Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pandora's (In)Box

Manish had a question for me.
"hey..r u a belly dancer..??"

One day while browsing my Newsfeed I saw a friend talk about his "other" inbox.
"What is that?" I asked.
He explained that next to my Inbox, I too had a folder named "Other", which absorbed spam and messages from non-friends. I can't keep up with Facebook. Mark should tell me these things!

You know the story of Pandora? According to the Greek, Zeus gave Pandora this beautiful box, telling her not to open it no matter what. But that silly girl went and opened it anyhow, and BOOM! Out came years worth of promotional spam and sexual frustration. And since that day, every woman on Facebook has been cursed with a Box of their own.

A lot of the stuff in Zaina's Box could be summarized as just "hi...can we be friendz...??", but others had more substance. 

"Are you a real belly dancer? I thought muslim countries don't have belly dancers. Im muslim so im just curious." -Namis

I think Namis is very, very confused.

"hi i need to talk with u soon in job .and i get ur name on fb from friend to u .but answer soon plz not time .tnx"

Man! I can't believe I missed that opportunity in job! This sounds TOTALLY legit.

"I like u r puctur n profile."

Not sure which puctur I had at the time, but I'm glad he liked it.

"Hello!! Lady!!!! Can we become friends???" - Myles

Hello!! Dude!!! No???

"hi, i know u have seen my FR but u r hesitant to accept! no need to worry from dear i just like to be ur close friend in bahrain...u r amazing with special senses!"

Pheew, I was so worried that he may not want to be my close friend. However, my special senses tell me not to speak to him.

A quick query among my friends produced similar results. Bellydancers are online creeper MAGNETS. A take from Shayma's Box:

"really u look so sweet, i want to be real friend , send me ur number to talk , i have only 20 days for my vacation" - Kamal

Twenty days of real friendship. Who could refuse?

"hi hwzz u whr u frm??cute pix..." - Shibin

Would it kill Shibin to use actual words?

"U like to have a feet massage !?" - Tareq

Don't we all, Tareq, don't we all.

 Siham's Box included one of the more coherent messages. You would almost think he typed it with two hands.

"I hope you don't mind me saying, but you have to be one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen!!!  You look like an Arabian Princess in your outfit!

Would it be okay if I were to ask you a kinda silly question? Well, I'm a little nervous to ask but here goes. I was wondering if you might consider the thought of having a servant boy?  Like someone to do all your cleaning, running errands, hold your umbrella, stuff like that? I just thought you looked like an Arabian Princess.  Like in those movies where the Princess is being carried on one of those fancy carriage things, carried by four male slaves while another slave fans her with those peacock feathers. Know what I mean?" - Kenny

We know exactly what Kenny means. Those fancy carriage things, peacock feather fans, slaves, the usual stuff. I don't think this poor servant boy from the States even realizes Siham is a professional dancer, not a girl playing dress-up.
Athena Najat
Athena Najat

Here's a couple of winners from Athena's Box.

"mam am body massager  special in belly dancer body  special in backbone hipe  thai  legs foot foot finger shoulder hand hand finger mam my massage full reluxe the body she feel come in the world in born new baby mam thailand world massage center she lady call me in thailand i will go thailand in 20011 mam i want a massage job my mobile no 00923******** my am male am 48 year old am 25 year above experince in massage" - Sarfraz

I just have a couple of questions to Mr. Sarfraz. Judging by the number, he's in Tajikistan. Would mam Athena need to move there, should she decide to hire him? And, who the hell makes plans for the year 20011?

"hioo ..good morning iam ahmed from arab republic of EGYPT.. iam inetrsted in u so much ... can u accept adding me in ur frind list .... woww i see u wear belly dancing clothes .... can u really dance egyptian dance i feel woww ..... u know i live in giza 10 minutes from pyramids... can u add me soon....thanks iam waiting ur reply" - Ahmed

I hear you Ahmed! I feel woww when I see Athena's pictures too!

One person stood out in the crowd. We'll call him the Poet. He'd sent me a whole bunch of messages. If you read closely, you can hear the South Asian accent. Here are some of my favorite lines. The entire "poems" are WAY too long to repeat here.

"when i think of you i became fragrant, your scent is resided in my soul"

"there is some magic in your eyes, hide me under the shade of your lashes"

"The world is your ouster, and it ponders on an opportunity to show its gratitude to you for your graceful aura which you sprinkle in every ambiance."


"the morning blue sky awaits your rainbow :)"

See what he did there!

