Friday, December 18, 2009
HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM BEYOND
The Holiday Season itself is always a bustling blur of parties, family get togethers, gift-shopping, decorating and celebrating...and this season is no different. But there is also always an under-current of craziness, too. This may involve family dysfunction, anxiety and seasonal depression, or monumental events... and not always the good kind.
This year has been stressful for many, due to the economy. Personally, though I have been well, a lot of weird things have happened around me. A close friend fell off her roof the day after Thanksgiving. Thankfully, she will be OK, but she has a long road of recovery ahead of her. My neighbor's dog was hit by a car yesterday. She too will be ok. There has also been a lot of death around to me this year...but it seems that many deaths of those close to me have always been a constant in my life.
To me, The Holidays have always been a time to remember people I have loved who have passed away... and this year in particular, as a new decade is about to start, I am reminded of a heartwarming but completely unexplainable and yes, paranormal incident that occured just when the new century was dawning.
In 1999, during the days leading up to the Millennium, like many people, I began reflecting on life: historical events I had witnessed, personal goals that I had achieved and the things I had accomplished. But what seemed to really dominate my thoughts were the many significant relationships I had with family and friends. I was blessed with so much love, nurture and support. I thought of the many special people who were there for me not matter what… who shared their lives with me, gave me affection and influenced my creative and artistic endeavors.
One of these special individuals was my friend and mentor, the late Zein Abdul Al Malik.
Zein was a male belly dancer of prodigious talent. Well over six feet tall and lanky, he had piercing green eyes and performed draped in luxurious folkloric garb, and wrapped in antique Assuit, balancing a huge brass tray with a full tea set and candles upon his regal head.
Zein began his career in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid Seventies, dancing with Jamilla Salimpour, and went on to live in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where he resided in one of the Royal palaces. He lived and breathed Oriental Dance, performing and teaching and doing research.
After we met in 1990, he took me under his wing- me, a beginning baby belly dancer with barely any skills- but somehow he saw my potential and nurtured me. Zein would have me over to his apartment- a wonderful, mysterious enclave of inlaid North African furniture, luxurious plants and relics from the Middle East. He’d make me mint tea in a silver Moroccan teapot and we’d spend hours together while he showed me steps and technique, discussed belly dance traditions, and watched vintage clips that he’d taped from the television in Saudi Arabia, featuring Golden Age Egyptian movies which starred famous Oriental Dancers like Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, and Tahiya Carioca. Zein also helped me select costumes, heartily encouraged my dancing, and got me my very first dance job (at Hollywood’s Moun Of Tunis Restaurant, where he worked) where, when I am actually in Los Angeles, I still work today.
Appropriate music for Middle Eastern dance was hard to find back in those days, and Zein made me copious amounts of Arabic mix tapes- remember, there were no CD’s back then- with the cassettes featuring everything from classic live Om Kalthoum performances to the latest in Egyptian pop and Algerian Rai music. Every cassette he made me had a special cover that he thoughtfully put together by hand, too- featuring Middle Eastern clip art, photocopies of vintage Turkish cigarette boxes and pictures of famous belly dancers like Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki.
Tragically, Zein died about five years after I met him. By that time, we were close friends and because of his encouragement, we were also gigging together regularly. I was absolutely devastated. I remember speaking-or rather blubbering through a speech- at his memorial, my face wet with flowing tears, but I don’t remember a thing I said. I thought of him often, so many things reminded me of him. At gigs when I felt pre-show jitters, I would think of the way he used to calm my nerves through humor right before a show. Wrapped in a turban and wearing a brocade galibiya, shimmying to warm up, with his ever-present Marlboro in his mouth, Zein would sense my anxiety, catch my eye, make an exaggerated coquettish gesture then and whisper in a feminine falsetto,
“How’s my hair?”
Somehow, our private joke never got old, and always made me laugh. Whenever he did that, I had a great show, entering the stage with a huge grin on my face. Even though Zein has been departed for years, I always think of him just before I go on.
So…fast forward to New Year’s Eve 1999, at five minutes of midnight. Of course I was at a belly dance gig, in a dressing room, wearing a brand new costume- my first costume for the New Millennium.
The dancer I was working with that evening asked what music I was going to dance to for my first dance set of the century.
“I don’t know, “ I said, pawing through my CD binder, “I’m so sick of all my music!”
My gig bag was full of the usual belly dance accoutrements: stray finger cymbals, perfume, hair accessories, mis-matched sequin armbands, loose aspirin tablets, safety pins. Suddenly, something fell into my hands, a small plastic case. Though my suitcase was always chaotic, there was a method to my madness, and it was always re-packed before every show. The little plastic box was definately an unfamiliar object that I didn’t remember packing. Recognizing what it was in the dim dressing room lighting by the feel of it alone, I wondered how it got there.
“Hey, no way, there’s a cassette in my dance bag!” I cried, kind of amazed.
“You still use cassettes?” the other dancer asked incredulously.
“Well, no, not for years”, I answered, dumbfounded, “I have no idea what it’s doing in here!”
“Well, maybe we can dance to it,” she said, “What is it?”
I glanced at the clock- it was now one minute before midnight. Thinking we’d better figure our music out, I turned the mystery cassette case over in my hands. The cover featured a black and white drawing of a 1920’s flapper lounging in a champagne glass.
In hand-lettered Art Deco font, it read:
“HAPPY NEW YEAR! LOVE, ZEIN”.
As the clock struck midnight and the new century began, I got chills.
Photo Of Zein Abdul Al Malik from the cover of Arabesque Magazine, January/February issue 1994