Wael is the definition of fine. He's tall, dark, handsome, has excellent stage presence, and he serenades me on stage. He also smells like laundry detergent. I think the regulars-- the riklam, the staff, and the musicians-- have noticed our chemistry. They stare at us every time he comes near me and we slip into an impromptu duet. He sings to me, and I wiggle about in approval with a huge smile and batting eyelashes. Kind of like Farid El-Atrash and Samia Gamal... not that I'm comparing ourselves to them artistically. We do have a similar on-stage chemistry, though. And we quite like it, even though it annoys the band. When things get too scandalous for their prudish sensibilities, my percussionists express their collective disapproval by interrupting the prevailing rhythm with a doom, tak tak tak tak, doom tak tak!, the famous zaffa rhythm played at weddings when the bride and groom enter and exit the wedding hall. It's meant to be sarcastic, and to embarrass us. Neither of us care, though. We have no blood, as the Egyptians would say, referring to our apparent inability to feel ashamed.
There's definitely potential to continue our 'number' off stage. But alas, we are worlds apart. I've let my hormones select my partners in the past and gotten badly burned, so next time, I'm going to let my brain do the choosing. At least that's the plan. In the meantime, I'm not going to let that interfere with my fun on stage. I will continue to reciprocate my singer's flirting with equal amounts of approval. It's been a while since I've had to do this stuff, so if nothing else, I'll consider it practice. Until Mr. Right comes along...
I know. You just want to slap me. I get paid to prance around the stage flirting with my singer, and have money thrown at me. Seriously though, if you want to feel like a useless parasite, this is a great way to do it, especially if you have a graduate degree from an ivy league university. I mean, things don't get much more ridiculous than this. Even prostitutes have to work harder.
Speaking of which... I've thus detailed a very male environment. Not because there's a shortage of women, but because the majority of women in these places are workers. A handful are singers and dancers. The rest are sex workers and riklam. The latter profession, if I can call it that, is interesting, because while it's not exactly prostitution, neither is it entertaining. The women who work as riklam get paid between fifty and three hundred pounds to sit in the sala all night. Their job is to 'estrogize' the place, so that arriving male customers aren't looking at a room full of men.
The word riklam is actually Swedish. It means advertisement. So basically these women are human advertisements for the club. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, but what they have in common is youth and socio-economic status. They hail from the poorest slums in Cairo, and lead extremely difficult lives. Typically, they are running away from someone-- a violent husband, brother, step-father, or pimp-- while trying to raise children and/or battle addictions. They have no skills and no other means of supporting themselves, so they seek employment in cabarets. Some of them freelance, but most work with agents. Either way, all they have to do is look sexy, chat up customers, and dance around. Technically, they're not required to engage in sex work, though they're certainly encouraged to. When this happens, the venue plays pimp and takes a cut of the women's income.
Like singers and dancers, the riklam are regulated by the morality police. They must procure specialized licenses before taking work, and agree to certain terms and conditions. One is to abstain from prostitution. The other, which is tacit, is to spend a certain number of nights behind bars. Usually two to four months per year. They don't actually have to do anything wrong. They just have to let the officers fill their annual arrest quotas. This may seem like a completely outrageous and irrational thing to agree to, but for a lot of these girls, prison is a welcome respite from the misery of their lives.Plus, their agents reward them handsomely for this.
I haven't delved into this world as deeply as I'd like to, nor is that likely to happen. However, I've made friends with a few of these women. Our interactions are limited to the bathroom and the stage, but somehow we've taken a liking to each other that precludes any potential cattiness. Maybe there is cattiness amongst themselves, but between us, there is only seeming admiration on their part, and wonder and sympathy on mine. Nevertheless, they scrutinize every aspect of my performance, starting with my appearance. The first thing they do when I enter the stage is whisper their comments about my costume to each other. Is it new, do they like it, and am I wearing underwear. They study my dancing, fixating their eyes on my body more than any man in the room. Then they rate my performance and give me their feedback when we meet in the bathroom. They tell me which moves they liked, and whether they thought I could have gotten more money out of a particular customer. Sometimes, if they're feeling particularly spirited, they'll show me their own dance moves, and even give me makeup advice. It's sheer girl gab-- something I'm apparently in need of since I'm constantly surrounded by men.
I really enjoy our conversations, which we continue on the stage. We joke about how we'd like to trade places...how I'd love to be paid to look pretty and eat fruit until the sun comes up, to not have to dance seven shows a night...how they'd love to be dance stars. None of us means what we say. But we dance together. Whenever my band plays a favorite song, they join me on stage in single file. Some of them do moves that would get me arrested. This includes some serious bumping and grinding with male patrons, occasionally to the point of looking like bucking broncos. Sometimes it's too much for my (Egyptianized) eyes, and I'm forced to look away, though I'm often dancing somewhere in that line. I'm not particularly fond of this. It conjures up images of a sex slave market and makes me feel degraded-- for all of us. I suspend judgment though. It's not (entirely) their fault.
However I feel about this, I have to suck it up. I'd love nothing more than to leave the stage while the riklam are dancing, but if I so much as step into the sala, I could be arrested for 'enabling prostitution'; being that the police raid these places all the time, I'm mindful of the law. Except when customers signal that they'll throw money on me if I dance in front of their tables. When this happens, my singer takes my hand and leads me to into the sala. I dance there for as long as it takes for them to throw keet--usually not more than a minute-- and then make a mad dash back to the stage.
Interestingly, the opposite is not illegal. Customers are allowed to step on the stage, and they do so frequently. Most of the time, it's to throw money on a singer, dancer, or riklam girl. But sometimes they come up to sing and dance. That's when it's my turn to be entertained. I remember one customer who was so happy with my pseudo-khaligi skills that he placed his kufiyya on my head and danced with me for ten minutes with a huge smile on his face. No money, no groping. Just dancing. There was another guy who jumped up on stage one night and put on quite a show. He was an older man from Upper Egypt who wore a dark green galabiyya that hung over his protruding belly, and a white scull cap on his shiny bald head. He had been smoking sheesha the whole night, but once he heard his favorite song, he transformed into a different person. He ran around the perimeter of the stage giving lap dances to the customers seated closest to us. He even got some of them to throw money on him. Then he started doing jumping jacks until he was belly to belly with another man who was dancing on the stage. The two of them rubbed and bounced their bellies off of each other in what looked like a mating ritual gone awry. The man then finished his act with a series of punches, very close to my drummer's face. God only knows what they put in his sheesha that night, but it was one of the best routines I've seen in all my years dancing.
These are the types of characters who make my work enjoyable. They are also the ones who make me reevaluate my initial thoughts about the customers, which are often condemning and judgmental. When I think of the unimaginable pressure they're under to suppress every facet of humanity that doesn't conform to the radical Islam of the Gulf, I start to feel sympathy. Not completely. But it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that they too are victims of an extremely flawed cultural system that demonizes their normal desires for happiness and love. And though cabarets capitalize on this cultural defect, they are a symptom, not a source, of all that is wrong with the contemporary Muslim Arab world.