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Arabian Nights at 12 Adler Place

Aisha Ali Archives
Almost my first, but actually my second costume, photographed at either the Torch Club or 12 Adler Place.

North Beach Memories, Part 1:1961

by Aisha Ali
posted August 17, 2011

AishaIt has been several years since Lynette Harris asked me if I would consider contributing to the Gilded Serpent’s “North Beach Memories, collection of articles and interviews by artists who were there during the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the time, I thought it would be a cinch; I would just slightly rewrite my old Arabesque article titled “Looking Back, the Dance Scene in California” Vol. IX, 1983. After retyping the article with my computer, (I had no e-file since it was written in the days of manual typewriters.) I realized that the section on North Beach was more of an overview and didn’t give a significantly personal report. Also, after reading all the other articles by artists who had performed in North Beach, I noticed that none of them had any recollection of me, (probably because most had arrived on the scene years later); although Dahlena, had not only shared the stage with me at The Bagdad Cabaret, we had shared an apartment!
12 Adler Place
The first part of my North Beach saga began in 1961. Previously, I had met my mentor, Leona Wood in Los Angeles when we were both performing for the Arab students at a UCLA International Festival. The very first Los Angeles Middle Eastern club had already closed. It was “A Thousand and One Nights” and had been at Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and Third. There were a few Middle Eastern club venues in Hollywood, such as The Greek Village, The Torch Club and The Fez, but there were only a handful of dancers in all of Los Angeles, so despite my inexperience, it wasn’t difficult for me to find work. I had been performing on weekends at the Torch Club in Hollywood while holding down a job as an engineering draftsman. In the evenings during the week, I attended sessions at UCLA’s Ethnomusicology Department and among other things, played ching-ching in several gamelan groups. The Ethnomusicology department was founded by Mantel Hood in 1960. His 2nd wife Hazel Chung headed the dance department, and at that time there was a close connection between the two departments when ethnic dances were involved. Leona Wood’s husband, Philip Harland, assisted teaching with the Master drummers that UCLA brought from Africa. Philip played Egyptian and Indian tabla as well.  Leona had introduced me to her friend Josephine, whom she described as a lovely Sicilian American woman who had recently taken the stage name of Jamila. Just divorced from the Indian dancer Satyia, Jamila had moved, or was in the process of moving, to San Francisco. Her new gentleman friend Yousef Kouyoumdjian, was playing violin at a nightclub just off Broadway, called “12 Adler Place”.

Aisha Ali Archives
Jamila, dancer, Adel Sirhan, oud player, Lemmy Pasha, Kanoun, Yousef, violin.

Well-established as a Jazz club, they were experimenting with Middle Eastern music and Yousef suggested to the Italian owners that they bring in Belly dancers to attract more tourists. Jamila reluctantly became one of the first performers, and since at the time, there were few (if any) Belly dancers in San Francisco, she took on the responsibility of finding other dancers for the club. For starters, she booked an Anglo-Indian dancer by the name of Nargis who lived in Los Angeles, and until she could bring dancers from the East Coast, she enlisted me for two weeks as the third dancer.

vw bugEager for the opportunity to appear nightly as a belly dancer, in an exciting new city, I arranged a two-week leave from my work and school, and prepared to travel to San Francisco.

Early on a Thursday morning Jamila arrived with Yousef in his VW bug to collect me. I climbed in the back between Adel Sirhan, the new oud player, and Yousef’s Mama, who was visiting from Iraq. For most of what was at that time an eight-hour journey, I sat immobilized with Adel and Mama Kouyoumdjian sleeping on my shoulders.

Alisha Ali Archives- Jamila
Jamila from that period, also doing “floor-work”.

Yousef had arranged for me to stay in the home of a nurse living near Golden Gate Park. Having come to Los Angeles directly from Pennsylvania, San Francisco seemed like a foreign country to me, and Leona had warned me that parts of the city were still equipped with ancient bathroom plumbing that still used water cabinets with chain pulls.
On the night we arrived, I was introduced to the other dancer Nargis and Ali, a young Persian musician who played a wooden drum that he called a “doumbeq”. He explained to me how it was different from the Arabic darabouka or tabla used for Arabic music.

