The Gilded Serpent presents...
Najia dancing at the Casbah
backed by Fadil Shahin
The North Beach Memories of
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
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
Since our interviewee had been busy for a long while, we encouraged
Najia to continue on with her memories of the Casbah.
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.
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.
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
The film "Gamil, Gamal" was a color film,
produced in the early 1970s, during Najia's student days.
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.
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.
" 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
Najia went on
to explain that
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
"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."
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
"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
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
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
The North Beach Project
I took leave before I was invited
..Do not allow
anyone to limit your possibilities.
North Beach Memories
1-4-00 Latifa-The Rest of the San Francisco Dance Scene-(Powell
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.
Compton- Finnochios, Bal Anat, to Hahbi'ru