Rania Zada is the author of Egyptian Exotica: A Memoir of Dancing Naked, the story of her years as a professional dancer in the upscale and not-so-upscale strip clubs of San Francisco and New Orleans. It is available from Ig Publishing.
JP: How long have you been writing?
RZ: I wrote my first book when I was eleven. It was an illustrated children's book about a homeless dog, or a homeless cat, or something. I wrote it when I lived in England. It was forty pages.
JP: Have you always written memoir?
RZ: No. I wanted to write fiction, but it was kind of based on my life, and then I started writing poetry. And I think when I started writing poetry I started to think more about memoir. I didn't know about memoir as a genre until I was in my twenties. Most of the stuff I had read was either fiction or fantasy-based, like Ray Bradbury, then I was reading Joseph Campbell and stuff. I wasn't really reading much memoir. I didn't even notice the genre was there until I started thinking about writing it. The poetry kinda lead into it because it was so confessional. I wrote a lot about my emotions—or at least about my immediate emotions—and that's what made me think about it, think that there was a lot more that I wanted to say. It was sort of a self-exploratory thing.
JP: When you did discover other memoirs, which ones did you read?
RZ: I think I have my first memoir. It was by Mary Woronov, one of the Chelsea Girls, it's called Swimming Underground, and I still have it on my bookshelf. It's on her years in the Warhol Factory, and it's just sort of her drug-addled days of modeling there.
JP: Which ones were influential? You're working on your second book about your life; what memoirs really got you started going in this direction?
RZ: I think it was probably The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff, that got me into writing. Also Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. These are both boys' memoirs, which is kind of funny, but I thought they were so interesting, the idea of memoir was great to me, to have your life tell a story and make sense with a beginning and a middle and an end—there's something about memoir that makes you look at life in a more objective way, at least while you're writing. It makes life make a little more sense to me.
JP: Do you still write fiction and poetry?
RZ: I don't write poetry as much any more. Unfortunately, I associate poetry with some of the worst times in my life. I don't know, I spend so much time writing in my journal and working on my next book, I find that emotions have gotten to a point where trying to make them into poetry feels really difficult, for some reason. It might be a phase.
JP: Your first, and currently only book, Egyptian Exotica, starts with flashbacks, but the story proper begins in San Francisco—how old were you then?
RZ: I was 21 when I moved to San Francisco. I started dancing when I was 22.
JP: What were you writing then?
RZ: Poetry. I went to San Francisco for the sake of poetry alone. I was doing some acting in Los Angeles, and I was doing children's theatre. We had a theatre group and we were performing for low-income housing, orphanages, things like that. Right around that time the major Los Angeles earthquake hit, and I was spending a lot of time at home because the roads were screwed up, and I started writing a lot of poetry, and I realized I wanted to go to San Francisco. That's when I started writing it seriously.
JP: So you went to San Francisco to write poetry?
RZ: To perform. I was doing open mics about four times a week in San Francisco. I wasn't writing any fiction or non-fiction, it was just poetry.
JP: Were you in any writer's groups?
RZ: No. It was a pretty isolated experience. I'd go to a lot of open mics and run into the same people pretty often, but no groups, no. I don't think I ever even attempted to join one. I don't know why. I think I was kinda pissed off at the poets over there; they all seemed kind of pretentious.
JP: Did you like living there?
RZ: Oh, yeah. It's a really big difference, as far as the scene goes. People in San Francisco hated people in Los Angeles, so it was kind of funny in that way. And I was really sick of Los Angeles. I was tired of the acting scene, but at the same time I was young. I liked the architecture in San Francisco. I liked the flavor of the place, it was accessible, and everything was a little closer together. It felt good to be there. So I was there, and I was happy, and I was only there for two years, but it was a really wonderful two years of my life. A really strange two years, but really wonderful.
JP: What attracted you to stripping in the first place?
