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Changes in the Island Kingdom

The Bahrain Bellydance Scene

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by Zaina Brown
posted June 11, 2013

Returning to Bahrain to work after four years felt like going back to my roots. This little island kingdom is where I did my first Middle East contract, busted my bra on New Year’s Eve, and returned several times in the following year. Those were the days. Now it had been a while. Had Bahrain changed? You betcha.

The nightlife in this country took a big hit when the uprising began back in 2011. The situation now is a stalemate – people remain defiant and protests are ongoing, but it hasn’t brought on political change. The government is backed by its giant neighbor Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates.

Together, they’re not running out of tear gas and birdshots anytime soon. The presence of Saudi forces is a hot-button issue. It’s greatly resented by Bahrain’s Shiite majority. If a car with Saudi plates ventures into the wrong neighborhood, it may not make it out. The tensions have slashed the number of visitors.

Saudi Arabian money is what drives the Bahraini nightlife and less Saudis means less business. Several restaurants that used to have a bellydancer have closed or stopped entertainment in the recent years. The Diplomat, Regency Intercontinental, Novotel and Marina Club are all off the bellydance list, at least for now. The remaining places have suffered significantly.

This time I was working in Gulf Hotel, for approximately three months. It’s a Bahrain landmark, the first five star hotel on the island, located in the heart of Manama. The Lebanese restaurant Zahle is therefore well established. It’s an upscale place where couples and familie s sit on one side and single men on another. Some of the guests have been coming for decades. I did two thirty minute shows (which is the Bahrain standard), accompanied by a one man show, taking turns with a Lebanese male and a female singer. All in all, Zahle was a good place to work, if not the most exciting.

Pashawat restaurant inside Sofitel offers similar entertainment. A one man show, a female singer and a bellydancer perform in beautiful surroundings. The setting is more lounge than restaurant, which is kind of cosy. It’s not a big place, and you can opt to sit on a comfy couch. The drawback of the gorgeous Sofitel is that it’s located in Zallaq, far from Manama. If you have your own wheels it’s not a problem, but taking a taxi from the city would be pricey. Which could be why it’s such a clean place, suitable for families.

Brazilian dancer at the Awtar
Brazilian dancer at the Awtar

Only one newcomer, Awtar, in a trendy new hotel Elite Crystal is busy all week long. The two piece band is energetic, but the bellydancer is surely the main attraction. Located in Juffair, a bustling area near the US Navy Base, Awtar is hot and happening. It’s not a seedy place (by local standards), but there are plenty of hookers, and the vibe is more nightclub than restaurant.

Then there’s Tarbouche, another Lebanese restaurant inside City Center hotel (in the Gold City building). Say you work in Tarbouche and people’s response will be less than impressed. Squeezed between a group of other similar establishments, the Bab al Bahrain area shows its true colors at night when the clubs open and Saudis and hookers come out in numbers. The funny thing is that the same dancer can at one point work in a well respected place like the Gulf, and another time in a two star hotel like the City Center. All the above mentioned restaurants hire their entertainers through Lebanese agents. Most bellydancers working with them are Brazilian, or other South American nationalities. They’re strong dancers with a high level of professionalism, plus they look great. A handful are Lebanese or Syrian, or American or European nationals like me. (In a traditional society like Bahrain, dancers need to be imported, it’s not a career option for local girls.)

Lebanese dancer in Tarbouche
Lebanese dancer performing in the Tarbouche

I’d been to Tarbouche many times in the past, and seen quite a range of dancers. (The most memorable of them all was a Lebanese girl, who appeared on the stage looking and acting completely pissed. I was afraid she would walk off any moment. Then she slowly warmed up, and in the end of the show she grabbed the microphone and sang a song.) The two piece Egyptian band gets the job done. The keyboard guy brings in some of that Haram street flavor, reaching for his cigarette every thirty seconds, without missing a beat. The staff is friendly. The customers are surprisingly tame. Actually, if customers were urgently looking to get laid, they would probably go to one of the discos on the same floor. I haven’t heard dancers complain about the work. Tarbouche is better than its reputation! I went by on my night off to see the Mexican dancer. Three guys got on the stage for some really awesome dabke, they were fun to watch. A few customers took turns to sing – they were professional singers who were just hanging out. The whole night was like a talent show.

The most fun contract I ever had in Bahrain was in a Lebanese restaurant called Sawani. I was sad to hear they had closed soon after the uprising began. Sawani was a nice, classy family place, but the contract came with a twist: a second show in a three star hotel disco in Hoora, an area full of similar seedy nightspots. Hoora is the closest thing to a red light district on this island. Dancing there for a month was like a freak accident, I had come on a day’s notice to replace another dancer. I enjoyed the stark contrast between the two places, and showed up for my second gig sweaty and super relaxed (much like the audience).

