Queen of Denial, Chapter 12
posted January 29, 2013
I thought I was home free after my luggage was searched and I was waved past the rows of tables, soldiers and travelers. As the fear began to lift from my body I felt like I was floating and glided above ground through the neon lit archway leading towards airline gates. As I slowly relaxed into my skin again, I consciously inhaled for the first time since my arrival at the airport. Just as I started breathing normally again, I looked ahead and saw that I was not quite finished with Iraqi customs agents. I now approached a row of curtained cubicles with lady agents lined up on one side and male agents on the other. They watched us hopeful passengers come through the archway and randomly selected whomever they felt warranted a full body search. Of course they chose me, I was their perfect candidate. Such an obviously western woman walking alone couldn’t possibly be ignored.
As I approached these women with all eyes on me, carrying my brown paper bag filled with money and my gold vanity case, I had to contain myself from smiling at the thought of how I must look to these lady agents.
My thoughts were confirmed when the closest lady agent looked me up and down and motioned me into a cubicle. The female agent who ushered me in was much younger than I, barely twenty years old from the looks of her. She scrutinized me in a way that was intended to intimidate me before she got started with the search. After coming this far, and now that my illegal booty was well on its way to the belly of the plane, I was feeling pretty fearless. I wasn’t about to allow this young woman to scare me, and I had no intentions of being strip searched.
After living in Middle Eastern countries for almost two years, and especially after the past three months shopping in war torn Baghdad, I knew how to use a bribe to my advantage. The young agent began by looking into my paper bag full of travelers’ checks. I knew as tempting as the checks may have appeared to this young woman, they were actually worthless in her own country and illegal barter. My employer had explained that at that time only Iraqi money was legal in Iraq. In fact, transactions with any other currency than Iraqi dinars were a crime; and considered on a par with treason should the person apprehended be an Iraqi national. My young female agent made a big show of studying my government and bank documents that allowed me to take my earnings in US travelers’ checks out of Iraq. She made tongue clicking noises and even shook her head a couple times just to make me nervous I’m sure. Evidently she couldn’t find anything amiss and handed me back the bag with a look like she just did me a favor –instead of doing her job. Then she glanced down at my vanity case with eyebrows raised, and I saw an opportunity to avoid further harassment and finally be on my way to the plane. I opened the locked case and she picked up my perfume bottle and her eyes misted over with joy as she gave me a big toothy smile looking from my Miss Dior directly into my eyes. Well, this little lady wasn’t going to get my favorite perfume without giving me something in exchange! At this point, we started the time honored tradition of bartering for my release sans strip search. In the end, getting out of that cubicle without having to shed my clothing cost me one bottle of partially used French perfume, my hair brush, and my blusher.
As I walked away from the curtained cubicle, my happy lady agent waved an animated goodbye to me as if we were best friends. I waved back while my mind wandered many miles away envisioning the past month before my June 1st departure date. My agent arrived in Baghdad on business that included purchasing my (departing) plane ticket. He came to the villa to visit and while there he asked me what city I wanted to fly into when my contract was up. Originally, I had planned to go to Beirut to visit my friends and sell my Iraqi dinars on the currency Black Market (as the price per dinar was the highest outside of Iraq). However, by the time the question of destination was seriously posed, my situation had become very different, and money in any amount was far less important to me. I was extremely homesick and longed for the peace and freedoms I had grown up with in San Francisco. So I changed my mind about going to Lebanon and requested a ticket to Paris, France, where I lived and worked between contracts. All I could think about was the joy of seeing my friends again in Paris and finally calling home and talking to my family, friends and most of all, my mom. I had had no communication with the outside world since my arrival in Baghdad. I knew my parents must be extremely worried about me. In the past, I had given them cause for concern when I travelled to Harare, Zimbabwe immediately after the self-rule rebellion and bloodshed. Then I travelled to Syria and Lebanon where there were constant coups, border fights and terrorism making the US headlines. However, as scary as these countries may have been depicted in our news, I was always able to contact home.