"The heavens need to bestow in your life a Prince (...) who when would be in your presence would feel champagne falling from the heavens." 

Look, before you get mad jealous, it wasn't me that caused that leakage of champagne. The Poet was sending the same stuff to just about EVERY bellydancer and their mother. His friend list also included many women who appeared to be, how to put this now, adult entertainers.

I decided to play a little. I wrote a message to the Poet.
"Wow, you write such captivating poems. You truly are a man of eloquence and creativity. But I'm a little sad since you have sent the same poems to many other would you write something just for me? Looking forward." 
I stopped short of calling him the Rumi of our generation. I'm not that mean.

Here's a sample of what I inspired in him. The whole thing is much, much longer.

"your style is a killer Zaina

how can one not sacrifice for you?

your body is a spark"

"my body feels a fire
your face such a heart-tempter"
"Your gaze of of sensuality bedazzled the town folk of Madrid

Let the ladies backstage be envious of your dance"

I could only muster a one word in response.

"Don't you live in the Madrid?"
"Never been to Madrid in my life."

Must be hard to keep track of all the bellydancers in the world.

The Poet went on to ask where it was that I lived, and if I liked what he'd written for me. I didn't respond. Soon another poem followed, something about tears of love and waiting for the message of my homecoming. Well. I'm not going to Spain anytime soon, if that's what he meant.

However, it's not all about us girls. Guys can make champagne fall from the heavens too. Here's the proof from Luna's Box.

"Hi luna I am Saudi gay arab man, i am big fan of your dancing.  You know what mean to be gay in Saudi Arabia, it very difficult for me." - Abdullah

She ignored him. He wrote back later:

"Luna you know I am big fan, you can trust me. I want give you rent for to spend night with your musician. Please you can help me with this."

NOW we've heard it all. I don't dare imagine how Luna's Egyptian band would react if they knew some dude was fantasizing about them.

Amar Lammar
Amar Lammar
Let's crack open Amar's Box. The plot thickens.

"hi Amar, iam from Saudi Arabia but iam gay and I love to wear girly  even I look very manly anyway as you know in Saudi Arabia its difficult for people to accept me as who iam. can we be plz friends" - Abdullah

I know I know, it's hard out there for an online perv, in Saudi or anywhere. But why is a gay guy contacting WOMEN? Something is not adding up here.

"Sherlock Holmes was an idiot and Robert Watt was a fool.One was a detective,the other invented radar.But neither of them ever discovered you.I’m a genius!so can i be ur friend?" - Ahmed

I feel woww.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Little Dabke in Palestine! See Video :)

I love watching any type of dance. And I ESPECIALLY love watching children dance. Which is why coming across a kids' Dabke rehearsal was such a pleasant surprise.

Let me explain where this happened. You know Bethlehem? As in the Bible? Just a few miles from the spot where Jesus (supposedly) was born, lies the Dheisheh refugee camp. Housing some ten thousand Palestinian refugees, it's also home to a children's folk dance troupe.

Graffiti art on the streets of Dheisheh
It is not a new camp. The original residents of Dheisheh fled the fighting, or were expelled from their villages, in the wake of the founding of Israel in 1948. Like all refugee camps, this too started out as a tent city, a temporary dwelling place for those with nowhere to go. Six decades later, these kids were born here. Their kids will probably be born here. There are lots of camps like this all around the West Bank.

Back in the 50's it still looked like a temporary camp
Want to see for yourself? You can. From Bethlehem, take a taxi to the Ibdaa Cultural Center at the entrance of the Dheisheh camp. There is a nice, cheap guesthouse too, so you can stay the night. I warmly recommend it.

Here's a clip from the rehearsal:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Becoming a Gray Alien

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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Never Again, Again, Again

A year ago Rwanda caught me completely off guard. It turned me into a pitiful sobbing ball of sadness. Only mountain gorillas distracted me from the genocide that consumed my every waking thought. I took my time to get ready for Cambodia. And a few weeks ago, ready I was.

When trying to make sense of an ugly monster like genocide, you push emotions aside and employ your logic instead. You learn about the circumstances prior to the disaster, gain insight into the mindset of the nation. You find out "why". But you still continue to ask WHY. Facts can only get you halfway there. The rest of the way, you're on your own. You get lost, and turn back where you came from, to look at the facts once more. You try again to find a way into understanding, or simply give up, staying lost forever. And even if you reach that vague state of comprehension, it doesn't gratify you. If just feels hollow.

