits and vegetables but with livestock, should the hotel not be able to purchase anything in the market. Sometimes it was easier to fly in some desired food than to find it in Sudan. Everyone in the hotel was friends with the managers of the airlines who made the Hilton their permanent hangout. But then, there were no other modern, air-conditioned hotels to hang out in, and no nightclubs to go to. Sudan is an African country run by a Muslim majority, and alcoholic beverages are strictly controlled. But the Hilton had the necessary lucre to pay the necessary bribe. It was very funny to see all the society matrons wearing their furs which they donned in their air-conditioned houses, got into their air-conditioned cars, and sported in the super-super air-conditioned Hilton. I had to borrow some clothes from the manager's wife because I had only brought out-of-doors clothes, and while it was hot outside, it was freezing inside.

I made my way around the hotel to see what there was to be seen and visited the bowling alley, the bookstore and pharmacy combined, the main dining room, the super dining room, the auxiliary dining room, the grand ballroom, the lobby, the coffee shop and,

best of all, the swimming pool, where every lunch time I would swim out to the pool bar and have, my feet dangling in the water, shrimp alternated with peeled grapefruit slices in a brandy sauce washed down by Australian beer, and a salad of mangoes and exotic fish.

Every night the big show happened in the giant ballroom. There were two Rumanian strolling musicians who played while the people were served the hors d'oeuvres, three Italian musicians who warmed up the audience while they ate the first course, a magician who entertained during the salad course, acrobats who performed during dessert, myself who did the after dinner coffee and five French dancers who did the post-dinner entertaining. The D.J. handled any late night people with colored smoke and other sound and light effects until three or four o'clock in the morning. I met people from all over the Middle East and all over the world. I danced for a sheik and his harem of over 20 women who all acted like sisters, being themselves from all over the world, and who all showered me with tips. I was offered any number of job contracts. But I had learned to be wary of accepting any kind of job without a formal agent that I already was acquainted with.

The Wedding Party
My contract strictly forbid me to dance in any other establishment, so I was a little surprised to get a phone call from the foods and beverages manager asking me how much money I wanted to dance for a wedding."But what about the contract?" I asked. "I won't say anything if you won't and it's for a friend of mine. The daughter of the man who runs the bookstore is getting married and all the hotel talks of nothing else but your act." I pondered this for a while and asked for $250.00. "I got you $500.00," he said, "so $250.00 is mine. But you can give me my half out the tips which you will receive in Sudanese pounds, because I can always use them here in Khartoum." And so it was arranged for me to be spirited out of the hotel after my show to perform at the wedding. No decent wedding celebration would begin before twelve o'clock midnight, and I would dance after my show at the hotel.

The wedding party was held under an enormous tent which seated close to 600 people. Again no live musicians (sigh) but a giant sound system. I had to dance after my formal show on the table of the bride and groom so that they could put their hands on my stomach, and it was apparently mandatory by custom to literally fill the dancer's costume with tips. After dancing on their table, I was carried by four men from tabletop to tabletop where the same generosity was shown, until I feared that my costume would burst. At the end of the entire proceedings, which took over an hour and a half, I finally retired to change (in the bathroom. There was no formal dressing room) only to be followed by every little girl there from the ages of four to sixteen.

They gleefully pulled all the money from my costume and decided among themselves who should count which denominations.

Once having counted and exclaimed over the amount of money with many smiles, they proceeded to examine my costume from top to bottom, trying on every sweat-dripping piece of it, until everyone was satisfied. They attempted to practice their English on me, which set them off into gales of laughter, as they mocked each other's attempts to speak English, and ran through the most bizarre series of words I had ever heard strung together, before departing in a gaggle of giggles from the bathroom, leaving me to gather up my money and my things and to rejoin the people inside. The father of the bride would hear of me sitting at no other place but their table with him and his wife on either side of me, while I almost went blind after being photographed by more cameras than I had ever been photographed by in my life, even in the nightly tourist shows I did during the tourist season in Athens. After being forced to eat and drink, again to the point of bursting, I was driven back to the hotel. The father of the bride drove with me in the front seat, and the wedding couple sat in the back seat. The foods and beverages manager was right. I was able to pay him $250.00 in Sudanese pounds and still have some pounds left over, allowing me to keep the entire $500.00.

Whirling Dervishes in the Desert
By this time, I had began to meet everyone there was to meet, but was not allowed to accept invitations to go to anyone's home. I saw advertised in the hotel lobby an excursion to see the whirling dervishes somewhere in the desert. I asked the hotel manager if I could go, and he said yes, so I accompanied a hotel busload of people to see one of the strangest sights I have ever seen in my life in person. We drove far into the desert and finally came to a place besides a small mosque, very simple but with a very big crescent moon and star in neon on the top of the mosque, which was lit up even in the daytime. I joined a circle of all black people in a big circle, while all the other tourists remained atop their vehicles with their cameras and video cameras. The men were dressed all in white long robes and white skullcaps, and the women all wore something like an Indian Sari, but looser and not so heavily embroidered with gold and silver threads, which covered their heads. All the children, both male and female, were on the side of the circle with the women. I discreetly joined the women's side of the circle, causing no end of staring and elbow poking amongst both the women and the children, although I was allowed to remain.I soon worked my way up to the front where I could see.