Nargis was born in India to an English couple, but raised by an Indian doctor and his wife.  She was modest, shy and lady-like – with pale brown shoulder length hair. Although her look was not typical of a Belly dancer, she was experienced and her performance was professional. The choo-choo was her best movement and she executed it with precision, scooting rapidly and effortlessly on the balls of her feet. During a taqsim, (Our dances featured several slow sections, when the musicians played taqsim, in order to extend the dance music to 45 minutes.)

Nargis would demonstrate the yoga exercise which alternates isolating the rectus abdominus muscles in a hunched stance with hands braced on the knees. Our stage was a few inches above the bar top, so the customers viewed our feet at the level of their drinks and had to look up to see us in full if we were in front of them.

At that time, Broadway was not yet the center for X-rated entertainment that it is today. It was an exciting neighborhood representing a mixture of cultures and the streets were usually bustling with pedestrians. Fortunately, none of the demeaning practices such as having dancers go through the audience for tips, drinking with customers, or having a barker outside, had been thought of yet.

Performing for those two weeks at 12 Adler Place was a turning point in my life.  I began to have second thoughts about spending hours working as a draftsman to earn a living. Becoming a professional dancer would allow me to study and pursue my many creative activities, and the most immediate of these became to design and sew the ornamented costumes I would need to further such a career.

The Bagdad

In 1962, Yousef took the musicians and dancers from 12 Adler Place and opened his own nightclub, The Bagdad around the corner on Broadway. Jamila may have helped him in getting the license, and she worked hard to fix up and decorate the place. 12 Adler went back to being a Jazz club. At this time I was invited to come and dance for an extended time so I gave notice to the engineering company where I was working, which was the last time I ever had an “ordinary job.”  During this period, Dahlena was brought from the East Coast to perform at The Bagdad and the two of us shared an apartment with Jamila, Yousef and Yousef’s Mother. I remember months earlier, Jamila talking to Yousef about bringing Dahlena. They had met at the Greek Village in Hollywood where Dahlena had appeared briefly. Jamila described her to Yousef saying, “She moves like a fish!” – an attribute much appreciated by most Middle Eastern men.

Since there were not enough bedrooms for everyone in our apartment, Dahlena and I slept on the floor on thin crib mattresses, purchased by Yousef in a second hand store.  My quarters were in the empty dining room. It was winter and the floors of the mostly unfurnished apartment were drafty although I borrowed a heavy woolen Iraqi tapestry as a blanket. Both Dahlena and I soon developed bad colds with high fevers, but were not permitted to take off any sick time from The Baghdad.

There was no refrigerator in the kitchen, but I remember it was cold enough for us to keep all the perishable dairy, meat, and vegetables outside on the kitchen porch.  One of our treats would be when Yousef cooked eggs with Armenian sausage for breakfast. We would sit low on the floor around a frying pan, placed on a low wooden stool, reaching with our forks for a share. My memory is that, eventually, Dahlena and I did most of the cooking and cleaning as well as ironing the voluminous dresses that Yousef’s Mother wore.

It soon became apparent that Dahlena was pregnant with her first child. One of the customers, a nurse, brought it to our attention, saying that soon it would be obvious to everyone.  I remember helping Dahlena to design and make a costume that would cover her condition. The idea was to make a tobe baladi and since we had little opportunity or means to go shopping, all we could find was a kind of lacy curtain fabric that we hand-sewed, and I dyed scarlet with Tintex fabric dye. It wasn’t one of my greatest creations, but anything looked good on Dahlena! In exchange, she sometimes shared some dance movements with me.

I enjoyed all of the stories about her life as a Playboy Bunny in Chicago and her experiences with the mafia, who frequented the dance clubs there, men whom she described as “nice gentlemen”.

Condor club in 1973One night, during this period, two Algerian dancers auditioned at the Bagdad. Their names were Fatima and Soroya and because they were cousins, their last names were both Ali. They had come to America as brides of American servicemen, although marriage had not effected any change in their careers or lifestyles, which included additional professional activities after hours, with men that they met at the club.  Because my last name was Ali as well, they eventually began the rumor that I was also their cousin. I wouldn’t have minded, if not for their scandalous reputations.  Fatima was petite and had short frizzy hair.  The knife scars and Bedouin tattoos that decorated her face hardened her appearance and her attempts to cover them with makeup only made it worse. When Fatima danced, her arms would swing nonchalantly at her sides and her demeanor was often belligerent.  Soroya, on the other hand, had a look of comfortable amiability. She balanced a large clay water jar on her head during her dance and always wore long baladi tobes that covered her plumpish figure. Both dancers were able to maintain an effortless vibrating hip movement, which they could accentuate in a multitude of directions while shifting weight daintily on the balls of their feet. The audience seemed to love them, and they became a part of the North Beach Middle Eastern dance scene.

