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Memories of Baghdad, Part 1: Miss America, NOT!

Queen of Denial, Chapter 8

Rebaba in Baghdad

After our boat ride we sometimes dined at one of the many, many fresh fish restaurants that dotted the shores of the Tigress River.

by Rebaba
posted April 6, 2012

My friends were glued to the big, old-fashioned television set for most of the morning and early afternoon which is when I descended from my bedroom on the top floor of the villa we all shared in Baghdad, Iraq. They tried to translate in very broken French what was being said over and over again by Saddam Hussein and his military elite on the two government owned television stations. Both stations had been playing the same thing since very early that morning. Although my band mates were from Lebanon, Iraqi Arabic dialect was difficult for them to understand. With their very limited French, I finally got the gist of the dialog with help from one of the Polish disco band members who also shared our villa and spoke a tiny bit of English. With patience on my part and lots of hand gestures I was made to understand a terrifying message, and one that would have a direct affect on the remainder of my stay in Baghdad.

I had been performing as the featured “Miss America of Belly Dance” in an elite restaurant/supper club for about two weeks when Saddam Hussein announced to his country that he was being betrayed by his number one ally in the war against Iran, the USA!

One of the reasons I agreed to come to this war-torn country (even Lebanon & Syria were at peace while I performed there), was the fact that Iraq was fighting for democracy against the extremist regime ruled by the Khomeini in Iran. The owner, himself Lebanese, thought it would make great business to have an American Belly Dancer headlining the Middle Eastern portion of his nightly show. He offered me more money than I had ever dreamed of (nor will I earn ever again) to travel south to this hot bed of a city for three months of seven nights a week work dancing…He assured my agent located in Beirut that the fighting was far away and insisted that the bombing would never come to Baghdad. There were far too many foreign businesses, military from both sides of the war (a large US presence as well as Russian), as well as all the foreign press living and working in Baghdad. Such was the lucrative economics of war for both sides of what I perceived as a superpower chess match for control of the Persian Gulf.

To his credit, my boss was absolutely correct in his assessment of my reception as the “Miss America of Belly Dance”. I was a huge sensation, arriving on stage to standing ovations, and audience members competing to get on stage and shower me with money before I could even make my first dance step.

The tips were amazing, and nightly for those first precious weeks, there was so much money on the stage that I literally couldn’t dance. Everyone was thrilled as all of us in the Middle Eastern Show shared the tips. The owner of Al Kawakub (The Star in Arabic), the beautifully appointed restaurant located on the shore of the Tigress River where we were performing, said I was the best dancer he ever hired. Hah, most lucrative perhaps, but as for actual dancing, he didn’t see my show for many weeks yet due to the wild reception I received once announced.

They say all good things must come to an end, and only two weeks after my arrival mine did by way of television, war and politics.

Just as I was beginning to adjust to our meager living conditions, a small sacrifice I thought considering all the money we were making, the news of the USA betrayal to Iraq hit the airwaves and the war escalated in favor of Iran. The year was 1983, and I was only two weeks into a three month contract at the Al Kawakab Restaurant.

I arrived in a Baghdad being worn down (literally) by the extremely long war with Iran. US dollars and Russian Rubles both contributed to a rebuilding plan and the creation of “New Baghdad; however, what I saw as I made my way around the ancient city was a Baghdad of unpaved streets. Bulldozers had been left like ancient dinosaur bones piled in the middle of incomplete intersections when what was left of the work force was sent out to defend their country as the war escalated.

Rebaba's band
Our stage and my guys playing for one of the featured singers (another Sammy) from Lebanon.
In this picture you can see that Asham has switched to a full drum set and my def playing Sammy
has switched to a dumbek. They were both excellent percussionists and could play a variety of
drums and Middle Eastern framed drums.

