Name Dropping : Tales from My San Francisco Nightclub

by Barnaby Conrad
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Paperback - 212 pages (February 1997)


Najia dancing at the Casbah backed by Fadil Shahin

  The Gilded Serpent presents...
The North Beach Memories of
as recorded by Lynette

Late in 1999, we found ourselves anticipating an interview with Fadil Shahin who had owned the Casbah Cabaret in North Beach, San Francisco, California. Currently, Fadil is the owner of the El Morocco Restaurant in Pleasant Hill where Belly dancers perform nightly to recorded music, and occasionally, to live bands. Fadil provides opportunities to for dancers to perform in periodic student recitals and open dance nights each month. While waiting to interview Fadil, Najia Marlyz shared with us a few of her own choice memories of dance at North Beach:

When we explained to Fadil about the North Beach project that we had begun, he
said quickly as he scurried away to host some of his nightly restaurant guests, "Arousiak's first husband (before George Elias) was Elmer. Elmer tended bar at the Bagdad." Najia mentioned that she remembered Arousiak serving drinks to the customers at the Bagdad, but at the time had actually believed that her name was "Aroosa" (meaning bride in Arabic) because Najia had heard George, Arousiak's husband, call her by that endearment!

Since our interviewee had been busy for a long while, we encouraged Najia to continue on with her memories of the Casbah. 

Najia: The bartender at the Casbah Cabaret was Haroun (Tony). I heard that the Saudi, Prince M., sponsored him on a Haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca when Haroun converted to the religion of Islam.

Prince M. was one of many real Middle Eastern princes who came to town (San Francisco) periodically.  He was a short, wiry, absurd little man who reserved a corner barstool at the Casbah whenever he was in town, whether or not he came in that particular night. He came to watch the dancers, listen to the music, and be part of the scene, even though I understand that his religion did not include imbibing alcohol. He was a heavy tipper, usually giving out $20 and $100 bills, --unless he did not like the dancer for some reason. In that case, he would tip with only a one-dollar bill. There were several dancers he did not like and with most of them, the issue of dislike had nothing much to do with their ability to dance.  Najia said that she had had a pleasant conversation with the Prince one evening after they had had a peculiar interchange in which Prince M. had sent Najia a drink and told the server to tell Najia that she should come and sit with him.  Najia, not one to kowtow to royalty told the server, "You just tell him that I said thanks for the drink but a lady does not go sit with strangers in bars.  If he wants to speak with me, he can come here to sit with us at this table."  Strangely enough, Prince M. came to sit and talk politely. 

During the following conversation, Najia said, she asked him naively if he had any brothers or sisters, because, at that time she had very little information about the Saudi's and its royalty.  When he answered that he had 23 brothers and 17 sisters Najia innocently chuckled and mumbled, "No, I mean really." Then Prince M. enlightened Najia about the nature of the Saudi Royalty and the King's numerous wives, who produced numerous children. The man did have all those brothers and sisters! Najia laughed with embarrassment even now, as she told us the story.

Najia continued on, saying that Prince M. had tangled with one of Najia's students one night!  Her student was a young and beautiful woman (whose name Najia cannot remember). She had ample breasts and therefore, an impressive cleavage. As she passed by his barstool on one particular night, he thrust a $100 bill down into her cleavage. She stopped abruptly, and looked at him with disdain while slowly retrieving the waded money.  She briefly glanced at it to see what he had put down her dress in such rude fashion, and deftly chucked it into the glass of beer that he was holding, and walked away shaking her head in disbelief.

The prince always arrived with his personal American bodyguard whose name was Len.   Len sat at the opposite end of the bar from the Prince where he could keep the entire nightclub in his surveillance. One night, a noisy, serious brawl broke out in the club just at closing time (two a.m.). Prince M. arose from his barstool throne, stood as rigid as a fireplace poker .and simply watched while his bodyguard fended off the mayhem that happened anywhere near his client. Najia, appalled and very much alarmed, left as soon as she could slip around behind the punching and yelling. She never did hear what it was that had caused the brouhaha.