For a short time Lolita, a young stripper-turned-Belly dancer, performed with us. She always wore her blond hair in a ponytail and never attempted to look exotic. I didn’t know her very well but once offered to drive her to Auburn to visit her daughter who was in an orphanage. Lolita had become pregnant while still a young teenager and gave birth to a baby girl who had been taken away from her. I never heard from her or of her again after that, so she must have decided stripping was more lucrative.

Carol Doda was performing topless at the Condor Club on the corner and was one of the first celebrities to advertise her breast enhancements. I also remember Finocchio’s across the street where transvestites performed. It was the topless clubs that initially brought more tourists to the area.

Aisha Ali Archives
My first photograph in a backbend, doing what we called “floor-work”.

When Gigi’s opened across the street, the tourist traffic on Broadway became even more interesting.  Sometimes, we were invited by customers to sneak away between our shows to see other performers on Broadway. People were going from one club to another making a night of it, which was why it was so important to always have a dancer on stage to hold the crowd.

Our dance sequences became longer and longer in order to make this possible. It was during this era that the part of the routine known as “Floor Work” developed. Each melodic instrument would play an extended solo with a chiftiteli “ground beat” and we would do a series of backbends in various positions and slither into splits or semi splits–anything to hold the audience.

The music played in the Middle Eastern clubs of San Francisco during that time had an exciting quality of its own, despite the fact that the combinations of musicians were frequently changing. The special sound derived partly from the cultural mix of musicians – Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian Armenian, Persian and even Hispanic. This sound was captured on several record albums featuring musicians from the different clubs. We all loved the local sound of the music and I never questioned its artistic value until the night Hrach Yacoubian, a well-known Armenian violinist, stopped by the Bagdad after his show at Bimbo’s. Yousef was happy to see him and we all sat around past closing time while he and Hrach chatted about their past and the style of music they were each playing at present.

Gold dotted with sequin costume made for me by Leona Wood.
Blue beaded costume previously owned by Dahlena and sold to me. It was created by Lisa, a popular costume-maker in Chicago

Next chapter coming soon: Hrach Yacoubian, Frank Sinatra, The “other” George Elias, Vince Delgado Fadil and
Photos: Walid, The Casbah, Marlene of Cairo, Bob Papas, and Dizzy Gillespie

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  1. Shelley Muzzy (Yasmela)

    Aug 18, 2011 - 03:08:10

    Yea Aisha!  So nice to read some of your tales.

  2. Sadira

    Aug 20, 2011 - 10:08:39

    Aiwa, Aisha:
      It is so wonderful for me to hear about your early days in SF and the SF Broadway scene.  I started dancing in ’72 and a lot was kind of closed in mystery at that time about the beginnings of the nightclubs etc.
     I saw your Tunisian, Algerian, cane and Ghawazee dancing and it changed my life forever…….That is where I concentrated a lot of my roots in dance and choreography.  I was at your first workshop in SF, and any others you gave; as well as taking from Trish St. John who also took lessons from you.
      I’m very blessed to have been in the right place at the right time to learn the incredible fount of knowledge of dance and it’s ethnoregional styles, from you.
    P.S. I also wrote an article about your first appearance in SF in a workshop; introducing the Ghawazee and North African dances, called, “Aisha Ali and the Birth of the Ghawazee”; for Gilded Serpent.

  3. Aisha Ali

    Nov 17, 2016 - 07:11:37

    Hello Sadira,
    I only now came across your message above, because I was looking up the correct spelling of Yousef’s last name. I can’t believe it has been five years since you wrote this and I haven’t seen it or responded. Of course, I was well aware of your article about me and the Birth of the Ghawazee for Gilded Serpent and should have thanked you for it many years ago. If you are still in touch with Trish, send her my regards and please let’s stay in touch. Are you on facebook? If not, email me. I would hate to think it will be another five years until you discover my response on this site.

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