North Beach Memories and More!
by Samia Nasser
posted May 20, 2011
I was born in the mysterious and exotic city of Baghdad, Iraq. Baghdad is divided by two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and San Francisco, is often called “Baghdad by the Bay”, reminding me of home. I do miss our culture, but now America is my country, and I love it.
Ra’qisa Arabia: (Arabian dancer)
I’m the only Ra’qisa Arabia from Baghdad; I love the dance passionately. I get so emotionally involved with the music that sometimes, I cry on the stage. One day a fan said to me, “You must drink a bottle of liquor to dance so intensely.” I laughed and answered, “I don’t like drinking!”
I danced in many prestigious clubs in America as well as other ethnic clubs through out the United States and Canada. I still have my charts (sheet music) for non-Arab musicians. I enjoyed traveling and dancing for American and Canadian audiences as well. They were very much intrigued by the dance. The only reason I performed the floor act (in which I do the drum solo on my knees and the Sultan act–also known as audience participation) was for American audiences. I bring someone from the audience and sit him on a pillow, and I dance for him; after that, we both dance together. It is funny and the audience gets a big kick out of it. Please note: It is not a part of Arabian culture to dance the “floor act”.
I danced in the most famous Hotels in New York. I was the first Ra’qisa Arabia to dance in the famous 500 Club in Atlantic City, and The Paddock Club in Yonkers, New York. (They used to book quite a few famous American singers.) I also danced at The Cave, in New Jersey (a well-known club). I enjoyed dancing in all of them, including the prestigious universities.
Riqsel A’saya: (The Cane Dance)
I enjoy Riqsel A’saya –especially Sa’eede style (Saidi). I like Ahmed Adawia, the Egyptian singing star as well as a few others. I become emotional when I hear Baladi music. I perform Baladi to “Sa’la’met’ha Om Hassan” and other few Baladi tunes. When I do Riqsel A’saya I wear a tarboush (fez) and use the A’say (cane). I was the first dancer to perform Riqsel A’saya in America! (That dance is supposed to be performed bare-footed.) I danced bare-footed for a while, but the broken beads from my costumes would find their way into my poor feet and cut me. I’d bleed, and that was no fun for next show, so, I started to wear shoes.
Costumes Made of Outdated Coins:
I used to see dancers wearing costumes made of outdated money/coins. I had never seen that before, and I wondered, “Why not use real coins or beads?” They used to think that beaded costumes were not authentic. I used to say that it was untrue, and encouraged them to wear beaded customs (and wear shoes also).
I’ve designed some beautiful, authentic bead-and-coin dancing costumes for a few friends. I’m proud of my designs and work!
Also, I have introduced Arabic dancing costumes with sleeves. Here you’ll see my friend, Anzelle, in one of my beaded costumes. She absolutely loved it and has received many compliments. She looked quite pretty in it and gave a good performance.
I had had enough of New York cold weather, so, I headed to Hollywood, California, where I danced in the Egyptian Gardens on Sunset Boulevard. I was pleased that we had a big crowd for my opening night, as you can see from the write-up. In the dressing room, while I was trying to change into a dress, a lovely lady came in and introduced herself as “Jamila”. I greeted her, and she paid me a nice compliment:
“When I was watching you dance, I thought I was watching an Egyptian movie!”
I thanked her for her compliment. At that time, I did not know that she, too, was a dancer and a teacher because that was my first time meeting her. When I danced at GiGi’s Port Said, in San Francisco, on my opening night while I was dancing, I noticed Jamila was in the audience again, and I was happy to see her.
When a good musician, Yousif from Baghdad, Iraq asked me to dance at his club, The Bagdad Cabaret, I saw Jamila often, and she was always nice to me. At that time, Mr. Salimpour (we always called him Salim) was the drummer; he was a nice gentleman and a good drummer. I liked them both, and I was happy when they got married! (Indirectly, I had something to do with that, I might add.) When I heard we lost Salim, I felt very sad. Salim was a new-comer to the United States, and unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to start his new life in America. Sincerely, I felt awful for Jamila, going through all that sadness at early stage of her marriage to Salim. I danced again in the Baghdad Cabaret when George Elias owned it; I’m sorry we lost him too. I truly enjoyed his voice and oud playing.
I Sued the Baghdad Cabaret:
When I first danced at the Baghdad, Yousif never publicized the show; I thought, “How would our Arab community know that I was there?” So, I sued Yousif. I hired two lawyers, and they had him in their office with me present. They let him know why I was suing him, and he agreed to have my name on the billboard in front of the club. After that, I received a call from Yousif and he asked me if I was coming because he had a big billboard featuring my name on the front of the door. I told him “No! I’m not coming!” He was disappointed and said that he was sorry that I felt that way. (I know it was wrong of me for not cooling-off.)
