Adventures by the Nile,
Part 2

By Rhea

Return to a Changed Sudan
Sure enough, I was indeed asked back, but with a strange twist. My first contract had been replete with all the things that the hotel had to provide for the artist, and all the conditions that the artist had to fulfill for the hotel and went on for some pages. The second contract was a very short affair, one page long, and ended with the statement that the hotel no longer was responsible for the artist if war broke out or if certain "acts of God" occurred. I was bemused but my friend the foods and beverages manager assured me that it was the same old crew, down to Simon the Ethiopian who serviced the hotel out of his copies of Popular Mechanics. As the Hilton is a very well known hotel and has a good reputation worldwide, I decided to go once again.

Once again I was met at the airport by someone from the hotel, but this time the bribes seemed to go on and on and the airport was crawling with men dressed in military attire.

I asked the man who had come to meet me what was going on and he informed me that Sharia, or strict Muslim law, had been imposed and everyone was worried about the government's being in imminent danger of being overthrown, but that we in the hotel weren't in any particular danger.

There were, indeed, many military vehicles on the road, but every time they stopped us, we proceeded after paying a small bribe, and the man from the hotel seemed to be at ease, smiling and joking with the soldiers, who seemed to indicate that they needed money for cigarettes, and to join in amiable repartee with my escort. Upon arriving at the hotel I was shocked to see a skeleton of the hotel I had left last year. Some of the furniture was missing and a barebones crew was on hand. No one seemed to be staying in any of the rooms of the hotel, and I was given a suite at the top with the manager and assistant manager and their wives and children, whom I spent many hours visiting.

There were no other artists, and hardly any visitors to the hotel because no amount of bribes was capable of getting any alcohol into the hotel. So people that had liquor stocked in their houses stayed home and had their parties there.

The "show", such as it was, was only me, and not in the giant ballroom, which was always kept darkened, but in the Ivory dining room, which seated perhaps 50 people, except that almost no one was there. Still we did receive the managers of the various airlines who came to psychologically prop up their friends who had remained, and any odd Bedouins who happened to come in off the desert, leaving theirs camels outside, while they sat rather uncomfortably at the table until low tables and cushions were brought in to make them feel more at home. Perplexed, and not feeling at all well to dance for this small contingent, I nevertheless felt complimented that they had asked me to return, until I was informed that they had tried to get other artists, but I was the only one dumb enough to come during such turbulence.

Still and all, I decided to make the most of it, and every night there gathered about 10 to 20 people in the Ivory room, notably the hotel manager and the assistant manager and their wives, the airline managers and their wives, if they had not already been sent out of the country with the children, and our Bedouin visitors. So I decided to introduce the show to make it as merry an occasion as I could.

Emcee Rhea Makes Merry
Not wanting to come out and dance cold, I began by introducing myself, in costume, and giving a little speech about myself, oriental dance in general, and how it would be impossible to bring off the "show" without the help of various people. I then introduced Simon as the one who kept the only tape recorder in good working order, thus enabling us to hear the music I danced to (no D.J. with effects). Simon then gave a low bow from the waist. I then introduced the chef, who prepared the lovely food we supped on, and he came out from the buffet table and also gave a low bow from the waist, while holding onto his big chef's hat so that it wouldn't fall off. I then introduced everyone in the audience, until no single soul had been left out, and only then did I begin the actual dance. One night, when it seemed to me that all the people had been introduced at one point or another or one night or another, I skipped the introductions.

The hotel manager came up to afterwards, in a very anxious state, and asked me why I hadn't introduced the show. "Because you all know each other," I said. "Oh, please," he replied, "we are all so depressed and your introductions do so cheer us up.

Could you please leave them in, and will you please especially include them in our New Year's show." Well, it turned out that on New Year's Eve the giant ballroom would be brought into play because the "common" people had been invited to see the show. By this, I mean the ordinary Muslims of African descent who didn't have the big bucks that you normally had to have to get into the Hilton who also were more strict Muslims, which means that they didn't partake of alcoholic beverages, and therefore wouldn't need to stay home that night and have parties in their own houses where they had their stockpiles of liquor.

