BY ELEANOR SHARMAN
Copyright is held by the author.
“Let’s build bridges, not walls.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
YOU MUST make a good impression when you arrive. Glamorous. Sophisticated. I had repeated the agent’s instructions like a mantra as I chose fresh, crisp polyester fabric in black and white houndstooth to sew a smart summer skirt suit that couldn’t be crushed. Bought white shoes I wouldn’t normally be seen dead in. I had no doubt at the time that I could pull this thing off.
The screeching grind of metal on metal shuddered through the train and it came to a stop in the middle of nowhere again. Diesel fumes infiltrated the stale carriage and mingled with residues of oily samosa and milky spiced tea. Hazy afternoon sun flooded the carriage, igniting a crust of orange dust on the windows and the boulder-strewn hills outside. Another burst of underarm sweat trickled down my sleeves of my polyester jacket. If this was air-conditioned first-class, I’d hate to be sitting in third. Though we were all going to be just as late, no matter how many Rupees we had stashed in our wallets and down our bras.
My skirt suit looked perfect when I slipped it on in the bathroom just before the plane landed in Madras (as the city was still called in late December 1992). Perfect for the role of famous Australian belly dancer. A man would be waiting for me in arrivals holding a sign with my name and would whisk me away to the domestic airport for my direct flight to Bangalore. But that was 24 hours ago, and I was still wearing the houndstooth skirt suit and still on my way to Bangalore. Twenty-four hours since there was anything fresh or crisp about me — or the suit.
I had already started to melt by the time I found my seat for the supposed eight-hour journey and took the still relatively clean jacket off to pack safely in my suitcase. Every male eye in the carriage whipped around and latched onto the “glamorous” neckline of the specially chosen sleeveless top I wore underneath and remained there with admirable tenacity, despite the sharpness of my glares, until I shrugged the jacket back on and closed every fabric-covered button.
I say relatively clean, as the skirt suit had received a christening of pungent Indian dust when I exited Madras International Airport the day before through a raucous scrum of porters and hotel touts and tried not to lose sight of the man with the sign. He navigated the carpark with the deftness of an ice skater, weaving through herds of taxis and tinsel-clad motor rickshaws competing to out-honk each other and merge with the torrential chaos of the main thoroughfare. Islands of scrawny cows dawdled in the middle of the road, oblivious to the sea of traffic.
So caught up with the thrill of arriving in India for the first time, I had simply nodded when the man with the sign informed me of a change of plans. There was a plane strike so I would be staying in Madras for the night in a very good hotel and catching the “express” train to Bangalore the next day. Not even the hushed and cloistered beige interior of Chola Sheraton that night could quieten the racket in my brain long enough to give sleep a chance. The implications of this change of plans had begun to sink in. No longer would I have a day to recover, prepare and inhabit the role of Samia. I still had to look perfect when I arrived at the hotel, then almost immediately get into my costume to provide such a stunning and energetic debut performance that rich young Hindus from far and wide would flock to the Orient Nightclub.
It was a miracle that the hotel hadn’t cancelled the whole booking, considering recent events. A couple of weeks before my flight I had switched on the TV to unrecognizable scenes of India. Tear gas and police encroached on crowds of shouting, angry people. Bullets and bricks, clubs and sticks flew every which way. I saw smoke and blood, fire and destruction. The rioting was especially bad in Bombay and Bangalore.
I discovered that Hindus and Muslims had been tussling over a site in the town of Ayodhya, to the northeast of the country, for more than five hundred years. It all started when Babur, the leader of the invading Islamic Mughal Empire claimed the site and ordered a mosque to be constructed over the desecrated remains of a Hindu Temple; one believed to be the birthplace of Rama, a major Hindu deity. No wonder there was trouble.
Except on this occasion, the trouble started with more than a tussle. A rally of 1,500 Hindu activists, emboldened by a recent swing in local political power, had broken through the security line to attack the mosque with axes, hammers and grappling hooks, returning the building to its original components of mud and chalk. The worst of the conflict lasted four days and killed around 1,000 people.
My agent attempted to reassure me. Don’t worry — nobody’s going to get you at the Holiday Inn. But it wasn’t my safety at the hotel that troubled me.
I had recently returned from Sydney to the bush block on the north coast of New South Wales to work on the cabin I had been building for myself and my son and make it vaguely habitable. My son would stay in the city and live full-time with his father until the place had walls, at least. It wasn’t long before I ran out of money. Teaching the odd Belly dance class or performing at restaurants along the coast wasn’t going to pay for the timber I needed and I started to scour the employment section of the Sydney Morning Herald for potentially lucrative short-term opportunities.
My eye kept returning to a regular ad which read something like: “Wanted: Cabaret Dancers. No experience necessary.” I guessed the performance would involve very little costume, or maybe even none at all, by the end of the show. Either way, my 30-year-old post-child body was unlikely to be what they had in mind.
