Gilded Serpent presents...

Saudis in America

Encounters of a Dancing Kind


by Najia Marlyz
posted December, 13, 2011
Previously published November 24 1987 in Habibi, Vol. 10, no. 4. 
Revised and expanded for Gilded Serpent December 12, 2011

Where have all the Saudi princes gone? As an observer looking back in time, it seems to me that once we dancers in San Francisco began to see less of the fabulously wealthy Saudi youths who were studying in the United States during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We also began seeing many of our common music and dance watering-holes here in the United States dry up because of the loss of their generous support.  I had heard also, via the grapevine, that because of the Saudis, significantly more songs and dances were played upon the heartstrings of our dancers, happening behind the scenes (back in the day) than happening onstage or in public.  I was privy to some of those minor stories and incidents; perhaps you would like to share the wealth…

My first encounter with a Saudi prince happened back in the mid ‘70s when I went to Broadway, San Francisco, to enjoy a cabaret evening, watching professional Belly dancers dance to live Arabic music.  That particular evening, the nightclub’s waitress approached me and said in serious tones, "The Prince wants you to go sit with him."  I looked at my students, rolled my eyes and snickered, disbelieving what I had just heard, thinking that it was some kind of standard cabaret joke.  I answered, "Oh, certainly!  Well, tell Mr. Prince, if he wants to speak with me, he’ll just have to come here and ask me in person!"  I fully expected her to laugh and that would be the end of the story. 

However, no. Instead, Prince X sent a drink to everyone at my table, except me, just to underscore his apparent disapproval of my offensive behavior…

Many months later, I had occasion to encounter the same person and he engaged me in polite small-talk while I waited for my dancer-friend to return from the club’s dressing room.  I was hard-pressed for anything relevant to say to him and did not remember him from our former encounter. Not knowing that he was a member of the Saudi royal family, but appreciating that he was a foreign visitor to the USA, I asked, "Are you enjoying your stay in the United States?"  and for lack of inspiration, I followed up with, "Do you have any brothers and sisters back home?"  (Yes, it would have been a stupid question, if I had known that I was speaking with one of the many Saudi princes that existed at that time.)  He answered, "Yes. I have 17 brothers and 13 sisters." 

I am embarrassed to admit that I giggled, and commented in my California carefree style, "No.  I mean, really!"  He patiently explained that his father had had several wives and that this was quite common in his situation.  Oh…

As time went by, I was able to recognize him and I kept my distance, but it was my habit to accompany a group of my students to the San Francisco nightclubs for an evening of live Arabic music once a month in a place that he frequented when he was in town.  On one of those evenings, one of my students who was particularly attractive (and quite buxom), passed by the prince on her way to say good-bye to me.  As she passed him, he quickly wadded-up a $100 bill and stuffed it into her ample cleavage.  I think that one of the funniest silent communications I have ever witnessed in a nightclub was her seamless reaction:  She stopped walking and an annoyed expression crossed her face.  She looked down into her cleavage, retrieved the hundred dollar bill, opened it, and holding it as if it were a dead mouse tail held between her index finger and her thumb, she swung around, dropping it directly into his mug of beer without any comment, and continued on her way. (Yes, the prince had been drinking alcohol…)

My next encounter with anything related to the Saudi Arabian culture was in 1977, when my first husband was preparing to go there on business.  I became quite miffed because he said I could not go along on the trip with him. He explained that he couldn’t take me with him, because the Saudis did not, at that time, give out any tourists visas, and he showed me the handbook of comportment that was required reading for his three-week stay.  I quickly read it and decided that he was correct.  It seemed to me that an American woman like me would have a difficult time adapting properly to the requirements of the Saudi society, and the result would certainly be no delightful movie-like fantasy of Oriental culture. 

When I viewed the slides he brought back, showing the huts provided for foreign workers and the huge block-compounds of the Saudis, I felt satisfied that I had not pressed him any further to go with him.