George T

George Trovato was the door barker at the Casbah. His job was to lure the tourists from the sidewalk and into the Casbah for a quick peak inside the Casbah, hoping that they would then enter and settle down with a drink or two and see the Belly dancers.  Many of the sidewalk tourists had never seen a real, live Belly dancer and thought that dancers were as strange and exotic as a sideshow bearded lady. Najia thought George was a funny fellow (a character and more or less harmless). Najia immortalized him on a video doing his act at the door. He gave a bizarre gurgling growl for the sexy women he saw passing and a line of patter for the men.  He wore a red taraboosh (fez) with a business suit, and was a short fellow with gray hair and a sizable potbelly. Everyone around the Casbah, especially the tourist trade, seemed amused with his antics and he seemed to Najia to almost be like a club mascot. The doorway was always open but had a heavy curtain that the barker would hold open occasionally to give people outside a sneak preview. Those heavy curtains held out the cold San Francisco wind and salty fog, while making it easy for the tourists to enter. It was important to have an attention-grabbing barker on Broadway at that time to lure the tourists to come inside and sit for a while. It sounded like a carnival sideshow come-on.

Regarding Bert Balladine's movies:
The film "Gamil, Gamal"
was a color film, produced in the early 1970s, during Najia's student days.

"Some of My Best Friends are Bottomless Dancers" was a film in black and white. Some dancing class scenes featured Mirage, and Patti Charlie. Patti was very close friend to Bert. Mainly, she was a classic stripper, as well as a Bellygram dancer. Patti often jumped out of a gorilla suit in her Belly dance bedlah and did a dancing telegram as a creditable Belly dancer. She injured her back so badly at one point in her career that she had to leave dance altogether and went on to a variety of jobs in door-to-door sales. Although Najia studied with Bert alongside most of the people featured in the two movies, she was not in them herself.

Regarding the Bagdad Dressing Room:
The dressing room was up a long and turning flight of stairs and had excellent lighting.  It was large, with an extremely low ceiling and a long counter and mirror for the dancers' cosmetics application. There was also plenty of hanging room for the many costumes. A decorative Middle Eastern style screen with perforations allowed the dancers dressing to hear the music, so they knew how the show was progressing downstairs on the stage even though they could not see it. The smoke was thick up there because it rose and accumulated near the ceiling and went through the decorative screen. The dancers entered from the stairway and passed though the audience to the stage. Each dancer stood at the top of the landing of the stairway, waiting to hear her name, before entering to begin her show. 

The back wall of the Bagdad facing the stage was a mirrored wall, giving the appearance that the club was twice as wide as it actually was.  "Bored (and boring) dancers often danced just for themselves, gawking into the mirror as if they were in love with their own image!" laughed Najia. 

George Dubai

Najia danced on Broadway for only a few months, feeling, she said, very much "out of her element." (At that time, she preferred dancing at large private parties because they usually finished early and the people seemed to be having more fun.)  On Broadway, George Elias played the oud and sang while George Dabai played drum. George D. was a fine drum player and could really give the dancers a hard time, until they proved to him that their dance ability was equal to his drumming. When George E. suffered a heart attack, he turned the stage over to his brother, Jad Elias.

Regarding the Casbah Dressing Room:
The Casbah had a narrow little dressing room on the same level as the audience. It had a small, heavily curtained "foyer," which was very dark, where the dancer awaited the start of her show music. The dressing room was always full of junk and there was never any hanging space left! It sported a filthy sink at one end where the dancer could wash her feet, and perhaps, her armpits. Many dancers had dirty feet from dancing barefoot. (In fact, most dancers performed barefoot in California at that time.) Najia, however, wore shoes, in an attempt to imitate the costume style of the Lebanese dancers.

Najia commented, " At the time it seemed to be of utmost importance to me to be noticeably different from Jamilla Salimpour's Bal Anat dancers, one of whom was a good professional dancer, Aida Al-Adawi.

Najia went on to explain that

Aida behaved toward other dancers with an "attitude."   "Perhaps," Najia mused, "it may have been because she was securely entrenched in the notion that her teacher, Jamilla, was truthful in her claim that she, and only she, taught the true dance of the Middle East. So, Aida felt justified, somehow, in her haughty refusal to talk to any new dancer at the Casbah until the new dancer had 'proved herself worthy' in Aida's eyes."

