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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Dreamy Dead Sea


I'm tired of being white. I'm tired of being human, too. I'd rather be a shiny, gray-faced sea monster.

The journey to the Dead Sea is mindblowing. Jordan is a sight for sore eyes. Mountains and valleys, desert, towns, castles - the Kings Highway is magical. And then the sea emerges. The horizon is dreamy. The dead calm water blends into the sky.

The sun is setting, and I rush to the beach. I dip my body in the water and return to the shore. I stick my hand inside a big pot and grab a handful of mud. I begin to spread the dark, thick substance on my body, like jelly on a piece of toast. Little by little I disappear.

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I return to the water as a gray alien. I touch my tongue with a finger tip, and it burns a hole inside my mouth. The hot, mad salt doesn't let me go far. A few steps from the shore, and I'm on the surface belly up. I float like a piece of cardboard. My gray skin has melted into the Dead Sea. My body is gone. Only a face remains.

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A man in a turquoise T-shirt appears and tells me to return to the shore. But...I want to stay...but...but...The turquoise man doesn't understand that monsters belong in the sea. The sun is down and the fun is over - for now. Come morning, I'll return.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

7 Things Traveling Has Taught Me

You know the basic benefits of traveling: it broadens your perspectives, challenges your world view, makes you appreciate what you have.
Then there the less obvious lessons. Here are some of mine. Now, you don't need to travel to the end of the Earth to learn these things. The more evolved individuals have known them all along.

1. Time is not money

For most of us mortals, time is just time. There's a lot of it now, and a whole lot more where it came from. It's a renewable resource.
I was trying to cross into DRC, but the Congolese immigration officer wasn't feeling me. I didn't want to give up so soon and decided to wait and see what would happen. My time was dragging on in Bwera, that non-descript small town on the edge of Uganda.
There was nothing really to see, but I decided to see it anyway. I looked at the life around me. I stuck my head in all kinds of little shops. I watched Zakia the tailor sew skirts. I took pictures of the usual targets: kids and animals. At the tiny market, I admired fish, and browsed second hand shoes. Just to kill time, I tried on some dresses, imported from China. I didn't really love any of them but bought one anyway. I wear it from time to time and remember Bwera with a smile. Those two days had seemed so long. I'd felt like I was wasting my time - I had places to go! Of course, it was just a blink of an eye in my lifetime, and the memory of it is a pleasant one. I had time.
Zakia 
2. To get to the good stuff you gotta tolerate the rest

Travel plans play like a highlight reel in your head. In reality, there's almost always a lot of downtime. The less exciting stuff just didn't make the cut for the reel.
The whole point of going to Djemila was to see the ruins of a Roman town. Getting there was tricky: from Algiers, it took three different buses and lots and lots of time. Once there, the ruins rewarded me big time. After dark, though, there was nothing I could do in Djemila. I had no business roaming the streets alone at night. So, I spent the remaining hours in a bare hotel room. No laptop, book, TV, wifi. Just silence and solitude.
These days we're used to having a million distractions at our fingertips and I for one am a product of my time. As I'm writing this, I'm shuffling between news, newsfeed, Netflix, and random cat videos. Remove all entertainment and communication, and what's left? Just you. Do you like you? 
Rome in Algeria
3. Boredom is key

In Western culture, we'd rather die than be bored. We regard boredom as an ugly, unwanted feeling. I prefer to see it as a transformative state.
After a few weeks in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, I'd learned how to haggle with taxis, and freshened up my survival French. I had rummaged through sights and museums, been to some cool restaurants. Then the day came when I couldn't think of anything to do. I was just bored. 
I lingered in the house for the better part of the day. Eventually I put some shoes on and strolled to the end of the street, just to buy chocolate. I passed by the Lebanese supermarket, and the lady selling oranges on the roadside. The shop keeper greeted me. He knew what I wanted before I even told him. As I walked back, I realized I had become part of the neighborhood. I was no longer a traveler passing through.This was my place now, and there was a place for me here. My state of boredom had allowed my mind to go quiet. Finally, I could feel the place. From there on, Cote d'Ivoire started pulling me into its sweet embrace, loving me more and more.
Dodo and I
4. You are not lazy, you are traveling

