Guests of the Sheik : An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village
by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
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The Gilded Serpent presents...

Jamila and Yousef

by Aziza!

Jamila Salimpour was my Teacher. Oh, I took classes and workshops from other people (once such became available), and I studied for some time under Sonia Ivanova, of the prestigious Ivanova Belly Dancing Academy in Cairo, where Tahia Carioca and other famous dancers polished their craft, but it wasn't the same. Jamila was my guide, my inspiration, my font of knowledge of all things bellydance, and my mentor. We were good friends for some years after I studied with her. I made her maternity clothes, she made coin dance girdles which I bought. Jamila found the flat in Berkeley into which my young son and I moved after I left my husband, and it was she who took care of that flat for me when I went out of town to dance. When she felt I was stagnating, she pried me out of my rut and started me off on my first out-of-town gig. When I was on the road, she wrote to me, letters of encouragement and advice. ("Greeks always like their women to look like Christmas trees.") Was there a problem at the Bagdad that I was too inexperienced to handle? Jamila was available to straighten it out for me. (I don't know if the talk about her and Yousef's having once been a couple was true, but she certainly had a lot of influence with him.) When I had man troubles, Jamila would hold my hand and counsel me. She would cook for me - she was particularly interested in having me eat liver, but even her cooking couldn't make me like it! When her marriage deteriorated, she got from me the name of the lawyer who had handled my divorce. Even after she and Suhaila moved from two blocks away from me in Berkeley all the way to San Pablo, we were still friends. I learned from her an immense amount about being not only a good belly dancer, but also a good professional dancer. This was in the time before she started her more formal school of dance, and those of us whom she turned out at that time were encouraged to be individualist in our dancing. Even though we were recognizably taught by Jamila, we were not the cookie-cutter girls she turned out later. Jamila always encouraged this individuality. I was lucky to have her friendship for so many years.

And then, something happened. I don't know, really, what it was. In 1971, I went to Greece to visit a friend who lived there. I was gone for about a month, and the day after I got back, I called Jamila and told her that I was home. She said that she and Suhaila would be right over to take me and Adam, my son, out to lunch. She didn't come and didn't answer her phone, and I never heard from her again, and only ever saw her after that at a distance, in public. What happened? I certainly don't know, but I do know that it was a great loss to me.

The other major influence on my early dancing career was Yousef Koumdjian, proprietor of the Bagdad Cabaret. Yousef was from Bagdad, Iraq, born of an Armenian father and a Turkish mother. He was an excellent musician and a most unhappy person. It was mainly from Yousef that those of us who worked at the Bagdad got our wide knowledge of a broad spectrum of Middle Eastern music.

Yousef played the violin, and what a violin it was! Painted gold, studded with jewels, and electrified, it certainly caught the eye, and Yousef was quite a showman with it. When he was in the mood, he would accent a girl's dance, bending over her floor work as he played, his jewels flashing in the lights, or dancing around with her, teasing her with fancywork on the strings. Sometimes, alone on stage, Yousef would do some showy ethnic dancing of his own, all the while never missing a beat on his instrument.

I ran into his sister, Arousiak, recently, and she told me that he is now living in Spain, and he, with his violin, (though presumably not the gold one), and another man, with a guitar, are cultural (musical) ambassadors to the world from Spain. It's not surprising - that man could play!

In other areas of his life, however, he was not so polished. He was a bully to his employees and the dancers (we weren't considered employees - just independent contractors, so that he wouldn't have to deal with the IRS about us, and, also, so that we didn't have any contracts, any job security, etc. Once, AGVA (American Guild Of Variety Artist) contacted us and talked about our joining the union- those of us who continued this talk were fired. As I have mentioned before, Yousef never asked us to do something - he told us that if we didn't do it, we would be fired. When he was in a good mood, working there was wonderful, everything was fun, the music soared, and the night flew by. But when Yousef was down, as was often the case, the opposite was definitely true. One of the things that bedevilled him was the fact that he was balding, and he hated it! He tried a lot of remedies, once even shaving his head in the belief that the hair would grow back in thicker. Hah!

But the thing he hated most, I think, was to see someone else make a success, especially someone he had treated badly and thought he had put down into his or her place.

I was told that he was livid about my successes on the road, especially when I went to Canada and helped open a club there (that's another story). Also, when he had treated Fadil so shabbily that he left the Bagdad and opened up the Casbah, two doors down, to great popularity, Yousef was surprised and furious. For a while, Cruz Luna had belly dancing on Monday nights at the Casa Madrid, a Flamenco club down Broadway a little, and Amina and I both worked there some - Yousef fired us for that, but had to hire us right back because there weren't many other dancers to choose from (when I first started dancing, there were only about half a dozen professional dancers in the whole Bay Area!) and besides, he liked our dancing! But in the meantime, it was disagreeable. Yousef was so tight with money that the change in his pocket screamed every time he put his hand in there. When I first started dancing at the Bagdad, I made $15 a night (plus part of my tips). After I had worked out of town and come back, I made $25. And, I think, that was about the going rate for local dancers. When a big name or a dancer from back east would come for a while, Yousef would have to pay her more, and that was probably one reason why he didn't keep any of them long. I didn't know of anyone who worked just for cab fare, but then, as I said, there were so few dancers available that a club owner didn't have the same, inexhaustable pool that later grew from which to draw girls who were desperate to get on stage.

There is a story about Yousef that is very telling. He had moved to Europe (It think that even then he lived in Spain) with his tall, blonde wife, and he got in a car wreck and broke his back. (He subsequently recovered.) When people heard about this, I didn't hear anyone express sorrow or regret. Rather, there was a feeling that Yousef had earned whatever pain he got because of all the pain he had given to others.

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Ready for more
10-17-00 My Lessons with Jamila Salimpour  (part 2) by Satrinya/Masalima
... would dance instead, without pay.

8-15-07 Amina's North Beach Memories Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.

 

 
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