Resort menus often have a theme--Carribean night, Luau, Mamma Mia. Since we are in Egypt, along with the pasta and the goulash, the chef makes an attempt to add some thematic presence. Tonight, "Oriental" menu--as in Orientalism, not the great wall of China. The buffet, the pamphlet said, would include such treats as Chicken Shawarma and eggplant dip. I am reminded of my mother's contributions to her club's "international" dinners. She explained that tabouleh was "spring salad" and humus was "chick pea dip." When the offerings were listed in the local paper, inevitably it said that Mrs. Elizabeth Abinader would bring Lesbanese food. (Obviously the recipes are from the Island of Sappho).
Encouraged by the menu, I actually looked forward to dinner, to finding some comfort food among the pastries and gooey mayonaisy salads. At the gym I did an extra fifteen minutes of cardio, preparing for something made with olive oil, perhaps parsley, cumin. When i arrived, Raymoun (sic) was already at the electronic keyboard doing his version of John Denver's Take Me Home, his accent barely discernible when he sang.
The other writers and I were seated on the edge of a cleared area in front of the pool, and before we were able to head to the buffet, Raymoun retired, and then squeaky, electronic, disco arabic music came from the loudspeakers. In anticipation, blond toddlers lined up on the steps facing the pool instinctively wiggling to the music. Out came belly dancers covered from head to toe in blue chiffon and spangles. Along with the easily executed figure eights, they did disco slides and hustle twirls, smiling as if they were performing for a pageant. Joined by young men in fezes and billowy trousers, they circled each other in a eighties electronic merge of folkloric dancing.
When they left, I dashed off for the mezze. Most of it was there: humus, baba, lentil salad, tabouleh--you know, spring salad, chick pea dip...i elbowed my way past the folks slapping the goulash on their plates and made a circular design of my comfort foods. When i stepped across the former dance floor, music amped up again, this time led by a reed flute.
Out come the whirling dervishes, two men, in rainbow colored skirts, vests and hats. I've seen the "show" dervishes before, cluttered with blocks of color, but every performance always included one authentic image: Whirling dervishes sport a conical hat and a white shirt and skirt. The skirt is made of billowing material that flows out and around the dancer as they spin. The headgear symbolizes the need to seal off one's ego in order to connect to god and the universe. The skirt represents a shroud but also the sky, which is revealed as the dancer removes their black cloak and begins the journey towards spiritual enlightenment. Catherine Owen
It was clear this rendition wasn't going to feign authenticity of any sort. As the dancers whirled, they presented different props with which they created designs and swirls. First round drums, then 10 umbrellas which they opened and place around their waist. They continued to whirl drawing awe from the audience, flash bulbs and videos cameras. The humility which a dancer shows to Allah was channel into audience-pleasing nods and smiles.
As the circles spun on, they detached the skirts and let them rise over their heads, allowing the image of a child's top.As the finale, bringing the skirts back into their original positions, they switch something under their waistband. Strings of lights along the skirt, vest and cape lit up. Streaks of blue light. Christmas tree adornment. The girls returned to stage in hooped gowns and wooden wings also lit up. The music ramped and the movement continued until the last sufi was on the floor whipping his skirt around his head, much like a baton twirler.
After wards i turned back to the table, and dove into my mezze. Raymoun returned to his keyboard and played the opening chords of Mamma Mia. My fellow writer asked me if he should go on a desert safari where he could ride a camel and lunch with a real Bedouin family (don't worry, he gets it too). He showed me the brochure--true enough, one camel, check; bedouin tea, check. "Go ahead," I suggested. What else is a resort going to offer. At least he will actually travel in Egypt.
At the end of the night, i went for one last time to the buffet to grab one little zlabyee, a donut hole of sorts covered in honey. We had a deep fryer built into our stovetop. Mother shaped the zlabyee into animals and clouds, our initials and circles. We held bags of confectioners sugar waiting for her to drop the hot pastries into our bags. We shook until they were covered. When we extracted them, the heat melted the sugar all over our fingers. The sizzling of the oil, the sugary smell in the air, mother's apron crusted with flour. Trays of zlabyee and us singing and perhaps we were whirling too. I appreciated the effort on every level.
In this final trip the buffet--This is the little bite I was going for. Some sweet to linger on my tongue, fill my cheeks with memory and my fingertips with zlabyee sugar--an antidote for a night of illuminated orientalism
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports