Friday, November 9, 2018

"You Didn't Ask"

I knew Yousef slept late, but six in the evening was high time to roll out of bed. We had important business to attend to! I dialed his number for the third time. This time, someone actually picked up.
“Yousef naeem”, Yousef is sleeping, she said.
It took a little coercion, but finally his mother, or whoever, put him on the phone. With a sleepy voice, Yousef told me the meeting with the singer Little Saad and the movie producer would be at eight.
Like a foreign idiot, I hastily slapped on some makeup, and rushed to get out of the house. Indeed, I got to the meeting point at eight. Everyone else arrived an hour and half later. It was a long time to kill by myself, lingering out on Cairo streets, and second-guessing my rather plain outfit.
The building, where the producer had his office, looked inconspicuous. It didn’t get any fancier inside: there was just a simple desk and a few chairs. Yet, this fellow was loaded. His last name was synonymous with Egyptian comedy. A new film produced by him or his brothers hit cinemas every few months.
The producer, the screenwriter, and Little Saad did the talking, Yousef the listening, and the translator the translating. I did the sitting pretty. The plot of our upcoming flick was laid out. A gang of amateur bank robbers, including Little Saad's character, accidentally wound up with a hostage situation. Among the hostages was me, an American tourist, who just happened to be a bellydancer. All kinds of chaos and razzle-dazzle followed. Despite the tourist's lack of Arabic, and the bank robber's speech impairment, a romance ensued. The famous bellydancer Nura would make an appearance in the film as well. The production would begin right after Ramadan, which was approaching fast.
After the meeting wrapped up, I got into Yousef's car and we headed towards my neighborhood. I asked what his impressions were. Yousef felt the screenwriter was apprehensive about my involvement. However, he wasn't the one calling the shots.
“If Little Saad says you’re in the movie, then you’re in the movie.”
It sounded reassuring.
“Who picked up your phone today?” I asked.
“My wife.”
It took me a good while to recover from my astonishment. Our conversations were crippled to begin with. Now, with my blindsided Arabic, I had to get to the bottom of this.
“Why didn't you tell me you were married?”
“You didn't ask.”
An excerpt of Fire In The Belly, a memoir by Zaina Brown, set to be released in January 2019. For publication updates, follow on Facebook and Instagram!
Photo by Simon Matzinger

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Bellydancing...Vol. 5

All professional performers must be able to think on their feet. This goes double for bellydancers - we are all about that improv. In this blooper reel of a blog series, we shine a spotlight on some of the most ridiculous moments of our careers. Let the stories begin! 


For most people, the name Jaipur evokes images of the dream Pink City and its crown jewel Hawa Mahal. For me, it brings to mind the cringeworthy memory of a certain birthday party show.
Since the birthday boy was a local politician, he held his trashy-ass event in a hotel room, away from prying eyes. This was no suite either, but a rather plain room, with a couch on one side and just enough floor space to dance on. He had hired five Indian "sexy females". They danced around in skimpy outfits, but that was quite possibly not the extent of their job. Then, there were my friend and I bellydancing.
We took turns performing, one song at a time. We had another room where we changed our costumes, and made our grand entrance from the hallway, room service style. The ridiculous, awkward show culminated to one of the Indian chicks hogging the spotlight while my friend was dancing. She placed herself in front of her, and started whipping her hair around. We gladly lost the dance-off to our Desi counterparts.
Julia Basenko - Ukraine / India
Do you see anyone besides Julia in this poster??


I had recently learned how to do the Turkish drop - falling flat on your back from a standing position, with bent knees, so your legs fold underneath you. I eagerly practiced each night during my show in an elegant dinner restaurant in Bahrain.
A group of local girls was sitting right next to the stage, lost in a conversation. I turned a few times on spot to a drum roll by the tabla player, and as I dropped, he simultaneously let out a loud thud. So did my body. I hit the stage so hard my heart bounced against my rib cage. The floor felt like a giant hand slapping me in the back. The sound startled the girls. I heard gasps, followed by hysterical giggles. It was an awkward few minutes, doing floorwork with my audience laughing uncontrollably next to my head. I couldn't blame them. After that, I learned to angle myself for a softer landing. It was just better for everyone. 
Zaina Brown - Finland / World
Nobody laughed at Zaina this time