For the first couple of weeks in Baghdad, we were the toast of the town with a packed house every night filled with the crème de la crème of Baghdad society, meaning both the military elite and business executives from around the globe. The Iraqi people in the audience threw money on the stage like it was confetti, in fierce competition with one another. By contrast we lived on a street with no sidewalks, and in a house (though large and once majestic on the outside), with no air conditioning. There was no plumbing on the top floor where my room was, and pretty unreliable plumbing on the first three floors. Oh, and did I mention that the electricity was installed after the walls were built? Bare light bulbs hung from wires throughout the “villa.” During my first month there the weather wasn’t yet a problem, but, before I left on June 1st, the temperature would rise to 108 degrees in the daytime and about 98 degrees at night.

Thank goodness the restaurant always had air conditioning, food and water…It seemed like weekly we would lose something critical to our survival and ironically every night we were making more money than we could spend.

After President Bush’s betrayal of Saddam Hussein (which of course would come to be known as the “Iran/Contra” affair in the USA many years later), my immediate problem was how on earth I could continue to perform without being assassinated! It seemed to me like everyone in town knew I was “Miss America”, and now they were being told to hate the country of my birth. It was quite a predicament for one so young as I was only 27 years old and scared to death!

My boss decided that I should now be announced as the “Belly Dancer”, naming no country of origin. This was basically unheard of on stages from Europe to Egypt; the MC always said what country the dancer was from as it could and did indicate the caliber of dancer. Also, Middle Eastern people are a very proud lot and expected to hear perhaps their own country recited in the introduction of the Belly Dancer. So, we argued, my Lebanese musicians and I, that this would be a disaster, and that the audience would be more perplexed and upset by no country than even the fact that I was American! I suggested South American, Canadian, French (as I speak French), or why not Lebanese as I’ve been told so many times that I look Lebanese. But, no, my boss didn’t want to risk lying. Right, he called me “Miss America” of Belly Dance and I know that was a lie, but, he was unwilling to say I was “French” and possibly save my life!

On the first night of my new found anonymity as “The Belly Dancer”, I made my entrance and for the first time I was able to dance my entire show. It was very eerie; and the almost packed house was almost silent for most of my show. I kept thinking any minute now someone is going to shoot me!

No, I finished my show and as I bowed and threw air kisses to the audience for not killing me, several people stood up and started talking to me in Arabic. Of course I had no idea what they were saying, so I smiled politely and got the hell off that stage! Back in my dressing room, my poor band, who were also my best friends in Baghdad, came in on their break to check on me and tell me what was going on with the audience. Evidently, and not surprisingly, the audience was totally perplexed by this dancer from nowhere! They wanted to know what country I was from which is exactly what we told our boss could happen and did. I was actually being accused of denying my culture, because I was most certainly Iraqi, no, Lebanese, no, I had to be Syrian, but, no, in fact and without a doubt I had to be Egyptian! My audience from all over the Middle East were arguing amongst themselves about my country of origin; and claiming me as one of their own!

This dancer from “nowhere” actually almost caused a fight that evening as two opposing customers vied for my country of origin!

From that night forward I told my boss if he wasn’t willing to give me a fake country, then just tell the truth, that I am “American”, just don’t say USA, and I would take my chances. Fortunately, my auburn coloring lent itself well to both Middle Eastern and South American. At that time (pre-internet, videos, skipe, etc.), people still stereotyped North Americans as “blond”, just as we stereotyped Middle Eastern people as being swarthy. Therefore, being “American” wasn’t as hazardous as you may think as my audience always jumped to the conclusion that I was from Mexico! There were a few who still thought I was denying my culture and truly from the Middle East, but, I just smiled, laughed and said no, “Ana Americanea”.

 

Memories of Baghdad: Part II: Coming soon to GS

As the war escalated in favor of Iran, our living conditions declined. The borders and post offices were closed, the newspapers were censored, and then running water stopped. My friends and I got a cab and literally went from store to store buying as much bottled water as we could lay our hands on! We paid for cases of drinking water ranging from overpriced to absolutely ridiculously-priced!
“Live and learn” became my motto du jour, and this was just the beginning of the dramatic and then horrifying situations that were to befall me in the weeks to come.