Cambodian genocide victims. Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda
Seeing the pictures, or the remains of thousands upon thousands of victims is overwhelming. Your mind tunes out in order to defend itself, or you break down completely. When my vision begins to blur over the faces of so, so many people, I zoom in. Seeing just one person at a time allows me to refocus. I find someone I can most easily relate to: a woman around my age. I wonder what her and I may have had in common. What her life was like when everything was still fine. If, in another lifetime, we could be friends.


I like to look at the victims' faces. This may sound strange. But they say that we are not dead as long as there is at least one person who remembers us. As time drags on, there may be no one left to remember the victims of the past. Their entire families may have died alongside with them - hence the word genocide. By looking into their faces, I'm honoring the life that these people had. If I was in their place, I would like someone to know that I existed. That I was here. That I was somebody, even if they will never know my name.

Whatever happened to the murderers? Well, Pol Pot was burned in Anlong Veng, in the north of the country. As soon as his regime was overthrown, enraged Cambodians did away with him and the rest of Khmer Rouge, and torched them alive. Sorry, that didn't really happen. Pol Pot died quietly of a heart attack in 1998, almost twenty years post-genocide, having never faced justice. His body was cremated on a pile of tires. He got away with the murder of nearly two million people.

I wanted to make sure they really burned every last piece of him, so I made the trip. The nature around Anlong Veng is eerily beautiful. This was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and remained under their control well into the 90's. Seeing the pile of ashes gave me some peace of mind. Hell holds a special place for the likes of him.

Pol Pot's cremation site in Anlong Veng
I know that for many people this kind of misery tourism sounds unimaginable. Well, traveling for me is about getting to know the world, good and bad. I saw plenty of beautiful things in Cambodia, too. But I needed both sides of the story.

What's the purpose of going someplace just to feel bad, someone may ask. Is it a case of morbid obsession, or sincere interest in historical events? That's a valid question. I analyze my own motives all the time. It comes down to the value of seeing things with your own eyes. Everyone knows what the pyramids look like, yet most people would still want to see them. The thing is, I'm perfectly capable of feeling bad WITHOUT seeing with my own eyes. I've felt bad about the genocides of the world since I was a kid. Visiting the locations is the only thing left to bring me closer to that elusive state of understanding. Closer, but not quite there. I think I'll stay lost forever, asking "why" until the end of my days.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Wedding Crashing in Thailand

Few things make me bounce with excitement like the prospect of attending a wedding. It's a cultural fair like no other. I believe it provides a unique view into the heart of a country. It's fascinating to see how people celebrate the most special of all occasions. Being the clueless foreigner just adds to the fun - there's always some surprises!

I can divide my wedding experiences into three categories. Most of the time I've been "the bellydancer". Like all my sisters in New York, I've performed in lots of weddings, especially Arabic ones. A handful of times I've been "a guest", with a formal invitation and all. And sometimes while traveling I get to be "a crasher". Yeah, there's some sort of verbal invitation from an audacious someone who thinks it's okay to bring extras. But I consider myself a crasher when I don't even know the names of those getting married.

Cutting the cake. Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire 2010
Snagging an invitation to crash is such a random thing. You never know when and where you'll get lucky. I've spent a total of ONE YEAR of my life in Egypt, and never attended a wedding there! That's odd even statistically speaking, considering how marriage-happy and easygoing Egyptians are. I've had more luck in Africa than in Arabia. My most glorious moment came in Burundi. I entered the country, where I knew no one, on a transit visa. And somehow during those 72 HOURS I managed to invite myself into a wedding. Ha!

The bride wore white. Bujumbura, Burundi 2012
Oftentimes, a wedding is a days long affair and attending once doesn't cover nearly all of it. Case in point: I spent three days at a Sahrawi wedding (in the occupied Western Sahara) without seeing the bride once. She was going to make an appearance late on the third night. Unfortunately I had a bus to catch. I'm sure she looked pretty.

Sahrawi women get fresh henna for each wedding. Laayoune, Western Sahara 2012
Thailand turned out to be another lucky country for me - Nakhon Si Thammarat being the lucky town. A Thai wedding was a whole other animal. I had no clue of the dos and the don'ts. My main concern was the dress code. I googled and found plenty of info. None of the dresses I had with me were temple-proof. For a Buddhist wedding, you cannot wear a short skirt - you'll be sitting on the floor and shouldn't flash your crotch at Buddha. Black is a funeral color worldwide, but here it's a serious no-no: the Thais are a superstitious bunch and wearing black could bring some serious bad luck to the happy couple. Bare shoulders and cleavage may be fine in a church, but not cool at the temple. And you shouldn't go too fancy as to not upstage the bride. So what's a girl to wear? A moomoo or mosque gear? That didn't seem quite right either. Finally I went for a long blue strappy dress, which was definitely on the beachy/maternity/casual side. A belt, bracelets, earrings and a shawl later, I hoped it would do the job.

