Queen of Denial:Chapter 9, Memories of Baghdad, Part 2
posted May 16, 2012
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 one day the running water just stopped without warning. My friends and I hailed a taxi and literally went from store to store buying as much bottled water as we could lay our hands on. We paid from too high priced to absolutely ridiculous prices for cases of drinking water.
Back at the “villa” we all rationed our bottled water during the day and in the evenings gorged ourselves on as much water as possible at the restaurant that somehow always managed to keep the water on as well as the food fresh and the air conditioning running!
We speculated that our boss had some serious dirt on someone in the government elite, and extremely good ties to the black-market! Bathing for me was reduced to a plastic basin filled with about 6 inches of bottled water to first wash my face and then sponge myself off, and finally a little cup of water to brush my teeth, before going to work.
We weren’t allowed to fraternize in the restaurant after our show, so instead of sitting inside we retreated to the roof deck. Every night we waited on the roof for our fellow artists, the Polish disco band that followed our show, to be chauffeured back to the villa in a minibus.
The roof deck was our sanctuary, and became our “look out post” as the war crept closer and closer to Baghdad.
The Al Kawakab was located on the bank of the Tigris River which was a very wide, rapidly flowing river when I first arrived there in March of 1982 (I apologize for the inaccurate year in Part I, I did a more thorough job of fact checking and realized my initial memory was a year off). Our view from the roof was quite lovely, and included the island right in the middle of the large river which was Saddam Hussein’s palace. In time what I considered a lovely view of the palace became a dreaded menace to our safety considering who lived on the island. With the bombing of Basra, not far enough from Baghdad, we began watching the night sky colors from the roof deck. The realization that the bombings were so close that we could see the debris reflected in the night sky, also, made us aware of the fact that we were directly opposite a very likely target, Saddam Hussein’s palace. Nightly, we would watch the “after show” of explosions on the roof and try to gauge if the bombs were coming closer by how bright the flashes were each time they fell. I would actually forget sometimes what I was watching because the colors could be so beautiful & mesmerizing, and then someone would say something to bring me back to our scary reality.
The Tigress River as spring moved into summer and the river banks began to rise up.
This large river would eventually be reduced to a small creek surrounded by mud flats as
the daily temperatures increased into the hundreds.
Eventually, we would witness two government assassinations in the parking lot below our roof top “sanctuary”.
I remember the first one as being a rapid succession of firecrackers until I was abruptly shoved to the ground by one of my more war conditioned colleagues from Lebanon. We crept up to the wall that surrounded the deck at the edge of the roof to see what was happening below. I was just in time to see my first dead body being covered up by a dark jacket. It happened far enough away to seem unreal to me. There was a great rush of military clad men shouting and army vehicles rushing out of the parking lot. Then there was nothing but the sound of the bombing in nearby Basra as we returned to the other side of the deck to continue the nightly vigil of watching the island palace and the colors in the sky.
Our new Lebanese singer performing on his first night at Al Kawakab.
It still amazes me how fast I became conditioned to wartime. Since my arrival in Syria in 1981, I had been shot at several times, or at least over my head (the first time Georges & I evidently went through a check point without stopping and had a spray of bullets from an Uzi stop us). However, I was soon to found out that war wasn’t the scariest problem I could experience in Baghdad…
Sometime during my first month in Baghdad, I realized that I was missing something. My period hadn’t begun since I arrived making it very overdue. Writing this now makes me laugh as I remember the war that was going on around me in Baghdad. However, being a Belly Dancer in a war torn, Middle Eastern country, and possibly pregnant with Georges’ baby was indeed the scariest thing that ever happened to me.
I panicked, how on earth was I going to find out if I was really pregnant? Thank the powers that watched over my young, silly little head, and my wonderful Lebanese friends. The percussionists in my band had become my best friends, and like real brothers to me, and they were the only ones I could turn to for help. The thought of telling them that I might be pregnant with a Syrian man’s baby was mortifying. You all can imagine the words passing before my eyes, “slut”, “whore”, “loose”, and of course “Belly Dancer”. I would be confirming all the worse assumptions of what I considered to be an “art form”, and had worked so hard to dispel throughout my career. I was beside myself, but, my fear of pregnancy overcame my pride and I finally told my friends about my problem and asked them to help me, please help me.
My guys came through with an address for a “Women’s Medical Clinic”. I had what I perceived to be the ultimate “Female Trouble” a possible and unwanted pregnancy. Remember that this was 1982, and abortions rights in my own country were still in the dark ages. Therefore, I couldn’t begin to imagine being able to obtain an abortion in Baghdad, Iraq. I was sure that if I was pregnant I would have to travel to England to end my pregnancy. My situation terrified me. Then, when I got a look at the “Woman’s Medical Clinic”, I was literally shaking with fear. I had never seen such a filthy medical facility, and I mean dirt on the walls filthy. The lobby looked like a condemned building with broken windows and gaping holes everywhere. It took all my wits to enter and trust that the elevator would actually take us anywhere safely. I know my friends were as uncomfortable as I was. They kept checking the address written on a slip of paper to make sure this was really the building where the clinic was supposed to be located. Upon exiting the elevator that actually worked fine, we arrived in a waiting room filled with women of all ages, veiled and unveiled, many with their small children & babies in tow. The room didn’t have enough folding chairs for everyone, no open windows and no air conditioning.