Bert's dance student, Sharlyn Sawyer, often wore shoes when dancing, as did many of Najia's students. " Whatever I did, my students seemed to do also-in spite of my claims that in order to be anyone special, you had be different from your teacher," remembers Najia. "One evening at the Casbah, before he married his now ex-wife, Sausan, Gabe from the Grapeleaf Restaurant, San Francisco, introduced himself to me.  We chatted a bit while watching a dancer, and then he launched into a tirade about "dancers who stupidly danced in shoes" and he added, "They do not know how well-known dancers appear in Lebanon!" Najia listened, later checked out the facts about Lebanese dancers, and continued dancing in high-heeled shoes.

Talking about dancing in high-heeled shoes reminded Najia about a joint student night featuring Najia and Rhea along with some of their students at the Taverna Athena in Jack London Square, Oakland (the San Francisco East Bay Area). The student' presentation featured live music with Jalaleddin Takesh on the Kanoon.

At that event, Najia was supposed to dance a duet with her one male student. However, just before the event, he decided he could not endure the duet with Najia because he had "fallen in love" with her-even though, he explained in a note taped to the studio door, he was gay! Quickly, Najia had to think of something else to do to fulfill her promise to her students that she would do something surprising for her dance that evening. She decided to change her hallmark style of "eclectic gypsy" and glamour up. For the first time, she danced in high heels and a straight sequined skirt like the famous Lebanese dancers of the 1970s. Several media people attended the student night because they were regulars of the Taverna Athena and other Greek haunts, and fans of both Rhea and Najia. They included, Bill Fiset, (who was a humorous columnist and satirist for the Oakland Tribune), Perry Phillips (a Greek-American journalist and also an entertainment columnist for the Tribune).  The Berkeley Gazette "Action Man" who wrote several reviews of Najia's performances and referred to her as the East Bay's Mata Hari was there also. Najia said, "My students, instead of surprised, were scandalized! They were very upset about my new image-feeling that I had, somehow, abandoned them!"

Najia laughs, "Later my love-struck male student left a note tied onto my studio doorknob with a piece of string, saying that he would either have to kill himself or run away to the Amazon." He had chosen the Amazon, the note said.

"Good choice!" quipped Najia.

We had a telephone follow-up interview with Najia the next week:
"The earliest I could have gone to North Beach as a Belly dance student was about 1970.  I'd get dressed up with a mink stole and one of my floor-length dresses to go North Beach. In earlier years, I used to go hear the opera singers and drink coffee in the cafes, in North Beach about 1957 when I was 17! The waiters would serve your coffee, and then they'd jump up onto stage and sing opera selections for you. It was delightful and I felt so sophisticated! Ok, I admit that I was a strange teenager and already a student in the University at age 17. I saw Cruz Luna dance in a hall across the bay at the University of California in Berkeley that same year, 1957, and thought he was the most outstanding Flamenco dancer I had ever seen in person."

"I danced at the Bagdad for a very short run sometime during the late '70s (for George Elias) until I realized that Broadway wasn't a good place for my type of performance. It required street smarts that I did not have and a toughness that I also did not have.  Some dancers in those times smoked pot habitually in the dressing room. I couldn't withstand the hours or the strange people that I encountered; I wasn't part of their scene, and I didn't want to be. I wanted to be creative with my dance and thought of myself as artistic, a free spirit, rather than a purist. I was approaching dance from a different angle .a dancer needed to lose her adolescent naïveté in order to be a good performer on Broadway!

I could hardly dance in all that terrible smelly smoke! Everyone was smoking something, except me, it seemed. .Cigars, cigarettes, weed, and sometimes, even hashish! The smoke rose and covered the stage like a thick, bluish, stinking cloud!

My dance sets were about 50 minutes long-dancing at full tilt-two to three times per night. Dancers would start home at 2:00 a.m. after a wait for their nightly pay and they'd go to their cars, in the dark, at 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. "I wouldn't like to tell you all the insane things I did then." She confides. "I did some foolhardy things because I didn't know how dangerous they actually were for me. I can remember coming out at night and not have a protective person with me. (Except I did carry an odd weapon in my hand, hidden in my pocket. I don't know why, exactly, because I probably would have gotten myself killed with it in an emergency). You had to fetch your car 'way down in the depths of the parking garage, in the pitch dark, traipsing in high heels, while schlepping your stuff. It was terrifying! I would do anything to avoid the walk into those scary, dark garages. I'd walk for blocks, carrying my costume case, to my car parked on the street rather than in a parking garage."