On the night of the big show, Simon surprised me by appearing in a full tux and tails. Where he got it I don't know. Perhaps he borrowed it for the occasion. There surely were not any places where you could rent such apparel. There were at least one thousand people, and every seat was taken. The men all wore evening attire, although not tux and tails, and the women all wore dresses that covered them from their neck to their wrists to their ankles, and every possible space that could be festooned with ruffles was so adorned, and their hair was also treated in such a manner. They all resembled what every little girl's dream was of a princess dress. As I looked out over this sea of black faces, I was gladdened that at least this night I could introduce the hotel staff to a real audience.

Well, it turned out that I would have introduce over three hundred people, all males, of course, and Simon was at my side to make the translation. But not of what I said.

He would call each man up to the front and tell me in English what I was to say about him and I would say it. You see, everyone knew each other, and knew who each one was and what he did. They just wanted to hear it said in English in front of everyone. Every man would bow from the waist, both alone and then with Simon, who I cannot imagine didn't have sore muscles the next day. This whole process took two hours, and everyone applauded enthusiastically for each person. At no time did anyone look bored. I then introduced the entire hotel staff, which had quite fleshed out from the skeleton crew that was normally there, and only then did I dance. A makeshift litter was then brought to the stage and I was lifted onto it and carried from the room, and brought back in many times for my curtain calls.

All had been relatively peaceful in the hotel until now with no excursions to any outside places. I had left the hotel once to walk over the bridge to Ondurman and had been ordered to "halt!" by a kalishnikov toting guard who stood where I hadn't seen anyone before.

I decided that if I halted, it might be my last halt. So I proceeded on, gaily waving to him and repeating to him, as he kept saying to me "Halt to you, too, big boy," and smilingly walked over the bridge.

I was betting on the fact that he wouldn't shoot a white woman in the back who had come out of the Hilton, and it worked. When I reported the incident to the hotel manager, he said that it was a pretty good idea to not go out any more, and that the man was probably acting on his own, trying to get any money and valuables from whoever was dumb enough to go over the bridge.

A Belly Dancer's Quick Wit
But even in the hotel, we had our little adventures. One night about two hours before the show, soldiers burst into my room, after breaking down the door, all toting these rifles, and demanded liquor and money. I was so dumbfounded and shocked that I couldn't even be scared.

Somehow I summoned the courage to open my mouth and play dumb, as though I didn't speak or understand English very well. "You have alcohol?" I asked. "I want. The hotel no have." "No, no. We want. You give us." "Yes, yes," I replied, "You give us." "No, no. You give us." "Yes. You give us," I again replied.

This went on merrily for some time, each one shoving the other out of the way, to address me in his own way, I to answer pretty much as he had spoken to me. After some time of me smiling and trying to indicate with sign language that I needed a drink, one of them produced from his pocket a small bottle of a brand name whiskey and offered it to me. We drank together with many smiles as they ransacked my room searching for money or any valuables. I pretended that they wanted to see my costumes, and began to produce them one after the other and parade around holding the costume in front of me, playing my cymbals and giving them a mini show. "Why you no come and see show?" I queried them. "Big show every night." Finally they left in exasperation, to go on to ransack the other suites.

I had started in the heights and had gone to the depths. It was now 1984 and the Middle East was beginning to blow up in earnest. Although I still longed for the thrill of dancing in a big hotel, I had been kind of scared. I mean, you never know when your luck will run out. So I left Khartoum with a heavy heart, realizing that it would be a long time before I would venture from Athens to any country ruled by the fanatic Muslims who unfortunately were beginning to take over many Middle Eastern countries, as things were just too unstable for a foreigner. I later went to dance in Istanbul in 1996, but that's another story.

Ready for more?
10-15-01 Rhea's Adventures by the Nile, part 1
I guess every belly dancer's dream is to dance in a five star hotel in the Middle East.

10-5-01 DANCING IN YEMEN by Jalilah Part 2 - EL AROUS
I had been to many Middle Eastern weddings before, but none were as visually impressive as the ones I attended in Sanaa, Yemen.
Jalilah's recommend reading list just added-10-24-01

10-26-01 Dispelling the Myths: The Many Faces of Belly Dance, by Susie Poulelis
A Teachers' Showcase July 7, 2001, Berkeley, California
One of the first events produced by the recently formed San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of MECDA

10-28-01 "Faddah" (Silver) by Hossam Ramzy, A Review and Commentary by Najia El-Mouzayen Dancers who have enjoyed many of Hossam Ramzy's 16 other CDs will doubtlessly be thrilled by this beautifully produced collection of new music.


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