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