However, approximately two years later, I met through a musician friend of mine, a young Saudi family that was visiting the United States for the first of what became their annual, and sometimes, semi-annual visits to San Francisco.  My first husband had become part of my history by that time, but my second husband and I hosted the little family frequently, and we were invited many times in return.

It was interesting to see their family as it changed over the years.  The children grew and matured, and I shared continuing love of music and dance with them.  They brought me videotapes of Saudi dance, and their teenaged daughter exchanged dance lessons with me at my home: I taught her to dance the Egyptian style, and she taught me the Saudi dance done at women’s parties. One year, the girl gifted me with a fabulous black, sheer thobe (dance gown) heavily embroidered with gold thread that I still treasure. I have been pleased to dance in it many times, especially for teaching the Khaleedge dance in workshops. 

Several times, they brought us dates from their own date-palms that grew around their home, which I was surprised to learn grow in as many varieties as peaches or plums.  One year, the Saudi mother exclaimed that I must be the dancer to dance at her daughter’s wedding. (They had not, at that point, even designated a groom for that event.)  Perhaps I will, I thought to myself, if it happens in Egypt or America, but I seriously doubted that Saudi Arabia had changed enough for me to want to go there for any reason–including what was sure to be an unforgettable event. However, the issue became a moot point because, by the time their daughter had her wedding, I had retired from public performances of my dancing.

Here is another irony from my stories of my dance life mixing with my personal life:  A few years later, my first husband, (wily character that he was) decided to combine business with pleasure.  When he was marrying for the third time and thought he could “kill two birds with one stone”, he secured visas for himself and his new bride (No. 3), for their honeymoon and business trip to Saudi Arabia! (Apparently, he had forgotten that once he had refused to take me there–or perhaps, Saudi rules for visa granting had changed.) The newly weds’ visas were written in Arabic and were each valid for a two month stay. He took his bride to Damam and left her there (with my family of Saudi friends to whom I had introduced him in San Francisco) while he went overnight to Kuwait to complete his business transaction.  However, upon his return to bride number three in Saudi Arabia, he was not allowed entrance for a second time, because his visa, although allowing a two month stay, was valid for one entry only.  It said so, right there on the visa, in clear Arabic writing–that my ex-husband could not read. So, that is the delightful explanation of why my first husband, spent his third honeymoon–alone–in Greece, while his third bride spent a solo week as a guest of my friends, the Saudi family, at their home in Damam!

If you are interested in learning more about one of the exotic Arabian countries, I would recommend a book written by Sandra Mackey, titled "The Saudis, Inside the Desert Kingdom".  In it, you will discover where all the Saudi princes have gone and why. You will learn, (probably more than you ever needed to know) about the royal family of Saudi Arabia.  The book was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1987.  It was written secretly by the wife of a foreign worker inside Saudi Arabia and smuggled out piece by piece.  It discusses what it means to be a foreigner and a woman inside a society that, to this day, strictly controls both.  It has chapters on the Bedouin people, Islam, sex, the Royals, and the press.  You may want to skim over much of the dated explanations of Saudi politics, unless you are a true history and political bluff.  At any rate, it is a fascinating read and will enhance your understanding of part of the Middle East just a little more than you might expect.

Aziza! performs with Yousef on violin and Manny Petros on guitar- ~late 60s?
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  1. Gloria

    Dec 14, 2011 - 09:12:23

    I read Sandra Mackey’s book many years ago.  Though I have forgotten most of the details now, I remember some of the stories – coming into an auto dealership on a camel and leaving in a car, how quickly and easily one can die in the desert, explaining why women are not allowed to drive (not that women are not capable of driving – it’s a religious thing that has to do with females being alone and unchaperoned) – it was a fascinating read.  The author writes very well and gives an honest and accurate account of life in Saudi Arabia and the (extensive) Royal family.  It is not a fluff piece – respectful, but not always flattering to the Saudis, causing the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States at the time, Bandar bin Sultan, to refer to her not by her name, but always as “that woman”.
    I, too, would recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about Saudi life.

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