I arrived at the wedding location - house, not a temple - and all my concerns evaporated. The bride's friends were all in knee-length dresses, or even pants. Well, better safe than skimpy. Aside from cutesy frocks, I saw lots of casual attires, including guys in T-shirts and jeans. They looked severely underdressed to me, but I'm sure they knew what they were doing.

The girls
The ceremony began at 9:09 am (nine is a lucky number and plenty of weddings start at that time). It was held inside the family home, on the living room floor. The Thai way of getting hitched is deeply traditional and ritualistic, yet friendly and non-pretentious. In other words, it's the perfect reflection of the culture. Even as I didn't understand anything that was said, it was a super interesting thing to watch. The bride was gorgeous in her traditional outfit. (The groom was alright in a suit and color-uncoordinated blue socks.) The couple received blessings from parents and grandparents, water was sprinkled on their heads, the bride spoon-fed the groom (she stuck some really spicy stuff in his mouth, which made everybody laugh). At one point the ceremony took a surprising turn. We all flocked into the bedroom, where rose pedals were thrown onto the bed. I suppose it was the bed where the couple would, you know...take a nap later on. That was a little too much information for my Farang eyes. My favorite part was when each guest blessed the newlyweds by pouring water on their hands. By being present, we all were contributing to their future happiness. I felt honored to be a part of it.

Blessed by water
Once the ceremony was over, guests moved into a tented area on the street. A couple of female singers took turns on the little stage. Food was served. It was standard Thai, nothing unusual. There was some sort of coconut soup for dessert. After the food, the guests in my table got up to leave. I was stunned - the reception hadn't even begun! The newlyweds hadn't made their grand appearance yet, there had been no speeches, no wedding cake, no (belly)dancing the afternoon away...It dawned on me that none of it may be coming. This was it. People ate, and then just left. On the way out, they took pictures with the groom and the bride, who had now changed into a white wedding gown.

I loved both her dresses
So I followed suit. I took my final photos with the newlyweds, received a party favor (a mug wrapped in pink mesh), and signed the (pink) guestbook. I left the party with my head in romantic pink clouds, and loving Thailand even more.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How to Tell You're in Finland

1. It's July and you're wearing a jacket

My plan to visit Finland mid-July seemed foolproof. For the first time in a decade I was going to my home country smack in the middle of summer! What could possibly go wrong?

The weather, of course. The temperature hovered below twenty degrees Celsius - low sixties Fahrenheit - with some rain and thunderstorms. I mean, what the fuck? This was summer? Everyone kept telling me how the entire June had been hot, which was a cold comfort, literally.

2. The sun seems to never set

It's easy to lose track of time, when 10 pm looks like a cloudy afternoon. Me like!

3. Every single house comes with a sauna

And every kitchen with a coffee maker, a built-in cutting board, a built-in dish rack inside a cupboard over the sink, and...

Back in the day, babies were born in saunas
4. It speaks fluent English - until

You know that arrogant European tourist, who expects people to speak their language wherever they go? Well, you won't have to learn Finnish to know what the hell we want from you. It's a fringe language and we know it's our job to make ourselves understood. It's common for kids to study several languages in school. English is expected of everyone - you'll be hard pressed to find anyone under 50 who cannot converse in English. But some things will inevitably get mixed up. Like, when "valleys" is translated into "hills". Oh well.

5. You get off the bus at  "Kuusmiehenkaari - Sexmansbågen"

What? How are you supposed to read that? The names of everything are long and exhausting, twice (Finnish and SWEDISH! Useful, right?). It's kind of like trying to read Turkish or Malay. But fear not, getting around is easy enough. In Helsinki, all the buses and trams have electrical signboards announcing the next stop - so you only need to remember the first few letters of your destination.

I'm sure orange was a really hot color in the 80's...but I would have gone with plain silver
6. People pick up the phone by saying their name (when they don't know who's calling)

Saying just "Hello" would be considered kind of rude. Only a hillbilly would do that.

7. It plays by the rules

Whether it's waiting for the green lights to cross the street or buying a tram ticket when no one is's a pretty obedient society. Street crime is close to none. In the small towns no one would snatch your bag if you offered it. You really don't have to give a shit about your stuff.

8. The ladies in huge black skirts and frilly tops ain't headed for a renaissance fair

They are Finnish gypsies. Oh yeah. It's a small ethnic minority here. Traditionally horse traders, fortune tellers, and artists, these days the gypsies have mostly main-stream professions. The men wear black pants, and match them with a seemingly random top, like an Adidas jacket. There's always been some friction between gypsies and the general public, but it's nothing compared to the discrimination and human rights violations that go on in central Europe.

9. The cashier says hello! No exceptions

You know the kind of service you get in the average supermarket or pharmacy in NYC? I'm talking of the people who take pride in giving customers attitude because they really don't give a flying fuck about their job. You simply cannot find that here.

Rudolph is food.
10. Reindeer meat, rye bread, licorice candy, sour milk... sold in every corner store.

11. Just when you give up all hope, summer appears

And then it's all ice cream and short shorts in a warm bright night. Awesome!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pray, Dance, Puke

I woke up at 4am in a Lebanese mountain town. It was still dark. I waited until the morning light, and went out for a walk. The streets of Broumana were quiet and smelled like flowers. It was the second day of Ramadan, but you didn't notice that here. It was a Christian town.

One of the numerous churches in Broumana, Lebanon
I stepped inside a Maronite church, and sat down on the nearest bench. There was a handful of women, all sitting quietly. I noticed that the center piece above the altar was a statue of Madonna with baby Jesus. I think most churches have a depiction of a crucified Jesus there. I liked the woman holding the baby instead.

Inside a Maronite church
A priest walked in. I realized that the women were waiting for the mass to begin. A few more people trickled in. I decided to stay. It was the first time I sat through a church service in Arabic. The Maronite mass was nice and calm. There was a lot of singing. In the end, two little boys got up to touch the priest's hands, and then went around the church and touched everyone else's hands. I'd never seen that. It was sweet.
The following day I attended some sort of Bellydance Olympics. Which was what I was here for.

The climate in the mountains is great in the summer, it doesn't get too hot
The Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, near the coastal town of Jounieh, is like Lebanon's version of Christ the Redeemer. A giant statue of Virgin Mary casts a merciful eye on the mortals beneath her. I don't know how I'd never made it there before. It was on my mind every time I came to Lebanon. Now I would finally do it.
You see, the Lady grants wishes. That's a true fact. At the tender age of 18, a friend of mine prayed to the Lady to make her a bellydancer. And a bellydancer she became, beautiful as a butterfly. She's one of the most talented people I know. It was a little late in my life to be wishing for that. I was going to ask for something entirely different.
There's nothing like a stomach bug to kill a great plan. A puking day is not a sightseeing day. I lay in bed, and managed to recover enough to fly at night.
The three days in Lebanon had been eventful. Highlight: seeing many dear friends, and making new ones. Low point: sitting on the floor of a taxi, vomiting by the roadside. But you know what they say: if you want to make the Lady of Lebanon laugh, tell her your plans. Guess I'll have to return another time.

Mommy & baby

Monday, July 1, 2013

NYC, the Home of the Amish

Ten years ago I arrived in New York City with a couple of bags, an address and a phone number. I called the landlady from a payphone at JFK to let her know I was on my way. But when I got to the apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, no one buzzed me in. I sat down on the stoop. It was the last afternoon of August. The summer was far from over. Some guys on the block noticed me and began to holla at me. "Hey baby..." I looked the other way, at my new street, at Brooklyn. I knew I had to get smart real fast.

Even while sitting on the street with my stuff, I felt relieved. The hard part was over. I'd worked my butt off to reach that stoop. Through the preceding winter I'd cleaned offices during the day, taught bellydance classes at night, and performed on the weekends. I'd scrambled together (barely) enough money to get a six month long visa - on the second attempt. (The first time they denied me. I wasn't taking no for an answer, and reapplied with a new pile of papers.) I'd found a cheap sublet on Craigslist in Sunset Park, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. I arrived with a few thousand dollars, enough to get me through the first three or four months. I didn't have a plan for after that. I knew nobody in New York. At least I spoke the language.

The city welcomed me. I found everything I'd been looking for, even the things I hadn't dared to want out loud. The dance scene was amazing. For the first time I didn't struggle to make ends meet. New friends were all around, places to live were easy to find. Each new neighborhood was a new beginning. During four years I lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, twice in each. Some of those roommates became friends for life.

Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City, Manhattan
Every so often a friend comes to visit (like next month), but these days I'm usually not around. The least I can do is make some recommendations. I got plenty, but still asked my friend Monet, one of the few native New Yorkers I know. Let's lean in for her inside information!
"What would you call a New York must-see?"
"You'd need to ask somebody who's moved here from someplace else. When you're born and raised here you don't really think about it." (Telling it like it is!)
"Well what's your favorite neighborhood to visit?"
She paused.
"I like Astoria. It reminds me of Brazil." (Huh?!)
"Where do you like to shop?"
"I don't shop."
There! You heard it from a native. She said to ask someone who's moved I asked myself.

I think the biggest mistake visitors make is never leaving Manhattan. (Taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty does NOT count.) Okay, you wanna see the Empire State, the Met, some diner where Sally fake orgasmed at Harry...yawn. I'm not a big fan of touristy stuff, anywhere. The best of NYC does not come with an entrance fee or opening hours. What makes this city great is its PEOPLE. The mix of cultures, the different neighborhoods. People move to New York with big dreams, whether it's finance, fashion, or arts - or simply supporting family back home. This city was built by ambitious immigrants. We used to arrive by boat from Europe, now we fly in from all over the world, and all of us have a chance to make it here.

A few historical neighborhoods are famous, like Harlem, Little Italy and the Village in Manhattan. All are worth a linger. But there's a hundred others. The Greek-Arabic-Hispanic (and I suppose Brazilian!) concoction Astoria in Queens is one of my favorites too. A little further east is Jackson Heights, Queens, head there for a slice of Indian heaven. Right now I'm staying in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and I constantly hear Arabic on the streets. It offers me a soft landing from the Middle East. Wanna see what the kool kids are up to? Alternative is mainstream on St. Marks Place in the East Village, Manhattan - great for cheap eats, community yoga classes, bongs, tattoos, and other weird souvenirs.

Who doesn't love Big Gay Ice Cream Shop! East Village, Manhattan
The Chinatown in Manhattan is far from the only Chinese dominated area. Try Flushing, Queens - women with umbrellas on a sunny day will confirm you're in Asia. Or go check out the fashionable ladies in the Russian speaking Brighton and Coney Island in Brooklyn. If you keep your eyes open (or Google) you can discover interesting sub-neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Haiti or Le Petit Senegal. I have a huge soft spot for my first hood Sunset Park, and to this day I head to 5th Avenue for cheap shopping, to hear what's hot in Reggaeton and to grab some street snacks. (Not to be confused with the 5th Avenue in Manhattan! No Louis Vuitton here.) Other good shopping destinations are Flatbush Avenue, which is in a mostly black and Caribbean area in Brooklyn, Steinway street in Astoria, as well as Queens Mall. Great food is all around, you can find anything your heart desires, whether it's cheap ethnic or fancy fusion. For a truly local experience, have a bagel with cream cheese.

Arabic food is easy to find in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Sometimes this city stuns you. I'll never forget when I first set foot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Suddenly I saw a boy wearing a little hat, with a shaved head and two long curls on both sides of his face. I thought to myself "Wow, that kid's parents have a strange sense of humor." I walked on and began to see adults in clothes that looked like they belonged to a different century. "Right, I think these are Amish people..." Finally I saw a school bus with Hebrew text, and realized I was in a Hasidic Jewish area. Oh! Fresh from Scandinavia, I'd never seen anything like it.

Times Square deserves about three minutes of your time, unless you're picking up a ticket for a Broadway show (TOTALLY worth your money and time). Instead, take the subway down to Union Square, and spend a couple of hours. It's a hub for street performers and musicians, activists, craft and bake sales, and the occasional Hare Krishna gathering, especially in the summer. (Also the homeless and the crazies - New York has lots of them - but they're usually harmless.) Speaking of performers, take kindly to those athletic young men who barge into a subway car and yell "It's showtime!", proceeding to blast music and do acrobatics on the aisle. Give them a dollar and a smile. They're good kids.

I'm still a New Yorker at heart, although I don't spend much time here. It's my safe place, where everything makes sense. I can have a chat with virtually anyone I come across during my day - people are eager to go off script and share a laugh with a stranger. I feel completely free. I can wear anything, look people in the eye, and cross the street when I want. There have been times when I arrive a little worse for wear, licking some battle wound, but there's nothing that can't be talked out and made better over coffee or sushi. I turn to my friends, and I decompress.