Being the house dancer in Atlantis, one of Dubai's top hotels, may sound glamorous. It's in fact one of the most famous hotels in the world, located on the edge of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made palm tree shaped island. Atlantis is a tourist attraction in its own right, and I was always asked to take pictures with visitors. 
However, the floor plan didn't make for a seamless entrance. My changing room was in one of the main corridors, and I had to walk quite a distance to the restaurant where I performed. There, I had to walk down a circular staircase to finally meet my audience.
I was having a hectic day and I was running late for the first show. I changed into my costume as quickly as I could, threw on my cover-up and wings, and rushed to the restaurant. Only there I slowed down, to enter like a queen down the stairs. I did notice one side of my wings felt heavy, but didn't pay much attention to it. I started dancing, people took pictures, as usual. At some point, I realized why the wings felt lopsided: there was a white bra stuck on it! I had dragged it along all the way from the changing room. A panic flushed over me at the sight of the dangling bra. I quickly removed it, and tossed it between some unoccupied tables. A customer with a massive pro camera was kneeling next to me, to shoot me from this angle and that. In an unfortunate bout of helpfulness, he picked up the bra - which he thought I'd dropped by accident - and handed it to me. 
What was he thinking? I was so embarrassed I just pretended it wasn't mine. 
Amar Lammar - Mexico / UAE
Amar doesn't even own a white bra!


I was hired to perform at a maternity store opening on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, along with a few other bellydancers. Our job was to do some dancing, but also to add atmosphere into the event. I showed up in makeup, changed into a costume, and was getting directions about where to be and what to do.
"Oh no!" the boss said when she saw us. "I specifically requested pregnant bellydancers. Get them out of here!"
Before I could blink someone handed me my coat, some money, and showed me to the backdoor. 

How could anyone send Tava out the backdoor?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sh*t Mauritanians Say **

* i
** and some non-Mauritanians too, when noted

You came here alone? What is your problem?
A fellow bus passenger.

Are you a doctor? Do you have medicine for him?
The mother of 4-month-old Hamma, who was suffering from stomach problems. A doctor had previously given her medicine which did not work. She handed him to me when we stopped for a prayer break. 

I think it's only your country that doesn't have slaves.
Ousmane, who showed me around town in Atar. He knows some slaves in person, but doesn't have them on Facebook. Historically, Mauritanian Arabs enslaved part of the black African population. An estimated ten per cent of the nation is still living in slavery. In many cases, it's difficult to determine whether someone is an employee, member of extended family, or slave.  

Sing! Allah, Allah, Allah...
Tajib, who sat next to me in a Medeh, a pseudo-Islamic gathering which includes singing, drumming, and chanting. I found it by following the music from my guesthouse to the tent. 

These days, the force-feeding is more voluntary. 
Sidi, who works in the tourism industry. The brutal tradition of forcibly fattening young girls is no longer practiced. What he meant was some women still force-feed themselves to adhere to the old beauty ideals.

You're the only one I know of who got here by plane.
A Polish solo traveler. She was doing a tour of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Senegal, which is a popular overland itinerary.

Did you have a Mauritanian wedding?
A girl in the oasis village of Terjit.
Main road in Terjit
Checkpoint police, taxi drivers, kids on the street, you name it.
Many countries have an obnoxious word to describe a foreigner. This one literally means a person from Nazareth - because all white chicks are homies of Jesus. 

Maybe you could take her.
'Her' was 6-month-old Salek, who was suffering from malnutrition. She's been in her grandmother's care since birth, and something has gone wrong with the bottle-feeding. Salek is now fed a variant of Plump Nut, a baby-saving product. I met her while I was getting henna tattoos.

But you eat so little!
Several people.

Tell your husband you're in paradise. Make him jealous.
A Dutch hotel owner, who has lived in Mauritania for two decades. 
Fishing boats returning to shore in the capital Nouakchott

Saddam Hussein is to us what Donald Trump is to Americans.
A man on a Nouakchott street, who saw me looking at a poster of "the martyr" Saddam. Mauritania supported Iraq during the Gulf war, and Saddam is considered a hero.

She's a hundred.
A nomad desert guide of his mother, when I asked about her age.
She's not old, she's wise.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Bellydancing...Vol. 4

All professional performers must be able to think on their feet. This goes double for bellydancers - we are all about that improv. In this blooper reel of a blog series, we shine a spotlight on some of the most ridiculous moments of our careers. Let the stories begin! 


One night in Tunis, I was wearing a beautiful, pink costume. The bra gave me a nice cleavage, so I felt especially good in it. Unlike most bras, it closed in the front with a single hook and long pieces of fabric which were tied in a bow. 
I started my entrance with a veil. Within a few moments, I noticed I felt oddly comfortable. I looked down, and realized the hook had busted open, my boobs were in my armpits, and everyone was gawking at the wide open gap the size of a parking space on my chest. At least so I imagined. I turned my back to the audience, and gesticulated my situation to the band. I was so mortified I wanted to die. The musicians of course burst into laughter. They turned down the lights and I escaped backstage. Thank God, a female singer was around to help me, and we were able to fix the bra with safety pins. I returned to the stage like nothing happened.
Adriana Teixeira - Brazil / Australia

Adriana on a good bra day


My first New Year's Eve dancing in the Middle East, I was in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. 
People were clapping and singing, and giving me great tips. I felt like a superstar! When the Saidi began, I happily grabbed my cane to spin it. Somehow, it escaped from my hand, flew in the air, and landed on a table filled with food and drinks. Embarrassed, I went over to retrieve it. Thankfully, the clients were gracious about it.
"Don't worry Habibti", they said, and handed me the cane.
My superstardom, on the other hand, remained between the plates of Hummus and Kibbeh.  
Francia Elide - Mexico / UAE
A caneless Francia


I was working in Delhi, when my agent sent me across country to do a wedding show in the Himalayan town of Siliguri in Assam state. The client booked my flights and hotel. I started my performance, but my music was faded out in the middle of the first song. I left the stage, without thinking too much of it - maybe the bride and the groom were just about to make their grand entrance.
Backstage, I waited and waited. Other performers took the stage, but my turn seemed to never come. Hours later, I went out to see what was going on. It turned out there had been a miscommunication within the families: while the younger generation wanted a bellydancer, some conservative older folk had pulled the plug on the show. So, after traveling two thousand kilometers and performing half a song, I just packed up, received the payment, slept, and flew back home to Delhi.
Janka Jaan - Slovakia
Look, they let Janka dance

It sounded like the most benign of events: a woman's birthday party on a Wednesday night, at a Manhattan restaurant. As I walked in, I was a little surprised to see only women in attendance. Someone offered up an explanation without me asking - they were members of a lesbian club. 
"Everyone here is a lesbian", she clarified, in case I didn't get the jist.
The sound system of the restaurant was computerized, which meant they were unable to connect any external source of music. It was the first time I encountered such a problem in New York City. The only thing they could play was barely audible elevator muzak, and not even the volume could be changed. Now what? A round of cordial blamegame followed. I remembered a tip I'd heard from another dancer, for those times when the music stopped mid-show: direct the audience to clap their hands at a steady beat. So I gathered my moxy, and said the show would proceed. Besides, I wanted to get paid.
The "show" started out okay. I twirled with my veil for a while, then tossed it and asked the birthday girl to dance with me. She was in her fifties - and despite it being only seven o'clock in the evening, inebriated. She came very close to me and put her hands on my waist, and before I had a chance to discreetly back away, kissed me on the mouth. I tried not to look overly disgusted, but put enough distance between us to be safe from any further molestation. The hand clapping, which had started out clear and strong, was disintegrating fast. The birthday girl lost her balance, and landed on her butt. I was embarrassed - for her or for myself, I couldn't tell - so I turned to face away from her. I gave it a good ten seconds, and turned back around. She was still on the floor, too drunk to get back on her feet. I took it as my cue to wrap it up. 
Zaina Brown - Finland / Thailand
Zaina will also dance underwater if necessary

Pro bellydancers, submit your funny story at

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Bellydancing...Vol. 3

All professional performers must be able to think on their feet. This goes double for bellydancers - we are all about that improv. In this blooper reel of a blog series, we shine a spotlight on some of the most ridiculous moments of our careers. Let the stories begin! 


Dancing at one of my favorite spots in Athens, Greece, I still had lots of energy left for the drum solo. I was hitting the accents hard. At one point I did a big hair flip, bending forward all the way for that DUM DUM. For TEK, I rose up with that fiery little-mermaid-hair-splash. This was a great show, with a captivated audience. I reveled in that awesome feeling. 
Soon, something felt different.  Was I just light-headed? As I looked around, I realized people's eyes were fixated near my feet. I glanced down - and to my horror, discovered my ponytail hair extension stuck on the sequined patterns on the skirt. It looked like Cousin It from the Addams family, a hairy creature doing its own dance on floor level. This was now an unintended duet. What's a bellydancer to do?  I was on such an endorphin high that instead of embarrassed, I actually felt empowered. I stuck my fingers in my real hair, releasing it from those useless hairpins and elastics, and tousled it free while violently shaking my head. The audience suddenly refocused on me…the liberated wildwoman I had become! For the grand finale, I bent down to remove the stray ponytail off my skirt, and took a gracious bow - with a bunch of fake hair in my hand. 
Next time, I pinned that pony on hard. 
Athena Najat - US / Turkey
These days, Athena holds onto her hair 24/7