The other reason we fall apart at the face of doing nothing is that we equate productivity with self worth. Not doing anything? You're lazy and useless. But the juice of any experience is in the feeling, not the doing. Truth is, we are worthy human beings without having to do a damn thing. Those voices in our heads insist we should be productive all the time, but our voices are louder, and we can tell them to shove it. It's surprisingly hard, even for a lazyass like me.
In Bahrain I met a female US soldier. She'd spent her twenties on different navy bases, saving up her money. Now the end of her stint was getting near, and she dreamed of going traveling for a year. She totally deserved to take a break and explore the world after working throughout her youth, right? Not so fast. 
"I don't know if I could travel more than a couple of months. I'd probably feel guilty for not working for that long." 
An unemployed Bahraini camel
5. You are not a friendless loser, you are traveling

In a new place, by yourself, your mind can start playing tricks on you. Loneliness has a way of creeping up on a solo traveler. You've got to keep it at bay, and be stronger.
There aren't many times I've felt as out of place as I did in Marrakech. The whole situation was bizarre. I had intended to leave Morocco, but then a bellydance contract in Tunisia suddenly came up. It would take two weeks for my work permit to be ready. I thought I would just hang out in Casablanca, but quickly realized I couldn't stand the city. In an unprecedented move, I booked myself a week-long stay in a four star hotel in Marrakech, thinking it would be relaxing and comfortable. That was hardly the case. Naturally, all other guests were families or couples. Sitting alone at breakfast was awkward, with a lineup of overly helpful waiters watching me and rushing to refill my coffee cup the second it was empty. Every day I bodyblocked cleaning ladies from entering my room. Had they seen my dance costumes, the whole house would have known I was a hoochie mama bellydancer. Was I in Marrakech alone because no one in the world loved me? No. Did I feel lonely and pathetic? Yes. Did that deter me from traveling alone again? Hell no.
A happy day in Assilah, northern Morocco
6. You are not the same bitch everywhere you go

In your own environment, it's easy to be your best self. I'm sure you are nice. I hope you feel safe. All is normal and so are you.
I'd like to think the same about myself. But this is not the only version of me. Take away my ability to communicate, or put me in a place where I'm given loads of unpleasant attention, or I have to worry about my stuff or my ass being grabbed, and I'm not that nice anymore. The defense mechanisms that come out under duress are not pretty.
I try not to judge myself too harsly for being a bitch on demand. The way I see it, part of the travel deal is accepting the uglier, equally real sides of myself.
In India I was no yogi - I was a screamer. From what I'd come to understand about South Asian culture while in the Gulf, and by my everyday observations in India, aggression was the law of the land. Stay polite in a conflict, and you'll be eaten for breakfast. 
I was handpicked by my agent to do a show in Kurukshetra, Haryana. A significant Hindu pilgrimage site, with a holy pond and temples - the boss knew Kurukshetra was right up my alley. He gave clear instructions to the driver and the middleman who would take me there: "No temple, no dance." 
The sun was alarmingly low as we neared Kurukshetra. The middleman turned to face me. 
"I don't think we have time to see the temple...the client is calling me." 
I knew we were in no rush - he just didn't feel like giving me a tour. I immediately turned up the volume, and threatened not to dance. For him to take me seriously, calm and polite wouldn't cut it. The middleman called my agent, who (loudly and impolitely) backed me up. So I saw the pond and the temple, and even got some nice footage for my documentary. I only got back in the car once it was totally dark. At the show venue, I still had to wait for several hours before dancing. As we all knew I would.
Brahma Sarovar, a holy pond
7. Seek and you shall find

Whatever we believe about the world is true, because our beliefs shape our experiences. Are most people good or bad? Is the world dangerous or safe? Are people happy or unhappy? Whatever you're leaning towards, the proof is never far. We simply zoom in on what we want to find.
As much as I can, I choose to see the good. In some places, people will warn you about thieves, for example. I don't then focus on the thieves. I zoom in on those people who care enough to warn me. They are my sisters, my brothers. In my life, they outnumber the bad guys a hundredfold. They help me find what I need. They defend me, they keep me safe. Anywhere I go. Every single time.
Mustafa, Hanan, and Najib took me under their wing in Somaliland

Friday, November 9, 2018

Lessons of Egypt...

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.”
Touché.
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! 

RAJASTHAN DANCE-OFF

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??

OMG SHE DIED

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

NO SIR, NOT MINE

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!


LET'S JUST IMAGINE I GOT PREGNANT LAST NIGHT

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
Nasraniya!
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! 

PLEASE EXCUSE ME WHILE I REARRANGE MY BREASTS

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

QUEEN OF KURDISTAN

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

THE NO-SHOW

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
THE WTF SHOW

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 zainadance@gmail.com