RZ: When I worked in San Francisco, for a brief period between cocktail waitressing and dancing, I was working in a teddy bear factory. We made teddy bears there from scratch, and we'd give kids tours of how the teddy bears were made, and this was sort of my day job. And I ended up meeting a girl who was telling me about dancing, and sort of got me into it. So I was working in the teddy bear factory during the day, and at night I was dancing. This went on for a couple of months. I wrote about that in the book, but unfortunately, it didn't make the final draft, because it was too convoluted and confusing.
Originally, I got into dancing just because I was attracted to it. It had to do with my upbringing—belly dancers were such a beautiful thing in my culture. They have a lot of respect, or at least the very good ones do. It's not exactly a noble profession, but it's something that moves people. People get moved when they watch belly dancing. They get moved to tears. I know I was affected by it. And I guess I kinda thought stripping was almost like the Western equivalent. It was certainly naive of me, but that was what I was trying to recreate in my mind.
JP: Why was it naive?
RZ: Well, people don't really look at it with that same kind of awe. Not even the men that walk into the place look at it with that kind of awe. I don't want to say it's low-class, but people in this culture look down on dancers, they look down on strippers. It's not considered something that's part of the culture. If it was part of the culture, the heritage, it would be something a little more acknowledged, that would get a little more respect. But you know, we see it as a demeaning thing, in a lot of ways, which is, in some ways, really unfortunate.
JP: How do you think Westerners see belly dancing?
RZ: I think they see it as exotic and erotic. It's definitely something that is considered different, sensual, and sexual, but not really in a strip-tease sort of way.
JP: So how many years did you dance?
RZ: Four? Four years. Yeah. It was a good four years.
JP: In the book, you talk about why you finally quit. How long were you happy doing it?
RZ: I wasn't happy in the beginning and I wasn't happy in the end. But I think I had a good six months. And not even the first six months; but after the first six months, I had a really good six months. Six to eight really good months. I was in San Francisco at the time. By the time I moved to New Orleans, I did not want to dance at all, and I hate the fact that I went back to it.
JP: Why did you?
RZ: It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. In my environment—I was living with people with whom I felt very uncomfortable. I hadn't quite gotten to the point where I thought I should be living alone—it hadn't even crossed my mind, for some reason. It was like, you wanna get a place, you get a roommate. I thought I'd be OK with a roommate, and I didn't really know much about filtering good roommates versus annoying roommates at the time. So I was spending more time away from home, and I ended up dancing. And that was good, because it got me away from the house, and the time I wasn't doing that, I was writing. I was really at home just to sleep.
And I kind of went back to it out of desperation. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and it was sort of a fallback career, and it felt like a really natural thing to do. Plus, there were times that I really missed the stage. It was the one thing in my life that made sense. I could feel myself making sense on the stage, whereas everywhere else, I just wasn't making sense. I wasn't making sense creatively, I wasn't making sense in my love life. But being on the stage made sense somehow. It put things in a weird perspective. I looked at things more objectively. A more objective perspective.
JP: I got the impression in the book, that the lap dancing club you worked at was your favorite of your dancing jobs?
RZ: Yeah. Not necessarily for the lap dancing, but because the club was more laid back.
JP: Did you hear about other clubs? Are lap dancing clubs generally more laid back?
RZ: In San Francisco, when I started lap dancing, I was very afraid of it. It had been built up by other "upscale" establishments as very seedy, with a lot of prostitution, which was bullshit, because prostitution goes on everywhere. I really don't like lap dancing. I don't like making contact with people, I don't like being that close to people. There are a number of lap dancing clubs in San Francisco. Some of them are very raw, kind of dirty actually. And when I say dirty, I don't mean anything but the fact that they literally did not sweep. The two places I did lap dancing were kind of nice, the O'Farrell Theatre and Gigi's. They were good places, they were clean, they had a following. I mean, O'Farrell is kind of like the sexual Disneyland, they can get away with a lot.