Our group was performing at an open-air festival in Tallinn, Estonia, as part of a diverse lineup. A few minutes before we were to take the stage with our swords and canes, it started to drizzle. We were hoping it would just be a few drops, and proceeded. We were wrong. Soon it was pouring. Wet skirts clinging to our legs, makeup running down our faces, we bravely performed for a handful of umbrella-clutching people. Strangely enough, it was the most liberating and refreshing performance ever! We had no complaints whatsoever - and hey, we got paid.
Kaidi Udris - Estonia / Egypt
Kaidi in dry weather


I used to perform at a restaurant which had three dancers on Saturdays. One night there was a group, who for some reason assumed we dancers didn't speak English - when in fact two of us were American and the remaining Brazilian was of course fluent in English. In their minds, we were some poor fresh-off-the-boat Eastern European girls, who had to do this kind of work to survive. This may have made sense in a country like Egypt, but not so much in Atlanta, Georgia...The customers dissected us as if we weren't there, making all sorts of unpleasant comments. They worried my boobs would fall out of my "too small" bra - it fit just fine, thank you very much - so I made sure to shoulder shimmy with gusto every time I passed by their table. 
Omega - US
Omega, just chilling in the Land of Opportunity


My show at Turkish restaurant had been going well - until a fight broke out between two groups of clients. Men stood up to throw punches. In a blink of an eye, it was Wild West in there. Shellshocked, I continued to dance in the safest corner. The owner had to empty the entire place to put an end to the mayhem. Music still playing, I collected my things. The waitress wiped the blood off the floor.
Suvi Safira Turunen - Finland 
Suvi and a peaceful banana


Two years ago, backstage before the show, I was asked for my cassette.

Pro bellydancers, submit your funny story at

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Bellydancing...Vol. 2

All professional performers must be able to think on their feet. This goes double for bellydancers - we are all about that improv. In this blooper reel of a blog series, we shine a spotlight on some of the most ridiculous moments of our careers. Let the stories begin! 


After years of dancing in Egypt, I thought I had seen it all. 
I was in the middle of my show in a nightclub, and one of the regular customers had joined me on the stage. He was considered a VIP, who brought along an entourage and a bodyguard. It was all pretty normal, until he reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a real live snake. He started swinging the snake around his head, all the while dancing his heart out. 
I tried to be professional and continue the show, but I couldn't help backing away to create some distance between myself and the reptile. Thankfully, the stage manager had enough sense to make that my last song, and I was able to leave. Backstage, I found out the customer had a habit of dancing with his non-dangerous pet snake.
Venom or no venom, I hope next time he keeps his snake to himself. 
Vanessa - US / Egypt
Vanessa thought she had seen it all


My first short performance in Jalandhar, in the state of Punjab, went fine. When it was time for my second set, the organizer asked me to put on her black, fluffy winter coat, and dance in that. Apparently, some people in the audience were scandalized by my outfits. This happened sometimes in India - but there was no way in hell I was dancing in that ugly thing. I tried to explain that a winter coat wasn't the right way to cover up a bellydancer. 
"What's the problem?" she asked, "just put it on and get on the stage!"
I still refused. Instead, I wrapped myself in my bellydance veils. It was a much more elegant look - even if I say so myself.  
Janka - Slovakia
Janka keeping it covered


I was hired to dance at a birthday at a lounge in Queens, New York. The whole party was inebriated by the time I arrived. The guest of honor could barely stand. I took a deep breath and told myself, "It's only twenty-five minutes of your life. Get in, do the show and go home." 
Immediately after my set, they popped the cork on several bottles of champagne and shot it in my direction like frothy canons. Did I mention the guest of honor was wasted? He held on to me for dear life as his feet gave out from under him. I was covered in a soup of dirty floor soot and champagne. I collected myself, found a plastic bag to gather my sopping wet tips and ran out. As I left I passed a man who was urinating on the side of the building. I startled him and he turned to face me, in mid-stream. Now I added pee on my ankle to the champagne and soot all over my expensive designer costume. In the meantime, a mixture of ice and snow had formed on the roads. A ride that should have been one hour became two and half hours. 
All in all, I made three hundred and fifty dollars. I would have paid as much to stay home and skip the entire night!
Pee on Tava once more, and she will end you
Pro bellydancers, submit your funny story at