The ney is a wooden flute, only played by men. Women aren’t to touch it.
The Zar is a trance ritual to get rid of demons. Men don’t touch it. (except to play the ney at it…)
AHMED IS DYING OF LOVE
“Ahmed is dying of love”….
I hear Hadil next to me, chanting something under her breath.
“What? Is Ahmed sick or something?” I ask, for Ahmed is a young Algerian waiter in this Lebanese restaurant. He’s a sweetheart and a good ney player.
We are bellydancers, applying our makeup in this ‘green room’ Nicola has given us behind the kitchen. An old sofa against the wall, a curtain over the doorway, and the same tray of dried fruits, nuts and bottled water on the table. Since we rarely touch it, we think he recycles it nightly. Nicola is the owner and he’s very protective of the dancers. No window in the room, typical of the seclusion of Muslim women. I hear Hadil chanting again.
“So, what is wrong with Ahmed?” I am trying to apply mascara, and since I don’t wear it except for dancing, I look like a raccoon. Leila, the head of the troupe, the uber bellydancer, insists on the heavy makeup. We look more ‘professional’ she tells us. Yeah, more professional, but what profession?
Hadil, the graceful one, puts down her blusher brush and looks at me with a deadpan expression. Or her usual expression because Hadil is languid to the extreme for a bellydancer. I always feel she should be given some catnip to perk her up.
“Ahmed has a huge crush on you.”
What?! My face reflects my amazement. I have to be 20 years older than Ahmed. He’s so sweet and innocent. Perhaps not so innocent.
“Do you suppose he has noticed my wedding ring? And besides, he’s met my husband. You know, the one who sits at a table by the door? His asthma kicks in, he says, when we dance because of Nicola’s moldy carpet.”
“Well, he’s hopeful, then.” Hadil adjusts her lovely breasts in the heavy bra. We all suffer because of the costumes, heavy and uncomfortable. We wear double bras, something soft sewn into the costume bras. The women in Turkey who hand sew these bras must be sadists looking for masochists to torture. They have found us.
“Hopeful of what?” I turn and stare at her instead of looking in the mirror before us.
“Well, you bring him presents.”
“I brought him a couple of dozen eggs. What’s so special about that?”
“Think about it, Aurora. In his country, when a woman brings a man such a valuable present, she is announcing her interest. And besides, you’re American.”
“What? Does Ahmed have trouble with his green card?”
I think over what she said. I have brought him a basket filled with my chicken’s eggs. I have done this several times. Usually Nicola grabs the eggs and says that he will make himself a six- egg omelet. I wondered if Ahmed ever got to eat an egg.
I thought about one of the first conversations I had with Ahmed. I gave him a dozen eggs, and his eyes, those beautiful black pools, grew large at the sight of them. I was touched. He explained in Algeria, in the countryside, at 11am sharp, he and his brothers would hear the hen cluck her egg-laying song and they would rush out to find the egg. Ahmed was younger than his brothers, and rarely got the egg. He would disappear from home, and lay in wait for that egg, but usually he was summoned back to the chores or the field with the others. This constant supply of eggs from my pet chickens was of value to him, and not just for the eating.
“So”, I said to Hadil, now brushing out her hair. “The price of love in Algeria is a couple dozen eggs?”
Hadil snorted. “No, it’s also because you are American.”
“And American women put out?”
She laughed uneasily. Obviously, she knew more but wasn’t telling me. Then She’nez came in, the beautiful Amazon from Somalia, and bending down, she put her face next to mine, and I saw our light and dark reflections in the mirror. Painted day and night.
“Ahmed is dying for love of you.” She chanted.
“God no, She’nez…not you too!” I was laughing, but concerned a bit about Ahmed.
“Did you see how his ney fell out of his mouth at the Zar? He saw you writhing around with your demons and the poor boy forgot what he was there for.” She’nez laughed, a deep rumble from her dark, silky throat.
I thought of the Zar. We were 12 women, dancers and students, and we were doing the ritual as a ‘bonding’ between us. We danced out our demons, drawn by our drama queen lives to the attention of compassionate hands. We twirled and jerked, our hair flinging outward with our spins, our demons holding onto the ends of our hair before we threw them off and into the waiting arms of the Sheikha. I have no similar cultural rituals and I was a bit abandoned in my behavior, but then again, I am the class clown. I have been called down for this before. I just like to make people laugh.
“Ahmed thought you really were possessed. He told Abdul that he was mortally afraid for you. He burned incense and said many prayers that night.”
I started to laugh. My antics were getting me in trouble again. I had thrown myself on my back, and wiggled like a roach dying of poison. I would be dead, only to come back to life with my arms and legs in grotesque positions, and I would do it again. I had my friends around me laughing, but we were all high on the turkish coffee and friendship. We didn’t get much chance to let loose like this. So many petty things were dissolved in that afternoon of vigorous fun. The stolen mascara, the blushers not replaced, the intentional bumps on the dance floor, the exchanged nastiness between us while smiling at the audience. It was a clearing of many problems at that Zar. Women things.
“So, Miss American Belly Dancer. What are you going to do about Ahmed?”
I thought about it. There really wasn’t much I could do. He was a man, with all the yearnings for the kindness of a woman. Even a much older woman who only gave him eggs.
That night, when I went out on the dance floor, I saw Ahmed at the other side of the room, playing a drum. I waved at him and threw him a kiss, making him blush heavily. At least a kiss, so public, from the pretty American belly dancer, would begin to repay his concern and his prayers.
I made a mental note to bring him eggs and spring plums from my trees. Let the girls talk about that! Ahmed’s concern would be repaid with this coin of friendship.