One day my curiosity and desperation got the better of me and I drove to the phone booth outside the nearby corner shop. After all, I had taken classes in Flamenco, Contemporary and African dance. Surely, I could manage a few high kicks in feathers and fancy shoes. I was about to hang up after the agent confirmed my suspicions about the costume requirements, or lack of, when I threw her a wild card.
“Have you ever thought about taking on belly dancers?” I asked.
“Well, funny you should ask,” she replied.
My hope rose.
“I don’t normally, but I have booked a show for a Sydney belly dancer in India.”
My hope sank.
“The thing is,” she continued, “she went to Lebanon to dance and decided to stay there for the time being. I have no idea when she’ll be back.”
It rose once more.
I knew the dancer missing in action. I had organized a private lesson with her at one time to pick up a few showy tips for my regular gigs in Sydney’s Lebanese restaurants because the managers didn’t seem to appreciate Raqs sharqi — the modest and nuanced Classical Egyptian style I trained in. They also expected me to dance more provocatively, but the middle eastern men didn’t seem to need any extra encouragement to enjoy themselves, and western male customers generally kept their eyes fixed on their plates while their date scowled. All the restaurants wanted Noora, a voluptuous Egyptian dancer whose signature move was to stand behind a seated male customer and bend forward to shimmy her breasts against the back of his head. The dancer I was to replace, though not as extreme as Noora, was a commercial success for similar reasons.
I had planned to travel to India ten years earlier, inspired by the units I had taken in Southeast Asian Sociology. The course made me aware of conservative Hindu attitudes towards women’s sexuality, despite ancient Tantric traditions and the lascivity of some of their goddesses. I couldn’t imagine this dancer’s style going down terribly well, especially not with the high-caste Hindus the agent described, even if they were gathered in a modern nightclub.
And I still hadn’t made it to India. The arrival of my son, deferring my own degree to help my husband graduate, and my divorce not long after, led my life in other directions. This could be my chance to fulfil one of the promises I had made to myself and see a bit of the country before heading home.
A month later, as planned, I phoned the agent again and discovered that I was going to be taking an all-expenses paid trip to India to dance for ten nights over Christmas and New Year at the Orient Nightclub and Restaurant, Holiday Inn Bangalore.
Staying on after a contract was most irregular, according to the agent, who had expected a prompt return to Australia to deliver her commission. She agreed to let me change the return ticket if I paid her commission upfront – but with no refund should anything go wrong. Fair enough, I thought. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Those four days of rioting in Bangalore left me with a probable answer. It was not an unrealistic expectation that politics and religion would continue to stir the pot, that righteous anger would resurface and spill over onto the streets again at any time. Nobody would be bothered with Belly dancers from Australia, even supposedly famous ones called Samia.
At Bangalore station, another man with a sign bustled me into a car and slowed down outside the Holiday Inn for me to admire a huge white banner slung above the entrance with “Samia, the belly dancer from Australia”
I paled. “Um . . . thank you,” was all I found to say as I shrunk into my seat. People talk about imposter syndrome, but in this case, it was true. I might have been famous for my dancing in one small town on the north coast of New South Wales — but Australia? Glamorous and sophisticated? If they knew that my toilet was a wooden platform over a hole in the ground and that my bathroom currently consisted of a canvas bag hanging outside under the eaves, they probably wouldn’t even let me through the door, let alone dance onstage at the most fashionable nightclub in Bangalore.
Luckily there wasn’t time for a grand entrance and introductions anymore. I managed to push through my exhaustion and stride purposefully into the foyer, act pleased to meet the manager and stand without wilting at the desk as I filled in forms and handed over my passport. I offered a restrained smile and nod to the crowd of suited businessmen, sari-clad matriarchs and their snugly belted husbands gathered in the lobby to catch a glimpse of Samia.
Unpacked, my costumes looked like they had been buried at the bottom of a charity bin for months. I called for an iron. It seemed to take forever to turn up at the door. Then I discovered that I couldn’t fit the electrical plug for my hair crimper — essential to turn my limp scraggle into a Cleopatra-like cloud — into the wall socket. The hotel handyman eventually arrived, took one look at the plug and shook his head sadly. It was seven p.m. and the show started at nine. I knew I should also find time to eat but food was the last thing on my mind.
The hairdresser in the hotel salon agreed to give me some natural-looking loose curls. My hair didn’t look too bad until she told me she was just going to tidy it up a little and attacked it with a comb. I left the salon wearing a stiff, over-sprayed 1960s-style do with an upward flick at the bottom and followed the man tasked with “assisting” me to a small office for an interview with some newspaper journalists. Apparently, this was non-negotiable, even though I was due on the stage in an hour. I insisted I could only spare five minutes, but the man just shook his head in an ambiguous wobble.
