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Yasmina Ramzy Memoir Excerpt

By Yasmina Ramzy, Copyright 2023 This memoir is a work in progress to be published later in 2023. Working titles are:

So Where’s the Goddess in All This? * The Dictator, The Bellydancer & The Guru * To Dance In Her Name * Divided for Love’s Sake * Seven Lives & Seven Names. (names changed to protect identities) Synopsis:

Performing in 70 cities around the world, dinners with heads of state, stuck in a war, royal marriage proposal, dating gangsters, arrested by Syrian army. Alongside all of this was a secret life in a variety of mystical traditions including co-writing a book on spirituality. Against the backdrop of a waspy Canadian childhood followed by 9 teenage years lost to repressed memory of rape, sexual and emotional abuse and the heartbreak of losing a child. A fast moving thrilling adventure layered with grief and joy.

The Dictator, The Guru & The Dancer (excerpt) Who was this beautiful goddess sitting across the table from me? While Yusef and Habib talked and waiters hovered, I marvelled at her beautiful, dark eyes, as big and round as coins. We were quickly introduced. Afaf was her name. I had never heard such a name before, with the same syllable twice. I played with it in my mind’s ear to get acquainted with its simplicity and complete mystery. She was the first female I had met since arriving in Amman a few days ago. It was 1983. I was in Jordan as the warm-up act for Yusef Salama, a Lebanese singer from Canada. He billed himself as the Canadian singer when he was in the Middle East, and the Lebanese singer when in Canada. He had spotted me performing at the Sheikh Nightclub in Toronto. I was a very new and green dancer but being Canadian myself, blonde and blue-eyed, leant itself well to his branding. Yusef had recommended me to a hotel in Amman for their nightclub show. Part of my acceptance of the contract hinged on their including a plane ticket for my mother to escort me. I was 23 years old but my naiveté and knowledge of the world was that of a 14-year-old. When we arrived in Amman, the group of hotel and nightclub managers who met us at the airport seemed furious. After a lot of yelling in Arabic which I did not understand, it was finally explained that I was to return home on the next flight. There is no way this short, blonde girl, with her mother in tow, was a legit Raqs Sharqi (Middle Eastern dance) artist. After more arguing, they ushered us into a car. A tense silence ensued until we arrived at the hotel. There was no checking in. Even our baggage was left in the car. Instead, we went directly into the hotel’s nightclub where eight musicians were warming up on stage. More people followed us into the nightclub. All were men. Were there no women in this world? The musicians seemed kind. They smiled at me but everyone else hated me. Then the musicians started playing music that I recognized, and it was amazing. It was rich and full, with the oud, qanoon, violin and tabla filling the room and my body. Indeed, it was a thousand times better than what I danced to in Canada. I was sitting on the edge of my chair, enjoying the music, when the band stopped abruptly, followed by more yelling. Finally, Yusef came over and explained that this was a rehearsal or “provo” as it was known in the nightclub world, arranged especially for me. I thought how wonderful that they take rehearsal so seriously here. Getting musicians to rehearse in Canada was like pulling teeth. So now I listened to the music intently, planning out my moves and the staging I would do with this full-bodied music. I was pondering how much I was going to love dancing to this music in performance when ... more yelling, now accompanied by fists slamming on tables. Yusef came over to me again and begged me to show them a few steps. That is when I learned that this was actually an audition, and if it didn’t go well, I would be on the next plane back to Canada. Apparently, my continuing to sit was seen as confirmation that I could not dance. I slowly walked, as if pushing through water, to centre stage. There was silence as eyes in all directions stared intently. It felt like forever, but finally the band started up again. I executed a couple of hip kicks and undulated while rotating in a circle, all the while thinking they could not possibly see my moves under this puffy woven skirt and blouse. Not more than 10 seconds had passed before the music stopped. Now, suddenly all were happy and laughing, slapping each other on the back and beaming at me. The musicians were talking amongst themselves except for the very young accordion player. His wide eyes were only for me. My mom and I got settled in at the hotel. A real rehearsal took place the next day. It was relaxed, with food and drinks, like a private party. I could choose any songs I liked but it didn’t matter; whatever they played filled me with joy. Even I was surprised by the dancer I had transformed into overnight with this team of musicians behind me. There was a singer assigned to perform just for me. And to think I only took the contract because of its proximity to Egypt. That quick week in Cairo before the contract was to start let us enjoy Fifi Abdo and the pyramids. Initially, I had no real interest in Jordan but this peaceful land soon became my beloved home.