“A San Francisco Man’s Search for Bellyancers” (the Press Heading):
That was Yousif Kouyoumjian. One day, he called and said that he had bought a camper. I asked why? “Oh,” he said, “After a cross-country drive, I’ll head to Spain, Casablanca, Algiers, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan and finally, to Addis Adaba, Ethiopia!” (where he said a cousin would have rounded up musicians and a complete dance troupe – Bellydancers and all – for a musical feast. I asked if he had gone crazy. “Of course not,” he replied, “and I want you to join me.” I laughed and said, “Thank you, Yousif, but no thanks!” Then he asked if I’d do him the favor of putting on my dancing costume and come over, because he was having a newspaper reporter with a press photographer over to interview him and take some pictures. I really didn’t feel like it, so I refused, but he kept insisting, so I gave in and went.
When I arrived at the scene, I saw another victim named Shiraz wearing her dancing costume. She was funny and nice as you can see from the picture taken inside of his custom-built camper; where Yousif is sitting between us two, wearing chafiya wa egal (Iraqi dialect for describing the kerchief and the head-band) and Yousif holding a nargela (water pipe or shisha). Yousif is a lot of fun! Right after all that, he left for Spain “alone” he said. Before I left San Francisco; Yousif visited me one day after returning from Spain. We had a good talk while he played my acoustic guitar. I was happy to see him again.
One night, George hired an American lady entertainer for whom a part of her act was to break glasses on the stage and eat some of them. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! At the same time, I got worried about all that glass on the stage. I told George that this condition was dangerous for us dancers in case there were some pieces of glass left behind. With his body language, he made me believe that he might not keep her. However, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I walked out on him that night. Much later, one night I went to the Baghdad to hear some Arabic music; George saw me and came and sat next to me with a smile on his face. He said that he was happy to see me and that the audience had been asking for me. So he asked me if I’d consider returning. I said, “Okay, George, but no more glass eaters.” He laughed!
George’s First Album:
I’m glad I encouraged George to record his first album. Aboud Abdel Aal (a fantastic musician) and the rest of the musicians were in San Francisco in concert. I asked Aboud if he and the rest of the group would like to play for George’s album (They had played for Fadil Shahin’s first album), so they agreed. I mentioned to George that while Aboud and the group were still in town, he should make his first album with them. He was reluctant at first, but I kept after him until he agreed. I co-engineered George’s first album, for which he never gave me credit. However, it was all right; I didn’t feel his slight was intentional. Besides, I did it because I liked his voice. I could see how happy George was about the idea when he looked through the glass window at the sound engineer and me and smiled. We all had fun with George’s singing and the beautiful sound of music playing! When Fadil heard what I had done, he felt very hurt and believed that I betrayed him. I told him, “On the contrary, I’d never do that to you; you two have different styles!” After some time passed, he cooled off, and we continued our friendship.
Once, I saw on the Internet, a pregnant woman with a huge, huge stomach like she had eight babies inside, and she was performing. Wow! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I don’t
mean pregnant women look bad (because pregnancy is natural), but on-stage as a dancer, you should have some mystery!
Arabic dancing skirts should not be pushed all the way back. The reason, is that the extra exposure of thigh takes the audience’s attention away from the hips movements, where the authentic image lies, for authentic and traditional Reqsil Arabi.
The Term “Bellydance”:
I admit, some of my write-ups mention me as a Bellydancer –without my knowledge. I hate the term! New York theatrical agents gave the dance that name to make it sound exotic. I know you’ll say: “Americans are familiar with that name!” So what? We should re-condition their minds. Don’t forget; I’m not an enemy!
I’m happy to see Reqsil Arabi has fascinated a lot of people, but unfortunately, somehow, it has lost its value, mystery, and its ethnic image. Also, I feel there is confusion between those performing it, and out of that confusion, they have created many new names and presentations for the dance. I wonder if this has something to do with trying very hard to achieve fame and money or just impressing each other.
Use of Reqsil Arabi:
This dance is not an exercise activity; it’s a beautiful dance to watch and perform.
If you love the dance, don’t change its image (or kill it). Respect it as much as you respect Ballet. The dance has been good to all of us. No, I’m not angry –just sad about what has happened to my native dance.
Arms and Head:
What’s with the arms stretched out and swinging all over the stage? It does not look as if arms are expressing the accents and emotions of the music. It’s like singing out of tune. The head should not be tilted all the way back; your head and arms have positions to follow, and if you don’t, it creates confusion. Furthermore, the “full-circle and figure 8 movement” should be executed with ease and not to look strenuous. Don’t let arms push the body; one’s body should be able to perform naturally. I used to get compliments on my “full-circle and figure 8”. Dancers would say, “We have never seen those movements before, and you do them so gracefully!” Later on teachers started to add them to their teachings.
Head bands do not make a dancer look exotic; wearing one only makes her look like she’s ready to go jogging. If a dancer desires to wear something, then it should be on top of her head. That would be authentic-looking and would relate to Reqsil Arabi. Bear in mind that images and the dance have a language of their own!
