Book Excerpt: Fire In The Belly: A Memoir of Falafel, Flings, and Shiny Things

Zaina Brown’s memoir of her time as a performer in the Middle East is taking the belly dance world by storm. Here’s a sample from the book to whet your appetite.

Huda was a former bellydancer in her late thirties. Right now, I was working in her husband Imad’s club in Dubai. When I first met Huda, she visually inspected me from head to toe in a way no woman ever had. I knew she could detect my every flaw from chipped nail polish to asymmetrical eyebrows. In my defense, my mother didn’t give birth to me in high heels. We Scandinavians were genetically inferior to Lebanese women. Glamour was not in our blood. Everything I knew about looking good, I had learned from women of other nationalities.

Huda claimed to have stopped dancing ages ago, but that was a lie. While tweaking my repertoire with the band, I had listened through a pile of bellydance show CD’s with Huda written on them. They included tracks which had come out just four years earlier, proving her a quite recent retiree. This had to be an awkward phase in her life, with a husband in the position to hire and watch younger dancers. Huda coped by acting like a passive-aggressive stage mama. She examined my costumes before I went on stage and disqualified one of them. She told me to eat more, because I was too skinny. I was just glad she couldn’t find anything worse to say.

I proceeded to slay the bitch with kindness. I asked Huda about her dance career and listened to her stories with genuine interest and semi-genuine admiration. She used to make tons of tips! When performing, she mixed two perfumes together, to create her own signature scent. If a guest inquired which fragrance it was, she gave a name — just to have the person return to say it didn’t smell the same in the store. The Lebanese attention to detail was otherworldly, whereas I occasionally remembered to squirt myself with supermarket body spray before getting on stage.

During one of our chats, Huda mentioned her mother lived in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Imad chimed in to say he sometimes went there for business. Little did they know, it was exactly where I wanted to travel next time I was in between contracts. I got excited, and bombarded them both with questions about Abidjan. It turned out there were some Lebanese clubs, and even a few bellydancers.

“You could work there,” Imad said, apparently reading my mind.

Why anyone wanted to go to sub-Saharan Africa was of course beyond their comprehension. There was nothing to see.

A few nights later, Imad revisited the topic.

“If you want to dance in Abidjan, I can help you. Let’s talk about it tomorrow after your show.”

The following afternoon, my phone rang. Talking a mile a minute, Imad lamented he was kind of busy, and couldn’t come to the restaurant that night. But, he would meet me after my show, as planned. What did I like to eat? Meat or fish? We could go to a restaurant, or he could even cook.

Where the hell was Huda in this picture?

Want to know more? The book is available on in Kindle and Paperback editions.

Zaina Brown is a professional bellydancer, relentless traveler, writer, and filmmaker. She’s the creator of World Of Dancers, an online community of art lovers. Her book Fire In The Belly: A Memoir of Falafel, Flings, and Shiny Things (2019) uncovers the seedy Middle Eastern entertainment industry, and takes the reader on a journey across Africa and the Arab world. Her documentary Traveling Bellydancer In India (2015) is the winner of the Canadian Accolade Award and has screened at film festivals in the US. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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