Then it was opening night. A very tall bodyguard came to pick my mother and me up at our room. No one else was allowed in the elevator with us and the bodyguard. The elevator doors opened and the relaxed rehearsal world in the nightclub of the previous day was turned on its head. Upbeat music was blaring and boisterous voices got louder as we approached. Excitement was in the air and my tummy churned with nervousness. With a sweet smile, the polite maître d’ showed me the way but made it very clear my mother was not allowed in. He spoke English and explained that unescorted women were not allowed into a nightclub. My mother’s response was, “I did not fly across the Atlantic to NOT see my daughter dance.” And here we go again with the Arabic yelling. Down at the front desk, the night manager asked if we knew someone in Amman who could sit with my mother for the show. I thought of that guy who sat next to us on the plane from Toronto and another who had helped us through customs. They were both Jordanian and had given us their phone numbers. I immediately called them and although one could not attend, he said he would come the following night with his family. And yay — the other drove over right away. I refused to dance until my mother was in the nightclub. I do not remember much about that first performance except that the audience was silent and looked confused, definitely not welcoming. I do remember coming off stage and heading directly for the WC and vomiting. I am not sure who was afraid of whom more: me of the audience or the audience of me. But we warmed up to each other the following nights. The show became a hit and sold out every night. One morning, we were invited to breakfast with Yusef’s hairdresser Habib and his girlfriend. That is when I met Afaf. During breakfast, I would steal glances at her, as she did the same. Her eyes were sad but her mouth always curved up at the corners in a smile. Finally, smiles turned into giggles. We did not speak the same language but our future as besties, fraught with pain and magic, was launched. After a week, my mom went back home and I was to finish out the contract for another three weeks. Each night before she left had been an exercise in finding escorts for her at the nightclub. Eventually, it was paid staff. Before she left, we were invited to dinner at the family of the nice man who helped us through customs when entering Jordan. My baggage was searched and of course most of it was rhinestone and glass beaded costumes. They did not understand why this Canadian had Raqs Sharqi costumes. Language was the first barrier but essentially they did not believe my story that I was going to perform in Amman. The guy behind us in line spoke perfect English so he acted as translator. My story left a very confused look on his face, but he turned to the customs officers, gave them a wad of cash and we were on our way. He was very courteous, welcomed us to Jordan and said that if we needed any kind of help while in Amman, we could call him. He then met the hotel managers and Yusef who were waiting for us and began to realize that I might have been telling the truth. He came with his family to the show a couple of times and now, here we were at his house for my mom’s bon voyage dinner. Their house was large and ornate, making me think of a palace, with a large fountain in the foyer. The living room had many French Colonial couches in rich reds embellished with gold trim, enough to seat the 20 or so people of all ages who had gathered. Women were dressed beautifully with lots of gold. Soon we were led to the dining room with the longest table I had ever seen, covered in a white tablecloth, and with white chairs. The wallpaper looked like brocade with gold. Some people were washing their hands at a sink cut into the wall. Seemed like an odd place to put a sink. I could not understand where we were to sit, as all the chairs were still empty. There were no plates or silverware, only three platters as wide as the huge table, piled high with rice, almonds and giant hunks of meat with creamy white sauce poured over everything. Growing up with a father from New Zealand, I knew the smell of lamb well, but this lamb was mixed with new aromas. As everyone gathered around the table, no one sat down, but hands started darting into the platters, ripping off pieces of lamb or rolling rice into a ball and popping into their mouths. My mom and I stared at each other, completely baffled, but the sink now made sense. The lady of the house smiled at us and brought spoons and plates so we could enjoy this deliciousness. Still today, Mansaf is my favourite Arab dish. Afaf and I hung out together in Amman, strolling through the gold souks, or at her workplaces, or her apartment. With the combination of sign language, pantomime and Afaf’s very limited English, we communicated somehow. I loved how she used all the pronouns when only one was needed. She would say it the same way each time. It was “I, we, you, he, she” and then I would pick one that best suited the subject matter. She made delicious cardamom tea for me. Somehow, we talked in one form or another for hours, and every day, her English and my Arabic improved.

Afaf had decided that from now on we would dress the same wherever we went, so we rummaged through the closet in her bedroom. She was always well dressed, so classy, chic and fashionable. She definitely stood out in Amman. Perhaps she was embarrassed to be with me, who was so badly dressed. I have never known how to dress myself. There was a photo beside her bed of a young boy. She explained that the photo was of Leith, her son. Afaf told me her story that day. This was the first time she broke my heart in two. She was from Iraq. Shortly after getting married, her husband took her to London, England. She showed me photos of her foray into modelling there. Afaf was tall, lanky and incredibly beautiful. She gave birth to Leith in England and when her son was three years old, her husband divorced her. He sent her back to Iraq but kept her son. She could not go back to Iraq as a divorced woman. She would be a shame to her family. Fortunately, one brother lived in Amman and he offered to watch over her here, but she could not live with his new family either, so she was on her own. She worked part-time in an office with a very kind boss who looked out for her and whom I really liked. She also worked part-time for Habib, who made my skin crawl, at his hair salon. She said Habib promised to help her get Leith back with his connections in Europe. Afaf cried as she described how she pined for her son every day. I cried with her. That day we became soulmates. For some reason, I felt that I knew her pain completely and we had this shared experience of losing our sons. I did not know where I got this idea from, or why I had this strong, inexplicable feeling, but I was to find out 38 years later. I did not fit into any of Afaf’s clothes, so she ordered identical outfits from Paris. It was fashion that was ahead of Canada, let alone Jordan. I felt like a movie star with her, and we turned heads as the short blonde and the tall girl with long black hair walked by. We even went to the farms of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea dressed like we just came off a Paris runway. She looked the part, being so tall, and I was her blonde sidekick. We had fun wherever we went but we always took time to weep over Leith every day. I vowed to her that when I had a son, I would name him Leith. The Dead Sea looked ominous. All the women stayed in their black abayas and hijab when they went in the water. Afaf and I were the only ones in matching bikinis but no one seemed to notice. The water looked dark and oily. It burned my skin as I entered. I was a bit scared until Afaf told me to swim. This turned out to be impossible. My feet kept quickly popping up out of the water. No matter what, I could not push my feet under the water to kick. We both giggled uncontrollably, then finally gave up and just floated. Although I longed to stay semi-immersed, my skin was crying out from the salt and minerals peeling away at me. Soon I had to run to shower them off. My contract was nearing its end. Yusef was leaving, but the hotel asked if I would sign a contract for another month at twice the salary. It was not hard to decide. I did not know why yet, but I wished I could stay in this protective cocoon and never go back to what awaited me. In Amman, I had a band that played soul enriching music for me every night, a love poem snuck into my bag from the accordionist after every show, and a line-up of autograph-seeking fans every night. Then there was my own secure room in the hotel upstairs, a bodyguard who kept all men at a distance, and a Farid Al Attrache and Samia Gamal movie to watch in my room with yummy room service after my show. As I did my make-up each evening, I looked forward to King Hussein addressing his small nation on the television like a kind father who tells of his work that day at the office when he returns home to his family. And then, of course, there was Afaf. Even if I was locked in my hotel room, I would still not want to go home. Yup, I was staying. The month went by mostly in silence in my room unless Afaf came to get me, or I ventured downstairs to the travel agency to visit Magda who had once lived in the U.S.A. It may have looked like I lived in a kind of jail but I was happy and smiling every day. I felt like a free child. There were 45 minutes on stage with glorious music every night and the hotel staff who joked with me and made me feel safe. I became attached to my tall bodyguard with his pipe and keffiyeh who escorted me to and from the nightclub every night. He never spoke, but he made sure no one came near or entered the elevator with us. He stood guard outside my dressing room, and then beside me, as I signed autographs for the long line of people after each show. There was the same photographer there every night. Early on, he took a photo of me covered in my gold brocade veil and a red head scarf before I went on stage. Hundreds of copies of this photo were available for people to buy from him. He and his customers stood about five metres away. He would bring me an 8” X 10” copy of this photo and tell me a name. I would address each photograph with the person’s name, managing to transliterate it into English, and sign my name. I spotted this photograph in various venues when I returned even 10 years later. Now it was finally time to go home but the owner of the hotel requested a meeting with me to discuss yet another contract, again for a month, and again doubling the salary. I was so relieved that I could stay and not have to return home. I wanted to stay forever in this cocoon of a life and apparently the hotel felt the same way. Nearing the end of the third month that I had been there, the