Sagat (finger cymbals) are not required when dancing in beaded customs to non-Baladi tunes; because they are considered folkloric. Yes, they do sound fascinating; but they restrict the hands and arm movements. This does not mean one cannot play them to non-Baladi music. Dancers play them to give audiences an added sound attraction and excitement.
One day I met an African American lady, and she introduced herself and said,
“I caught your show at the Fez Club; I was so embarrassed that I hid under the table. I smiled and asked, “Was I that bad?” Oh, no, no! You were that good! I was embarrassed about myself for what I’ve learned. I asked around if you taught, but the answer was no. I wish you did! I’d be interested in taking classes with you. I felt that she wanted badly to learn. I was touched by that, and said, “OK I’ll teach you.”
We set an appointment for her to come to my place and she came on time. She was very nervous, but I managed to put her at ease. Then, I said she must forget whatever she had learned; and that was the only way I could teach her the Arabic rhythms. She agreed eagerly; she even took her cassette player to work so she could practice; and when she had awful migraine headaches, she still practiced. I felt bad when I told her that I was moving to Las Vegas, she felt sad and was willing to fly to Las Vegas just to take my classes. Of course, I discouraged that; and told her she had learned a lot, and she could be performing professionally as an Arabic dancer on her own. She was very happy with that, she said: but still –I knew what she was going to say next.
I’m very proud of her because she was an excellent student and worked very hard. I enjoyed watching her and seeing how well she learned the Arabic rhythms. I invited her to come and dance in my show at Royal Inn Hotel/Casino where I was performing. She was thrilled and happy about the idea, and I was proud and fascinated by her Arabic performance style. Also, I had her perform in another event where I was appearing in Las Vegas; she just couldn’t believe it. You made it Jinan! (I gave her that name.) She said with a smile, “I love it.”
I didn’t dance abroad because of personal reasons, and later on, I shied away from flying. I could have danced in London, Paris, Beirut, and Egypt. I do speak the Egyptian dialect as well. Of course, Iraqi dialect is my own. In part of my show, I speak to my audiences and that would have been of great appeal to Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Arabs because an Iraqi dialect is similar to theirs.
More Press Clippings
Ready for more?
- 11-8-05 My Adventure Begins!
At last, another North Beach Memory! "I was creating my life as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!"
- 1-2-10 The Original Mish Mish, The Golden Age of Tinseltown, Interview by Kamala
I was working one evening at Khyams and still doing my old style of dance. I came out for my entrance covered with a veil and right at the beginning of my show, she came up on stage and started peeling my veil off me and threw it on the floor. She shook her finger at me and said in broken English "Lah, this isn’t Egyptian!" I was so embarrassed and humiliated I could barely finish. Talk about being intimidated!
- 10-20-01 Dancers I Have Known by Aziza!
Over the course of my approximately thirty-year professional career, I have known and worked with some of the most interesting dancers in the business
- 11-6-1999 The North Beach Memories of Saida Asmar
I, Saida Asmar, (my stage name) arrived in San Francisco in 1969. I grew up in Berlin, Germany and then Montreal, Canada. My mother was involved in ballet internationally, so I grew up taking ballet also.
- 8-15-07 Chapter 6: Bert,
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.
- Yasmeen and the North Beach of Yore An interview with Gayle
It was 1967. I had a roommate named Pat and we took ourselves down to Broadway one night for a wee bit of fun and adventure. We were walking along Broadway and we saw one particular barker, dressed in a sheik’s costume, standing in front of the Bagdad. He enticed us inside.
- 5-19-11 Walk Like an Egyptian
Before I learned to "walk like an Egyptian", I wanted to drum like an African! Since my early teens, I had been collecting African drum LPs (as well as conga and bongo drums) and was either dancing like a possessed child or trying to make rhythms happen on drum skins.
- 5-17-11 A Moulid in an Egyptian Village
After the feast, the traditional Sai’eet (story teller), who could be a man or a woman, started telling stories accompanied by a full traditional orchestra. The entire village enjoyed stories about life, love, religion, and wisdom. Throughout history, the Sai’eet has been the educator, entertainer, and critic of life.
- 5-16-11 Back from Bahrain, Tiny Kingdom’s Riots are Puzzling
Approximately at the same time as the invasions of the French, British, etc. upon the Ottoman Empire the art of Belly dancing was introduced in cabarets of Egypt and Lebanon, as well as Turkey (Istanbul).
- 5-12-11 Get Over It! Soundbyte Bellydance Part Two
Imagine yourself dancing inside of a huge plastic jug full of gel or detergent. Pull and push your movements through the viscosity with conviction!
- 5-11-11 Moroccan Dreams: My New Festival in Marrakech
There is a mixture of faces in one region. There are so many different cultures that live in harmony –in the same place– that it is difficult to remain indifferent.
- 5-10-11 Ana Ra’asa Showcase: Egyptian Bellydance Past & Present
My purpose for doing this show was to bring Bellydance to the stage. We have such amazing talent in the Bay Area, and I feel that those dancers deserved a stage to showcase such amazing talent.