Egypt Belly dancing in Port Said.

Belly Dancing in Port Said Egypt.

On 1 December 1998, I and an English colleague, who lived in France and was also ‘Jim’, were called out to Egypt to do a 10 day rig move for Impresub, our Italian employer.

A rig move involves relocating a Jack up drilling rig from one subsea well head to another.

Easily said, but not so easily done, involving as it does a great deal of coordinated movement to relocate the huge structure even a couple of hundred metres.

Jim and I were needed to provide ‘eyes’ via the Idrotec ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle in effect an under-water robot, controlled via an electrical umbilical from the surface) on the seabed to make sure that there was no sizeable debris which might interfere with the movement.

I’ve explained that to you even though in this instance no rig move happened, in fact the 10 day job may very well have been an enticement to get us out to Egypt whilst giving us the realistic hope of being home for Christmas, but actually to do a pipe line survey, with absolutely no hope, of getting home for Christmas or even New year. 

The offshore ROV world is full of such subterfuge.

As it was we spent 20 days waiting for the Rig Move, in the comparative luxury of the Sonesta hotel in Port Said, getting paid, sunbathing at the pool, eating well in the hotel restaurant, playing table tennis in the sports centre nearby, and having a few beers every evening in the only licensed autonomous bar in Egypt, the famous Cecil’s Bar where we could drink our incredibly cheap cold beer, smoke incredibly cheap American cigarettes and check out the incredibly cheap and extremely shoddy knockoff watches, exhibited for us by Cecil’s licensed knock off vendor, McGregor, and all alfresco .

We could engage ourselves in all those activities while watching the noisy pell-mell Arab world wash up and down the busy shopping street like waves rushing up and down a beach.

The tourist hotels such as the Sonesta had bars, but bars that only existed because they were in a hotel, Cecil’s was unique!

Once we stayed within the alfresco barrier of the bar, we were not bothered by anybody except McGregor, who was no real bother at all and who seemed to understand that his produce was of exceedingly poor quality, and who only worked hard when unknown European or Americans were in the bar, strangers who were unlikely to ever visit Cecil’s again. McGregor’s sales were prodigious with these people; the watches looked the part but very soon…….fell a-part.

He usually started off asking 200 or even 300% of the price that he was prepared to accept. The strangers would knock  him down 100%, he would look pained and maybe knock them back up 25%, at which point they would settle, McGregor looking sad and the American or European stranger looking happy (for the moment)

Jim and I would watch this play out night after night with a certain amused detachment. We both had been caught out by McGregor, so the American or European strangers who were invariably oil workers like us, and needed to buy junk knockoff watches to tell stories about them to their friends back home.

One evening when Jim and I were walking back to the Sonesta hotel after the street hawkers had disappeared, we walked past the sports centre where we played table tennis every day during our stay.

As we were about to cross the street to our hotel, a small dark Egyptian man appeared out of nowhere, urgently gesturing to us and whispering “gentle man, discotheque Noras, night after tomorrow”. I found it amusing because he pronounced ‘Noras’ as an Irish person would pronounce something to do with Nora.

Our interlocutor seemed very nervous as he pointed to a pathway hemmed in by tall bushes running beside the Sports Centre towards the rear, while simultaneously hopping from foot to foot, repeating all the while “gentle man discotheque Noras night after tomorrow”.

When we had looked up the pathway into the darkness, he gave us green coloured tickets with Arabic writing, telling us again “gentle man discotheque Noras night after tomorrow”, he then skipped back into the shadows and was gone. 

During the rest of our walk back to the hotel, and over a nightcap beer in the bar, Jim and I discussed the possibility of a visit to a discotheque the following evening.

We were in Port Said, which while a hub for foreign mariners, tourists and oil people, was still a Muslim city, and we wondered whether the authorities would look benignly on such activities, as men and women dancing in public.

We adjourned our decision to the following morning and headed off to bed.

After breakfast, sunbathing by the outdoor pool and table tennis the following morning, we surreptitiously had a wander up the pathway behind the sports centre, to find out more about the mysterious ‘Noras’ discotheque.

There was a big white conservatory type building right at the back, but that was all, could it possibly facilitate a discotheque we wondered? We didn’t know but we decided to take a risk that the police or whoever wouldn’t be too concerned with a little disco behind the Health centre, and find out that night after our few beers in Cecil’s.

We guessed that, as our nervous man stopped us at around 11 PM the previous evening, then the discotheque must be on at around the same time. 

The normalcy of our waiting days in Port Said was broken up that day, not only by the anticipation of a Port Said disco, but also by a traditional Muslim wedding party in the Sonesta hotel.  

The wedding was in a separate ballroom, so it didn’t really interfere with our normal daily activities, however ad luck would have it, we got to witness an exceedingly lovely and unique element of the Muslim marriage ceremony.

When the feasting in the ballroom was over, the Muslim women attendees, all in their eye poppingly fabulous outfits of silk, gold, pearls and jewels, their brown forearms and hands henna tattooed, and their niqab’s colour-coordinated with their outfits; only their dark eyes visible through the eye slits, formed two lines from the ballroom to the hotel entrance, outside of which a very, very large white car awaited the arrival of the happy couple.

We assumed that all the men were still inside, as there were none in the foyer.

When the wedding couple emerged from the ballroom, he in his new wedding suit ala Fred Astaire without the spats or the cane, looking about 16 years old, with the customary Arab just barely post puberty facial bum fluff under his nose and on his chin, and her even younger looking than the groom, and without a face covering, in the most exuberantly huge white wedding dress, seemingly constructed of several miles of lace with a white form hugging silk bodice, barely discernible beneath the avalanche of outer material, and began to make their way between the two lines of ladies, the most incredible half scream, half yip yip rose up from the women, an exultant farewell to their son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin, or friend.

It was a most poignant outpouring of love and affection to the newlyweds.

After all the excitement, it took the hotel an hour to settle back down to normal.

We had dinner at about 8 PM and afterwards walked to Cecil’s for our nightly beers.

A permanent fixture it seemed of the bar was the young man in the ill fitting black quasi military uniform, with awkwardly perched beret on his head and an AK-47 complete with a verse from the Qur’an  painted on its wooden stock.

Every night he sat in a chair just outside the fenced off area of Cecil’s, implacable as a statue, his gun across his knees, watching the ebb and flow of humanity without having much interest in it.

We often wondered what he was doing there, and in another story I was to find out exactly what his duty was when he saved me from quite an ugly mob, because I left the refuge to go to the chemist to buy shampoo, and I refused to buy yet more papyrus or statues, and I was consequently accused of hating Allah. His job was to protect us alcohol drinking infidels from the wrath of the Port Said Muslim business community, should their anger at us flouting Islamic law (and failing to buy stuff from them) 

Anyway; that evening after the crowds had dispersed, us Jim’s walked to the health centre and the hidden away Nora’s to the rear.

However, as we approached that evening, we could see the flashing of coloured lights and hear the sound of loud Arabic music coming from the big conservatory out back.

There was no sign of our contact from the previous night, but there was a young man at the door of the pre-fab who took our tickets, charged us 50 Egyptian pounds (about two euros) and ushered us inside.

The conservatory was indeed quite large and was about three quarters full of men, yes, exclusively men who sat at tables which almost completely surrounded a circular wooden dance floor, with a flashing disco ball spinning brightly above it. They sat with their glasses of water or juice alongside their mobile phones arranged in front of them, all the while tittering excitedly, laughing, giggling and gesturing at each other in a teenage manner, absolutely unable to pierce the incredible din coming from the 10 or more Arab orchestra, again all men dressed in typical Arabic long white outer shirt called a thoub, along with the white Arabic head dress and leather sandals.

They beat drums blew Arabic flutes and played very big violins and guitars at ear-splitting sound levels. The music was repetitive and hypnotic; and I must say that I liked it.

Jim and I found a table and ordered orange juice from one of the boys who ran around taking orders.

Suddenly the music stopped, and I mean suddenly, one minute there was cacophony and the next was just the animated conversations of the hundred or so young Arab men.

Then everyone stood up clapping and cheering as the guys from the wedding, including the groom were welcomed noisily into Nora’s. That got us thinking about wedding nights and things?

Obviously there was a certain amount of choreography to what was going on, choreography that Jim and I were not privy to, so pretty much everything was a surprise to us.

Everyone was having a blast; seating was found for the male wedding party, and the band struck up again with what seemed to be the same tune.

Then as if we hadn’t had enough surprises for one day.

The music tempo changed mid line it seemed to me, and from the shadows there sashayed a shortish, plumpish belly dancer, costumed straight out of our imaginations of how a belly dancer should be costumed, an overweight ‘I dream of Jeannie’ with a high blonde pony tail which swung in time to her gyring, a pink bikini top, very proper bikini briefs with gauzy see through legs and jewel encrusted sandals.

One could have been forgiven from the testosterone driven whoops, wolf whistles and catcalls coming from the crowd of randy young men, that an extremely raunchy performance was taking place on the dance floor, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

The woman with the pink chiffon outfit and facemask gyrated around the dance floor, her bare, except t for row s of gold colored bangles, writhing arms gesturing to the audience while she jiggled her belly fat in perfect time to the music.

She did one or two circuits of the floor, and then the groom from the wedding earlier made his way shyly and with ribald coaxing from his friends to the dance floor, where he began to gyrate and writhe his arms in time to the belly dancer.

They did a couple of circuits and then there was more surprises, he took from his jacket pockets, what was obviously pre-prepared wads of money, and holding them over the dancers head he allowed them to cascade down over her, some sticking temporarily (soon to be gyrated out) in her various straps and strings on the way down to the floor.

I had no idea how much money he poured onto her head, but it must have been a tidy sum, the little dance floor was almost carpeted with paper cash.

Then the music stopped, the bridegroom went back to his mates who cheered loudly at what was obviously a successful dance, the dancer retreated into the shadows and then out came the young fellow who had taken our tickets and our £50, our who scrabbled quickly around the floor scooping up the money, before disappearing into the shadows after the dancer.

The music then started again, the same beat and out came the belly dancer jiggling for all she was worth. Another young man was selected by his buddies and hooted and whooped down onto the floor to jiggle and gyrate just like the bridegroom, and he in turn poured a wad of paper money over her head, once again she disappeared, he went back to his pals, out came the young lad to scoop up the money.

And so on and on, one fella after pouring money over the girls head, we watched amazed, aware that we were witness to something truly bizarre by our standards that we had never heard of or imagined before, and that was probably not known outside the Arab community in Egypt or maybe the whole Middle East.

Even if either of us had enough paper money to pour over her head, I don’t think that we would have been welcomed into a ritual that was obviously full of Arabic cultural symbolism.

It was certain that many of those young men were being whipped up into a bit of an orgiastic frenzy by the loud music, the flashing lights the gyrating of the belly dancer and the jiggling of female flesh. So we figured it prudent to finish our orange juice and leave.

What a night that was; the hour or so at the ‘discotheque’ in Nora’s was definitely one of the strangest cultural events that I have witnessed in all my years working overseas, and well worth the experience.

The End.

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