Najia continued: "Sometimes we'd go have breakfast together with the musicians. That was memorable fun and that was when I learned many details about Arabic music and met a good number of performers. I was on the scene when Abdullah (Pasha's oud player and violinist) first showed up at the Casbah.  He had dark hair and was so thin you would hardly recognize him today. Abdullah appeared on the Naji Baba Show with my students and me on KEMO television in San Francisco. It is a fuzzy recording, but I have it even now, re-recorded on a DVD, and I feel very fortunate to have it as part of my memorabilia."

"Naji Baba hired me to do many gigs with him," said Najia.  He trusted me and liked my dancing style, so he promoted me whenever he could. I remember being wary of him, but he always behaved as a gentleman towards me. I think that he was the first Arab I met, or, at least, the first Arab that ever backed my dancing with more than kind words. (Remember, I had been dancing exclusively with the Greek clubs.) He put me on his show on Channel 20 several times. He featured Belly dancing on his show every weekend. Each time I was on the show, it replayed many times after the first showing. Then, when I would go out on Sundays, people would recognize me as the dancer they had seen on television Saturday night."

"Masha Archer, one of Jamilla Salimpour's ex-dancers, always had a booth at the Alameda Flea Market. She had become a teacher of Belly dance and had a very large San Francisco dance troupe. Masha was friendly with me, and she could be dramatic and intimidating! She was decidedly artistic, and had split away from Jamilla Salimpour's group. She had her own dream and followed her dream. She and her husband sold exotic and ethnic jewelry at the Alameda Flea Market. They held large dance parties at their house. Although, she invited me to come to her parties, I never went because I knew it wasn't my kind of scene, and probably, I would not have fit in with her other guests."

"I saw Masha recently at a museum opening in San Francisco. She looked fabulous and even remembered me! Her hair was dark and slicked back like a Flamenco dancer. She was wearing large hair ornaments and her make-up was flawless. The artistic scene had won her over, and she went into fashion design; she had a real flair for it. If you saw her troupe, you witnessed something like Fat Chance, except that it was more elaborate. It was an original. There was enough Afghani jewelry on those women to sink a battleship! Fat Chance Belly Dance seems more limited in concept and almost dispassionate."

Masha had a social organization like Jamilla's. However, it seemed to me that Masha had a sexual-revolution outlook on life then. I heard rumors that her parties on Minna Street, San Francisco, were very "free-spirited." When dancers performed, they'd look intently into each other's eyes, and we'd laugh because it made it seem that there might be an orgy-happening soon. Belly dance was more sexual in nature back then; that was precisely why a lot of us took it up in the first place! Many dancers, musicians, and performers of the time were famous for their mantra: Smoke a joint, dance, then, go make love, not war. There were no serious thoughts about disease as is necessary now.

Regarding crazy behavior on Broadway:
"Broadway in the '80s became so disappointing to me! My (ex-) husband once bought me a beautifully tailored, red leather coat. (He often bought me things like that; I was a great arm-piece for him, if nothing else!) The first time I wore the red coat, I went to North Beach with a girlfriend, who was a dancer at the Bagdad, the Casbah, the Plaka, and the Minerva. Some angry 'sick-o' dumped a bucket of silver paint on us from a second floor window as we passed below. We had to use paint thinner to get it out of our hair and off our coats. Oh! My poor leather coat!  The next night proved even worse: Rhea (now of Greece) got something nasty dumped on her. It looked like dental spit, with metal bits and slimy stuff. I became afraid to go under the window and always walked out in the street in the traffic after that. The scene had changed; all the glamour and sparkle was gone. George Elias of the Bagdad, who had been a welcoming host with a ready smile, had died, and the Casbah Cabaret, too, was about to die.

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Ready for more?
12-16-99 The North Beach Project
I took leave before I was invited to leave.

9-23-99 Welcome to Bellydance
..Do not allow anyone to limit your possibilities.

More North Beach Memories
1-4-00 Latifa-The Rest of the San Francisco Dance Scene-(Powell St Station)
2-25-00 Bert Balladine-
at long last Bert begins his story
2-25-00 George Elias-
a tribute written by his daughter, Nadia Elias.
3-22-00 John Compton-
Finnochios, Bal Anat, to Hahbi'ru

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