Gilded Serpent presents...

From Syria with Love!

Queen of Denial, Part VI: My Arrival

Rebaba performs on a table in Syria
Me, dancing on a table at the Mogambo! During the warm months from May through October the club is outside as you can see from this photo, long tables under trees.

by Rebaba
posted November 28, 2011

Syria o GlobeIn 1981, I traveled to the first Middle Eastern country in which I was contracted to perform, Aleppo, Syria.  At the time, I knew very little about this country other than from headlines I read occasionally about the fighting and support Syria provided to the Lebanese Shiite extremists. To be honest, I barely knew where Syria was located on a map.

 I had no real knowledge of its people and culture apart from the fact that they were Arabic speaking and located on the ancient “Caravan Trail” to Jerusalem. (Actually, my mother told me this fact before my trip.)

In the years since living and working in Syria (and the other countries in which I visited and performed while “on the road”), many people have asked me if I was scared to be a woman, traveling alone in the Middle East, to which I always laugh and reply with my own question, “What could there possibly be scary about traveling alone in Syria?”  Well, there were many reasons I could have and possibly should have been scared to travel alone in Syria, and any of the other Middle Eastern countries to which I eventually traveled and worked in the early 1980s.  However, as fate would have it, I learned as I went along, and my ignorance actually served me well because I had no fear until I was right in the middle of whatever was happening in the country at the time of my arrival. By then, I just had to learn to cope.

Abu Jamal and my agent
Abu Jamel and my French agent Marie Saxe
who came to visit when I first arrived in Aleppo

For example, immediately, I learned upon my arrival in Syria in 1981 that Syria was in a perpetual state of war which meant that the general population, men and women, ages 16 though 30, were soldiers.  The population of young people (that was located in and around Aleppo, Syria) were most often seen riding in jeeps and tanks, “camoflage-clad” and carrying weapons with them everywhere they went of course (as you and I would carry our purses and wallets).  My first memory of Syria was landing in Aleppo and seeing all the tanks lined up on the runway as we taxied into the plane’s parking space.  As I walked across the tarmac towards the entrance to the airport, my attention was drawn to the airport personnel doing their jobs just as they do here, but with the addition of rifles and Uzi machine guns resting against whatever and at arm’s reach!  I watched them moving around doing their jobs, ever so nonchalantly, and it was at this point that clearly, I remember thinking for the very first time that “Yes, there might be something to be scary here in this new exotic land that was to be my home for the next three months.”

I entered the airport walking in a sort of dream state as I gazed out at the war zone in which I had just landed, and then I heard my name called out.  As the sound of my name finally penetrated the daze I was in, I focused on a tall, slim, and very grandfatherly looking gentlemen waving and coming towards me! (I must have been easy to spot since I was out of military uniform!)  This gentleman was the owner of the Mogambo Supper Club in Aleppo, where I was contracted to perform six nights a week for the next three months.

Being the new entertainment in a small town has its benefits, especially in a war zone where entertainment is more important than, …well, almost anything!  My new boss had already retrieved my luggage and whisked me through customs so fast that we were out of there and seated in his large Mercedes sedan in less than 30 minutes!

The drive into town took us through two check points where Abu Jamal (my new boss) obviously was known to the soldiers who were checking my passport and his identity papers.  He chatted and laughed in Arabic and then switched into French to introduce me, the new Belly dancer, and invited them to his restaurant with their families.  I later learned that single men (with and without their weapons) were not allowed into the Mogambo.  Abu Jamal told me that his place was a family restaurant (and it truly was), and only cabarets in Aleppo allowed single men through their doors (which at that time most often meant  soldiers carrying weapons).  After my arrival at the Aleppo airport (that looked “under siege” to my way of thinking) anything “family oriented” sounded real good!  As you can imagine, I was already fighting back visions of gun fights over my attentions as the “new Belly Dancer in town”… Rebaba, Jon and Sam

We arrived at my new “home” which was a quaint hotel in the center of town where Abu Jamal housed all of his foreign entertainers.  At the time, these other entertainers included a brother and sister act consisting of two English dancers from London; they were to become my close friends and actually greeted me with hugs upon my arrival as Abu Jamal introduced them to me.  I’m sure that my being an English speaking person pretty much insured our friendship as neither of them spoke any Arabic or French (the second most commonly spoken language).  The two of them, Jon and Sam accompanied me up to my room on the top floor of the hotel.  Jon never stopped talking and was absolutely hilarious!

You have to envision my new “best friends” to fully understand that every time we left the hotel, we created quite a stir amongst the locals.  Jon was very slim, with a shaved head (way before it was fashionable), and wore bell-bottomed pants as tight as possible with high heels. (Oh yes! He was outspokenly gay).  Jon’s sister, Sam, (Sam was short for Samantha.) wasn’t as colorful as Jon, but, being tall, slim, and a stunning blond English girl made her stand out in Aleppo just as much her brother.  When you added the “Belly dancer” to the already colorful couple, we made quite the trio walking down the cobblestone streets of Aleppo.

The next day my new “best friends” took me on a walking tour of the town, and I fell in love with this charming small city (or large town).  What a beautiful little city Aleppo was, and hopefully, still is.  The older sections of town were built circling the foot of the ruins of the original ancient Citadel of Aleppo dating back 3000 B.C. (on top of a plateau).  Aleppo is known for its university, housing the largest archaeological department in the Middle East (except in Cairo).  I have no idea if this is still true, but I was informed by the curator of the archaeological museum housed in the University of this fact during my first visit to the museum.  We made a big circle, walking first up towards the Citadel and the old section of town, and then down winding little streets to a beautiful park, a smaller version of the Jardins Luxemburg (designed by the same man who designed the original and much larger version in Paris, France).  