More Photos


I arrived in Baghdad, Iraq, in March 1983, in the rainy season. This.is the picture looking our street from the "villa" where all the artists under contract at Al Kawakab lived together. As you can see no pavement to be found, and with rains and humidity I ruined most of the shoes I brought with me. The mud got into everything and was almost impossible to wash away.


The view from my rooftop terrace outside my bedroom which was a little penthouse. Our neighborhood looked very nice from this vantage point. You can see that in April the rains stopped and the temperature began to rise!


My best friends in Baghdad, my oh so handsome drummer Asham, and my "clown" percussionist Sammy, who never stopped making me laugh (and everyone around him).
These two wonderful gentlemen (and they were always), had worked together in Lebanon for years and were best friends. We became fast friends and they took me under their wing as their American sister. During the first month and half or so, the rain almost never stopped and we were pretty much house bound for days at a time. It was hot and humid, with no air conditioning as mentioned in the article. We spent most of our time entertaining each other when we weren’t napping or reading.

foot massage
Sammy giving Asham a foot massage, that Sammy could take any situation and turn it into a comedy act! He had such a expressive face that it hardly ever mattered that we spoke different languages. We all managed to communicate just fine with our limited French, Arabic and English.


Sammy entertaining us as usual while taking pictures!


A view ofthe Tigress River at its fullest during the month of March.


The Polish Disco Band that performed after the "Middle Eastern" show each night did lots of 70s cover tunes for dancing. Most of the band members were classically trained in Poland but they couldn’t find jobs in their own country that paid fraction of what they were making in Baghdad. The Poles had their own floor and kitchen in the "villa", and frequently threw great "Vodka" parties for everyone after work whenever one of them received a care package from home.


Once it stopped raining and river was full, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon was taking a boatride. The little boats reminded me of Dories in Mexico. Fairly large wooden boats some with canopies, and all of them painted vibrant colors.


This picture was taken after a "Farewell" lunch at one of the fancier riverside restaurants for our very sweet and talented female featured singer whose contract was over. We were all envious that she was going back to Lebanon as by this time the war had started to move its way towards Baghdad.

 

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   |       |    4 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Georgi

    Apr 6, 2012 - 06:04:06

    Memories of Baghdad……great story, want more!!!!

  2. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Apr 9, 2012 - 08:04:33

    I’m glad, once again, to read that Rebaba made it out of difficult circumstances without any harm to her. But I think a little more historical basis is important. The recent (several decade) history of the U. S. to Iraq is a bit complicated. For instance, 1983 and Iran-Contra did not occur during a Bush presidency, but during Ronald Reagan’s time in office, long before we sent troops to Baghdad during the tenure of George W. Bush. Why did the Iraqis feel betrayed by the U. S. in 1983? Was it arms sales to their opponents, the Iranians, or something additional? Again, given recent history, I think their opinions are important to note and recall.

  3. No Gravatar
    Rita Alderucci

    Apr 10, 2012 - 02:04:02

    Thank you Barbara Grant for your comment above.

    Please see my response below:

    My memory of Iran Contra here in the USA, made public many years after I returned home to California, is most likely the reason I remembered President Bush’s involvement…What I know is that during my stay in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein broadcasted to the Iraqi people on his two TV stations that the weapons Iranian soldiers were using to kill Iraqi soldiers were originally sold to them by the USA via a host of others.  This “betrayal” as Saddam called it is what I know and experienced while in Baghdad.  No American troops were there when I was there, just plenty of American business men and journalists as the USA was publicly on Iraq’s side and publicly funding their war effort against Iran.  The betrayal Saddam Hussein broadcasted to the Iraqi people said that the USA was playing “both sides of the coin”.  What was later publicized in the USA as the “Iran Contra” affair told a story far too similar to be ignored by me, and hence my referral to it in my story.

  4. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Apr 11, 2012 - 07:04:39

    Thank you, Rita! That is very helpful.

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