Baghdad was the first place I had worked in where a complete communication blackout was ordered (no post, no newspapers, no telegrams, and no telephone access to the general public), and a mere two weeks after my arrival. For the very first time since I started traveling and dancing abroad, I was unable to call my parents (and vice versa) to assure them that I was fine regardless of what they were reading in the local newspapers.
When my mind came back to the here and now, I smiled to myself as I realized I was actually on my way to the airline gates. I had spent approximately six hours in the airport and six hours of keeping all my fears at bay. Earlier that day when I joined the moving horde that took me towards the customs agents, I automatically began to detach my conscious self from my physical self. In this way I could deal with and hopefully contain my mounting terror. I felt like I was moving along side myself and watching from a safe distance while the active me maintained the role of an “irresistible American Belly Dancer that no one would dare throw in jail”!
When I finally sat back in my airplane seat realizing I was actually leaving Iraq, I began to allow my feet to touch the floor again. As the muscles in my face, neck and back started to unclench and the adrenaline began to seep out of my brain, I noticed a steward walking down the aisle shutting all the window shades. His actions didn’t immediately register concern in my mind until we started taxiing to the runway and the captain’s voice came over the intercom. He spoke first in Arabic then repeated his speech in French, which I thought I understood. Finally my French comprehension was confirmed when the pilot repeated his message in English.
The captain had announced in all three languages that we were flying out of Iraq in total blackout! This meant no lights inside or outside the plane until we crossed over into Jordan and left Iraqi airspace.
He went on to say that this was now a routine precaution during the war to ensure passenger safety. What he wasn’t saying was that Iranian missiles had been targeting commercial airplanes flying out of Baghdad. I learned this fact from a businessman sitting across the aisle from me who had leaned over and whispered that it happened all the time and was kept from the public along with everything else about the war. Silly me, I thought boarding the plane meant I was finally leaving the dangers that had plagued me for the past three months. For many people flying is scary enough-but it wasn’t scary enough for me, oh no…Not only was I flying, but, I was flying in a commercial airplane over an active war zone in the dark. Thank goodness that my desire to be out of Iraq outweighed my fear of being shot down, or I might have been in much worse shape during that flight. Nonetheless, it was the quietest airplane cabin I had ever been inside. I don’t think any of the passengers, including me, moved an inch in our seats until the pilot announced we were out of Iraqi airspace. At that point, the entire cabin exploded with nervous laughter and then hearty applause for our pilot, our captain, our hero who had safely flown us away from the awful war!
You may wonder why I accepted the offer to work in Baghdad in spite of the war I knew they were fighting, especially after some of the close calls I had so recently experienced during my time in Syria. I can tell you it wasn’t the money that attracted me although the contract was my most lucrative offer to date. I grew up in San Francisco where I heard my birthplace referred to as “Baghdad by the Bay.” Before I ever took my first belly dance class, I had been mesmerized by the tales of 1001 Nights in the ancient city of Baghdad, home of Sinbad and his 40 thieves. So when the opportunity was presented to me, I decided to accept the offer of working in the city of some of my earliest childhood Middle Eastern fantasies. Would I take the same risks now I so blindly took in my youth? Without hesitation, yes, I would do it all over again regardless of the potential dangers to my safety. The lessons I learned about life, the wonderful people I met, lived and worked with as I travelled to these incredibly diverse countries were worth any risk that I might impose upon myself. I acquired a keen understanding of the hardships war brings upon innocent populations simply trying to live their lives amidst the constant threat of violence. Living in Iraq, more than any other country I had worked in previously, taught me gratitude for the freedoms I took for granted growing up in San Francisco. I returned home humbled by these resilient, hard working people who continued to thrive despite living under siege for so many years.
Hollywood, California and the story of the eventual end of the era of the Middle Eastern Supperclub… I moved from club to club beginning in 1983 through 1986, working until the final night and then moving on to the next one. My musician friends started calling me the “jinx” as a joke of course, but, it was true that everywhere I worked eventually closed their doors for good.