From out of the desert came the funniest rag tag group of men wearing the most patched garments and oddest hats of many colors. They entered the circle and gave everyone a purple drink in a plastic cup. I was afraid to drink it. (I had once passed out in the street in Cairo after imbibing an unidentified substance and had determined not to eat or drink anything out of the confines of the hotel).

After some teasing, they let me be and began trying to widen the circle by jumping at the people and making scary faces and shouting scary things to make them go back and give them more space. The children squealed and laughed and went back only to come forward again when the men had turned their attentions to some other people. Finally the circle was the right amount of space and the men took out strange instruments from their billowy outfits and began to link arms at the elbow, allowing them to grasp their instruments in their hands and still blow on them or beat them together. While thus linked at the elbow, they formed a flying wedge and began to move in the confines of the circle, half walking, half dancing, with the man in the middle turning only about himself, and everyone turning faster and faster according to his position in this wedge, until the last man in the line was going so fast that if he had not been linked at the elbow, he could not have kept up. As this line swirled, from the center of the circle to the periphery, the end man finally let go, and, at a terrific rate of speed began to spin on one foot while looking at his hand, holding his instrument in his other hand. He finally spun so fast that he fell to the ground, still spinning in place, exactly like a break dancer, until he ran out of steam, at which point he would pick himself up and rejoin the others who had slowly come to a stop to regroup, another in the center, another in the middle, another at the end, etc.

They talked and laughed among themselves while trying to find another musical beat to play. Some beats were started only to be abandoned. Finally a suitable musical refrain was agreed on, whereupon they repeated the same dance again and again, until all the members of the flying wedge had had a turn at the end and had whirled and spun on the ground. While they waited to regroup, some of them would rock their bodies with the music from their derrieres to their shoulders, while rocking their knees back and forth at the same time. I was reminded of nothing so much as the origins of rock and roll, because that is what they certainly looked like they were doing.

During this continuously repeated performance, the spectators yelled encouragement and moved also with the music, although in place, and a little boy came to me and tugged at my dress. I looked down at him to see what he wanted but he just looked at me while continuing to tug at my clothes.

The women around me indicated with gestures that I was to pick him up, which I did, causing him to thumb his nose at all the children in the immediate vicinity, after which he put his arms around my neck and stayed like that.

After a while the women began to move closer to me and to lean on me a little, one putting her hand on my shoulder, another to put her arm around my waist. Some of the other children came up to me, but the little boy set up a howl, and the women laughingly shooed them back, but not before they would touch me in a way that seemed to indicate that they thought that if they wiped my skin enough it would turn to the color of theirs. This the women thought was uproariously funny, and put their black arms next to my white one and smiled and smiled.

As the proceedings wound down we began to slowly break up the circle and one of the women took the boy from me, he trying all the while to maintain his coveted position. They indicated with gestures that I could come with them and sit with them and eat and drink with them as they examined my clothes and jewelry and purse. I reluctantly left them with smiles and waves and rejoined the other tourists back at the cars and buses.

The rest of my stay proceeded pretty much as before. Every night I would get dressed in my room and descend the elevator to the kitchen behind the big ballroom. All the people working in the kitchen had it pretty much worked out when that would be as there was always someone at the elevator to smile at me and greet me as I came out.

They always called me sir, which I found charming but peculiar until the hotel manager explained that in a Muslim country, the training given to all the hotel employees was by videos and it is not polite to address a woman directly, but to address her husband, as no Middle Eastern woman at that time (1983) would be traveling alone.

So they had no precedent established insofar as how to address me, but I found it quite endearing and didn't attempt to change them. All too soon the third of January came and I flew back to Athens after assurances that I would be asked back the next year.

Part 2 coming soon!

Ready for more?
more from Rhea-
Rhea Recounts, Part I-Of Hips and Hippies: The "Good Old Days" in San Francisco
I used to come out in a simple costume dancing to a rendition of the Coasters' "Little Egypt" dancing barefoot and pregnant.

I had been to many Middle Eastern weddings before, but none were as visually
impressive as the ones I attended in Sanaa, Yemen.

Bellydancer of the Year Pageant, May 19th, 2001, by GS Staff
Are the dancers setting the trends, showcasing the trends, or simply trying to appease the judges? This was one of the questions we pondered during Leah Aziz's 28th Bellydance of the Year Pageant.


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