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My night with gangsters and belly dancers

12 october 2011, 11:21
0

I was told it was the best shashlik place in Almaty – great-tasting meat, big portions, cheap prices.

 

“Sounds like a deal,” I told Terry, who had invited me there.

I expressed that unbridled enthusiasm before I found out about the gangsters and the belly dancers.

In addition to being awed by how big the shashlik place was – it seemed like the size of a basketball court – I couldn’t help but notice the clientele.

I had never seen so many guys in my life who looked like gangsters – about 40 scattered around the dining room in clumps. You know the kind I’m talking about: Beefy, shaved-headed guys with no necks decked out in the same black T-shirts and pants.

There were so many gangsters in the place that it came as no surprise when the receptionist seated our group next to seven of them.

They looked at the eight of us Americans curiously, but not menacingly, so we forgot about them and ordered our meal.

It was as good as advertised – huge chunks of pork, beef and lamb fresh off the ranch.

We enjoyed the food, conversation and drink for two hours while a band played Russian, Azeri and Uzbek tunes.

Suddenly, the restaurant staff cleared the dance floor in front of the bandstand, and three Russian girls in elegant ballroom-dancing costumes began performing.

After some fox trots and tangos, they sped away – but not for long. They re-emerged in belly-dancing costumes.

They performed on the dance flood, then began gyrating their way into the aisles between the dining tables.

A blonde in her mid-20s began undulating in front of me, looking into my eyes and smiling.

I wanted to believe it was because I was irresistible, but one of my friends pricked my bubble by whispering:  “She knows you’re a foreigner, and she thinks you have money.”

Our closest neighbors – the gangsters and a table of women in their 50s and 60s – were watching with interest my rapturous reaction to the dancer.

The expression on the gangsters’ faces was no longer one of curiosity. They were scowling, apparently stung that a local beauty was slighting them for a foreigner.

One barked at the blonde to come to their table.  She did – reluctantly, it seemed to me.

Suddenly the women in their 50s and 60s began booing me.  One drew her finger down her cheek, from left eye to chin, in a sign of disapproval. I learned later that it meant “Shame on you” – and that an adult administers it to a misbehaving child.

Then one of the gangsters stuck money in the bra part of the blonde’s costume. It dawned on me that the older women were booing me because I had failed to slip money to the dancer. They were conveying the message that I was a cheapskate for letting her get away without a reward.

It was too late to make amends with the blonde. She was gone.

But a tall brunette about 22 had surfaced – and I couldn’t afford to blow it this time. To have older women shame-shaming me in front of the multitudes was too much to bear.

When I fished a bill from my pocket, the women who had booed me smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

I was literally sweating over how to deposit the money, however. The brunette was really boom-da-da-booming.

I was afraid that when I tried to put the money in her bra, she would jiggle out of position, and I would plunge my bill-laden hand not into cloth but into the promised land.

I envisioned the old women throwing plates at me and the gangsters bashing me. So I froze.

The brunette began chuckling, sensing my dilemma.  She obliged me by stopping her dancing and standing perfectly still.

I put the money in gingerly, then pulled my hand back fast, as if I were extracting it from hot coals. The brunette cooed “spacebo” at me, then sashayed to another table.

She had earned 2,000 tenge from me for four minutes’ work, owing to the fact that I had had no small bills in my pocket.

The third belly dancer, a brunette about 20, must have caught the green tint of the 2,000-tenge note, because she was at my table in a flash. She ended up getting 2,000, too.

When my dining party was ready to leave, I got to thinking that the blonde would feel bad about her girlfriends nipping me for 2,000 tenge each while she had received nothing.

So I had a local friend write a note in Russian saying that I hadn’t known I was supposed to give her money. I stuck the note and 2,000 tenge in an envelope, and gave a restaurant staffer 300 tenge to give the envelope to her.

My friends told me later that the gangsters had given the dancers only 200 tenge each.

And here I’d thought that gangsters were show-off spendthrifts. That’s what you see in Hollywood gangster movies, anyway.

Maybe the guys at the shashlik place were on the lowest rung of the gangster pecking order, making only an apprentice knee basher’s wages as yet.

I don’t know if the gangsters next to our table were aware that I had upstaged them by giving the dancers five times more than they had.

All I know is that my friends and I got out of the restaurant alive – but that my wallet was 6,000 tenge lighter than if I’d gone to a place without belly dancers.


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