Footnotes & Resources
Ready for more?
- 11-28-11 Queen of Denial, Chapter 6: From Syria with Love! My Arrival
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!
He kept reassuring me that everything was okay, and finally, the second time that I made for the exit, he pinned me against the wall in the darkened hallway and gave me a long, luscious kiss that made my head spin!
- 4-6-12 Queen of Denial Chapter 8: Memories of Baghdad Part 1: Miss America, NOT!
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!
- 5-16-12 Queen of Denial Chapter 9: Memories of Baghdad Part 2: Bombs, Bodies, and Baby?
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.
My agent found me extremely upset, and I was adamant that I couldn’t possibly stay in Baghdad for another six weeks. I desperately wanted out of Iraq, and cried and pleaded with my agent to make it so.
- 9-6-12 My Perfect Hiding Place, Queen of Denial, Chapter 11
Funny as it sounds, the incredible amounts of money we were earning nightly eventually became a burden.
- 1-20-13 Behind the Scenes, 3rd Coast Tribal Festival
I had never been to a tribal dance convention before, even though I have been a professional (Egyptian style) belly dancer for 40 years. From my “glitz and tits” perspective, this belly dance offshoot wasn’t something I recognized as mine.
Originally written for Caravan Magazine 1992- The one thing on which you depend about dance in Egypt from year to year is that everything slowly changes. I’ve returned to Cairo each year now for nine consecutive years, and last year my visit was just before the short war we had with Iraq in which Egypt was our US ally. Cairenes seemed sad last year, because Cairo had lost most of its income from tourism, and many Egyptian nationals were returning from Iraq and Kuwait, where they no longer had employment. I did not know what to expect this year, except the inevitable fact of surprising, yet subtle, change.
- 1-18-13 Fabulous Hip Drops in 30 Seconds or Less!
A principle is a single unifying and guiding idea that when we apply it to our alignment or movement, helps us move more effectively. An advantage of using a principles-based approach to dance or martial arts mastery is that it lets us use a single visualization or body sense to achieve a desired result, instead of having to remember lots of little details.
A vibrant dance community affords benefits to all of its members. In a healthy dance community, each and every person is relevant. For learning purposes or gathering a certain show cast, there is a large pool of talent from which to choose. Those with specialties and unique areas of expertise can share their knowledge, enriching the individual skill sets of everyone.
- 1-15-13 Diamonds in the Rough & Polished Perfection, 2012 Berlin SomerFestival-Thursday Competition,
Produced by Beata and Horacio Cifuentes, Held in September, 2012. The costumes were innovative and personalized with many of the competitors from the Ukraine, Russia, and Asia. Many of whom are also ballroom competitors. As a result, the costumes were visually striking and elegant. The trend in costuming is floral with tribal going towards more colorful stylized burlesque (ala Chicago musical).
- 1-14-13 A Journey to Fuse the World, Aubre Hill’s Second Asia Tour and Great China Visit
Aubre Hill earned respect for her teaching and dancing styles at the 2011 events in Taiwan. But when Kelli Li, the event sponsor, told me that she would sponsor Aubre Hill again in 2012 and with longer hours, I had my doubts about the feasibility of the project.
- 1-11-13 Whirling, Meditation in Motion or Spectacular Show?
A dance could not be any more contradictory. The Whirling dance lingers between spectacular showmanship and meditation in motion; it combines trance and technique. It is a surprising paradox, unified like lovers within the dance.
- 1-10-13 From Café Chantant to Casino Opera, Evolution of Theatrical Performance Space for Belly Dance,
Most students of Egyptian belly dance are aware of Badia Masabni and her famous nightclubs, and many believe Badia’s clubs to be the birthplace of theatrical belly dance, or raqs sharqi. However, fewer are aware that Badia’s clubs were neither the first nor the only venues of their kind.