Literary Journalism

The Girl From Arabian Nights

About a block west from the football stadium stood this small four-apartment house. On a moonlit snowy night it looked more like a weary ship back home after a long journey. Parked in the middle of un-shoveled snow, the vessel puffed out little clouds of smoke as if to replace the mast and sails. Perhaps, Columbus’ Santa Maria.
It seemed deserted at this hour. “Ja habibi… ja baba.. Ja habibi..,” Little wafts of Egyptian music, coupled with rhythmic chants, floated away from the house. Moving closer still, you can hear the music a little clearer and the house gradually transformed into an oriental incarnation of Santa Maria. It became Arabian Nights at Sea.

Two crisp knocks on the front door stopped the music abruptly. The curtain moved and a soft, chiseled face with golden hair, half-veiled in red georgette, filled up the small glass frame of the door.

“Who is it?” the face asked, peering outside in the dark.

“It’s Lara,” the female visitor said. “Me and my journalist friend came to intrude on your belly dance practice.”

“You scared me,” the face said. “I thought it was my boss Chad. I didn’t want him to see me in this attire.”

Shards of light from the house poured into the porch outside. On the floor a shadow appeared - a shapely, sinuous shadow of a belly dancer; the shadow of the girl from Arabian Nights.

Ioana’s front room said many things about her. To begin with, she was a belly dancer and had no qualms about it. A large mirror sat on the floor right next to the front door. She liked to watch herself as she danced. There were no chairs in the front room. A red sash lined with sequins lay on the couch and a case filled with several Turkish and Arabic compact discs lay open on the table. She sat on her haunches in front of the mirror and applied her makeup. On the wall were pictures of European tourist resorts, garlanded with undulated creeper plants that snaked up from two corners toward the ceiling. The room gave a varied sense of movement.

Ioana turned and pressed a button on the CD player.

Ja habibi… ya baba.. Ja habibi...

Suddenly, the creaky floors of the weary house were throbbing to Ioana’s gyrations. A flimsy red georgette dress hugged her curves as she thrust her hips sideways. Her red sash and belt of tiny bells swished quickly and smoothly as she danced barefoot to the exotic music. “Ja habibi…,” The room stared at her in awe.

With graceful movements she danced out various characters - she did coy, she did aggression, she did gross men, she did calendar girls, she did drag camp and a lesbian Latina. She did most of it with humor, pathos, gutsiness, or vulnerability. But behind all, was the soul of a spirited 21-year-old girl.

Ioana is from Romania, not very far from the Arab and Turkish culture. When she was five years old, she saw a lissome Turkish girl, thrice her size, swinging her hips and flipping a coin on her belly at Constanza, a small town in the coast of Baltic Sea. One day, thought Ioana, she would dance like this girl.

She ran home to tell her mother about her decision. But to her dismay, her mother didn't like it.

"Stay away from belly dancing," she was told sharply, mirroring her family's distaste for Balkan culture.

The little girl however did not heed to her mother’s advice and secretly nursed her passion all through her years. She would watch Turkish television and practice her dance moves inside the closed doors of her room. At a friend's party later, she would try those moves and walk away leaving behind the room spellbound.

Ioana was charmed by gypsy music and culture when she was a teenager. “Oh, how they love to dance and party,” she said. Whenever they played Romanian gypsy music Manele at a party, she danced. Even in sadness as a child, after her father beat her up for mischief, she danced.

When Ioana's mother died of cancer a year ago, she still wasn’t aware that her little girl had secretly followed belly dancing as her hobby. Belly dancing was never a taboo to Ioana. It was her way to connect with world. She liked to move gracefully; and like any other Romanian teenager girl she liked to be admired.

There was also a rebel streak in Ioana. At her high-school graduation party she bared it. She arrived in her jeans and T-shirt, in stark contrast to her classmates who wore pretty dresses.

"Nobody was doing nothing. Everybody kept sitting and the party sucked. They played Turkish music and no one danced," recalled Ioana. The next moment she was up on the table. As the music reached its crescendo, off came her T-Shirt. With her bra and her belly doing an incredible tango, Ioana gyrated to the clap of her friends and classmates. The boys in the room stared with their eyes and tongues hanging out.

Ioana often talks about the sleaze belly dancing attracts. She would never dance in bars or in concerts for money, she said. Once she was dancing with her friends in a Romanian disco. A middle-aged man approached her and asked her to dance with him.
“This guy was really bad. He was looking at me and undressing me with his eyes,” she said. “I managed to escape to the rest room and later my boyfriend had to tell this man to go away. I have seen other belly dancers in Bucharest and Chicago both. Sometimes people treat them like pieces of dirt. I would never dance for money.”

She did dance for money once. It was during her sister-in-law’s wedding when she danced in full costume to a room full of guests. Within ten minutes, she had $20 bills tucked into her waist.

“It was a good luck charm,” she said. “The groom and the bride began dancing too.”
When outside of her belly-dancing costume, Ioana is a bright student who wants to become a businesswoman. "Consumerism" to her is buying new dresses from chain stores, wearing them to school and then returning them citing dissatisfaction. She likes trying new dresses.
One fine morning, Ioana pranced around in her drawing room in a bright orange ethnic costume her roommate just brought from India.

"When will you move away from that mirror," asked Aditi, her roommate.

"I wish I had shoes to go with this," Ioana said.

"Manjari will be here soon to pick us up for the party," informs Aditi.

"Do you think my hair is better when tied or hanging loose?" blurts Ioana again.

"Hurry, Manjari is here."

"This dress is sooooo nice. Next time, can you bring me a sari from India?

Last year, Ioana’s mother-in-law stitched her a beautiful georgette dress, the one she was wears now to teach college-going girls how to move their hips.

“My mother-in-law is awesome. She encourages me to dance every time I meet her,” said Ioana. But she still regrets that her mother didn’t know that her daughter was a beautiful dancer, just like the girl from Arabian Nights.