Baghdad | The Casablanca Nightclub

April 1978

TDY (temporary duty), Baghdad: The U.S. government was starting up an “interest” at the Belgium embassy. I was part of a team of OC (Office of Communication) technicians tasked with installing a High-Frequency radio system there that had the capability to handle classified telegrams. After drilling into very hard walls using very dull drill bits all day I wasn’t about to sit around all evening watching Clark Gable in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Unable to garner any support from my cohorts I confronted the Baghdad night alone… 

<photo courtesy pinterest.com

The neighborhood around the embassy held the same quiet that had seized the Belgians. Was this the quiet before the storm? As Joe had said, was this fellow Saddam Hussein getting ready to wrestle power from the old man, Hassan al-Bakr?

I caught a taxi on a main street a block away from the Belgium embassy. The black mustached driver spoke a little English. “Where can I get a beer?” I said.

“Ahh,” he said, his head rocking back and forth.

Minutes later the taxi driver pulled up in front of a Las Vegas-like glittering establishment called The Casablanca Nightclub. Astonished by what lie before me, I paid the driver, adding a good tip, and said, “Shukran.”

He laughed and sped away into the Arabian night that was beginning to fit the image of a harem-state that I had originally envisioned.

Okay, it wasn’t Casablanca—it surely wasn’t “Rick’s Café Americain” in the movie, Casablanca… But, gazing in from the outside in the heat, in the midst of date palms and camels, it definitely captured the flavor of the Middle East on an evening in Baghdad.

Truth was I had expected a dark, danky bar not the Baghdad equivalent to Radio City Music Hall. Would they have the Arab version of the Rockettes? Wow, my cohorts, the techs back at the Belgium embassy were missing something special. I held my breath when the black mustached Arab fellow opened the door (I didn’t even have to say, “Open Sesame”). Yeah, he looked like Ali Baba all right.

Inside, a huge stage spanned in front of me. The Casablanca must hold five hundred patrons. An Arab damsel who resembled an Egyptian belly dancer (later my observation would be proven correct) showed me to a small table. She plopped a drink menu down and maneuvered incredibly agile hips around and through a group of rotund Arab patrons.

A bottle of beer would put me back six dollars and fifty cents (I paid at most a dollar fifty a beer at most Northern Virginia establishments). If there were a cover charge I’d have to dig out my American Express card. The belly dancer returned and sat down next to me. She caught the eyes of a male waiter. I saw what was coming. “No, no,” I said and shook my head. “Only one beer. Understand?”

“Yes, okay, okay,” she said, while she rose up. By the way, it was dark inside, but I didn’t recognize any other foreigners.

Twenty minutes later my belly dancer brought a beer and poured it for me. This time she smiled. I said, “Shukran” (Yeah, I knew the “thank you” word and maybe half a dozen other Arab words by now). Ironically, the beer was Stella Artois, a Belgian beer. For the next half hour I sipped on the beer in small doses

The Casablanca nightclub suddenly became aglow as stage lights flickered of all colors of the rainbow. This was accompanied by canned Top Ten music (instrumental only), including my cohorts theme song, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” A cabaret show was about to begin. I could see the first act gathering at the side of the stage. They were beautiful, athletic Caucasian dancers. Sweat glistened on their foreheads. It must be hot and humid backstage. Where I sat it was warm, but not uncomfortable.

Would you believe it? They were Americans, an all-female dance troupe who called themselves, The Fantastics. I bet one of them was named Joy and came from New Jersey. While the Bee Gees sang, “How Deep is Your Love?” (with vocals) the girls danced a well-choreographed number that raised black mustaches. The girls wore bikini like costumes covered with sheer material and lots of sequence in the appropriate places. The Arab men gazed at them like it was hunting season. The place roared when the song ended and the girls pranced off stage like frisky puppies. I was proud to be an American.

My belly dancer dropped by and asked me how I liked it. “Fantastic,” I replied, and asked her where she was from. “Cairo,” she replied. I ordered another beer while a group of Italian acrobats impressed the heck out of me. They were followed by a ventriloquist from, where else? Belgium.

They saved the best act (well, besides my belly dancer) for last. The Star War’s production lasted about twenty minutes. It looked like somebody had used a truck load of aluminum foil on the set. The rock music operetta included light-sabre duels, colorful neon fantasies, and more scantily clad cosmic women from The Fantastics. The leader of the American girls gave a stellar performance as Princess Leia, while dancing her way through the galaxy.

The Star War’s theme song played several decibels louder. The audience went wild as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia danced toward a spaceship entrance (stage left) after defeating Darth Vader’s dark side. Fade out…

While I looked at my watch and my wallet I wondered what hotel the girls were staying at (were they under armed guards, and if so who was guarding the guards?)? It was nearly midnight (my cohorts the techs were probably wondering about me). I had the equivalent of seventeen dollars in Iraqi Dinar in my wallet (I left my AMEX traveler checks back at the embassy). I paid for the two beers and a three-dollar tip for my belly dancer named Shakira and still had enough for the taxi fare. The show had been right up there in my top five experiences in my Middle East/South Asia assignment thus far.

(To be continued)

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