In the Fall of 1983 I was invited to perform in Amman, Jordan. It was my first Mid East gig. The original contract was for one month but they kept doubling my salary several times to keep me there. At the three month mark, I was ready to leave despite being offered another salary hike. I was quite the anomaly at the time. Being a Raqs Sharqi artist in Jordan meant following a strict protocol. There was no talking to men unless it was an employee of the hotel where I worked and no talking to women unless they were approved of by management and were of a good social status. I was naive at first and learned these two lessons after being strongly reprimanded.
Basically, it meant I rarely spoke for three months. One of the few interactions I had was a musician who decided he was in love, so he would somehow get little notes slipped into my bag in the dressing room. We never spoke in person. In fact, in rehearsal, I could only speak to the manager who then gave instructions to the musicians. If I wanted to venture out of the hotel, I had to get permission, be chaperoned and followed where my every move recorded. This happened only a couple of times in three months.
At showtime every night, a very tall body guard would come to pick me up at my room and make sure no one else got in the elevator with me pre and post show. After every performance, a line-up would form of people who wanted an official 8X10 photograph of me autographed. I stood behind a table with the body guard and then someone else was in charge of bringing the photo to me from a fan across the room at least 20 feet away. I would sign and the photograph was delivered back. They first had to purchase the photograph. It occurred to me later, I probably should have demanded a cut from those profits.
The reason for all this social security was that I represented the good honour and name of the hotel where I worked. My photograph and name were featured in the hotel advertising in the newspaper everyday. Since a Raqasa is always suspect to be doubling as a prostitute, these precautions were taken. Jordan was a very conservative country. I did not mind because to me, the joy of performing every night with a full band of great musicians and an audience who understood the art form, it was worth the isolation. Every night after the show, I would wind down to a Farid Al Attrache movie that the front desk was able to send to my TV.
Another kind of silence happened and that was the first night I performed. The audience did not smile and were completely silent. It was kind of uncomfortable. I was used to the joyous and boisterous audiences in Arab nightclubs in Canada. At first I thought this was the norm. Perhaps on that first night, they did not know what to make of me. or they were reflecting back the fear I felt. Fortunately, the audience eventually warmed up and each night there after, the appreciative response got louder and louder.
I love chocolate cake … a lot. The hotel only had Middle Eastern deserts. So after dropping my bags back at my apartment upon returning home, I went directly to Just Deserts Restaurant with my bother. I think my brother expected an earful of listening to my adventures in Amman over our chocolate cake. Instead I sat in silence. After a while, he asked if I had forgotten how to talk. Indeed I had. It took a week or two to get back to my usual talkative self. I had not even realized how normal it had become not to speak.
I went back to work in Amman several times in later years. Protocol was still the same but I made sure to make more friends that the hotel management approved of. In later years I was allowed to go for walks alone as well. There was no body guard anymore but I was allowed to get in to an elevator that had only women. Elevators with women from the Gulf were fun. Maybe that is another blog. In later years the hotel had chocolate cake as well.