Back to that stoop in Sunset Park. I didn't sit there for long. A girl came to open the door for me. She said the intercom wasn't working. I followed her to the apartment, and into my tiny little room. And from that moment on, I was home.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

LayOver and Over and Over

Getting from A to B is usually pretty straightforward. But sometimes I find myself with a two ticket combo just to get to one place - probably as the result of getting a two way ticket somewhere I'm only going once. It makes for a long trip, but can be very cost effective, if all I need is another ticket someplace nearby. Case in point: the last few days.
I'm not a big layover person, meaning I don't try to make the most of my eight hours in London or whatever. I just sit and wait. Exceptions apply. If I'm taking FlyDubai, I definitely need to catch up with some friends! 24 hours between the flights is all they will give you, and I happily took it.
The alarm tore me out of bed at 5:30am on Sunday in Bahrain. Some hours later my friend picked me up in Dubai. I accompanied her to two bellydance classes that she was teaching, stretching through the first and participating in the second. (I'd always wanted to learn how to bellydance!) Afterwards we made a quick trip to the Mall of the Emirates. I was like a cousin from the countryside, visiting the big city. Coming from Bahrain, Dubai felt just astonishing. At night I watched my friend's show, and another one came by to say hello. What a fun day it was! Red Bull helped by giving me a small pair of wings.

With Shayma and Sabriye. Guess which girl wasn't working that night? :)
The alarm went off at 5:30am again. Was there a newborn baby that needed to be fed or something? Why couldn't I sleep more than two hours at a time? Right, I had to get back to DXB.
Next stop was Beirut. I had a few hours to drop off a bag at a friend's hotel. In three weeks I would be back in town to pick it up. Sure, going back and forth with the luggage was a pain in the butt. But I would be grateful to have just half of my usual weight once I got to New York, my final destination. I saw my friend for only a few minutes, she needed to run out for errands. (At this point I felt like I was speed dating my friends around the Middle East.) I took a quick shower and felt like a new person.

My travel pillow. It was Winnie the Pooh's first time in Lebanon!
Another check-in followed, this time with Alitalia. That should send shivers down anybody's spine. This airline is just notorious for lateness, rudeness, and losing luggage. Just recently, they arrested like fifty Alitalia employees for stealing passenger's stuff from their bags in Rome. It's the third world airline of Europe! Well, lucky for me most of my precious stuff - dance costumes - was now safe and sound in Beirut.
Now, this ticket came with a long-ass layover in Rome. I hadn't made any grand plans, as it was impossible to predict how dead I would be at this point, after little sleep and wrestling with the bags. Going to town was a tempting idea - but I might just find a cozy bench inside the terminal and call it a night.
I arrived feeling surprisingly good. I'd gone in and out of consciousness on the plane, and it helped. I should have been looking for the transit desk to get my boarding pass for New York, but somehow I drifted towards the immigration line. Seeing the sign "EU Citizens Only" makes me smile each time. Not to be mean, but I just walk through, while many others stay in long, slow lines. In my defense, most of the time it's me in those other lines, answering all kinds of questions. It gets stressful sometimes. So I do enjoy the EU passport color control. That's right. The lady just saw my innocent face, and a burgundy passport in my hand, and didn't even check to see if it was mine.
It was still bright when I stepped outside at around 8pm. The weather was something amazing. No humidity, no heat, just a perfectly pleasant breeze. After the Gulf, the soft Italian air felt like a kiss. I took the train to central Rome, and had a pizza, which was great for a first real meal of the long day. The trains back to the airport had already stopped running for the night, which was the perfect excuse to stay and find a hotel. It wasn't the cheapest six hour sleep I ever had, but man, it hit the spot. The alarm went off at 6am - isn't it somebody else's turn to feed that baby? - and I headed back out. I thought I was an early bird but I was hardly alone. Oh! Rome was already up and looking way sharper than me. The daytime life is something I tend to forget even exists.

Ask for coffee, and you get an espresso? The Italians' idea of a morning cuppa Joe dramatically differs from mine...
Now it was Tuesday on all continents. JFK was just nine more hours away and I was feeling good. It was definitely movie time. Show me the coffee!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Human Rights of Go Go Dancers

Just as I was finishing up my contract in Bahrain, I came across something that shocked me. Much has been said about the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf - but even performers can face some really disturbing circumstances.