hotel offered me a further three-month contract for a great salary. Afaf’s boyfriend, Habib, whom I had only met once or twice, wanted to be my manager and said he would negotiate an even better contract for me. I did not really care about the money. It only went home to my husband anyway, but he kept emphasizing that I needed a manager. I never liked him so I put him off and said I would sign with him after this new contract. Yes indeed, I had a husband. He was the reason I did not want to go home. He was very angry to hear that I wanted to stay another month, let alone three more months, no matter how much money I was sending back to him. He told me to come home immediately or he would come to Amman to get me. I did not want him ruining my beloved world here, so I agreed to go home, and turned down the contract. My plan was to hopefully get divorced and return to Amman later. I had come to understand that divorce could actually be an option, even for me. Afaf did not know that I had turned down the new contract. She showed up to have breakfast with me in the hotel restaurant with hijab which I had never seen her wear before, and large, fashionable sunglasses. She had a letter in her hand. She said her boss at her office job had written it for her, translating her words into English. She said she needed to be sure that I understood every word about what she wanted to tell me. I do not have the letter because she needed to destroy it right after I had read it. I am shaking even now, almost 40 years later, thinking of the contents of that letter and what she revealed to me. The letter first talked at length about how much she loved and cared for me. Then it said to not trust Habib. The letter went on to describe how he had been urging Afaf to convince me to let him be my manager. But the letter warned that he knew nothing about being an artist’s manager. He was only interested in having sex with me. Since I was thinking of leaving and not enlisting him as my manager, Afaf was punished for not convincing me yet. She had never talked to me about it. The letter also said that he had hurt her with a warning there would be more punishment if she did not convince me. She said she never wanted me to know and was trying to protect me but now she was scared that I might stay and I would be in danger. She pleaded for me to go home. The letter finished with words from her boss who explained how much he cared for Afaf and how much she cared for me. I looked up, crying and shaken to my core. Afaf took off her sunglasses to reveal two black-and-blue bruised and swollen eyes filled with tears. We went to my room where she revealed her whole body covered in bruises. I was petrified and convinced it was my fault. I felt like I was falling into a familiar, terrifying pit. Afaf had been so kind and generous with me, and I had caused this to happen to her. I hated myself for it. I thought maybe I should stay and and let Habib be my manager so that he would not hurt her again. But Afaf was emphatic that I leave. That night, I was to perform at the Queen Alia Centre for a wedding. I was hired, along with my band, by the manager of the Jordanian TV and radio station whom I had met earlier when being interviewed for TV and where Yusef and I had once performed. I was in a bad mood and definitely not inspired to perform. All that filled my head was Afaf’s bruises and how my cursed soul could bring harm to others that I loved. The Queen Alia Centre seemed as large as the Queen Alia Airport. I could not see the walls at due to the mass of people on either side. As with most weddings, a large dance floor separated the audience with the musicians at one end of the room, which is where I stayed. One side was a sea of infinite shining diamonds, luxurious hair and pastel chiffon gowns amongst well-tailored tuxedos. The other side was just black as far as I could see. The women were veiled and if their faces showed, they were full of tattoos and facial piercings. My musicians were in tuxedos. I had never seen them dressed up before, and they were an impressive, good-looking bunch. At least they were familiar faces. They played my usual set, and it was bittersweet, because I knew this was my last show with them until I could return to Jordan. But who knew when that would be. I was not happy to have to work that night. I only wanted to be with Afaf and make sure she was okay. I went on autopilot for my show. I think I danced most of the time looking at the musicians with affection while ignoring the strange audience. The finale wound up, I bowed to the bride and groom who were so far away in front of me that they looked like a blob of white with a black dot in the middle. I bowed to the very different sides of the room, one dark and mysterious, and the other beyond opulence. Then I turned to all the musicians and scandalously blew them all kisses with a lingering one for the accordion player. We had never talked in person, but his daily secret love poems nourished my soul. After preparing to leave, the bodyguard came to take me to a large office where all the musicians were waiting and the Jordanian TV manager was pacing nervously. The manager came over to me to ask if I would please perform again. I was adamant that I needed to go back to my hotel room right away and that I was very tired. Then he pleaded with me to just dance to one song and money was no object. He said I could ask for any amount. I was not having any of it. I wanted to get out of there and phone Afaf. There was a lot of Arabic yelling. Then the Lebanese drummer came over and took me aside, the first time he had spoken to me since three months earlier in rehearsal.