This was the part the agent had stressed about.
“I know what you lot are like, up in Byron Bay,” she’d warned me.
“I don’t live in Byron Bay,” I’d replied.
“Doesn’t matter. Whatever you do, don’t let them know you’re a hippy.”
“I’m not a —”
“They don’t like hippies at the hotel,” she interrupted. “They’ll kick you out. It happened to a singer I sent there. She was from Byron Bay too.”
I think I provided adequately sophisticated and glamorous answers to the journalists. Not that it mattered in the end. Their columns in the Times of India and the Deccan Times later revealed that they clearly had no idea what I was talking about. After half an hour, I stood to follow the journalists out of the room, but my “assistant” raised his hand.
“Now you will be meeting the leader of our band.”
“No, I’m sorry, I won’t have time.” I explained, “My performance starts at nine o’clock.
He glanced at his watch. “No, Madam, the show starts at 10.”
“Excuse me, but no, it actually starts at nine.”
“No, Madam, time of commencement has changed.”
Thanks for telling me, I thought, struggling not to roll my eyes. “Good. But still, I don’t need to meet the band now, I can do that anytime,” I replied, too late, as five men in bold satin shirts with contrasting ties and crisply pleated black trousers filed in and filled the tiny room. They shuffled around, not knowing where to look.
“We are the band and I am the leader,” one announced. “You will be dancing with us.”
This was news to me. “Wow, I didn’t expect to have real, live Middle-eastern music!”
Distaste crossed the band leader’s face and he offered a condescending chuckle. “No, no, no, Madam. We only play western music. We play ‘Lady in Red,’ ” he beamed.
My mind took a moment to grasp this information before racing to imagine how I might execute my complex and dramatic routines and finish with a rally of sharp, percussive movements – normally accompanied by a drum solo – to the soppy foghorn of Chris de Burgh. I knew I couldn’t.
I took a deep breath and attempted to explain how I had carefully choreographed each dance piece to fit a particular track on my tape. Music orchestrated by the very best traditional Middle-eastern musicians. He drooped, crestfallen and turned away to address the issue with his musicians in urgent Hindi for a few minutes before returning to me, eyes shining with triumph.
“There is no problem, Madam. We will provide a tape player for tonight. Please may we borrow your tape and tomorrow night we will be playing your music for you.”
I couldn’t be bothered arguing. Let these five men with their western instruments attempt to replicate, overnight, whole orchestras of hand drums, cane flutes, lap harps and the Persian version of a guitar — the oud.
Questions chased each other around my brain as I lost myself in the maze of identical corridors several times on the way back to my room. The agent knew I would be bringing my own music — why didn’t she tell them? Surely, the hotel knew enough about Belly dancing to realize I would perform it with Middle-eastern music. The agent would have explained all that. Wouldn’t she?
I recalled the look on the band leader’s face when I mentioned my music — as if I had suggested he walk through putrid mud in his shiny black shoes. The truth dropped on me like a brick. They thought Belly dancing was a western thing.
I knew that India had begun to push open its sturdy protectionist gates to an army of foreign advertisers and products queuing up to take advantage of this previously untapped market. Now the customer would be king — they would have choice. Of course, the foreign products they could choose were far too expensive for most of the population, but nearly every household or village now had a television. These new ads flooded the country with hypnotic fantasies of what their life could look like if they embraced the western approach to progress — even if that progress only involved buying a more expensive bar of soap.
Western culture offered a fun, exciting and adventurous lifestyle, especially to the upper and middle classes, looking for ways to display their civility and further distinguish themselves from those on the next step down the socio-economic pyramid. The hotel knew that Australia was a western country and that I was a white-skinned, blonde-haired Australian in a costume that left the whole midriff exposed. That’s all that my agent decided they needed to know, apparently. Her job was only to sell them their very own taste of the seductive west for ten days. Not a second-hand idea of the ancient Middle-east. A Muslim Middle-east. They’re going to hate me.
At 10 o’clock I peered out between dark curtains at the side of the stage. The room was full. They looked happy. Young women in western dress tossed their thick tresses and shared intimacies with their beloved, or gracefully held their fingers across their mouths as they giggled with friends and family. The band’s instruments trailed off as they finished a bland pop song and everyone except the leader left the stage. He started with some apparently witty repartee in Hindi, to which the audience responded appropriately, then launched into a long pre-introduction introduction. Each moment was torture. Finally, with rising volume, he asked the audience, in English, to welcome the bewitching grace of Samia, the very famous Belly dancer from Australia!
As people clapped, a band member pushed the button of a small portable tape player on the other side of the stage and I heard a soft tinkling sound. Was that it? My music? There was no way it would reach the audience. Was that the idea, perhaps? This was most unprofessional. I sent the band member a dirty look and waved my palm upward. The volume went up a fraction as his eyes flicked to the back of the stage where the leader was probably watching him, but I drew them back. More, I said again with my hand, and even more.
The tinny sound lurched to full volume and the melody finally reached me. I had no idea where I was in the pattern of the dance so I swished back and forth with the chiffon veil until a change in the pattern of music. They clapped politely at the end of the routine as I whirled off the stages to the fading music. The applause was muted, but at least they didn’t seem angry. No shouting, no flying knives or forks.
Adrenaline rushed me back up to my room to gulp down a dinner of cold coffee, change out of the purple costume and into the red one. I would give them Lady in Red, after all. I didn’t know what to make of the subdued response. Maybe it wasn’t considered good manners to show your appreciation. Or maybe it wasn’t good manners to show your offence. I guessed it could go either way at this stage.
I was now especially glad that Id managed to get hold of a Bollywood videotape before I left and had scoured the dance scenes for the odd move I could unobtrusively slip into my choreography. For my second act, I had integrated some Indian motifs, such as rising up and down a little as I paddled myself around and added a few Indian arm movements, such as landing both hands on a hip as it circled.
This was also the part of the routine where the dancer would come down off the stage to get up close and personal with the audience and invite someone, usually a man, to dance. This time I focused my attention only on the women, who, unlike their western counterparts, seemed to be just as engaged as their male companions, if not more. I approached a few who returned my smiles and presented them with a gesture of invitation. They refused, but with giggles, and encouragement from the rest of the table — rather than the shock and horror I was half expecting.
The music dissipated as I camel-swayed to the furthest tables, leaving me to ad-hoc awkwardly in complete silence. Without the music, Samia started to fade back into an anxious Eleanor. I swiftly twirled and shimmy-walked back toward the stage so I could lose myself again in the surges and swings of the Egyptian orchestra until it reached a final percussive crescendo. This time I heard genuine applause. Loud and extended. They had decided not to hate me after all.
The wide bed welcomed me in the early hours of the morning, my body still but my mind far from relaxed. I still struggled to process the extraordinary situation I had landed in. That fate had led myself, a single mother with an uncompleted Arts degree, to travel to another country and, without warning, present their elite with the culture of their archenemy. I found comfort in the fact that my foreign ways could be of benefit, for once. Maybe only a westerner, in this case, could get away with pilfering fragments of both ancient traditions and presenting them as something new and desirable.
A call from the front desk woke me far too early next morning with a message from one of last night’s audience, via the hotel manager. She was also a dancer. And singer. And actress. A well-known Bollywood actress, in fact. She had requested that I meet her for breakfast in the hotel’s private courtyard café. Still dazed and fatigued and looking forward to being Eleanor for the next 12 hours, this thinly veiled directive was the last thing I needed.
Downstairs, I followed the cafe waiter through an ambush of stares to the woman’s table. She rose with a demure smile to introduce herself, rich brown hair side-swept into perfect smooth waves. Now here was true glamour and sophistication, despite the understated ruffled white shirt, precision-tucked into firmly belted jeans. Graceful and poised like a fragile bird, but with the keen, determined eyes of a lion.
I was to be her new best friend, it seemed. I would come and stay at her house as soon as I had finished at Holiday Inn and teach her to belly dance. I had never considered that scenario — belly dance teacher to the stars. Not with the Middle-east so close. Of course, it would mean being Samia full-time, until she decided to release me. The idea of keeping up the façade for another week or so was already stressful enough to frighten off my appetite.
Yes, the movie star was my ‘customer’ but she wasn’t queen in this particular transaction. I did wonder, briefly, if this might be a rare opportunity to both expand my building fund and help create a more direct and enduring cultural connection between the two communities. Maybe it was possible to find a Muslim woman who knew how to dance — one willing and brave enough to teach strangers. Wouldn’t that be great?
Or did I already have enough on my hands as it was, a house to finish, a son to bring back home? I was still working out how to combine Eleanor with Mum, let alone how to be Samia on a longer-term basis. I’m sorry, I told her, I have already made plans. I was a westerner, after all, I was supposed to live for fun, excitement and adventure. Besides, I never wanted to set eyes on that polyester skirt suit again.
Eleanor draws on her eclectic collection of adventures and creative ventures, vocations and professional studies to inspire and inform her writing, including a solo overland journey through South and Central America in 1988. Her belly-dancing career brought her to India and Japan and more recently she spent time in Timor Leste to develop a vocational English language course for a struggling local organization with few resources. Her short fiction features in print publications Voice Within Collection and Dark City Magazine, as well as Underside Stories, Mystery Tribune Magazine and Close to the Bone. She lives near Brisbane, Australia.