Architecture of the Islamic World : Its History and Social Meaning,
With a Complete Survey of Key Monuments and over 758
Illustrations, 112 in Color
by George Michell (Editor), Ernst J. Grube, James Dickie, Oleg Grabar
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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Working at the Bagdad

by Aziza!

Working in a club on Broadway in San Francisco in the 1960s was quite an adventure! The topless craze was just starting, as were the first thoughts of the hippie movement and miniskirts. I lived in Concord, about a 45 minute drive from San Francisco, with my husband and young son, Adam, so I wasn't involved in the social scene around the clubs in the City. The drive to work and back was always interesting. At that time, traffic went both ways on one level of the Bay Bridge, and there were some close calls, especially when it had been raining. There was one particular toll-taker whose booth I often went through on the way home, who was always working cross-word puzzles (in those days of far less traffic), and who would ask me for help on the words.

We could usually find parking on Broadway, a block or two down from the club, or there was a man whose stand was in the alley near work, (an alley that is long since filled in by a building), who would park your car and then move it back close when he went home, and leave your keys with the bartender. It wasn't such a scary situation as it later became. If a girl worked frequently, she would generally leave her skirts and veils and such hanging in the dressing room, and only have to carry her bra and girdle sets and makeup back and forth.

The Bagdad was a long, narrow club, mostly decorated in red, with a small, raised stage on the left, mirrors on the wall across from it above the banquette seating, and a slightly raised seating area at the back. The bar was on the right as one entered. There were two entrances right together at the front, with a heavy red curtain across them to keep out winds and casual eyes. There were a couple of display windows in the indented entrance, and they generally had some inaccurate photos of who was dancing, or, later, a record cover from one of Yousef's records. Besides the banquettes, there were chairs and a lot of small iron tables, each with a brass tray for a top with a red candle in the middle. The stage was probably about 6 or 7 feet wide and about 5 feet deep. The ceiling over it was low enough that I, at 5'9", had to be careful about how I threw my arms in the air. The musicians sat across the back of the stage on a bench, and one worked the lights and, later, the rhythm machine, with his foot. The stairs up onto the stage ware small, steep, and narrow. Those adjectives also applied to the stairs to the dressing room! When I first worked at the Bagdad, the dancers came discreetly down the stairs and were standing at the bottom when the spotlight was turned on them and they were announced (always as "the beautiful lovely So and So" ). Later, Yousef decided that it was more dramatic to light the staircase as the dancer made her entrance precariously down it.

Once I was about a third of the way down in my well-lit entrance, when I slipped, and covered the rest of the descent quite quickly on my rear end! I was, of course, mortified, and I went right back up the stairs to the dressing room. Rhea was up there, and she scolded me for having a faint heart, and sent me right back out to make my entrance again, this time successfully!

Later, when I was no longer working there, a lattice was added to shield the dancer's progress to the bottom of the stairs.

There was a variety of lights for the stage, including, at one period, a light that rotated and gave very psychedelic effects. A black light was a fixture for a long time - when it first was installed, Yousef told us, in his typically charming manner, that if we didn't buy some costumes that fluoresced, we were fired. Gigi's also had a black light, and the reason I know this is because of a story about what happened to one of the dancers there. Her name was Tabura Najim, and, I have been told, she had "a belly that smiled" - I don't know.what that means.

Anyway, one night when she was dancing at Gigi's, her bra broke, and the kleenex with which she had stuffed it fell out on stage! "Turn out the light!" she hissed. However, when the light was off, the black light made that kleenex glow in the dark, and it was just as bad!

Any-way... The black light did some interesting things. If a girl had some teeth capped, they would glow in the black, and a pearl costume frequently would have some pearls
that glowed and some that didn't. Any stitching with white thread would really show up, and if you had on white underpants, yow! It was always interesting.

Yousef routinely told us that if we didn't do something or other, we were fired. No asking nicely, first. Maybe it was mostly me that he used this tactic with, but I don't think so. For instance, when I was first dancing there, I had only one costume for some time. I finally got the ultimatum, so I used some blue chiffon I had and made a veil and a matching Turkish runthrough - you know, the kind of skirt that is basically shaped like a diaper, drooping down to the ground. I put silver trim on it, but now that I think about it, it must have been a pretty naked number! Anyway, Yousef was happy about it. Another time, he decided that it wasn't acceptable for me to do two standing taqsims - one with veil, one without, and that I must do floorwork. Now, as Jamila was pregnant and had a bad back when I studied with her, I had never formally learned floorwork, but I had studied how the other dancers did it, so I was able to comply, though I was never very delighted with what I could achieve.

When I was first dancing - for the first year or so, I wore all-over body makeup, to try to turn my pale skin into something more exotic. It was a real pain to deal with, and it was hard on costumes, so I was happy when I decided to stop wearing it.

We also, in the early days, had to have accents when we talked to the customers, to carry out the non-girl-next-door thing. After a while, I developed a back story, to account for my obviously non-Arab appearance. It seems that I was from Casablanca, in Morocco, born to an Irish mother and a Berber father, and I did quite a bit of studying to be able to talk with ease about Casablanca and Morocco.

Anything around the city that I was unfamiliar with, I attributed to my sheltered upbringing. I thought I was really in trouble once, when I was dancing at Vandenberg Air Base and a man who had been stationed in North Africa wanted to talk about "my" fondly-remembered city! Luckily, however, he really did want to talk about it, himself, and mostly just wanted someone who would listen, who knew what he was talking about. One of the best things about the development of more dancers was that it became okay to be an American.

If we weren' t getting ready to dance or just ended a dance, we weren't allowed to stay in the dressing room. (Well, if we were picking broken beads out of the calluses on our feet, we could stay a few more minutes.) Yousef wanted us downstairs, either on stage or talking to the customers. We had to sit on stage in our long, elegant gowns and play tambourine or zils between dancers. And then, when mini skirts became popular, we had to wear minis while we sat up there. Oooh, Yousef loved that! If we sat with customers, we were expected to have drinks bought for us. I quit or was fired several times (it usually lasted for about one day) because I wouldn't have my friends pay several dollars for a watery coke. I remember that one might, no waitress showed up, so we dancers waited on tables in between our shows. People were so struck by this, and so nice, that we made more tips that way than we did dancing! If we didn't show up downstairs very soon after finishing a show, Yousef's sister, Arousiak, would be up the stairs right away, to see why not. We resented what we thought of as her officiousness, but now I realize that she was only doing what Yousef told her to do. As did the dancers. Mostly...

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Ready for More?
More by Aziza!

9-15-00 The Music and Musicians
I was very lucky to have danced to live music almost exclusively throughout my career.

7-1-00 Jamila and Yousef
Even though we were recognizably taught by Jamila, we were not the cookie-cutter girls she turned out later.


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