I wanted to see what’s happening in Hoora these days. Most places that have "dancers" simply put a group of girls on the stage to do a sort of semi-performance. They usually wear long dresses or gowns, and just shuffle in place with a bored look on their faces. I’m going to make an educated guess and say that most of them are Moroccan. One such dancer arrived in Bahrain on the same flight as me. I already detected her at the airport in Qatar. Extensions down to her butt and traveling to Bahrain alone, she was no civilian. I wasn’t surprised when we were both handed our artist visas upon arrival. An actual bellydance show, if it even exists, is Hoora’s best kept secret. I asked around in a few hotels, but no one had a clue. Maybe I should have gotten into one of the cars that pulled over? "Hey guys! You know any bellydancers? Take me with you!" (Around here they think any girl walking on the street is a hooker, even in broad daylight, wearing sweatpants, doesn’t matter.)

Then, just as I’d given up hope, I heard that a friend of a friend was dancing in one of the hotels in Hoora. I got in touch with her, and she asked me to come and see the show. Oh my. Even as I knew to expect "go-go dancing" with the occasional bellydance number (if there were enough customers), I was still shocked. The place was very small. A few Eastern European girls in skimpy outfits were dancing to Western music on a podium. The customers were sitting close enough to see up their skirts. The staff was pushing leis made of fake flowers, that the customers could buy for the dancers. (The girls received a commission of this.) I’d been instructed to ask to see the bellydancer, and she changed into her costume and danced to one song. We had a few words afterwards. She was disappointed with the work. She had expected there to be more bellydancing. As I was leaving the hotel I took a peak into two Arabic clubs, with Moroccan and Tunisian girls dancing on the stage in long dresses.

One of the longest standing entertainment spots in Bahrain is the Golden Club in Crowne Plaza. What I remember seeing years ago was a Russian show alternating with an Eastern European bellydancer. She was not what I would call a professional dancer. Her costume looked self made, in a painfully obvious way. I went to see if anything had changed. I googled Golden Club to see what time they opened and bumped into an online review saying that "with all the new venues that have sprung up, it’s nice that a place like Golden Club still exists, for comedy value". I call it a Bahrain must see.

Look, if you never saw a "Russian show" (also known as "show ballet"), I urge you to go if given the chance, at least once in your life. I’ve seen these shows in a few Arab countries, and they never fail to blow my mind. It’s hard to believe that in this time and age there’s still a demand for this sort of entertainment. Basically it’s a group of girls doing dance numbers with themes from different countries and styles – yet the choreography is mostly the same awkward jazz steps from the last century, usually performed in a half hearted manner. The current group consisted of three young and pretty Ukrainian girls, and the numbers ranged from Russian, Moroccan and strained looking Khaleeji dance to a Katy Perry track and "I Will Survive". The outfits were outlandish, featuring lots of sparkly bras and panties with all sorts of accessories and headgear. The point must be to show cute girls in skimpy costumes – but the outcome is hardly "sexy". Watching a Russian show puts me in such a state of confusion. I literally don’t know what’s unraveling front of my eyes.

A Russian bellydancer followed and she didn’t disappoint. She had stage experience and a nice technique, and pretty costumes. She was dancing barefoot and using mostly Egyptian music, with some surprising song choices. I appreciated the artistry and her charisma, but I’m sure that in another venue the customers would be quick to point out that she’s not young and slim. A Khaleeji singer followed with a quick show, then the Ukrainian girls and the bellydancer returned once more. I left in a happy state of sensory overload. Golden Club never fails.

All in all, the Bahrain bellydance scene is not big and wondrous like in Dubai, but it still has good stuff to offer. So if you’re in town, go out, and enjoy your night!

My Face on a billboard
Author’s face on a billboard

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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Anthea Kawakib

    Jun 25, 2013 - 05:06:38

    I always love your travel stories, Zaina; but this one is depressing! It’s sad to see the continuous struggle of bellydance artists against fanaticism and the darkness of repression.

  2. No Gravatar
    Edwina Nearing

    Jun 30, 2013 - 07:06:19

    The article was informative but would have benefited from some background:  how long has belly dancing been in Bahrain?  How has it evolved?  Is there a “30-year-old” age limit on dancers as there has been in the other Gulf States?  How long are shows?  Are they multi-costume?  Do they or did they used to import “big-name” dancers?  Is the audience “dance savvy” like the Egyptians?  How many nights a week?  What’s the pay like?  Insistence on live music and audience interaction as traditionally in Egypt?  Etc. etc. etc.  — Edwina Nearing

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