It was hell on earth. We camped in the hallway waiting for my name to be called sweating profusely and trying not to lean against the filthy walls. I was finally called and escorted through a door into a lovely office with a very attractive, well dressed women sitting behind a large mahogany desk. She greeted me in perfect English at which point I broke down and started crying.
When I finally pulled myself together, I told her a bit about myself and then got to the problem at hand. To my utter amazement she kind of chuckled to herself and then told me exactly what I wanted to hear, but, never, ever thought I would hear in Baghdad of all places. She said that because Iraqi men want nothing to do with anything female and below the waist, including the male doctors, getting a D&C or abortion, “was a piece of cake and not to worry”. She was a women’s activist right in the middle of the enemy camp. She was educated in England and chose to return to Iraq to practice medicine so she could help Iraqi women. She promised me that if I was pregnant it was easier to terminate the pregnancy in Baghdad than in England. Relief washed over me like warm water (it had been way too long since I had a real shower). Next, we had to find out if I was in fact pregnant. She gave me a paper cup and told me where the toilet was. Being in her well appointed office for the last 30 minutes made me forget the state of the rest of the clinic, and as I walked out of her office I was once again assaulted by the heat and smells of all the female humanity squished into the tiny waiting room. My friends had retreated down the hallway closer to the elevators trying to be invisible. I waved and showed them the cup as I walked down the filthy hallway looking for the door to the toilet. What I found was a small closet like room with bare pipes going up the walls and what looked like mud spread all over everything but the toilet. I started laughing at the idea of this being a medical facility as all the dirt was just unbelievable. I wasn’t going to touch anything if I could help it and perched myself above the toilet seat holding my jeans off the floor as I tried my best to aim for the cup I held between my legs. Successfully filling the cup, I had to balance myself and find somewhere to put the cup down while I carefully pulled up my pants.
As I surveyed my surroundings, trying to find a place to put my cup down, I saw the biggest, scariest, pre-historic looking bug I had ever seen in my life sitting on the pipe directly behind my back! My body reacted instinctively, and I literally flew out the door of the tiny bathroom into the hallway, pants around my ankles and cup in hand.
Fortunately, my only audience were my friends when I came flying out the door literally butt naked. They of course, broke into hysterical laughter which in turn made me realize my pants were still around my ankles. I remember thinking at that moment how happy I was that I didn’t spill all my pee! By this time, the bug didn’t seem like my biggest problem; but, to justify flying into the hallway with my pants down, I insisted my guys come look at what scared me into this seemingly crazy action. It was a locust, and even they didn’t want to get any closer to it than the open doorway… In the end the rabbit didn’t die, or for you younger readers, the stick turned blue, and I was told I wasn’t pregnant.
I will always have a special place in my heart for this dear man whose name escapes me. (He is petting a goat) He made me laugh on a daily basis for the six weeks we lived and worked together. Without his help and friendship the horrors of the war going on around me might have scared me much deeper. He was my friend, my brother, my father and most of all my "clown" who kept me laughing in the face of war!
Part III Teaser:
After I bid a very sad farewell to my dear musician friends, I witnessed one of the younger band members being detained at the airport. Next thing I know, he is being dragged away by Iraqi soldiers. I later learned that his stash of dinars had been immediately discovered and seized by Customs. He had stupidly hid his tip money inside his instrument case in spite of being warned against doing so by his older and wiser band members, my good friends. As it was illegal to take Iraqi money out of the country, there was a constant urgency surrounding our daily ritual of brainstorming ways to get our tips out of Iraq undetected. Finding the perfect hiding place for our money was our main past time away from work. As our personal stash of tips increased, so did the problem of getting it out of the country which in turn escalated and became more and more critical as our departure dates inched closer and closer.
Once every two weeks or so, one of the Polish disco band members would receive a huge care package from home.
They always made a "Polish" party to share the different food delicacies and vodka of course, with all of us, (their "villa" co-inhabitants).
Even the Souk in "Old Baghdad", where every stall was full when I first arrived, starting closing down due to the war.
Closing down of most of the clothing stalls in the souk in Old Baghdad
There was less and less to sell on all fronts.
I walked the streets of Old Baghdad quite often during the day after my friends left, and occupied myself with photography.
Shown here are the beautiful old facades of apartments built around the Souk.
Ready for more?
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International seminars make you do more than you think you can when you see the dedication and sacrifices people make just to attend.
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This series of interviews was filmed April 26, 2012. Surreyya and Princess Farhana came to the Gilded Serpent office for a visit. This is the first of 3 parts. Discussion of their current show called "Dangerous Beauties, and working with their "virtual" troupe members and costumers around the world using the various tools of the web.