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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Samiramis Imports and
the Arabic Movie Nights

by Sadira

Sam Khoury and his wonderful wife Ramona owned Samiramis, a one of a kind Arabic store located at 26th and Mission in San Francisco. In the 1970s and 80s, Samiramis was well known to the professional dance retinue, especially those who danced on North Beach, along with the well known teachers at that time. Samiramis was an incredible store, not only did Sam have the largest selection of records, and cassette tapes of Arabic and Middle Eastern music, but he and his wife Mona embraced the dance community and their desire to find music, videos, and help with anything under the sun.

This small store was the emporium for music and information. Sam had racks and racks of albums of music, cassettes and videos. All that was necessary to find a popular song you had heard, was to hum a few strands of a tune, and Sam would know which song you were looking for, which album it was on, who were the artists and their origins...along with translation of the piece from Arabic into English! He was a font of information and loved to share his culture with non Arabs who were involved with loved the Arabic world, either through dance, music, or food.

Samiramis not only had the most extensive Middle Easern music and video collection, it was also primarily known for it’s imported delicacies. There were bins full of humus, tabouli, rich spices, lentils, and cans of Foul (fava beans). There were deli shelves carrying fresh homemade Baklava, desserts, and traditional homemade dishes to take home and eat. He also carried dumbeks, galabeyas, hookas, and other little bits of this and that from the home country.

Sam would spend hours with customers at the counter, either translating Arabic for a dancer, helping a troupe develop a name in Arabic, explaining the various Middle Eastern cultural traditions...and always remembering your name when you would come back to visit.

His wife, Ramona, was part of everybody's family too. She would share homemade remedies for skin conditions, along with the honey and lemon hair remover, freshly made, that all the women in the Arab countries used, she was knowledgeable about henna for hair dying, and told stories of her life.

The store was always filled with a mixture of Middle Eastern men and women coming to buy food products from their homeland that were not available anywhere else. One could speak Arabic, gossip, or listen to the latest recordings and feel at home in a land which may sometimes have seemed strange to them.

During the 70s and 80s, there was not much available to create a diversified arena for multicultural influences in The City or anywhere else. Samiramis offered a haven where people could hang out, smoke Gitanes, read newspapers and magazines in Arabic and find out what was happening back home.

Sam and Ramona embraced the dance community with open arms, helping to educate and cultivate our understanding of the Middle Eastern dance world. They would gently correct a mispronunciation of an Arabic word, and were also proud that American’s loved the great ones such as Farid El Atrache, Mohammed Abdul Wahad, Om Khalthoum, Feiruz.

Sometime during the late 70s or early 80s, Sam began to sponsor a monthly Arabic movie night. It was held in a small neighborhood theater with popcorn provided. All the movies had English subtitles and the crowd was a great mixture of both Arabic and American viewers. At the time, he was the only person this area bringing in movies from Egypt and the Middle East. We looked forward to this wonderful monthly event.

In every Egyptian movie there is always singing and dancing. It is so much a part of the life of the people that there is no separation from daily life. The movies provided a venue for love songs, teasing, and spontaneous dance.

I think that during these monthly movie nights American dancers and audiences began to realize that there was a huge difference in what the English translations of the Arabic Language missed including, style, thoughts and idioms. Many times, after a particular scene would occur with the Arabic dialogue ahead of the English translation, all the Arabs in the audience would be howling with laughter. When the English translation came up on the screen, it made no sense whatsoever to the American audience. The opposite was also true! A scene would come on the screen that was dramatic to the Arabs but the English translation was truly hilarious to the non Arabic crowd. Talk about cultural differences! For example, in one famous movie about a young woman who is betrayed by her lover, the only thing she can then do is to become a dancer. In Egypt was considered a somewhat shameful, corrupt life. During one part in the film, the dancer is chastising the man who dishonored her. All the Arabs in the audience were intent at this point. However when the English translation came up, it said, ” You beetroot, you!”, which left American audiences in stitches of laughter. Obviously, something was lost in the translation! At another moment, the young woman is being forced from her family home in disgrace. She stands on the stairs and plaintively wails, ”Mammy, oh, Mammy!” Again there was silence and there were some sniffles from the Arabs, but to the Americans, it seemed an awfully funny parody of Al Jolsen.

Even with some translation differences, the basic story of the film came across and was always enjoyable. Many times, well known dancers would act in the films of the time, so that portion of the film were always eagerly anticipated by the dance enthusiast in the crowds.

Though cultural differences could be blaringly apparent, between different reactions of the Arabic and the non-Arabic viewers, it was mostly due to a misunderstanding of the words, not the substance of the film and it’s story. Everyone present experienced the same feeling of enjoyment in watching the film, whether to bring back feelings of home and cultural identity, or cultural immersion and integration. Those monthly movie nights were cherished and talked about for weeks afterwards.

In the beginning, there was a slight but noticeable distance between the Arab and the non Arab patrons. The Arabs, I believe, did not understand why non Arabs were wanting to come to see their movies. Soon, cultural identities and differences fell to the wayside and as regulars became part of the scene, there was no longer that huge gulf in the seating arrangements as there was in the beginning. Friends had been made, greetings exchanged each month, and everyone sat together to enjoy a movie.

My memory does not serve me well in remembering how long these monthly Arabic film nights lasted, but they were truly a joy. I believe it is an important way to understand the culture and people whose dance, music and ways you are emulating or endeavoring to reproduce. Being a dancer is not only about steps, transitions, or musical interpretation. You must understand the spirit and soul of the people whose dance is their life blood, in order to be a good and truly authentic dancer.

I end this piece with much gratitude to Samir Khoury and honor to his late wife Ramona. They have shown generosity, open arms and love of their people. They were truly ambassadors for the Arabic world.

Shukran Sam and Ramona…….

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