 

Aleppo
Aleppo seen from the top of the plateau and the Citadel.
Aleppo
Same, the other side of town.
Garden
The gardens in the middle of Aleppo, designed and modeled after the Jardins Luxemburg in Paris, France.
Garden
Same. with a dignified fellow resting on a bench in the gardens.

From the park, we walked to the little commercial district where Jon showed me the best tailor, shoe maker, barber, and music store!  All the essentials for surviving in this quaint, picturesque town!  By this time, we were exhausted, and headed back to our hotel to rest and rejuvenate for the afternoon’s festivities. Both Jon and Sam were being very secretive about their surprise for me and what exactly these festivities were going to be.  By this time, I trusted them and knew them both well enough to assume whatever it was, it was going to be fun.  Jon was a real hoot, and I could imagine him getting me into lots of trouble even after just spending one morning with him!

Jon and Sam came to my room at 2:30 p.m. or so, and the three of us made our way to what could only be described as a cave.  Actually it was the basement of an old stone building about a 10 minute cab ride from our hotel.  We entered this dark, cool, smoky, candle lit, and fairly large room, that had a full bar, little round cocktail tables and red vinyl booths along one wall.  There was also a good-sized dance floor.  My Goodness! I was in a nightclub at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon!  However, the ambiance worked, and I immediately felt like it was at least 10:00 pm at night!  The clientele was made up of all young people ranging in ages from about 18 to (maybe) 30 years old.  Michael Jackson’s voice was blaring from a DJ stand and there was, of course, the obligatory mirrored ball in the center of the dance floor which was packed with young people dancing together.  So, this is how young folks in Aleppo actually met each other, flirted, and found their boy and girlfriends (or “hooked-up” as they say now days)!  I was in the “underworld” of Aleppo on my very first day!  Believe me: out on the street you never, ever saw a mixed couple holding hands at almost any age apart from the elderly and even then it was extremely rare.  It just wasn’t done in Syrian society, and I have experienced the same thing in all the Middle Eastern cities I’ve visited since then.

This “Tea Dance” was part of Jon and Sam’s big secret–the one that they had been whispering and giggling about since we left the hotel.  I figured I would learn soon enough what the heck was really going on, and I did (in part) when we entered the club, and my other surprise showed up shortly! Jon, Sam, and I were all standing together, allowing our eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, when I was tapped on the shoulder by a real cute guy who looked somewhat familiar.

Georges
My Georges in all his tan cuteness, at the front desk of our little hotel.

Unbeknown to me, I had been “set-up” by my lovable new friends!  He looked familiar because he was our hotel’s daytime Front Desk Manager!  His name was “Georges”, and he was tall, handsome, and I would later find out that he was newly single (a fact he confessed to Jon when Jon tried flirting with him sometime before I arrived in Aleppo).  I quickly learned that although he had spoken to me in Arabic and very broken English when I checked in at the front desk of our hotel, actually, he spoke fluent French!  I still didn’t know that his being at the club had been secretly arranged by Jon that morning when Georges said something to him about my being “his type”. Finally, I heard the entire story much later on that evening when my constant questions made Jon spill his guts to me in our dressing room.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t believe this was really happening to me in little ole’ Aleppo.  You may think that the life of a traveling Belly dancer is filled with intrigue and love affairs, but this couldn’t be further from the truth!

 The fact is that, since moving to France to dance in Paris in 1979, I could count on one hand how many “love affairs” I had experienced.  Since going on the road, I had one in Zimbabwe, but he was engaged, so I was just his exotic “girl on the side” who was (conveniently) leaving in a month!  Not to say that I didn’t have admirers, but an actual boyfriend? …never! …until now!

With our first dance together, we found that we were a good fit physically, but I didn’t yet know him.  However, I remember distinctly how wonderful it felt the first time he put his arms around me as we moved into our first “slow” dance together.  My body arched into his and all kinds of suppressed sensations started going off inside me!

During the next six months, Georges and I hardly spent a day apart. Even though we could never spend our nights together (because of the society in which we were living), we managed to get together every free minute we had during the day.  Finally, we arranged one wonderful night together prior to the expiration of my second 3-month contract, and then I left to begin fulfilling my new contract in Damascus.


…to be continued soon, “The Love Affair”

.

Me, dancing on the inside stage when the weather cooled down about late October early
November.

The infamous Jon (short for Jonathan), in the front seat of our nightly taxi to work.

Sam and I in the back seat counting our change for our nightly ride to work.
 

Georges, Sam and I in another of our crazy taxi rides … This one was on our way

to the seashore,
a six hour drive we took several times, leaving after work and arriving
at dawn spending the day and then returning that evening.
 

I became infatuated with the hand-painted movie advertisements that were hung up all over town.

I’m sure the painting was better than the movie!

Find Chapters 1-6 linked on Rebaba’s GS Bio Page!

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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Cassandra Shore

    Nov 29, 2011 - 07:11:48

    Thank you for these articles, and for taking photos!

  2. No Gravatar
    Terry

    Dec 10, 2011 - 10:12:37

    can’t wait to hear what comes next!!!!

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