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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Working in the Middle East

by Sabriye Tekbilek


Since 2005 I've been working in the Middle East as a belly dancer. While it's beyond a doubt that I've had some of the most exciting times in my life, it is not something that I would recommend to others. It's contradictory, I know. It's not that I want to be discouraging - I just want to be realistic.

First I should perhaps explain how I work. I have an agent in Lebanon who finds contracts for dancers and singers. The contracts vary in length from one month up to six months, but more often they are under three months. Unlike dancers in Egypt, I don't have my own band. Rather, I and the singers that are on the same circuit work with the house bands at whatever place we are at. Ninety-nine percent of the gigs are in restaurants inside hotels and 90 percent of the time we live in the hotels that we work in.




People's Attitudes Toward Dancers

Those of us who discovered bellydance outside of the Middle East are blessed with a lack of cultural references to the dance. Even though we have to battle silly stereotype images of genies and/or the comparison with erotic dance, few, if any of us would fear that we would be equated with prostitutes. Here in the Middle East, the situation is reversed. In most cases, a dancer does get lumped into that category. (I do want to make a slight disclaimer here, and note that many, many other women also get thrown into this category but that is the subject for a whole other article!) This attitude manifests itself in various ways and it is rarely, if ever, blunt. For example people will call and invite you out to "dinner." Or someone might say that they want to give you an expensive gift.... in person. You get the point.

Sometimes the things people say are utterly ridiculous and I'm forced to mess with them a little. For example, one man called and said that he liked me very much and wanted to meet me. When I asked him why he liked me he stammered and blurted out, "uuuuhhhh..... I like your hair." At which point I went into a twenty minute monologue about general hair care and what type of shampoo I used. He never called again.

I had some forewarning about this attitude of assuming that dancers were for sale, but call me naive, it still floored me during my first few contracts. I couldn't help but assume that these men wouldn't be calling if it never worked, i.e. part of the reason belly dancing has the image that it does in the Middle East is because in some cases, sadly it still is a gateway to prostitution. After a while it doesn't shock you, and you learn to cope with it, but I find myself in manic, alternating states of emotion either feeling hurt ("How could anyone think so badly of a job that I love so much?") or thinking, "Screw them, I'm doing what I love and that's all that matters."

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Sabriye on the set of the New Year's Eve show, televised by Hannibal TV.





Always on the Road

The other hardship that I would warn people about goes hand in hand with the nature of traveling. I have no home but I do have about 200 pounds of cargo that I lug from country to country. Every two months on average, I hang up my costumes, lay out my make up table, pin up the pictures of my family, etc. and equally often I have to pack everything again.

Every gig is a new set of rules of operation to get used to, if not a new dialect of Arabic, currency, managers, and musicians. Ah, the musicians. That is another subject which requires its own article. Perhaps I'd title it "Egos Galore", including hard learned tips on how to get them to do what you want.

On the plus side of things, this constant movement is very exciting. I've been on a camel's back in the deserts of Dubai, I've seen the ruins of Carthage in Tunisia, I've haggled in the souks of Morocco, and I've been interviewed by the police in Syria. (The police was not so fun, but it was certainly exciting.) I've also met the most wonderful people: other dancers, singers, hotel staff, and other expatriates.

But again, to be realistic, day to day life can be quite lonely. Working nights makes it hard to socialize with anyone who doesn't work nights themselves. The earliest I've ever finished work is 12:30 a.m., but more often I finish around 2:00 a.m. and don't get to sleep until 4:00 a.m., maybe even 5:00 a.m. So many of my awake hours are spent when others are asleep. Also, coming back to the previous issue, since so many think that you are of "loose virtue" you become really secluded, either self seclusion to protect yourself or people feeling that it's not appropriate to hang out with you.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Sabriye poses with the musicians of the Al Hambra nightclub in Hotel Barcelo, Gammarth, Tunisia.

Sabriye with Alhamra Band




Maintaining the Image

The third fact of reality of working in any entertainment industry in the Middle East is the fixation of appearance. In the West we cheer bellydance as being an art form that embraces women of all shapes and ages, just look at the old Egyptian movies from the 40's and 50's right?

Unfortunately plastic surgery has found an insatiable market in the Middle East. More and more artists are expected to fit into an increasingly narrow image of beauty. I worked with the most wonderful manager who was amazingly sympathetic to the needs of the artists. He always insisted that dancing was to be held in higher esteem than it normally is, but even he said (with a twinge of regret in his voice), "The most important thing a dancer has is first looks, second dance, and third her costumes." Many other managers I know would have listed dance last, if they mentioned it at all.

In my experience people are very blunt about looks, and unafraid of stating their opinion or for that matter offending. One man told me I should get breast implants, to which I answered that I wouldn't but that he should get a toupee.

Sabriye Tekbilek



In Conclusion

So why do I keep doing this? I ask myself that often. What it comes down to is that I have an insatiable love of live Middle Eastern music and to me there is nothing like dancing for a Middle Eastern audience. I love to travel, and although I don't like being alone very much I can deal with it. So for now the sacrifices are worth it..... for me, but they won't always be. I can't really in good conscience recommend it to anyone else.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Sabriye performing at the Khaleej Palace Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Sabriye at Khaleej Palace



About the Author

Sabriye Tekbilek is a performer and instructor of Middle Eastern dance whose stage presence and technique have been shaped by a lifetime of international performance and study.

Daughter of renowned Turkish musician, "Haci" Ahmet Tekbilek, and Lisa Djeylan, pioneer of belly dance in Sweden, Sabriye was born into an environment of music and dance.  As a child and young adult Sabriye studied many dance forms, including Middle Eastern dance, ballet and flamenco.

While attending the University of California in Berkeley, she began taking classes with Suhaila Salimpour, and quickly became a member of the Suhaila Dance Company and Bal Anat.  Sabriye was featured in the original run of  Suhaila's stage show Sheherezade, as well as in DVDs for Bal Anat, the Suhaila Dance Company, and Suhaila's Bellydance Fitness Fusion series.

In 2005 Sabriye relocated to the Middle East, where she has been touring and performing ever since.  She has danced across the U.S., in Sweden, Norway, England, Turkey, Spain, Greece, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and India. She has performed at exclusive venues including the Nobel Prize Party, Warner Bros. Studios, the Miss India Competition; and she has opened for popular Arabic stars such as Ragheb Alama, Wadi Al Safy, Sbohi Tawfik and Wael Kfoury, and regularly performs globally for dignitaries.  In 2010 she settled in Cairo and is currently working at The Haroun al Rashid Night Club in the Semiramis Intercontinental.

During her travels Sabriye continues to explore the depths of Middle Eastern Dance and music through studying and teaching workshops along her way.




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