He explained in a very soft and soothing voice that in Jordan things were a little different. ”Yasmine, there are some people here who have a lot of power,” he said, “and ‘no’ is not really an option. There is one man in the audience who has requested that you perform again. It is just five minutes, one song. Please do this for our last night together.” So I stormed over to the TV manager and gave an outrageous price I thought they could never accept. As he hurried me back to the dressing room saying, “Sure, sure, no problem,” he placed a thick wad of American hundred dollar bills in my hand.

When I returned to the stage, the audience was very appreciative. The accordion player looked upset. The drummer was standing tall and proud, motioning with his head at the table to the left of him. The table went on forever. Who was this important person? I wondered. No one stood out. They all had the same high-quality tuxedos, the same haircuts and the same mustaches. I thought that if my encore was so important to him, he should at least let himself be known to me. Alas, I found out later that he was King Hussein’s brother, who subsequently investigated my father’s heritage and position before asking to marry me. When Afaf came to say goodbye before I left for the airport, I told her that my youngest brother had agreed to marry her to help her out of the country and she could come and live with me and start a new life. She just smiled and declined. Only now, I realize how parallel our lives were. We were both being offered new and better lives at the same time, a way out of our suffering, but we had no idea that we could choose or understand what was being offered. Shortly after I was home, Afaf agreed to come to Canada; but then I was moved up north with my husband, away from family and friends, and forbidden to dance. Afaf disappeared, with no answer to my letters and phone calls. I was in agony with worry. I freed myself from my nightmare marriage 10 months later. I was unaware at the time that what he did to me at age 15, and every day after, for nine years, was called rape and emotional abuse. I began my journey of freedom in a 24-year-old body with the maturity of a 14-year-old. Afaf was my first friend since I was 15 years old. My journey included performing Raqs Sharqi throughout the Middle East and teaching it around the world in the form I learned from Arab people in the Middle East and Canada. It was vastly different to what was labelled “bellydance” in the West. On one of my many subsequent trips to perform in Jordan, I was travelling alone in the back of a skyblue Mercedes, with a woman in the front seat dressed in full black hijab and abaya, her face fully covered. When I traveled to the Middle East with my small Canadian troupe, my dancers called the women dressed like this, “Black Caspers.” On several occasions I had shared many fun moments in elevators with the ladies in black. As soon as the elevator doors were closed they would lift their abaya to reveal high fashion right off the Paris runway for me. My shocked expression always gave them much amusement. The driver asked if I knew someone named Afaf. I launched into the whole story of our friendship and how I had been looking for her for eight years. When I finally finished the driver exclaimed how beautiful the story was, so I asked him if he knew how I could find Afaf. The woman in black seated in front of me had not moved during my long story. Now she turned around, uncovered her face and there was that beautiful smile again with the upturned corners extra curved, and those dark eyes as big and round as coins. For book release update:

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Yasmina is Canadian born, not of Middle Eastern heritage. Her immersion in Arab culture began in 1980 and by 1983 she was performing in Amman, Jordan for the royal family. She received her primary training from various teachers in Egypt and Syria. Since 1981, Yasmina has performed extensively in the Middle East, primarily with the master Muwashahaat trained musicians of Aleppo, Syria. Because of complications when signing contracts in the Middle East, her name was legally changed to reflect her stage name. Yasmina has received several awards from Arab community organizations for helping to nurture and uplift Arab dance and live music. Her passion to represent an authentic art form compelled her to create 7 large international dance and music festivals featuring discussion, debate, master teachers from Egypt and performances from international dance artists and companies.

As mentor to countless professional Raqs Sharqi dance artists while teaching in 70 cities around the world, Yasmina is known as a "Dance Whisperer" inspiring individuality and a path to artistic self-expression. Her full length six day theatrical productions have been presented 10 times with as many as 45 dancers and musicians at a time. Some of her company productions have toured in USA, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and across Canada. Yasmina has created over 200 ensemble choreographies for 25 dance companies in USA and Canada. Recently, she released the 40 minute dance film entitled “Al Qamar” in 2021 which has been presented in international film festivals.

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Fantastic! What a story, I can't wait to read more about Afaf and your journey!

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