Picture this. Four girls locked inside a hotel room. They only leave the room when they go to work in the hotel nightclub. Food is delivered to them. They get to leave the building just once a week, for a trip to the mall, accompanied by security.

Working hours are 9pm-2am each night. The pay is 27 US dollars per day plus tips. You heard me. Twenty-seven bucks. (Food and accommodation are free.)

The club where they work can best be described as a go go bar. It's like an Arabic version of a strip club. The girls wear short skirts and skimpy tops, fishnets and heels. They dance on a round podium in the middle of the room. The nearest chairs offer a great view up the dancers' skirts - they realize this and wear shorts. One girl sings. One bellydances, but only if there are "enough people". Most nights there aren't.

Aside from dancing, their job is to make customers buy flowers for them. (The staff is selling leis made of fake flowers.) The dancers get a commission of the sales, but most of it goes to the house. If you don't get many flowers, the manager is upset. If you do, the other girls are jealous. On an average night, the flowers amount to a little less than ten dollars per dancer.

To boost the business, the manager pushes the girls to call customers during the day, and hustle them to come to the club. He gives each one a list of names and phone numbers. The girls say yes to shut him up, but usually don't call anyone.

Sound unbelievable? Well, believe it anyway. I remember seeing a similar scenario in the Emirates. A group of Moroccan girls were kept in their hotel room the entire day. Every night they emerged in their long dresses, hair extensions and makeup, and passed by my room on their way to work. (They weren't bellydancers. Many places do this kind of semi-show with girls on the stage, they just dance around all together.) In the end of the night they marched back, escorted by security. Often my door was open, and we all looked at each other bewildered. It was like there was this invisible barrier between us. We lived a few steps away from each other, but never came into contact.

And now I saw it here in Bahrain. The bellydancer of the group was a friend of a friend. We spoke on Facebook. She invited me to see the "show". It was early, customers hadn't arrived yet. A Filipina waitress tried to make me buy flowers. (Seriously?) I ordered a Sprite ($8), just to be polite. She asked why I wanted to see bellydancing. Maybe she thought I was a perv. I explained that I was a dancer too. On my way out, I peeked inside the two Arabic nightclubs. Both had girls on the stage, wearing long dresses. They all turned to look at me, confused. In hotels like this you never saw women dressed like civilians. "What is that?" was written all over their faces.

The bellydancer and I arranged for me to visit their room one afternoon so we all could talk. This of course required a special permission from the management. Getting past the reception still wasn't easy. The staff seemed very suspicious of me. I restrained myself from making any drug-dealer jokes. Twenty minutes and lots of phone calls later, while five ice creams melted in my bag, the security guy finally took me to the room. He opened the door with a key. Only then I realized that the girls were literally locked in.

I told them I was shocked by this. They were shocked too, when they heard that I was completely free. We were like two different animals. For them, it was normal to live like this. They'd done it before and they would do it again. All the work from their particular agent came with "closed" contracts. I wouldn't last a week.

The reason behind the imprisonment is obvious. The management fears that given a long leash, the girls will turn tricks and maybe even take off, all the while on hotel sponsored visas. This would mean trouble for the hotel. (Maybe they should pay them better?)

Eastern Europe is the prime market for pretty white girls for little money. I consider jobs like this exploitation. But for some, it's worth it. Maybe there's no work available back home. After all, it's just a dancing job, kind of depressing but nothing dangerous or dirty. But every so often these gigs are disguised as bellydance jobs. Here's a rule of thumb: A legit bellydance contract NEVER includes other obligations. No go go dancing, no guest relations of any kind, definitely no sitting with customers.

The girls started getting ready for work, and I walked back to my hotel to do the same. I looked up at the foggy sky and tried to imagine how it felt to not walk on the street for six months. Can't take that shit for granted.

Monday, June 10, 2013

(Not) Just Another Travel Blog...

...was one of the names I considered for this blog. Because another online travel diary is just about the last thing the world needs. Another possible name was Better Late Than Never. After all, this one woman circus has been on the road for six years already. I settled for Where's Zaina? because the answer to that will probably be the first thing to disclose with each post. I stole the name from a Bob I met in Burundi, who had a similarly named blog. I had a dream where he sued me.

I can't pinpoint why I didn't begin blogging earlier. I'm not sure I should now. Why should anybody? I must like writing - I did write a book. I love playing with my camera. I frequently get excited about something I see or experience, and it's fun to share it with someone. That's what I hope blogging will be like: having a chat with friends. Please prove me right! :)