After working in the United Arab Emirates for a number of years, Khaled Taame came back to Damascus and began working as a sound designer for wedding parties.
One day, a friend told him about a job as a lighting and sound designer at a casino that had recently opened in Rif Dimashq province, and after meeting the owner, Khaled began working nights there.
“The casino had a special show it would put on,” says Khaled, “with a singer performing a number of different songs while girls from many different countries in the Arab world would dance along on stage wearing skimpy outfits. Waiters would circulate offering alcoholic drinks to the patrons, who would shower the dancers with money as they got more into the show.”
Khaled was twenty-seven years old at the time, and he found himself totally immersed in the atmosphere at the casino, fascinated by his first real brush with nightlife. He was also paid handsomely for his work; this was in the 1990s, when teachers earned no more than 100$ a month.
“Such shows weren’t very common in Syria,” says Khaled. “The trend began with those singers who had worked in nightclubs in Lebanon. The singer would come with his own dancing girls from Lebanon, bringing them into the country through special work contracts, and the Syrian artists’ unions would take a percentage of the earnings as outlined in the contracts.”
Khaled worked in more than one place over a number of years, including a casino in Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburb. But conflicts broke out often in the casinos of that area, with people sometimes pulling out guns and opening fire, which led Khaled to quit his job.
From the casinos, Khaled moved on to work in the cabarets, usually located in the center of Damascus, unlike the casinos, which were all in the suburbs.
Most of the dancers at the cabarets were from foreign countries in Eastern Europe or from Russia, though there were also some girls from Arab countries. The shows there were centered on the girls, who performed provocative dances in skimpy clothes. At some point, there would also be a singer who performed Oriental music, accompanied by a band.
“There is something much seedier about the cabarets than the casinos,” says Khaled. “The whole thing revolved around this ritual of the champagne bottle. One of the girls would try and seduce a customer into opening a champagne bottle and pouring her a glass in exchange for a sum that he’d then owe the house.
“The client would then go into a dark room with the girl,” continues Khaled, “located in one of the corners of the main hall. They would leave the door ajar, but there’d be a waiter hovering around to watch and guard them, and the client would also pay for this service.”
The girls were housed in one of the shabbier inns in Damascus, and they were guarded by one of the cabaret’s employees. They were never allowed to go out unless accompanied by one of the cabaret’s patrons from the night before, and only during the hours between 3 and 7pm.
The cabaret’s clientele, says Khaled, “were corrupt men, thieves and pimps and other such people who had made their money in dishonest ways. There were also some businessmen and traders, artists and athletes.”
Khaled recalls one of the funnier stories from his time working at the cabaret. “One night, the first night of Ramadan, the place was totally empty and there were no clients. Then this beggar comes in, who had made a huge amount of money that day, and asks for five girls to sit with him. So the management decided to put on the entire show as usual, from beginning to end, just for him.”
The government maintained a certain oversight over the workings of the cabaret, which paid a licensing fee in order to operate legally. Government regulations maintained that the clients and the girls should comport themselves “within the bounds of manners,” and security patrols would regularly visit the premises of both the cabaret and the inn where the girls resided. One of the employees at the club would be put on watch outside in order to warn people inside that the security patrols were on their way, and club owners would regularly slip bribes to the police officers to ensure there wouldn’t be any trouble.
Khaled today regrets all the time he spent working in such places. “Cabarets are dens of sin and corruption,” he says. “I wish no one would ever enter one or think of working in one.”